5th September 2017, City of Liverpool FC v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-5By Ste Bignall
Throughout this slightly 'up and down' start to the 2017-18 season there has been a few character traits missing from Michael Ellison's Runcorn Linnets side.
Even in the high-margin victories, something was missing that was evident but difficult to explain; you came away from games thinking "we have just won comfortably, but we can play better than that".
But it all came together in glorious fashion on Tuesday night at Bootle, where the Linnets turned in an outstanding performance to sweep aside one of the early season pace setters and one of football's culture clubs, City of Liverpool.
The Purps, as they have become known, are a club structured in a similar way to ourselves, built by fan ownership, and have grown from a conversation to a club who are regularly attracting gates of 500+ and working in the background to have their own ground within the boundaries of Liverpool as opposed to one of its neighbouring areas.
They have had tremendous success on the field as well. Managed by former Runcorn Town manager Simon Burton, CoL have won promotion and three trophies in less than 12 months.
Ello was once again forced to shuffle his pack slightly, the strength in depth of recruitment over the summer really bearing fruit as the list of unavailable players continues to grow. Jimmy Moore returned at centre back in place of the suspended Tom Hardwick, the only change to the eleven that started against Padiham on Saturday.
The Linnets players rose to the occasion in front of the 600+ crowd and took the game to the Purps from the very start. A plethora of early corners almost yielded an opening for the visitors, a sliced CoL clearance bouncing back off the crossbar and Kyle Hamid falling an inch short when sliding in to meet a wicked Danny O'Brien in swinger.
The chances kept on coming as the Linnets tried to force their way into the lead, Paul Shanley in particular getting much joy on the left flank. Mark Houghton glanced a looping header over the goalkeeper that hit the foot of the post with a goal looking certain before Kieran Nolan hit a rare effort on goal that flew narrowly over the crossbar.
The thoroughly deserved opener came a few minutes before half-time and what an opener it was. With play building up the left wing between Danny McKenna and Paul Shanley, the ball was worked to the edge of the penalty area where Kyle Hamid played a pass into the run of Mike Simpson 25 yards out.
As soon as Simmo connected, you knew that the only outcome was to be - a rocket strike into the top corner!
'Lecky Legs' as his team mates call him is getting a name for himself with goals out of the very top drawer, but we will come back to that later in this report!
Hamid almost made the half-time brew even more enjoyable when he let fly from 18 yards out, only for the woodwork to come to the Purps' rescue for a third time in 45 minutes.
It was difficult to swallow the fact that Linnets only went into the break one goal to the good, considering their dominance of the game.
If the first half was good, and it was, then the second half was absolutely fantastic! With the Linnets kicking towards their noisy Left Side Ultras, crammed into the low-roofed terrace at the turnstile end, the atmosphere at the Vesty was electric!
Linnets continued their domination of the proceedings and looked to increase their lead as the play deserved. The second goal came as a result of Shanley's 'never say die' attitude.
With CoL's defence giving up on a loose ball and allowing it to go out for a corner, Shanley successfully chased it down and nicked it from the byline before squaring to Hamid, who had spotted the opportunity to poke the ball home from just a yard out - possibly the easiest goal the skipper will ever score.
Mark Houghton went agonisingly close to getting the goal that his shift deserved, curling an effort towards the top corner that Longrigg in the Purps' goal did brilliantly to tip around the post with a flying, full-length save.
The Purps then got an unlikely goal back on the hour mark, a good passing move setting up Luke Denson inside the penalty box and his deflected shot gave Terry Smith no chance.
You felt that composure was vital for the Linnets with everyone expecting a purple onslaught. However, when Anthony Hickey came on for Mark Houghton following the goal, the front man stifled the Purps efforts by restoring the Linnets' lead two minutes later. With his first touch, he headed in Danny McKenna's pinpoint cross at the back post.
With the score at 1-3, the hosts to their credit continued to show fight and it took a smart save from Terry Smith to tip over a far-post header, the Purps' second and final effort on target of the night.
With 15 minutes remaining, Mike Simpson was at it again with arguably a better strike than his previous three in the space of four days.
That's four-long range goals by Simmo in the last two matches, with each finding its way right into the top corner. Beat that!
This time Simpson had again found himself outside the penalty area, towards the corner of the box, and after being set up by Hamid, he unleashed a ferocious, first-time shot that flew past Longrigg before he could set himself and nestled in the top corner.
Stu Wellstead and Danny O'Brien were replaced by Mitch Bryant and Adam Jones as the game headed towards full time, but the Linnets were in no mood to relent.
With Hickey moved out to the right he found space with the ball at his feet and squared a pass to Mitch Bryant whose initial shot was well saved by Longrigg. However, the front man was quickest to react to the situation and rolled the loose ball in to score a much sought-after first competitive goal for the Linnets and add the finishing touch to a magnificent all-round team performance.
This was a display of football out of the very top drawer of the Linnets' chest. The defence hadn't looked at its usual best so far this season, however the back four and goalkeeper were in complete control against a side that have a habit of scoring plenty of goals.
The other pleasing aspect was the energy and high intensity pressing game that was a signature of Ello's team last season was back at its brilliant best be it at 0-0 or 1-5, and City of Liverpool simply couldn't cope with it.
This was a night when everyone in the Linnets' camp was on song, players and supporters alike. It's rare at our level that you play in a packed ground where you can feel the atmosphere, but there was no fear factor shown by Ello's men, who thrived on the night and reminded everyone just what an excellent team they are when on song.
We now focus our attention on a Saturday afternoon visit to Darwen, a match that is unlikely to have the same atmosphere but will have the same number of points up for grabs. And with the Lancastrians fresh off the back of their own eye-catching midweek win away at Barnoldswick, the Linnets' approach and preparation for the game will need to be just as methodical.
Runcorn Linnets: Terry Smith, Danny O'Brien, Aaron Morris, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Kieran Nolan, Michael Simpson, Kyle Hamid (capt), Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley, Stuart Wellstead. Subs: Mitch Bryant, Adam Jones, Antony Hickey. Not used: Chris Lawton, Sam Fitton.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.