30th April 2022, Runcorn Linnets FC v Marine : 1-2
Those who dislike promotion play-offs, because they can enable clubs to leapfrog those that finished the season above them, would not have been happy.
Linnets and Marine had finished fourth and fifth, respectively in the Pitching In Northern Premier League West Division, and four days earlier, they had triumphed over third- placed Leek Town and secondz placed Workington.
The latter would have been promoted as champions if they had managed to beat the league's bottom club, Market Drayton Town, on the final day of the normal season.
Marine had dropped from third to fifth, just three days before their final league game, following an extremely-belated deduction of 3pts for fielding a suspended player six months earlier.
Until that happened, there had been no possibility of Runcorn hosting a Play-off game, as the higher-placed club. That unlikely event became a reality with Marine's stunning comeback victory in extra-time at Workington, and it left Linnets Trust Board members and other volunteers a mere two days to organise the APEC Taxis Stadium's first ever 1,600-capacity all-ticket sell-out.
The final started with a fast and furious approach from Marine, possibly influenced by the knowledge that Linnets had shell-shocked Leek Town, to take a 2-0 lead three minutes into their semi-final.
Neil Kengni had been Marine's hat-trick hero in the victory at Workington, and within seconds of the first whistle, he launched himself into the Runcorn area and went sprawling as Owen Mooney came out and saved at his feet. Referee Helen Conley observed that the Runcorn 'keeper had taken the ball, and not the man.
The opening three minutes promised an end-to-end game, and saw Linnets take another early lead.
Ally Brown curled a shot from the right side of the area, narrowly past the left post. From the goal-kick, a Marine attack set up a long throw from the right. That would be a set piece of which Linnets would have to be wary.
Joe Lynch cleared long to Lloyd Marsh-Hughes, who won a corner when Joshua Solomon-Davies blocked his attempted cross.
Iwan Murray delivered the kick into the six-yard box, where nobody in blue was ready to prevent Ryan Brooke from heading his 34th of the season.
Linnets fans sensed that their team were taking the final by the scruff of the neck, in a similar way to their marauding first-half at Leek. Marine might have feared the same, but credit is due to the way they set about getting a grip on the final as though it was still 0-0.
It would be another 68 minutes before they achieved parity, so neither side managed to control the game, but Marine certainly prevented Linnets from making their lead something to build upon, rather than to protect.
My notes recorded alternate assaults on either end of the pitch throughout the first half, but golden opportunities were less than abundant either way. Nevertheless, it was Marine who had more of the ball.
On seven minutes Lloyd Marsh-Hughes picked up a through ball from Iwan Murray, only to be tackled cleanly by Solomon-Davies, and the clearance set up Jack Dunn (my Marine man of the match) for a 20-yard shot that Owen Mooney saved well.
A long James Short throw from the left set up Murray for a sidestep and shot that landed safely in the gloves of former Linnet Bayleigh Passant.
A few minutes of to-and-fro were restricted to the middle third of the pitch, as either defence refused to let the opposition advance on goal. A long ball forward each way was thwarted, Marsh-Hughes beaten to the ball by Mark Howarth, and Peter Wylie reciprocating as James Barrigan ran on the Linnets area.
Marine came close to an equaliser on 15 minutes, when a weak clearance from Cummings' shot was fired back in by Kengni. His low drive beat Mooney's dive, and rebounded off the foot of a post.
Kengni was a persistent danger, and James Short did well to beat his run up the right with a header back to Mooney.
Marine attacked again with two long balls into the Runcorn area, blocked by the heads of Short and O'Mahony in turn.
Referee Helen Conley had seemed reluctant to call foul on some hefty challenges, and 22 minutes had passed when she awarded a free-kick to Runcorn for the first time, when Alex Doyle hauled down his namesake Lewis in the centre circle.
The free-kick reached O'Mahony's head in the penalty area, but he couldn't muster enough power to trouble Passant.
On 23 minutes, a Marine free-kick from wide on the right cleared both Howarth and Winnard in the six-yard box, and bounced out beyond the far post.
After a Runcorn corner was blocked at close quarters by Solomon-Davies, Marine mounted another attack which had Cummins trying to find space in the area from Kengni's cross, but intense defending by Short and Doyle kept the door closed.
The pressure continued, and Luke Clark opted to cross rather than shoot, from 25 yards out on the left, Winnard again failing to make contact with his head.
Wylie, Short, Brown and the fists of Mooney all frustrated further raids on the Runcorn area. O'Mahony headed Dunn's long throw out for a corner, while being pushed in the back by Cummins, and received a yellow card for his complaints at the referee's failure to award a free-kick.
Two minutes later, Passant was twice required to prevent O'Mahony doubling the Runcorn lead, against the run of play.
From a free-kick for a trip on Brooke, the centre half latched on to a loose ball with a booming shot that the 'keeper did well to repel.
A boot got in the way of Sean's follow-up shot, and it looped less forcefully into Passant's arms.
With ten minutes remaining of the first half, James Short outran Solomon-Davies up the left and crossed for Marsh-Hughes. His low snap shot was spinning, and it tested Passant as he stooped to save it.
Louis Hayes was on a promising run into the away half, after helping the defence to put paid to a four-man Marine attack, when he was felled by a Luke Clark challenge that added to the yellow card tally. His use of a high forearm would have sin-binned a rugby player.
Two more yellows followed, for a prolonged disagreement between Peter Wylie and Niall Cummins. It delayed a 40-yard Marine free-kick that prompted a bout of pinball in the Runcorn area.
James Short cleared, only for Alex Doyle to stride forward and shoot, but wide of the left post.
At half-time, Marine manager Neil Young would surely have been stressing the need for patience from his players, who would have been feeling frustrated that they hadn't managed to level the scores.
It transpired that he also had some substitutions up his sleeve that would bring about a decisive change of gear.
Marine attacked from the off in the second half, Mooney holding on well from Dunn's shot, and as the ball bounced around the Linnets area a minute later, Cummins should have got a boot on it, but Wylie and Mooney cleaned up between them.
James Barrigan tried hard to coax the yellow card from Helen Conley's pocket, his protracted rage at the direction of a throw-in on the halfway line seeming out of all proportion to the issue at hand.
Jack Dunn should have seen yellow for hacking down Sean O'Mahony to prevent him from sparking a Linnets attack from inside his own half, but then Barrigan did succeed in making it into the referee's notebook. His lunge at Ally Brown almost propelled the Runcorn right-back into the home dugout.
A couple of attempts by James Short to create danger up the left were marshalled out for throw-ins, while his opposite number Joe White was similarly frustrated by Wylie at the other end.
In the 58th minute, the first of three Marine substitutions in less than ten minutes replaced Barrigan with Owen Watkinson. Luke Clark gave way to David Lynch three minutes later, and on 67, Cummins was subbed by Lewis Reilly.
All three quickly made their presence felt upfront, and the spacing of the changes added to the disruptive effect on Runcorn efforts to maintain the lead. Reilly's introduction in particular could be viewed as the turning point of the final.
At the same time, Joe Lynch's contribution to the Linnets engine room was curtailed by a heavy challenge that left him limping, a minute after he had been yellow carded for a foul on Clark.
Joe played on for ten minutes, in obvious discomfort, before giving way to Dapo Olarewaju. By then, Marine had equalised, and the writing was on the wall.
Dunn and Reilly played a one-two into the area from the left, producing a shot that bounced off the crossbar. Mooney hadn't a hope of recovering from his dive in time to stop Kengni heading in from close range.
The season had less than 20 minutes remaining, and while on paper it was back to the drawing board, the equaliser that Marine had spent 68 minutes working for gave them the initiative. It seemed that a Linnets winner would have to be achieved on the break, while the home defence coped with a rising tide of attacks from the men in blue.
Howarth wasn't keen to allow any such Runcorn break from their own half, which is where he earned Marine's fourth yellow card of the day for slamming Iwan Murray to the ground.
Substitute Reilly continued to look like he might prove to be Marine's trump card. Ally Brown did well to prevent him from shooting as he turned in from the left, and he set up Dunn for a shot from outside the area that drew a great diving save from Mooney.
The resulting corner from the right was curling in towards the far top corner, until Mooney got across to palm it out.
Into the last 15 minutes, Runcorn defending looked as determined as ever, but increasingly stretched, and the reinforced Marine attack prowled in search of a decisive opening.
It came after 79 minutes, when a corner from the left was met by Dunn at the near post, and he headed through an undefended gap to send the away fans behind the goal into raptures.
Linnets now had no choice but to throw everything at smashing and grabbing an equaliser. And Marine applied themselves more than ever to ensuring that home breaks out of defence didn't reach the halfway line.
Louis Hayes got angrily to grips with Alex Doyle after he clattered Iwan Murray in his own half.
The long free-kick reached Dapo Olarewaju on the right, but he was fouled by Joe White, who screamed at the Linnets sub for allegedly diving.
The free-kick was heading for Ryan Brooke on the edge of the six-yard box, until Passant punched it clear of the area.
Ally Brown fired a shot back in, but it was blocked to concede a throw-in. Short's ball into the area was caught by Passant.
Linnets kept plugging away, and a clever flick by Brooke set up a combined raid by Murray and Brown, until Winnard and White intervened between them.
A chance of salvation came when Iwan Murray was brought down again, but this time in the penalty area. A low tackle as he crossed the line into the right side of the area sent him airborne, and failed to win the ball, but the referee waved away appeals for the penalty.
Calum McIntyre later called it the worst 'non-decision' of the season.
With a couple of minutes remaining, Louis Hayes went down again, feeling the effects of running through brick walls all afternoon. Stuart Crilly came on in place of Linnets' Live Radio's man of the match.
Jack Dunn unleashed a wild shot high and wide, having picked up the ball from an O'Mahony clearance, and from the goal-kick Iwan Murray tried his luck up the left touchline. He took Winnard and Doyle all the way to the goal line, but couldn't complete a cross.
Five minutes were added by the referee, and the Mariners looked unlikely to succumb to the desperate efforts of Murray, Brooke, Marsh-Hughes, Crilly and Olarewaju to find a way through. Marine no longer had any need to gain possession, as smashing the ball long, or out of the ground, would see the job through.
There was one last frantic chance for Linnets to extend the season into what would have been, frankly, an agonising extra half-hour.
Short passed back to O'Mahony, whose ball forward to Crilly was relayed to Brown on the right. Brooke made fevered efforts to connect with his cross into the area, amid a sea of blue, and he was penalised for his attempt to get a foot to the ball, as Passant dived on top of it.
Moments later, the referee brought an epic season for the two sides to an end, and celebrations began for Marine's return to Step 3 of the non-league pyramid, after a three-year absence.
It was technically a 'bounce back', with two seasons since their 2019 relegation having been wiped out by Covid.
The late, great Jimmy Greaves famously opined that it's a funny old game. It certainly is, and that's why we keep coming back.
Marine justified taking promotion ahead of Runcorn, having achieved two wins and a draw in their three meetings. But they had conceded six goals in losing twice to promotion rivals Leek Town. Nobody beat Leek twice all season, but Linnets beat them three times, with an aggregate of 7-1. In football, statistics are both everything and nothing.
A Marine supporter posted on Twitter that '600 away fans made more noise than 1,400 home fans'. Putting the seriously iffy maths to one side for a moment, from the gantry above the stand, we still couldn't tell you what any of the Mariners' songs might be.
Their entirely justified celebrations continued to be eclipsed by the incredible Linnets support, even after the promotion decider was done and dusted.
And Marine's triumph was applauded as loudly by 1,000 home fans as it was by the 600 who travelled.
In his post-match Linnets TV interview with Sam Phillips, Calum McIntyre was next to offer an apology, using the phrase "let people down" because his team hadn't managed to make the final step over the line into the Premier Division.
Calum's apology is unanimously rejected by everybody in the Linnets family. You don't apologise for leading a club to the pinnacle of its 16-year history.
Runcorn Linnets: Owen Mooney, Ally Brown, James Short, Louis Hayes (Stuart Crilly 88), Peter Wylie, Sean O'Mahony, Joe Lynch (Dapo Olarewaju 72), Lewis Doyle, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Lloyd Marsh-Hughes. Subs (not used): Scott Reed, Eden Gumbs, Alex Downes.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.
Site Last Updated13:05 21/5/2022
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