19th November 2016, Runcorn Linnets FC v Squires Gate : 4-3 Sponsored by In Memory of Harry ThompsonBy Dave Bettley
RUNCORN Linnets eventually put their house in order with a thrilling home comeback from two goals down early in the second half.
Boss Michael Ellison and assistant Matt Cross used footballing feng shui to turn around their side's fortunes in this game.
For the first hour, everything had been in place but not in the correct location.
The line-up didn't feel, or look, right - although there were good and obvious reasons for the original selection.
Reorganisation made all the difference, however with substitutions enabling relieved Runcorn to pull off a very tricky rescue.
All managers have to assess short and long-term benefits in their choice of team.
With one full-back Danny McKenna coming back on the left after missing two games with a calf injury, it was completely understandable that the Runcorn boss should want to keep his powder dry with the other, Jay Roberts.
The former Cammell Laird right back had seen just one appearance as a second-half sub since damaging a knee in Linnets' first campaign win against Irlam on August 27th.
Despite the positive signs of Roberts' cameo appearance off the bench, in victory over Nelson on November 5th, Ellison had hinted in his programme notes that he had to be careful not to expect too much too soon from the player after his serious knee problem.
It was this caution, allied to a one-game suspension for Chris Lawton and the long-term injuries still being nursed by Kev McGrath and Danny O'Brien, that prompted the manager to again go in with midfield players at right back and left central defence.
Kris Holt continued on the right of the back four with Zac Aley, having already deputised for the now returning McKenna at left back, this time being handed the position to Aaron Morris's immediate left a role with which centrefielders, Paul Jewell and Ronnie McCarthy had also been entrusted in recent weeks.
As much, and hard, as they had tried, the makeshift nature of the team made it a struggle for the opening two thirds of this contest with Squires Gate having the attacking adventure, movement and composure to fully exploit Runcorn's uncertainty.
At 3-1, deservedly, to the visitors nine minutes into the second half, it was a long way back for Runcorn, had earlier hauled themselves level at 1-1 after 38 minutes - only to concede again almost immediately and go into the break a goal behind.
If the introductions of Roberts, providing go-forward down the flank, and winger Stu Wellstead (who was to score the decisive goal) were pivotal, the inspiration came from Kyle Hamid's 64th-minute penalty awarded for a clear foul on Paul Shanley.
In the circumstances, and with his miss from the spot in the last home game still fresh in the memory, it was a particularly cool and precise finish from the skipper as the Squires Gate 'keeper, Ben Fletcher was beaten to his left.
Suddenly, there was a more positive atmosphere all around the ground, the Linnets going for broke. Having earlier withdrawn Adam Wade, Runcorn replaced the other holding midfield player, Ronnie McCarthy to bring on extra striker, Steve Foster.
To facilitate the switch, ever-present Morris had signalled he was fit to continue, after appearing to jar a knee on the playing surface which had coped remarkably well with the heavy rain in the build-up to the game but was predictably soft.
Mark Houghton was denied his second goal of the afternoon by a fantastic save before Holt by this time having taken up his natural midfield berth popped up to equalise in the 76th minute, getting on the end of Hamid's cross-cum-shot to the left of the area.
The fightback was complete four minutes later as Gate's defence was caught out by Shanley's clever ball over the top which Wellstead, in only his second Runcorn outing, latched onto and controlled well, before knocking it past 'keeper Fletcher.
Although there was a hefty period of stoppage time five minutes for Runcorn to negotiate, which they did a little nervously, home fans would surely have settled half an hour earlier for such anxiety.
The early part of the game had belonged to Squires Gate, who ironically had themselves come from 4-2 down to draw against visiting Hanley Town last time out.
They had taken the lead in the 13th minute courtesy of an own goal, teenager McKenna diverting the ball, under pressure from a player behind him, past Tom Hunt after Jacob Higham's cross from the left.
Houghton restored parity, Runcorn having slowly fought their way back into the contest, Antony Hickey's centre from the right ricocheting to the far post where the scorer converted in what seemed like slow motion.
But Runcorn were in trouble again within three minutes when the Seears twins restored Squires Gate's advantage Ric crossing from the right of the box for Ben, unmarked at the far post, to apply a well-controlled finish.
The Linnets found themselves in an even deeper hole nine minutes after the restart with provider turning scorer this time as Ben Seear reacted quickest to the rebound from Ryan Riley's shot. Hunt had done well just to stop the initial attempt as it swerved and bounced in front of him.
However, Michael Ellison's watchword since day one of his managerial career has been "Believe".
After an initially well-below-par performance, Runcorn showed plenty of belief together with determination, spirit and no little skill to get back in the hunt and over the line.
At the same time, you had to feel for Squires Gate, who had not only given everything in pushing the Linnets to the brink but also played extremely well.
With the other four teams in the top handful rained out of action, this important win lifted Runcorn to within five points of the summit and sets them up for next weekend's visit to West Didsbury & Chorlton.
The Manchester club drew at the Millbank Linnets Stadium on the season's opening day. But Runcorn, who must surely now be close to naming their first-choice defence again, have come a long way since then and will want to show just how far.
Runcorn Linnets: Tom Hunt, Danny McKenna, Zak Aley, Aaron Morris, Kristian Holt, Ronnie McCarthy (Steve Foster), Adam Wade (Jay Roberts), Kyle Hamid (capt), Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley, Antony Hickey (Stuart Wellstead). Subs (not used): Bevan Burey, Paul Jewell.
All at Runcorn Linnets send best wishes for a speedy recovery to our regular match reporter, Ste Bignall who missed Saturday's game after gall bladder surgery. Get well soon, Ste!
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.