5th March 2018, Widnes v Runcorn Linnets FC : 2-1
There was an overwhelming feeling of "how did that just happen?" at the Halton Stadium on Monday night, as Widnes won the second "El Clasitoll" with a 94th-minute penalty which gives them the honour of being the first side to complete a league double over the Linnets since Maine Road back in 2012.
When Widnes won at the Millbank Linnets Stadium just over a fortnight ago, few could have argued that they didn't deserve the victory.
But you might never again see the Linnets play as well as they did in the second half at The Select Security Stadium and fail to take anything from a game.
Freddie Potter and Adam Jones replaced Mark Houghton and Louis Corrigan from the side which had beaten Barnoldswick last time out, Jones filling the left back role and Potter leading the attack.
Just like in the reverse fixture, the Linnets almost took an early lead in the game. Shanley did well to set up Freddie Potter and his effort was very well saved by Richie Mottram, an ex-Linnets Player of the Year, in the Widnes goal. This was a trend that would unfortunately repeat itself over and over again on the night.
From the resulting corner, the ball found Shanley unmarked to plant a firm header goal wards, but with Mottram this time beaten, a goal post got in the way.
The remainder of the first half was a bit of a cagey affair, with quality lacking from both sides. The rain was constant and made the already unconventional artificial surface extra greasy. This was most evident when a long ball forward almost caught out Mottram as it skidded on the pitch and had the 'keeper scrambling backwards to clutch the ball and prevent a ludicrous goal.
Widnes took the lead just before half-time with their first effort on goal. Kev Towey's free-kick to the back post was headed goal wards, producing a good save from Matty Holmes.
Unfortunately, surrounded by a crowd of bodies, Holmes saw the ball slip from his grip and George Lomax was on hand the nod the ball into the empty net - a very scruffy goal for the Linnets to concede.
While we hadn't been troubled beyond the late first-half goal, we ourselves hadn't got a sight of goal once Shanley had hit the woodwork on five minutes.
It was clear that a big improvement was needed if the Linnets were to get anything out of the game, especially with Widnes being a side who know how to see a game out.
The improvement in the performance could not have been more telling.
From the first minute of the second half, the tide was completely with the Linnets. Kris Holt drew a good save from Mottram with a header, before Towey had a headed chance of his own at the other end but put it well wide.
With the Linnets having upped the pace of play, Widnes were getting pulled out of position, and when Antony Hickey had space to run into, he was picked out by a glorious pass from Shanley. With only Mottram to beat, however, Hickey looked in two minds as to which option to take.
Although his eventual shot sneaked past Mottram, it gave Widnes co-manager Steve Akrigg time to get back on his goal line to clear for a corner, smacking into a goal post for good measure.
The corner was only half cleared and when the ball was returned into the box, it fell to Potter who spun on the spot to crash an effort from the tightest of angles against an upright. It was Potter again who was next to go close, controlling a pass outside the area with his back to goal and turning to fire a half volley goal wards. Mottram again got down low to his right to make the save.
This is going to start sounding boring I know, but the Potter/Mottram battle was promptly in full swing yet again!
This time Potter's low strike looked destined for the bottom corner only for the 'keeper's outstretched finger tips to turn it around the post.
In an effort to shake things up, Michael Ellison made his first change, Hickey being replaced by Stu Wellstead.
On 67 minutes, the equaliser finally came and it was a fantastic goal which everntually had Mottram beaten.
Jones beat his man to play a pass up the left wing to Shanley, whose smart shoulder drop took his marker out of the game, allowing him space to deliver a brilliant cross for Potter to finish from close range.
The goal shook Widnes and they started to lose their composure. You sensed that the Linnets could move in for the kill and that's exactly what they tried to do.
Holt was replaced by club captain Kyle Hamid and within five minutes of being introduced, Hamid almost stole the headlines.
A shot from Shanley was half blocked and the loose ball arrived at the feet of Hamid only two yards from goal. But huge credit must go to Akrigg, who was once again brave on the goal line to somehow smother the ball and get it away to safety.
While most of us sitting in the stand were starting to accept a point as a valuable return from the night's work, the Linnets on the pitch had no such thought.
They had come to win and would try to leave with nothing but the victory. As the game entered injury time, the Linnets were still applying pressure to the Widnes goal, and it looked from one angle as though we had got a late winner when Mike Simpson played a brilliant one-two with Potter to give himself a sight of goal but Simpson's shot only found the side netting.
In the very last minute of injury time, Widnes managed a rare foray into Linnets territory. Stuart Cook did well to beat a couple of men as he cut into the box from the left wing.
There followed a desperate chain of events – it twice seemed as though Cook might have dribbled the ball out of play but he stayed on his feet, despite a clumsy tackle, to draw a sensational save out of Holmes.
The ball finally rolled in the penalty area where Ben Hodkinson was deemed to have been fouled by Jimmy Moore's attempted sliding block.
The penalty was converted by Hodkinson, despite Holmes getting a hand to it, and Widnes set off to wildly celebrate a massive goal in their short history.
There was still time for a 95th-minute twist as the Linnets launched every one forward straight from the kick off and when Shanley controlled the ball on his chest, he was bundled over from behind by Akrigg in what was an equally strong penalty shout. But this time, nothing was given.
Losses have been rare this season, but in the games we have lost we have generally deserved to be beaten. This game was different.
An even first half was separated by as messy a goal as you will see, and the second half saw a fantastic performance from Linnets who were denied by a combination of goal line clearances, goal posts and outstanding goalkeeping.
As with all defeats, even ones that are tough to swallow, the reaction is what's important now.
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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