The Northern Premier League

2nd August 2022, Runcorn Linnets FC v Marine : 0-5

Report by David 'Bill' Davies Marine made the short journey from Crosby to the APEC, barely three months after celebrating promotion to the NPL Premier with a 2-1 turnaround victory in the 2021-22 Play-off Final.

Linnets failed to topple Marine in three attempts last season, but it should also be noted that despite spending three years at level two of the NPL, after a first relegation in their history, the Mariners did bounce back at the first 'complete' attempt.

The two preceding campaigns were truncated by the Covid pandemic, with Marine in the top five both times.

Nobody would be pretending pre-match that a victory for Linnets in their penultimate pre-season game would represent 'revenge' for that last-ditch disappointment.

But just like the previous two home friendlies, against Chester and Connah's Quay Nomads, it would provide a fascinating barometer of how Dave Wild's newly-assembled Runcorn squad will fare in the new league campaign against tough opponents.

A healthy pre-season Tuesday attendance of 451 came to be fascinated.

The first 45 minutes served that purpose well. At that point, Linnets had spent two-and-a-half home games matching higher league opposition every step of the way.

The second half made Runcorn fans wish the floodlights had failed at half-time.

Runcorn lost the away game at Marine last season 3-1. After dominating the first half but failing to find the target, a mysterious failure to defend for seven minutes shipped three goals and lost the game.

Tonight, a similar defensive collapse persisted for the last 40 minutes, resulting in five Mariners goals that could easily have been supplemented by two or three more. We have all repeatedly insisted that the scoreline in pre-season friendlies doesn't really matter. Let's cross our fingers and carry on saying it.

As for that promising first half, the Mariners appeared to know that Josh Quarless would be a handful, and centre-half Josh Wardle made him literally that, attempting to wrestle the shirt from his back several times in the first five minutes.

A Marine trialist at number 11 used a similar method to prevent Eden Gumbs from breaking away up the Linnets left. If the referee continued to be happy with such techniques, it would be a frustrating night.

By the end of it, frustration would have been a treat.

Linnets managed a first chance on ten minutes, with their former 'keeper Bayleigh Passant holding a Jacques Welsh effort, after Quarless headed on a James Short long throw.

Then Zack Clarke left the field with a suspected achilles injury, Ben Halfacre replacing him.

It wasn't anything like a dirty game, but injuries, eleven days before the start of the new league season, became a worry. Runcorn named just four substitutes, and finished the night with ten men after Halfacre had also limped off, with ten agonising minutes remaining.

The first quarter was somewhat scrappier than the Chester and Nomads games had been, but it was just as closely contested. Passes by both sides had to be precise to prolong possession, neither being allowed the time or space to do so.

A loose moment in the Marine defence allowed Quarless a run on the area, but his early attempt to bypass Passant flew wide, leaving Bayleigh to berate his teammates' laxity.

Moments later, an Ally Brown cross swung on the wind and demanded a timely Passant punch to prevent Quarless getting his head to it.

Clark, Harris and Trialist 11 combined three times to build attacks up the Marine right, but each time they were frustrated by James Short, reminding the Crosby side of the quality he provided for them for five years.

Shorty was also on hand to prevent a Lucas Weir cross from the left being converted by Trialist 11, the ball looping tamely over the bar.

A great Jacques Welsh run past three men, and a one-two with Eden Gumbs, set up Ally Brown for a promising cross, but the wind carried it over the Forest End goal.

Trialist 9's shot also flew high, after he had wrongfooted Short on the edge of the Runcorn area.

By half-time, Passant had been called into action a little more than his opposite number Taberner, but neither goalkeeper had been seriously troubled.

That wasn't to last, as Danny spent most of the remainder of the evening picking the ball out of the net.

Two minutes into the second half, the first Marine corner of the night was wasted, as it flew long.

Two minutes after that, the first bit of sloppy Runcorn defending left Weir in more than enough time and space to dispatch a shot into the bottom right corner. It wasn't to be the last.

The lead, and the wind at their backs, agreed with the Mariners, and they started to secure more possession. They utilised the customary downfield APEC elements better than Linnets had in the first half, creating opportunities for their forwards in the Runcorn third.

But only three minutes after conceding, Linnets had a golden opportunity to level. Sidi Sanogo, who had impressed again in repeatedly winning the ball in the middle of the pitch, got further forward and was tripped inside the area as he met a Quarless pull-back from the goal line.

Jacques Welsh struck the penalty kick well, but Passant went the right way and parried the ball on to the right post. It rebounded through the six-yard box and was cleared.

Linnets kept up the pressure on the left, Short and Sanogo winning a corner which was held well by Passant.

It was a brief potential comeback, as Marine took control again downwind.

Just four minutes after the opening goal, the Mariners had an almost identical second, credited to a trialist who was unimpeded in finding the bottom right corner.

Oddly, the two-goal lead seemed to make Marine bad tempered, with a flurry of niggly fouls and noisy objections to free-kicks being awarded for them.

After 60 minutes Dave Wild took action to stem the tide, with Jamie Rainford, Stuart Crilly and Sam Turner simultaneously replacing Quarless, Welsh and Doyle. Five minutes later, Daz Thornton, now freed from the thin disguise of 'Trialist T', came on for Sean O'Mahony, who had taken a bang to a knee.

Four changes in five minutes are unlikely to introduce stability, but the house of cards had already tumbled.

Urgency was injected into home efforts to get forward, but any remaining shape was gone. Thornton was turned inside the area on the Runcorn right, and a substitute trialist beat Shorty to the cross, enabling Charley Doyle to bury a third goal with ease.

Injury worries mounted as Sanogo received lengthy attention near the halfway line, but he did recover to see out the last 15 minutes. Bailey Passant sat them out, giving way to Germano Mendes, another ex-Linnet (albeit for just the one game), in the Marine goal.

After the forced departure of Ben Halfacre, the remainder of the game came down to damage limitation, in terms of both counting the walking wounded and the scoreline. The former survived better than the latter.

A bout of foolhardy defensive passing to and fro across the Linnets penalty area, five minutes from time, enabled another Marine trialist to make it 4-0. And as the home fans begged for the final whistle to end their suffering, more headless chicken impressions in the Runcorn box ended with Daz Thornton finding his own net.

The events of the evening were best summed up by the fact that, ten minutes from time, stadium announcer Sam Phillips had to give notice that the snack bar was closing in five. There was still a queue, all with their backs to the pitch.

Dave Wild's post-match interview with Sam supported the popular view that 8.45 would have been a good time for everyone to go home. The silver lining was that he said the injuries sustained did not present any serious concerns.

A final pre-season encounter, at Hyde United on Saturday 6th August, will precede the first NPL West fixture of the season, a week later: a home 'El Classitoll' derby against Widnes. The neighbours from across the Mersey might have been lulled into a dangerous sense of security.

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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