29th December 2017, Runcorn Linnets FC v Hanley Town : 2-0
A rare Friday night under The Millbank Linnets Stadium lights brought an end to what has been a truly outstanding Christmas football schedule for Runcorn Linnets, a 2-0 victory against fellow high fliers Hanley Town closing out the festive "triple-header" of fixtures with a perfect haul of nine points collected, 11 goals scored and none conceded.
Before moving on to the match itself, it feels the ideal time to mention our team that work on the MLS pitch.
It rained all day on Thursday, it rained until dinner time on Friday, yet the pitch held up remarkably well to the rigours of competitive football. On a weekend which saw only two other games in the Hallmark Security Premier Division survive the wet weather, we were once again very lucky to have a fabulous surface to play on and people to keep it that way.
The fact that we were able to play all three of our festive fixtures, all in our home Town, may prove pivotal as the fixtures pile up over the winter.
This game was always going to be tough. Three fixtures in seven days, including the always physically and emotionally draining Runcorn Derby, is a big enough ask as it is. But when a side like Hanley are the visitors, you know you've got your work cut out.
Hanley have no weakness in their team, and in all three previous encounters we had never left with a victory. In fact as visitors last season, they had put five past us.
Injuries from the derby victory and player unavailability meant that Michael Ellison had to shuffle his pack for this one. Freddie Potter, Adam Jones and Kyle Hamid all returned to the starting eleven in place of Mark Houghton, Matty Atherton and Mike Simpson, respectively.
Both sides largely cancelled each other out in the first half. Linnets were having plenty of the ball but were unable to threaten the Hanley goal, mainly due to some excellent defending by the Stoke on Trent side.
And when breaking forward, the away team had the attacking talents of one of the league's most highly-rated players in Theo Stair, along with the division's current leading goal scorer, Dan Cope.
The Linnets had a great chance to open the scoring as half-time approached. Neat inter play between Freddie Potter and Kris Holt set the attacking midfielder up to rifle in a shot that was very well saved at close range by Hanley's goalkeeper.
As a cagey first half drew to a close, Hanley almost got their noses in front. Winning a free kick on the edge of the Linnets penalty area, the ball was fired in low by Stair to Cope, who found the target with a fierce strike from only six yards out.
However, to the relief of most inside the MLS, Matty Holmes' decision to re-position Danny O'Brien from one post to the other, while setting up his defence, paid dividends as O'Brien was there to block the ball on the goal line and force it clear, preventing a certain goal.
The second half was much the same as the first; a tight and slightly cagey affair. Hanley played an offside trap very effectively, Potter in particular repeatedly falling foul of the linesman's flag.
Having tried to carve out goal scoring chances from both wings, set pieces and slide rule passes through the centre, the Linnets finally broke the deadlock in a way that we aren't accustomed to.
Taking the ball from his goalkeeper Holmes, centre back Jimmy Moore launched a long ball forward that sent Freddie Potter through on goal. After finally beating the offside trap, the striker also beat the goalkeeper with a great finish into the far bottom corner.
The goal came with just over an hour played and was the catalyst for the game to open up slightly, but clear chances for either side were still extremely difficult to come by.
Hanley's best chance of the second half came as a slight misjudgement in the Linnets back four of a bouncing ball gave Stair a sight at goal. But Holmes made a solid block at his near post.
The result was secured for the Linnets with seven minutes remaining. Hanley struggled to clear from a corner and when Kyle Hamid's shot was blocked, the rebound fell to Potter who finished brilliantly on the volley from 12 yards out - finding the top corner with a rocket of a strike.
The full-time whistle was greeted with delight by all in the Linnets camp, and both teams left the pitch to rapturous applause from fans on either side of the new, considerably shorter players' tunnel.
The Linnets players and coaching staff in particular fully deserved the reception they were given after their efforts over the week.
Our form over the Christmas period means that we will begin 2018 holding first position in The Hallmark Security League Premier Division table, having taken the seat from our neighbours on Boxing Day.
But there is much work still to be done, as we haven't yet reached the halfway mark of this season's league fixtures. With the likelihood of two promotion places to fight for this season, it's going to be a fascinating, tense and exciting new year as those with eyes on promotion move ahead at full steam. Personally, I cannot wait!!
I'd like to close out my match-reporting year by thanking those who keep the club alive and kicking on a daily basis. We are very lucky to have a gifted set of players and coaches to watch every week, but are even luckier to have such a committed band of volunteers running every aspect of the club.
Many of you reading this probably don't know most of the people behind the scenes at the club - those who administer the club, edit the programmes, serve us hot food, prepare the pitch, sell raffle tickets etc etc. The list is endless.
So I would like to give you two things to ponder as we move into 2018.
Firstly, raise a glass and give a quick thought of appreciation to those who make it happen. It's not an exaggeration to say that without our volunteers, we would have no team to watch.
And secondly, ask yourself if you could spare some time to help the club move forward.
Could you arrive at games an hour earlier and help sell the programmes? Could you stay an hour later and help tidy the clubhouse?
Believe me that offers of help in any capacity are greatly received by the club, you will be made very welcome and will feel uplifted by helping the club continue its current growth.
Happy New Year everybody, see you all in 2018!!
Runcorn Linnets: Matt Holmes, Adam Jones, Aaron Morris, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Kieran Nolan, Kristian Holt, Kyle Hamid, Freddie Potter, Paul Shanley, Antony Hickey. Subs: Mark Houghton, Stuart Wellstead. Not used: Chris Lawton, Terry Smith.
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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