2nd February 2018, Barnton v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-3
Runcorn Linnets made it 11 straight league wins on Friday night, although the trip to bottom-of-the-table team Barnton proved to be a much more difficult encounter than many had predicted.
The decision to bring this game forward from the usual Saturday afternoon kick-off proved to be crucial. The pitch was very heavy (yet certainly playable) from the off but, with the torrential rain on Friday night and Saturday morning, there is no doubt that the match would not have survived on the original date.
Michael Ellison went for a change in shape for this game, moving away from his favoured 4-3-3 formation to a good old fashioned 4-4-2. Mark Houghton was restored to the starting eleven to partner Freddie Potter in attack.
The back four also had a couple of changes with Adam Jones starting at right back in place of Danny O'Brien, and Jimmy Moore returning to the fray in place of his usual central colleague Aaron Morris, for whom this was a very rare absence.
Matty Atherton continued his makeshift role in the middle of the back four, this time alongside Moore.
The Linnets controlled the opening stages, building attacks down the flanks but not really testing Robert Cooke in the Villagers' goal.
Barnton looked much more purposeful opposition that the team that had visited the MLS just before Christmas, and they scored without doubt the best goal that the Linnets' stubborn rearguard has conceded so far this season to take the lead on 20 minutes.
An attack up the left worked its way infield with Jack Woolley receiving the ball a good 25 yards out from goal. He looked up and unleashed a stunning strike that found the very top corner, rebounding in off the goal post and giving Terry Smith absolutely no chance of making a save.
The Linnets have now conceded the opening goal in three of their last four league matches, but a telling trait of Ellison's side is that they never let this affect them and continue about their business as originally planned.
Soon after Barnton had taken the lead, the Linnets should have been awarded a penalty when a Barnton player handled the ball on to the crossbar in a desperate attempt to clear a corner. However, it mattered not as, within a minute of that incident, the referee did indeed award the Linnets a penalty when Kris Holt was brought down just inside the penalty area.
With main and reserve penalty takers O'Brien and Stuart Wellstead both watching from the substitutes bench, there was a comical minute or so as most of the Linnets players on the field looked away in hope that one of their colleagues would step forward and volunteer to take the kick!
Eventually, Mike Simpson threw himself into the fire, his penalty just about squirming under Cooke to equal up the score.
The visiting Linnets were determined to go into the half-time break with a lead and Freddie Potter twice went close to scoring.
First off, he found himself in a great position bearing down on goal but took the shot on with his left foot when the angle was against him.
He then fired across goal with a great strike, which took a slight deflection and rolled agonisingly wide of the far post with Cooke rooted to the spot.
But five minutes before the interval, the second goal did arrive for the Linnets, and in some style! Louis Corrigan has fitted seamlessly into the side since joining in January, and his set-pieces have been very impressive.
It was always just a matter of time before one of his free-kicks found the net and the time arrived on Friday. The free-kick was quite central to the goal, about 22 yards out, and Corrigan bent his effort around the Barnton defensive wall and inside Cooke's right post. A fantastic goal that was very similar in style to Danny O'Brien's at Pavilions on Boxing Day - but struck with the other foot and curling the other way!
Barnton almost scored a free-kick of their own, just before half-time, only to be denied by an excellent save by Smith low to his right. The half-time whistle blew with the score at 1-2 to Linnets.
The second half was not to be a thing of much beauty, both sides to their credit continuing to try to play football on an ever-deteriorating playing surface, but neither being able to take a real foothold. Barnton made an excellent job of stopping the Linnets from playing and creating chances, closing us down in a flash when the ball was near their penalty area.
Potter came within a hair's breadth of getting a third goal when Shanley's dinked cross took Barnton's defence - as well as their goalkeeper - out of the game. But, with an open goal at his mercy, the big centre forward was a split second too late in arriving as the ball flew right across goal and out to safety.
Shanley was starting to dictate the play and drew a fantastic save from Cooke, cutting in from the left wing and curling goalwards a shot that the big goalkeeper tipped over the crossbar at full stretch.
This was the cue for Ello to change it up somewhat. Potter and Houghton were replaced by Wellstead and Hickey, as we reverted to our more familiar 4-3-3 formation.
The impact was almost immediate as the pace of the now front three caused terror amongst a tiring Barnton rearguard.
With 15 minutes remaining, the Linnets scored the decisive third goal that they had been craving. It was a very well-worked goal too.
Matty Atherton played out from the back to find Kris Holt in the centre circle. In one move, Holt spun and lifted the ball over Barnton's defence to set Shanley through on goal with 30 yards of space to run into.
Despite claims for offside from Barnton, Shanley kept his cool to place his shot through the legs of Cooke to the the delight of the travelling Linnets faithful.
Kris Holt almost scored the fourth but his shout was cleared off the line by Paddy Hamid with Cooke caught out of position. At the other end, Terry Smith had to be alert to smother a one on one as Barnton refused to throw in the towel.
As the full time whistle blew, the exhausted players of both sides left the field to great applause from both sets of fans, and it was thoroughly deserved.
Barnton had belied their lowly league position, giving the Linnets their toughest test for quite some time. For long spells, you felt that this game could end up going either way.
From a Linnets point of view, it was especially pleasing to see us win "ugly". We know that we have the ability to dominate games and win well, but we won't always have that luxury and it's critical that you pick up victories in other ways.
Ello's men showed that they have that facility in the locker when required, and it's going to be needed as we move steadily into the third quarter of the season.
We return the Millbank Linnets Stadium this Tuesday night for our first league encounter this season with Ashton Athletic. There will be revenge on the minds of the Linnets players though as it was Ashton who ended our FA Cup adventure this season with a fine 4-2 victory at Brocstedes Park back in August. Kick-off is at 7:45pm.
Runcorn Linnets:Terry Smith, Louis Corrigan, Matt Atherton, Jimmy Moore, Adam Jones, Kieran Nolan, Kris Holt, Michael Simpson, Freddie Potter, Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley. Subs: Antony Hickey, Stuart Wellstead, Mitch Bryant. Not used: Danny O'Brien, Aaron Morris.
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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