30th August 2016, Congleton Town v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-0By Dave Bettley
A HARD-FOUGHT goalless draw at Booth Street will have further convinced Runcorn Linnets fans that things are moving very much in the right direction after a torrid summer.
The Linnets kept their first defensive shutout of the season against archetypal North West Counties opposition, more than holding their own in face of a bigger and well-drilled home side.
Standing firm under pressure for long periods of the first half, after making a very bright start of their own, the Linnets improved in terms of territorial advantage and created the better chances in what was overall a very even game.
Manager Michael Ellison had to make a change because of the knee ligament injury sustained by Jay Roberts late in Saturday's impressive, ground-breaking 4-1 home victory over Irlam in the Hallmark Security League Premier Division.
With fellow close season signing Andy Thorpe – the ex-Maine Road defender being the club's other recognised right full-back – again unavailable, the void was filled by midfield Danny O'Brien.
The resulting vacancy in the centre of the park was taken by Sean Carlson, for his full debut after a cameo appearance in the weekend win.
The Linnets set off at breakneck pace with Mark Houghton full of running in attack and Runcorn's best early efforts also revolving around Paul Shanley, whose aptitude and energy are a testing combination for defenders.
The NWCL's reigning Premier Division Player of the Year twice forced important tip over saves, the first of these from an overhead kick which had looked to be dipping in but was pushed out for a corner by the backpedalling goalkeeper, Ross Heywood.
Initially restricted to long-range shots, way off target, Congleton withstood a threatening first 15 minutes to boss the remainder of the half, although Runcorn remained dangerous on the break.
The Bears moved the ball crisply, accurately and attractively to stretch Runcorn's rearguard but the Linnets, although at times having problems clearing their lines, kept their shape and stuck to the task doggedly to repel most efforts.
'Keeper Tom Hunt was, at the same time, again confident and decisive and made a good save to keep out a low shot at his right post, after possession lost cheaply by Runcorn just inside their own half had allowed Congleton a rare full view sof goal.
The midfield cohesion, apparent in the games against Cammell Laird 1907 and Irlam, wasn't quite there in this game yet Runcorn could have taken a 31st minute lead when Shanley delivered a great cross which the Congleton 'keeper and defender Ben Alston were somehow able to deal with as Houghton closed in.
This trend continued in the second half, the Linnets not quite making the most of increased possession and pressure. Teenager Danny McKenna, while again defending tenaciously, was quick to advance from left full-back when the Linnets went forward.
He troubled the Congleton defence with a number of excellent crosses and when Bevan Burey ran on to one of these, just after the hour, it looked as though the deadlock would be broken. Unfortunately, the right winger's powerful header just cleared the cross bar.
Prior to this incident, Town's right back Jack Pritchard was perhaps fortunate to escape with a caution for a late, high tackle on Shanley.
Runcorn went closest to scoring, with little more than 10 minutes left. Houghton initially kept the ball alive in the opposition box before the spotlight was thrown onto crafty veteran striker Steve Foster, on as a substitute.
Tricks of the trade honed at higher in the non-league pyramid saw Foster, with speed of mind and feet, engineer for himself an improbable shooting chance. But with the 'keeper beaten, the effort was cleared from the line by a covering defender.
Congleton promptly carved out their best, and arguably only clear, opportunity with a fine right-wing cross and soaring header which was, fortunately for Linnets, sent straight at Hunt when a goal looked likely.
The hosts threw everything at Runcorn in the time remaining, the visitors having to survive two precarious set-pieces from around their 18-yard area. From the second of these, in stoppage time, Kyle Hamid was sent off – receiving a second yellow card after an earlier caution for a foul.
This time, he had tried to move the ball further away from goal in a bid to ensure the free-kick, already set up, was taken from the correct position.
It was a gesture which combined right with wrong but the referee is always going to win any such battle of wills. The Linnets captain was made to pay and will now be regretting his actions.
After this second successive away point (and having taken five from their last three games), Runcorn will be in good spirits for the Non-League Day visit of Padiham this Saturday (ko 3pm).
This annual event coincides with an international football break and Linnets are offering concessionary admission of £4 (a saving of £2 on the normal adult entry price) to season-ticket holders of Premier League clubs on production of the relevant ticket at the turnstile.
The same offer is available to any Super League rugby club season-ticket holders and also serving members of the armed forces by showing their warrant card.
Runcorn Linnets: Tom Hunt, Dan McKenna, Chris Lawton, Aaron Morris, Danny O'Brien, Sean Carlson, Tony Donaldson, Kyle Hamid (capt), Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley, Bevan Burey. Subs: Steve Foster, Ronnie McCarthy, Antony Hickey. Not used: Marcus Cusani, Adam Wade.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.