The Northern Premier League

23rd July 2022, Runcorn Linnets FC v Chester FC : 0-1

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets' pre-season friendlies frequently live up to their name, with fixtures against teams led by historical allies and close contacts of the club and its management.

There would be no traditional home curtain raiser against Witton Albion this year, as the neighbours from Northwich, who were such supportive hosts in the re-born Linnets' early years, will visit the APEC Stadium in earnest, for a first ever league fixture between the two, on August Bank Holiday Monday.

A fitting replacement for that annual friendly, the first home game for new Linnets boss Dave Wild, was the visit of National League North side Chester FC, under the leadership of their new manager, Calum McIntyre. It was watched by an impressive crowd of 677.

Less than three months had elapsed since Calum had guided Linnets to the highpoint of their 16-year history so far: a narrow defeat to Marine in the Pitching In NPL West play-off final.

Eight players who featured in that final were in the Runcorn squad today, while three more returned in blue and white stripes.

Iwan Murray, Joe Lynch and Lloyd Marsh-Hughes were joined in the Chester ranks by starting left-back Ollie Haywood, who also appeared briefly as a Linnet during 2021-22.

Linnets' first two outings, away to Stockport Town and to Matt Atherton's Euxton Villa, had failed to produce a win. Results in pre-season are of limited relevance, the primary objective being to knit together existing and new teammates into an effective unit. But Dave Wild had expressed dissatisfaction with the 1-0 defeat at Euxton, and the most obvious area for improvement was in the creation and taking of scoring opportunities.

There would be precious few of those against Chester, but that did not reflect any lack of lustre in the Runcorn ranks. Meaningful assaults on the home goal were just as scarce as well-organised and determined efforts in defence and midfield by both sides belied the two-division gap between them.

They were ultimately separated by only a frankly ridiculous first-half penalty award, for a perfectly-timed challenge by Sean O'Mahony.

A frantic early pace took a breather, as Chester right-back Jamie Morgan took a heavy knock. Play resumed with the visitors having the lion's share of possession, and for a while the Runcorn response looked a little hectic, lacking structure as they chased Chester's swift, short passes.

Iwan Murray's first corner at the APEC Stadium in a blue and white shirt, after many in yellow and green, was headed away unchallenged by Sam Heathcote.

There was something of the Twilight Zone in watching Runcorn defend Murray corners rather than trying to score from them, but even stranger was seeing a Linnets team defending them with a distinct height advantage.

Sam Heathcote was billed as No6, but he wore the 18 shirt. A possible reason emerged when the 6 appeared late on from the bench. On Sam it would have been a boob tube. Kit shopping might be in progress.

This was only the second outing for the centre-back partnership of Heathcote and O'Mahony, but they combined to great effect to win almost everything in the air, and covered each other to prevent the Chester attack from making inroads through the middle.

They looked like they had been playing together for years.

It was ironic, therefore, that the game should be decided after 20 minutes, by a penalty mysteriously conceded by the Linnets vice-captain.

The ball was chipped into the Runcorn area to set up a shooting chance for Ollie Haywood, but O'Mahony prompted cheers and applause as he won the ball with a whistle-clean tackle. Penalty appeals were obligatory, as Ollie went to ground, but VAR would surely have informed the referee that his pointing to the spot was a 'clear and obvious error'. He took so long to make the decision, VAR and a TV consultation would have been quicker.

Linnets 'keeper Danny Taberner dived the right way, but couldn't keep Willoughby's perfectly-struck spot-kick out of the corner.

Danny had doubled the Linnets goalkeeping ranks by signing in midweek, after subbing for Andy Coughlin for ther second half at Euxton. Runcorn fans are well acquainted with his abilities, as he was instrumental in making Atherton Collieries their 'bogey side', on Colls' way up to the NPL Premier Division in 2018-19.

The remainder of the first half saw Chester dominate possession, but they struggled to capitalise against a tight Runcorn defence. It was augmented by Nialle Rodney, who showed his confidence on the ball was as useful in frustrating the opposition in his own area as it is at the other end of the pitch.

Linnets didn't spend much time in Chester's third during the first half, but before the break they did give the referee an opportunity to redeem his judgment on the penalty front. It was not to be.

Jamie Rainford was hauled to the ground in the area to prevent him from rising to meet Ally Brown's cross. The verdict was a corner. It was only a friendly. If only it happened only in friendlies.

The first half had been a tightly- contested affair, but with Chester seeing more of the ball. In the second, there was nothing at all between the two teams, despite the shape-shifting that inevitably results from frequent changes in personnel.

Linnets assistant manager Rainford gave way to a trialist striker who added yet more inches to the newfound altitude of the men in green and yellow. Eden Gumbs replaced Sidi Sanogo, who had put in an impressive controlling shift in the middle of the pitch. Rhain Hellawell later took over from Ally Brown, and continued to worry the Chester rearguard up the right-hand side. He also added to the pacy threat of Dapo Olarewaju, whose substitution for Stuart Crilly had been met by the familiar signature tune from behind the clubhouse end goal. 'No Dapo, no party!'

From the away bench, Calum McIntyre introduced Stevenson for Dudley, and to warm applause from the home fans, Lynch and Marsh-Hughes for Hall and Murray.

Before giving way to recent Linnets teammate Lloyd, Iwan twice made the home fans hold their breath as he threatened to work the kind of magic that made him an APEC favourite.

Lewis Doyle upended him on the edge of the area, conceding a free-kick, which was slammed by Willoughby against the right post, with Taberner beaten for speed.

And a cross from the right wing set Iwan free into the area with only Tabs to beat, but Sam Heathcote retreated in a flash and successfully launched a precise tackle.

It was almost identical to the O'Mahony beauty of the first half, except that this time the referee saw sense. The corner was cleared.

During the second half, a gusty wind had gathered intensity, diagonally towards the forest end. It did nothing to help either side get the better of the opposing defence, and neither goalkeeper was to be caused much trouble.

Stuart Crilly had a decent solo chance from Hellawell's cross from deep, but his shot on the turn from inside the area cleared the far post. It was to be his final contribution before giving way to Dapo.

The trialist striker was a lonely figure up front for Linnets, with the ball spending most of its time in the middle third. He deftly headed on a number of promising balls forward from Short, Doyle and Hellawell, but there were insufficient numbers in yellow and green to take telling advantage.

Rhain's cross from a Dapo run and pull back found the trialist forward six yards out, but under heavy pressure from Declan Weeks, his header looped over the bar.

Chester endeavoured to see the game off with attacking moves from either wing, but Heathcote and O'Mahony held firm in the Runcorn area.

The final whistle would have heralded an honourable draw, if not for that shambolic penalty decision, but as Dave Wild had observed in his Linnets TV interview with Sam Phillips the previous day, results in pre-season mean little or nothing.

Wildy had also said that you learn far more from games against teams from two leagues above than from those two below. There were many positive lessons to be taken from this one.

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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