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17th April 2017, Hanley Town v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-0

A TITLE charge which most thought would never get off the ground, given the turbulent close season at The Millbank Linnets Stadium, ended on Easter Monday in Linnets' third from last game of their Hallmark Security League Premier Division campaign.

This goalless draw, coupled with Atherton Collieries' hefty 5-1 home defeat of struggling Darwen earlier in the day, meant that Linnets are no longer able to overtake the league leaders.

A controversial encounter in the Potteries provided another incredible moment in a season which has been remarkable for the progress made by the visitors under manager Michael Ellison, in his first season of management, and assistant Matt Cross.

The duo have lifted Runcorn from their summer of despair to a certain top-four finish, no matter what happens in the remaining two weeks of the campaign.

However, this was another game in which Linnets mettle was again truly tested along with the patience of their followers.

They looked on in anguish, if not disbelief, as Linnets were forced to play with 10 men from the fourth minute after the dismissal of Kieran Nolan and finished the contest with just nine.

Holding midfielder Nolan was left dumbfounded as the referee brandished an instant red card, without giving himself any thinking time whatsoever, after an early tackle in midfield.

It could be argued that the teenager had raised a boot as he moved laterally on the halfway line to make the challenge but his actions had by no means been reckless.

It was the type of challenge which in many instances at this level would have warranted a yellow card, and even then only later in the game when cautions are often dished out in a flourish.

The referee had set his standard but it was one he didn't follow. Later in the first half, Mark Houghton was hacked down from behind then Kyle Hamid caught very late by an opposition player.

But neither offence was seen by the referee as deserving of punishment in fact, his only response with Hamid poleaxed was to book two Linnets players for dissent.

Rarely has a crowd been so generally up in arms at the performance of an official.

It didn't get any better in the second half and while an aerial assault on left back Danny McKenna passed without even a whistle, the Linnets were penalised again when Antony Hickey (having already been cautioned for a foul) was shown a second yellow, for speaking out of turn.

It is not the kind of offence any club or supporter wants to one of their own sent off for. Of course it is not. But players are only human and there comes a point under provocation and for self protection when it becomes impossible not to react.

Still looking to win when one player short, despite this being the second run-out in the space of 48 hours for the vast majority of these players, once down to nine midway through the second half, it was a case of Linnets battening down the hatches for survival in another mighty effort from the away side.

But even with a two-man advantage, Hanley rarely looked like following up January's 5-2 win at The Millbank and resorted mostly to long shots, invariably from one of their centre halves, as the game wore on.

There was, however, one astonishing reflex save from Adam Caunce to both admire and savour and another very accomplished, unhurried display by ever-present Aaron Morris at the heart of the Linnets rearguard.

All games are different as are individual referees in their demeanour and interpretation of the laws and there were certainly some interesting decisions all through the game.

Even so, Linnets followers will find it impossible to reconcile such a heavy disciplinary tally against their team - four Linnets players beng booked - in light of there having been not one caution for them on Easter Saturday, when Runcorn had entertained Maine Road.

Hanley Town: Dane Jackson, Charlie Goldstraw, Jonathan Sheldon, Benjamin Blowers, Joshua Thorpe, Martin Stanyer, Oliver Mellor, Jamie Skellern, Daniel Cope, Theo Stair, Angelo Errico. Subs: Thomas Ashton, Joe Donaldson. Not used: Joshua Bristow, Michael Morton.

Runcorn Linnets: Adam Caunce, Daniel McKenna, Thomas Hardwick, Aaron Morris, Daniel O'Brien, Kieran Nolan, Kristian Holt, Kyle Hamid, Mark Houghton, Zachery Aley, Antony Hickey. Subs: Michael Simpson, Stuart Wellstead. Not used: Adam Wade, Christopher Lawton, Matthew Cross.

Attendance: 146.

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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