26th December 2017, Runcorn Town v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-5
RUNCORN Linnets leapfrogged their local rivals and long-time Hallmark Security League Premier Division leaders to take over top spot after winning what turned into a Boxing Day mismatch in more ways than one.
For the second successive year, the Christmas derby was affected by a sending off but while 12 months earlier, Linnets had recovered from the first-half dismissal of their goalkeeper to force a draw (and almost a victory) at The Millbank, Town never looked like getting themselves on an even keel after being dealt the swiftest of red cards at Pavilions.
Midfielder Joe Holt was given his marching orders for a late challenge on Mark Houghton and this, coupled with the early exit through injury of prolific striker Craig Cairns, left Town in a sorry state.
Buoyed by a ninth-minute goal from Aaron Morris, from a free header, the visitors proceeded to completely dominate the game and the five-goal victory margin didn't flatter them in the slightest.
Linnets also took advantage of hitherto second-placed Widnes' inactivity on an afternoon of several weather-enforced postponements to move two points clear at the summit.
Town, dropping to second, still have a game in hand on their now table-topping neighbours with Widnes likewise two points off the title pace, having played five games more than Linnets.
A very heavy Weston Point pitch had been passed fit after a mid-morning inspection but had there been any match day rain to follow that on the eve of the game, then the fixture would probably have succumbed too.
But the Linnets ultimately made light of the difficult playing conditions to send their fans home on a real high. Not in their wildest dreams could they have imagined such a convincing win.
Houghton had returned to the front line with Stuart Wellstead making way, although Linnets' top scorer came off the bench (along with Freddie Potter and club captain Kyle Hamid) in the second half as the Linnets really pressed home their two-goal interval advantage.
Town had been reduced to 10 men after only four minutes and while it was surprising to see a red card so early in the piece, it was a poor and unnecessary challenge by Holt.
Houghton needed lengthy treatment and was clearly hampered for a while by the injury before finally being able to run it off.
If the referee had been decisive, the Linnets were incisive - Morris finding empty space to convert a cross from the influential Kieran Nolan, following a half-cleared free-kick.
A man short and a goal down, Town were unable to gain even a foothold in the game and it was one-way traffic as 'keeper Terry McCormick held up Linnets with a series of saves, doing particularly well to thwart Antony Hickey one on one.
Linnets got extra breathing space on the half hour, when the hosts were pulled up for a clear foul on the edge of their own box.
Despite McCormick's exhaustive efforts to line up his wall correctly, Linnets' set-piece specialist Danny O'Brien curled his free-kick around the wall, beating the 'keeper to his left.
The complexion of the contest didn't look like changing after the restart with off-form Town, who have now lost three of their last four matches, failing to stem the tide of Linnets attacks.
Any lingering hope of a home comeback was extinguished in the 63rd minute when a terrific burst of speed from Antony Hickey, on the right flank, created a welcome chance for sub Potter.
McCormick tried to intervene by closing the angle but was helpless as Hickey squared the ball beyond him for Potter, who has of late had no luck at all in front of goal (being consistently denied by the woodwork), to roll his shot over the sodden surface into an empty net.
Wellstead was equally keen to have an impact on joining the party.After romping clear, but over hitting in his final approach, he was challenged by McCormick.
The referee pointed to the spot for what looked a harsh penalty and, as much as the 'keeper tried, taker O'Brien was not to be distracted or denied.
There was still time for Potter to add his second and Linnets' fifth. Skipper Hamid, having watched an effort of his own ricochet off a defender and agonisingly wide, saw a pass this time deflect into Potter's path for the centre forward to guide in a long-range header.
This was Linnets' 66th league strike in 21 games. As well as being the Premier Division's highest scorers, Linnets have also conceded fewest goals - 18.
Despite being effectively redundant for much of the game, 'keeper Matt Holmes kept his concentration and clean sheet – excelling in the dying minutes to turn away Town's first effort of note, at the foot of his left post.
For all the understandable euphoria and despair in the respective camps, this result should be viewed as just another positive step or setback on a long road.
Town will come back stronger but it was quite a marker for Linnets to lay down ahead of this Friday's visit of fourth-placed Hanley Town in another top-of-the-table encounter. Kick off is at 7.45pm.
Runcorn Linnets:Matt Holmes, Matt Atherton, Aaron Morris, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Kieran Nolan, Kristian Holt, Michael Simpson, Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley, Antony Hickey. Subs: Stuart Wellstead, Freddie Potter, Kyle Hamid. Not used: Adam Jones, Terry Smith (GK).
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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