23rd April 2022, Runcorn Linnets FC v Colne : 0-0 Sponsored by Lost Generation Collectables
Linnets welcomed Colne FC to the APEC Taxis Stadium on the final day of the Pitching In NPL West season, knowing that they would have at least one more game to come, having qualified for the promotion play-offs with their 1-0 win at Prescot Cables on Easter Monday.
At kick-off, the play-off semi-final permutations were still incredibly up in the air. Depending on the results of this and three other games, Linnets could have a home semi-final on Tuesday against Marine or Leek Town, or an away tie against either of them, Workington or Warrington Rylands.
By half-time, the jeopardy was as good as over. Leek Town were 3-0 up at Marine, which meant that, barring an incredible Marine comeback, Runcorn would be travelling to Leek on Tuesday night, regardless of the outcome here.
Our vantage point from the media eyrie above the stand revealed that, as so often this season, a fierce wind was going to have a big influence on the game.
It had a lively start, with both sides looking to get forward quickly, but any ball above head height was swerving and spinning at the mercy of the downfield gale. Even balls on the ground skidded and skipped away unpredictably.
Early attempts to get the ball down to the Forest end to Ryan Brooke and Lloyd Marsh-Hughes were dogged by interference from the elements, which made defending easier than attacking, or at least attacking with a measure of control.
The first shot of the game came at the other end, in the fifth minute. In Colne's first attack, Harry Winstanley ballooned a long shot way over the bar.
The visitors kept up the offensive, with Oliver Roberts and Daniel Edwards jockeying across the pitch looking for a way through the Runcorn defence, but Sean O'Mahony restored order with a clearance from inside the area.
Seven minutes had passed when Lloyd Marsh-Hughes had a gilt-edged chance, as Ryan Brooke flicked on a clearance into his path in the middle of the area. A shot on target would have been a severe test for Colne 'keeper Hakan Burton, but Lloydy overdid his attempt to by-pass him, and fired just past the right post.
Runcorn possession persisted for a few minutes, dominated by the back four and Louis Hayes inside their own half, while Ryan Brooke appealed loudly for his side to play higher up the pitch.
Two attempts to make progress up the right, via Ally Brown and Iwan Murray, were terminated by Winstanley and Worrall hoofing the ball over the stand.
In the 18th minute, Brown and Marsh-Hughes advanced in tandem into the area, but Brown's shot dipped over the bar.
Colne took their turn to apply some pressure. O'Mahony tripped Dean Ing, 30 yards from goal. The free-kick was blocked, and Colne won a throw-in on the right, followed by a corner as Kain Dean checked Prince Haywood's attempted cross.
Edwards made a tricky run into the Runcorn area from the right and made a short pass to Ing, who snatched at his shot, and it cleared the terrace roof behind the goal.
Both teams took turns to press forward, but goalmouth thrills were in short supply, as both defences did their jobs well.
A four-man Linnets attack ended with an offside flag, and a reply in kind from Colne was halted by another rock solid tackle by O'Mahony.
Ryan Brooke won a corner on the right, and his head flicked Murray's kick on, across the area. Peter Wylie had found space as the now-classic Linnets conga line dispersed. He headed well towards the far post, but Burton caught with confidence in the air.
End to end once more, Kian Ellis made a promising solo run into the Runcorn area, but Kain Dean and Sean O'Mahony combined to frustrate him.
Linnets won a corner on the left, which was headed out by Tom Dean, for Joe Lynch to shoot from outside the area, but it deflected off Worrall's back to safety.
Two Linnets throw-ins and two more corners, from either side, were blocked and deflected, Joe Lynch again failing to find a path through the throng in front of him.
Colne came back up to the Clubhouse End, and a throw-in from either wing eventually gave Haywood an outside chance from 25 yards, but he sliced his shot wide right.
Both teams maintained their determination to end the season with a win, but the urgency for the hosts to do so waned, as the news came through that Leek Town were three goals to the good at Marine. That would surely earn the Staffordshire side a home play-off semi-final against Linnets, whatever happened here.
The last chance to break the deadlock before half-time came from a Iwan Murray free-kick, five yards from the left corner flag. He launched the ball menacingly into the six-yard box, but the ever-reliable Hakan Burton dived forward and punched clear, with Brooke and Marsh-Hughes waiting to pounce.
The mood at half-time was a little anti-climactic, due to events in Crosby, but the noisy end-of-season party continued, among a record APEC league crowd of 1,015.
After the game, Linnets boss Calum McIntyre was to concede that thoughts of the play-offs were more prominent after half-time, as both opponent and venue for the semi-final looked assured.
But there was no sense at all that his players were saving themselves for the promotion showdowns. They always seem to have more joy with their pressing, passing game when they face the wind, as the ball holds up rather than flying and skidding away, and they looked determined to make the most of it.
An early corner from the right had four men in yellow and green vying for a shot on goal from close range, but Haywood stepped in to hook the ball clear.
Louis Hayes was a one-man hive of industry, picking up possession from sound Runcorn defending, and setting up attacks with passes to Welsh and Brown on the right, and Dean and Marsh-Hughes on the left.
A Hayes pass to Murray led to a great through ball for Dean, but Kain was offside. Another from Welsh up to Brown in the right corner led to a cross towards Murray six yards from goal, but Kingsley Williams got his head to it first.
Colne advanced with an Edwards ball across to Worrall, whose swerving shot looked dangerous, but Owen Mooney calmly plucked it out of the air.
Referee Louis Smith had words with Kain Dean and Jack Worrall, after a couple of tetchy challenges either way and a prolonged bout of two-way trash talk. We were, after all, a few hours away from Tyson Fury's fight with Dillian Whyte.
Colne made two changes, eleven minutes into the half. Aaron Turner and Leon Donnelly replaced Winstanley and Ellis. Another brief delay followed an accidental clash of heads between Iwan Murray and Prince Haywood.
The force of the wind was made clear when Burton skied and sliced a clearance, and the ball was last seen bounding towards the Aldi trolley park, more than 100 yards behind the Linnets clubhouse.
With 28 minutes remaining, Calum McIntyre's focus appeared to veer towards Tuesday's play-off, when he withdrew the league's golden boot winner, 31-goal Ryan Brooke, in favour of Stuart Crilly.
Crilly's return from long-term injury, with a couple of recent cameo appearances, might also be vital to the play-off campaign.
Louis Hayes thoroughly deserved his eventual man-of-the-match award, but if it had been judged on the last half-hour of the 'normal' season, Stuart would surely have worn the crown.
A Welsh-Brown switch up the right won a corner, leading to a Murray cross that was headed out by Ing. Colne tried to regain the initiative with several long balls on the wind, but they presented no serious concerns for Wylie or O'Mahony, who was another champagne candidate on the day.
With twenty minutes remaining, a great run up the left by Crilly included a magical back-heel over his own head to confound Turner in an absorbing battle of the No.14s. Crilly won a corner off Tom Dean, Murray curling his kick through the six-yard box, but it cleared everyone and ran out.
Louis Hayes won the ball in the centre circle and passed forward to Murray. He slalomed his way to the 18-yard line but his shot climbed against the wind and cleared the bar.
For ten minutes or so, the concensus in the media crow's nest had been that the game was crying out for the introduction of Dapo Olarewaju. With 17 minutes to play, his manager agreed, and after a three-week absence since he damaged an ankle early in the Cheshire Senior Cup semi-final at Vauxhall Motors, Dapo replaced Joe Lynch.
A free-kick from just inside the Colne half set up Crilly on the left of the area, and Turner blocked his shot to concede a corner. Murray launched it into a sea of bodies in the six-yard box, where Jacques Welsh controlled to get in a shot, but 'keeper Burton got a boot in the way of it.
Burton's claims on the Lancastrian's man-of-the-match accolade grew, as moments later he spread himself, Schmeichel-style, to block Lloyd Marsh-Hughes's shot after Tommy Lent's slip had allowed the Runcorn No.11 a free run on goal.
Linnets pressure, much of it engineered by Stuart Crilly, suggested that a goal was coming. From a free-kick in the centre circle, Dean passed on to Crilly, for a sweeping cross that found Olarewaju's run at the far post. He got his head to it, but it squirted wide.
Linnets attacks continued. Welsh won a tackle inside the Colne half and passed forward to Murray, who found Crilly on the left. He turned Turner, and stepped inside to shoot. Burton pulled off a double save, as his block was returned on goal by the head of Marsh-Hughes, but the Colne stopper held on again.
Marsh-Hughes passed into the area from the left for another Crilly shot, but this time Lent got in the way to deflect for a corner.
Lloyd was next to be taken out of harm's way with an eye on Tuesday night at Leek, with Eden Gumbs replacing him.
Murray was tripped by Williams, five yards outside the penalty arc, and Linnets Live Radio's own Motty, Sam Phillips, asked me if I thought that was the ideal location for an Iwan 'special'. Indeed it was, and it took a perfect diving save from Burton to turn Murray's up-and-down free-kick past the left post.
Lent headed the corner out from the near post, for another.
That was cleared, and it set up Colne for one of very few attacks in the last quarter of the game. An Ally Brown foul on Daniel Edwards gave them a free-kick near the left corner flag. Several players from either side tried to latch on to the bouncing ball inside the Runcorn area, until Owen Mooney pounced on it.
Five minutes were added by Mr Smith, and they yielded few chances, despite the best efforts of Eden Gumbs and Dapo Olarewaju to add an extra note of celebration to a stunning Linnets season.
They overlapped from the right touchline to find an opening, and Eden cut inside two defenders along the goal line to pass back through the area. Dapo shot first time, but yet again the wind added height to it, and it cleared the bar.
Nobody could pretend that the last game of the season had been a classic, but the fact that the ball just wouldn't go into the net did nothing to dim the jubilation after the final whistle.
Players, management and staff came together as a family once more, to celebrate Runcorn Linnets' highest NPL finish, their biggest Step 4 points haul, and Ryan Brooke's status as the league's top scorer.
So the love story will continue, with a play-off semi-final at Leek Town. Linnets are the only team to have done the double over Leek this season, and without conceding a goal. If they complete a hat-trick, a play-off final will follow in seven days' fime, at home to Marine, or away to Workington.
Runcorn Linnets:Owen Mooney, Ally Brown, Kain Dean, Jacques Welsh, Peter Wylie, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch (Dapo Olarewaju 73), Louis Hayes, Ryan Brooke (Stuart Crilly 63), Iwan Murray, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes (Eden Gumbs 86). Subs not used: Carl Spellman, Lewis Doyle
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.
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