17th December 2016, Nelson v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-2By Dave Bettley
IT all came right for Runcorn Linnets in the end - after they had flirted with first-half danger and wrestled with misfortune after the break.
Victoria Park hasn't been the happiest hunting ground for Linnets in recent years, not least at the end of last season when the hosts celebrated a home draw which went some way to securing the North West Counties League Premier Division title for their neighbours, Colne at Runcorn's expense.
On this latest visit, it looked as though a share of the spoils would be the best the Linnets could hope for - until the 88th minute, when Antony Hickey jubilantly dispatched his second goal of the game, and fourth in the last two matches, to see Runcorn home by the tightest of margins
At half-time, even securing one point looked an optimistic hope for the Yellow and Greens, who had been completely off colour, conceding early on and barely creating a worthwhile opportunity to pull themselves level before the turnaround.
Nelson's opener came on seven minutes, former Colne striker Jason Hart being given the chance to freely gallop through Runcorn's defence in the inside left channel.
Tom Hunt got down to the resulting shot but only parried it – straight into the path of the lurking Ben Hoskin, as the home side profited from the first worthwhile attack by either side.
It could have been worse for the visitors as Hart, showing all the menace which had made him a scourge of opposition defences while at title-winning Colne, carved out a very similar opening. But this time, his effort flashed across the face of goal.
With suspended skipper Kyle Hamid being conspicuous by his absence in midfield, Runcorn had struggled to support Mark Houghton in attack.
Hickey on the right flank and to a lesser degree Paul Shanley out on the left were lying unusually deep and struggling to influence the game.
As half-time approached, not conceding a second was almost as important for Runcorn as grabbing an equaliser. The break gave them a chance to regroup and assess where they had been going wrong.
But they'd barely had time to put new plans into action before Nelson came close to doubling their advantage when Hart got wrong side of the Runcorn rearguard.
Hunt put his earlier mishap behind him to get well behind, and keep out, the danger man's shot with a smart low save.
This was a turning point as Runcorn were finally able to build the pressure and momentum they had hitherto searched for in vain.
A run of four successive corners failed, however, to break Nelson's obvious spirit and dogged determination to hold onto an advantage which had been hard earned and, at that point, deserved.
Former Runcorn Town 'keeper Danny Lever, fresh from his single appearance for Linnets in the second game of their season, then held up visiting progress - getting fingertips on a measured, 20-yard Adam Wade shot to ensure it hit his cross bar, and not the roof of the net.
With 72 minutes played, Runcorn finally found reward for their comeback efforts. A cross from the left by full back Danny McKenna flitted across the six-yard box and Hickey, at the far post, flung himself at the ball to somehow get it across the line - off his midriff.
Runcorn's manager Michael Ellison sensed that after all the work Nelson had put into getting and staying ahead for so long on a heavy pitch, they were now there for the taking.
Linnets had lost Mark Houghton to injury early in the second half, Brian Matthews replacing him in a like-for-like change,
The remaining Runcorn substitutions saw two further front men, Stuart Wellstead and then Steve Foster being introduced for holding midfielderWade and centre half Chris Lawton, respectively.
For Linnets, this wasn't a gamble. The feeling was they just had to win.
With an all-out assault the order of the day Into the last 10 minutes, Matthews directed a near-post header from Hickey's fine run and cross agonisingly off target, when a goal had looked certain.
Wellstead's header from a McKenna free-kick dropped the wrong side of, and evaded, a team-mate in the box and unluckiest of all, Foster controlled, turned and shot in one splendid movement only to be foiled by the left upright.
Many teams would have been packed up. However, almost half of Linnets' goals this term have come in the 15-minute periods at the close of each half.
The emphasis Ellison places on his team's stamina and fitness may well have been a decisive factor as Runcorn typically kept going right to the final whistle
Matthews used his strength to regain possession from a half-cleared attack and the ball found its way back into the danger zone, where Hickey was on hand to exploit hesitancy between 'keeper and defence by firing in.
It made the journey home much more enjoyable for the 100 or so from Runcorn, who had forgone the last shopping Saturday before Christmas in favour of the journey to East Lancashire for the final away game of 2016 – one which was memorable and ultimately well worthwhile.
Runcorn Linnets: Hunt; McKenna, Lawton, Morris, O'Brien; Wade, McCarthy, Holt; Houghton, Shanley, Hickey. Subs: Matthews (for Houghton), Wellstead (for Wade), Foster (for Lawton). Not used: Aley, Roberts.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.