The Northern Premier League

30th July 2022, Runcorn Linnets FC v Connah's Quay Nomads : 0-0

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets' second home game of the pre-season programme brought Cymru Premier outfit Connah's Quay Nomads to the APEC Taxis Stadium, for what proved to be a strenuous and valuable workout for both sides.

It's difficult to put a finger on the relative levels of the NPL West and Cymru Premier, as the English and Welsh football pyramids are entirely separate entities. The smart money suggests that the standard of the top division in Wales equates to either National League North/South, or the NPL Premier.

On the strength of this closely- contested stalemate, any objective observer would have been hard pressed to see any daylight at all between Linnets and Nomads. As in the 1-0 reverse to Chester FC seven days earlier, scoring chances were few and far between, and I counted only four corner kicks shared between the teams. They cancelled each other out, in ways that should provide satisfying food for thought for respective managers Dave Wild and Craig Harrison.

A slightly-disappointing 'gate' of 227 probably had less to do with the bus strike than with the fact that kick-off coincided with the start of Liverpool's Community Shield victory over Manchester City, which was aired live on terrestrial TV.

Three midweek signings by Dave Wild appeared in Runcorn yellow and green. The anonymity of 'Trialist Q' (or was it 'Trialist J'?) ended, as 6' 7" striker Josh Quarless made his first named start since signing from City of Liverpool, and Chester loan signings Zack Clarke and Sam Turner joined him in the Linnets attack. A fourth new man joined in for the last 20 minutes, when a fine Clarke debut was curtailed by his giving way to Callum McHale, on loan from Chorley.

Captain James Short took a breather on the Runcorn bench, his replacement being officially incognito as 'Trialist T' with an excellent performance at left-back.

Turner and Clarke both made their mark early on, surging forward in conjunction with Quarless, who continued to demonstrate his impressive ability to frustrate defenders in holding the ball up, and laying it off to teammates with both head and feet.

Their attacking efforts resulted in precious few chances, though, as tight marking and quick tackles across the Nomads back four kept the door closed. A similar pattern developed at the other end, as overlapping and quick passing moves between Poole, Wilde and Edwards failed to find any easy way past another rock-solid showing by the Runcorn rearguard.

Captain on the day Sean O'Mahony was imperious in the air again, and his partnership with Sam Heathcote in the centre of defence continued to resemble the work of a decade rather than a fortnight.

Fruitless endeavours to crack either defence meant there was no 'run of play' for the first 20 minutes or so, and that wouldn't change a great deal for the rest of the game. The first half against Chester had seen the visitors enjoy more possession, but if the tally wasn't 50-50 in this one, it can't have varied by more than a percentage point or two either way.

There was the glimpse of a chance at either end, however, around the 20-minute mark.

Clarke appeared to be tripped before he could shoot, as he met a flick-on into the area from the head of Quarless, but the referee was disinclined to point to the spot. At the other end, a firm Poole shot from just inside the area was pounced upon by Linnets 'keeper Danny Taberner.

Stuart Crilly and Jacques Welsh combined to set up a Sidi Sanogo assault up the left, but his cross was cut out.

It was a fiercely but fairly- contested game, with few fouls, but Nomads' No.23 Edwards risked incurring the wrath of the referee after conceding one against Heathcote just inside the away half. His verbally explicit response was followed by a prolonged reluctance to listen to the official's rebuke. That will be a riskier strategy once the real season has begun.

On the half-hour mark, Quarless and Sanogo joined O'Mahony and Heathcote for a frantic burst of defensive work in the Runcorn area. It ended with a Wilde header from six yards looping over the bar.

Shortly afterwards, a rare corner, from the Nomads' left, was punched away with assurance by Taberner.

Wilde had another chance before the break from Harrington's cross, and he should have done better than glance a header wide of the far post.

Zack Clarke might well have opened the scoring just before the half-time whistle, when he broke free from the Nomads defence to chase a great through ball from Trialist T, but he was marginally offside.

The second half of pre-season match reports is basically a catalogue of substitutions, and the first saw Stuart Crilly give way to a prospect we will call Trialist B - for blond.

His contribution in an attacking midfield role, wide left, caused Nomads no end of problems, and Linnets fans will want to see more.

The early stages of the second half saw some very promising attacks in which Trialist B combined with Quarless and Clarke, but the Nomads defence coped well. The pattern continued after Eden Gumbs came on for Sam Turner, and Quarless made way for Ben Halfacre.

Gumbs was the target for a number of well-placed passes up the right from Brown, Heathcote, Welsh and O'Mahony, and Eden showed again how he will distribute headaches among NPL West defences during the coming season.

Nomads were slowing the game when they gained possession, in repeated attempts to carve openings. But changes of Runcorn personnel did nothing to disrupt their composure in preventing them. That included a change at right-back, as Darryl Grant took over from Ally Brown for the last 25 minutes. Darryl provided a similarly impressive shift, both in thwarting the visitors' efforts to attack up the left, and in coming forward to help launch Linnets' responses.

One of the best chances for the home side came from a stunning 50-yard run from in front of the dugouts by Zack Clarke. He evaded four attempted tackles to reach the area, but with the Connah's Quay 'keeper drawn off his line, a defensive interception prevented Zack's low cross from reaching Hardcastle or Trialist B as they closed in on goal.

Just afterwards, Clarke retreated to the bench to allow a 15-minute Linnets debut for Callum McHale.

A pleasing observation for Linnets fans should be the success their players enjoyed in contesting 50/50 challenges, right through the extended team.

Eden Gumbs won another on the right touchline and pulled the ball inside for Jaques Welsh, but he was tackled well by Harrington.

With six minutes remaining, Nomads had two of their three corners of the game. The first was headed down and out by Heathcote, and the replica was repelled by the efforts of Sanogo and Welsh.

Linnets boasted the last attacking move of the game, when a Halfacre pass set up McHale's run in from the right. His shot was deflected for a corner, which Ben headed wide from the edge of the area.

Pre-season games are not for neutrals. When they provide a one-way festival of goals, it's because it was a mismatch, which isn't much use to anybody. If both teams score a hatful, urgent work is required on the defensive work of both of them.

If pre-season is about knitting together a cohesive unit for the coming campaign, and getting players match-fit and sharp for the competitive battles ahead, both Linnets and Nomads should have ended the day very satisfied with a good day's work.

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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