24th September 2016, Runcorn Linnets FC v Atherton Collieries : 2-0 Sponsored by GrangesideBy Ste Bignall
Runcorn Linnets recorded an eye-catching result on Saturday as they turned in a magnificent performance to condemn Atherton Collieries, many people's tip for the Hallmark Security League Premier Division title, to defeat in a well-tempered match that somehow ended with only nine Linnets players on the pitch.
It was arguably one of the best overall performances from a Linnets side in their 10- year existence.
Colls suffered a blow prior to kick off when Mark Battersby, one of the league's most-feared strikers, suffered an injury in the warm-up and had to be withdrawn.
The Linnets made one change from the excellent win away at Barnoldswick last week, Antony Hickey returning to the starting 11 in place of Bev Burey.
The home side took control of the game from the off, Paul Shanley climbing highest to send a header towards the top corner but the ball drifted just wide with the 'keeper beaten.
Next to go close was skipper Kyle Hamid, who was set up from 20 yards by good link-up play between Mark Houghton and Shanley, 'Mucker' curling his shot narrowly wide of the post.
Hamid blazed a free-kick high and wide before the best chance of the opening exchanges fell to Hickey, heading Danny McKenna's pinpoint cross over at the far post from a chance that the striker will have been disappointed not to get on target.
It seemed only a matter of time before Runcorn broke the deadlock and the opening goal duly arrived on the half hour when a quick throw by Danny O'Brien caught the Colls defence flat footed and sent Hickey on a run into the box. The resulting low cross was poked in at the front post by Mark Houghton for a real goal poacher's finish.
Ronnie McCarthy was next to go close as his flicked header dropped agonisingly wide of the far post.
Chris Lawton received a harsh booking for an innocuous tackle just before half-time, a decision that would have significant ramifications later in the afternoon.
The home side doubled their advantage on the stroke of the break as a very ordinary long ball caught the visiting defence all at sea and when Shanley managed to flick the ball on with his head, Mark Houghton found himself one on one with the goalkeeper.
With much still to do, 'Houghto' lifted the ball over the imposing stopper and the covering defender and into the net to send the very sizable crowd into raptures, putting a quality seal on a fabulous 45 minutes of football from the home side.
It was inevitable that Colls were going to rally after half-time and they came out with much more gusto, Tom Hunt having to snuff out a wicked cross that was begging for a finish.
Despite Colls applying some pressure, the game was almost put out of their reach with 40 minutes to go. The ball was played out quickly to Shanley, who counter attacked up the left and, although well placed to go for goal himself, the wide man squared to Houghton who applied the required finish from 12 yards out.
He was, however, denied a hat-trick by a flying, point-blank save by Reid in the Atherton goal. A truly jaw-dropping save.
The referee then showed a straight red card to Danny O'Brien for a very minor off-the-ball flick out with his foot that not a single Colls player or supporter made any sort of complaint about. The Linnets full-back had been playfully slapped around the face by an opponent and had reacted in similar fashion.
As always, you have to accept that Danny did something that gave the referee an opportunity to send him off, but it wasn't that sort of game and a talking to, with a booking, would have more than sufficed.
Within five minutes of dismissing O'Brien, the match official felt that an even more harsh red card was necessary, this time for Lawton who merely stood his ground to try and hinder the run of former Linnet, Gareth Peet.
It was a move that wouldn't usually be regarded as a yellow card offence in any circumstances, and certainly hadn't merited a second caution in a game that was largely without incident.
'Lawty' was very unlucky to be sent off for two challenges when neither would be bookable 99 times out of 100, a feeling echoed by the visitors' report on the match.
Linnets now faced the daunting prospect of playing for 30 minutes when two men short against a side well known for scoring ample amounts of goals.
But if anything, the job was made more difficult for Colls against nine men than it would have been facing 10.
Matt Cross, deputising for manager Michael Ellison, brought on Andy Thorpe to fill in at right back and Bev Burey for Hickey to provide some fresh legs for what was going to be half an hour of chasing lost causes.
The team then reshaped with a flat back four and three holding in the midfield, allowing Bev to chase down whatever long clearances he could.
A closing period of Colls domination ensued which was duly matched by a tireless and admirable work rate by the depleted home side.
Despite the numerical advantage, Atherton struggled to break down Linnets' defensive wall and only managed one shot on target that Hunt did well to turn around post.
New signing, ironically from Colls, Kristian Holt was brought on to provide some extra energy for the final 10 minutes and the home side ground themselves into the turf to deliver a fantastic clean sheet and excellent victory.
The team certainly showed less nerves than the crowd in the final 30 minutes!
Credit must be given to Atherton for the way they conducted themselves and played the game, despite a disappointing day for them.
They left the pitch with their heads held high to a rapturous applause from the Linnets supporters, who always recognise when a team plays the way Colls do.
But the biggest cheers were reserved for the heroics shown by everyone associated with Runcorn Linnets' playing staff.
A first 45 minutes of footballing dominance had been followed by a second half of sheer determination and a desperation to keep hold of the lead they had earned.
It had undoubtedly been one of the new club's most complete performances.
There is a well-earned break from league football now for the Linnets now with a free midweek leading into this Saturday's first round home tie in The Macron Cup against HSL Divison One side Daisy Hill. Kick off at the Millbank Linnets Stadium is at 3pm.
Runcorn Linnets: Tom Hunt, Danny McKenna, Chris Lawton, Aaron Morris, Danny O'Brien, Ronnie McCarthy, Kyle Hamid (capt), Adam Wade, Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley, Antony Hickey. Subs: Bevan Burey, Kristian Holt, Andy Thorpe. Not used: Steve Foster, Taylor Kennerley.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.