14th April 2018, Charnock Richard v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-2
There was plenty of excitement among the Linnets faithful on Saturday afternoon as we made the journey to a venue we have never visited before - Mossie Park, home of Charnock Richard FC.
The importance of this fixture was not lost on any one with Charnock still in the mix for promotion, despite a drop in form of late, and Linnets knowing five victories from their remaining seven games would secure the Hallmark Security Premier Division title.
Charnock Richard is a place known by millions, but inhabited by very few.
The M6 service station of the same name draws in thousands of weary travellers every week, yet the village of Charnock Richard is home to less than 1,750 people, according to the last census.
It holds its football club very dear, however, with average crowds this season of almost 10% of the population!
Mossie Park is a fabulous facility for football at our level. Its seated stand and modular covered terrace behind the goal have a similar look and feel to our own at the Millbank Linnets Stadium.
It has a very tight and cosy feel all around, with excellent catering facilities and ample hot food for a sizeable visiting crowd.
In truth, others at our level could learn a lot from how Charnock host matches.
The pitch was very heavy, following an encounter with 1874 Northwich only 40 hours earlier, coupled with a considerable amount of rain on Thursday night into Friday morning.
Matty Atherton retained his place at centre back after a string of faultless performances as did Adam Jones (in a wide right role), following his good showing at Maine Road.
Freddie Potter led the line with Mark Houghton missing out through injury.
The Linnets would go on to turn in one of their strongest performances of the season, controlling the game from the off and creating plenty of chances while limiting Charnock to hardly anything.
Jones had a great chance to open the scoring early on but shot wide after being set up by Potter.
It didn't take long to pick up on the fact that Charnock's goalkeeper Gavin Bates didn't look fully comfortable – in what was his first game for 14 months – and the Linnets really put him under pressure with a series of crosses and whipped corner kicks.
Freddie Potter had the ball in the net after 20 minutes, but rather blatantly put it there with an outstretched hand. Freddie was booked for his actions, despite his protests that a shove in his back had led to the incident.
Paul Shanley then found himself in a good position but sliced his shot wide.
Potter forced a good save out of the goalkeeper when Kris Holt sent him running through on goal – Potter's fierce shot from a tight angle being palmed over the crossbar.
Linnets got the much deserved breakthrough 10 minutes before half-time.
Adam Jones's cross from the right caused havoc in the Charnock defence, with goalkeeper Bates attempting to knee the ball away from danger, but bundling it straight to Holt, who took a few painstaking touches to steady himself before firing the ball into the corner of the net.
The lead could have been doubled almost immediately as Jones found space on the right to pick out a glorious cross field pass to Shanley, who was charging in at the back post. But the wideman could only direct his shot wide when well placed.
The last chance of the first half almost led to a goal for Matty Atherton as he tried to force home Kyle Hamid's header across the box. But the attempt was somehow cleared from the goal line by the desperate Charnock defence.
It had been an excellent first-half display from the Linnets, who no doubt felt that their dominance had deserved more than just the one goal.
Charnock would have been relieved to still be very much in the game at the break.
The hosts featured more prominently in the second half, having more of the ball than they had previously but still struggling to get any joy from a well-drilled Linnets defence.
They will have been slightly frustrated on one occasion, when working a good opening, that the ball was deflected away from danger by the match referee getting in the way of a cross field pass.
Linnets' Danny O'Brien advanced forward with the ball and let fly with a dipping shot from 25 yards that had Bates beaten but also the goal post.
Adam Jones was replaced by Stu Wellstead with half an hour remaining as Ello looked to get the decisive second goal.
But it was actually Charnock who had the next chance, their only good chance of the afternoon and one they should have done better with.
A counter attack up the right wing had the Linnets slightly stretched and a vicious cross found Jordyn Fitton unmarked for a free header at the back post.
But the Linnets breathed a sigh of relief as the header went well wide.
Within two minutes, Freddie Potter scored the crucial second goal to secure the points for Runcorn.
A surging run forward by Mike Simpson, excellent all afternoon, gave him a yard of space to chip a cross to Paul Shanley at the far post.
Shanley's header across goal beat Bates but rebounded off the foot of the goalpost and fell straight into the path of the onrushing Potter, who made no mistake from a couple of yards out.
Potter was immediately given a rest by Ello, replaced by Mitch Bryant.
Charnock continued to search for an avenue back into the game and Alex Dodd drew a great save from Dylan Forth in the closing stages, the 'keeper getting down low to tip the ball around a post at full stretch.
As the game entered stoppage time, Paul Shanley found himself on the end of an unsporting off-the-ball elbow to the face, an act not consistent with the spirit in which the game had been played up to that point.
The final action saw Matty Atherton perform like an Olympic gymnast to leap across goal and head the ball away from danger with several Charnock bodies in place to convert a chance.
The desire that is shown every game by this team to protect a clean sheet, whatever the margin of advantage, goes a long way towards us being in the position that we now find ourselves.
There's an age old saying in football that attackers win you matches but defences win you...Tell you what, let's come back to that another day!
The final whistle drew some handbags on the pitch, but jubilant scenes among the large travelling Linnets contingent gathered around the tunnel.
The Linnets team were lauded by the supporters for their efforts in one of the biggest tests that we are likely to face in these final few weeks of the season.
The determination on the players' faces as they left the battered playing surface said everything about feelings in the squad as we move into the final furlong.
How things stand....
On a day when nearly every fixture went ahead as planned, one game that will have a big say in the promotion race fell to the weather – 1874 Northwich v Widnes being postponed. From our perspective, this means that the target figure to win the title remains at 99 points as it did prior to kick-off on Saturday.
Put simply, regardless of what anyone else does, we now need 11 points from our remaining 6 games to achieve our ultimate dream.
And we have the chance to reduce that figure further with a rare Monday night home game against Burscough tonight (April 16th), ko 19:45.
Runcorn Linnets: Dylan Forth, Louis Corrigan, Matt Atherton, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Michael Simpson, Kris Holt, Kyle Hamid, Freddie Potter, Paul Shanley, Adam Jones. Subs: Stuart Wellstead, Mitch Bryant. Not used: Aaron Morris, Kieran Nolan, Matt Holmes (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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