15th August 2017, Runcorn Linnets FC v Irlam : 1-1 Sponsored by Linnet Forever
The Millbank Linnets Stadium played host to its first Hallmark Security Premier Division fixture of the 2017-18 season on a lovely and mild Tuesday evening.
However, there was a distinct sense of frustration among home players and supporters alike at full time as Michael Ellison's men struggled and ultimately failed to break down a well-drilled Irlam back four and a goalkeeper on top of his game.
Ello once again had to reshuffle his pack with Danny McKenna out injured after picking up a strain late in Saturday's win at Abbey Hey and impressive youngster Callum Lucy unavailable.
This brought a first start of the season to both Tony "Kaka" Donaldson and Antony Hickey. Zac Aley filled in at left back and turned in an excellent overall performance, Donaldson took up and advanced midfield role and Hickey slotted back into his familiar right-wing position.
A routine victory seemed on the cards when, two minutes into the game, Hickey gave the home side a perfect start by volleying in Aley's pinpoint cross, from inside the penalty area.
However, the Linnets couldn't build on the goal and it was Irlam who went on to have a strong spell for the next half an hour. They had already squandered a great chance to equalise, having rounded Terry Smith, before Jordan Icely was in the right place at the right time to poke home a loose ball that had rebounded off the foot of Smith's left post and send Irlam deservedly level.
Realising that Irlam were in no mood to repeat their 5-0 reversal from Saturday against City of Liverpool, the Linnets set about trying to retake the initiative in the game but found the Irlam rearguard in inspired form. Aley went closest before the break when his free kick deceived everyone barring Irlam's 'keeper, who tipped the dipping ball around the near post.
The second half was completely dominated by the Linnets in terms of possession, Irlam's attackers feeding off scraps but always looking dangerous when counter attacking at pace. However, it was a 45 minutes of frustration for the Linnets who lacked that killer pass and cutting edge which had been so prevalent at Abbey Hey.
One really great move down the left between Aley and Shanley should have led to the Linnets going back in front, the pair carving open Irlam's defence to set Mark Houghton up from 6 yards out. But Houghto could only direct his slightly stretched-for shot directly at Irlam's thankful goalkeeper. It proved to be the clearest opportunity that we would get.
On occasion the Linnets were guilty of taking an extra touch or pass which allowed Irlam that crucial couple of seconds to set themselves and not be caught out by the quick pass or cross. As the urgency to score a second goal grew the attacks became more and more frantic but lacked the extra bit of quality needed to unlock the stern Irlam rearguard.
Stu Wellstead was introduced in place of Houghton and he seemed certain to score when set up by Kyle Hamid's drilled cross from the right, but the goalkeeper once again threw himself at the feet of Wellstead to smother the ball and keep a tight grip on it, ensuring no rebounds.
Hamid himself had a decent chance ,following good link-up play with Freddie Potter, but Irlam closed him down quickly and forced the skipper to shoot quickly on his weaker left foot, the ball hooking just wide of the post.
The perceived value of the point to each side was clear at full-time as many of the Linnets players hit the deck in nothing other than shear frustration that their unwavering efforts could not produce a winning goal.
Meanwhile, Irlam celebrated a very-hard fought and ultimately deserved away point, their first ever against the Linnets.
Looking at the results from around the league on the night, and even after only two games its looking as though the league is going to be very open and unpredictable this year, with points likely to be dropped throughout the season by all the perceived big hitters. So it's far too early to be overly disappointed with this result.
And with the unavailability of players finally nearing an end, Michael Ellison will soon have the pleasure of picking a team from his full squad.
Two wins and a draw with only a solitary goal conceded laughs in the face of the difficult start that the Linnets had last season, and with big games around the corner, including a financially-attractive FA Cup tie at Ashton Athletic on Saturday, Ello will be looking to keep the solid start going.
Runcorn Linnets: Terry Smith, Zac Aley, Aaron Morris, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Tony Donaldson, Paul Shanley, Kyle Hamid, Freddie Potter, Mark Houghton, Antony Hickey. Subs: Stuart Wellstead, Adam Jones, Michael Simpson. Not used: Jack Fleming, Tom Hardwick.
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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