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5th October 2019, Pontefract Collieries FC v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-0

It was as well that the Runcorn fans' third expedition across the Pennines in twelve days was unhampered by midweek rush-hour traffic for a change, as the referee decided to kick off early at 2.58pm.

Less fortunately, Runcorn Linnets adhered strictly to the scheduled 3pm start, by which time they were already a goal down.

After an hour and-a-half of huffing and puffing, attempting to pass the ball on a pitch which just wasn't amenable, and a home masterclass in time-wasting, that one completely undefended goal sent Runcorn Linnets back across the M62 with a single point from the Yorkshire Trilogy - that coming from a seven-minute spell of second-half quality at Ossett United four days earlier.

A first away win of the season remained an ambition. Consistency of performance and tactics has been a tough call for manager Michael Ellison so far this season, with injuries and other absences ringing numerous changes from one game to the next.

There were four changes from Tuesday's starting line up, with Jimmy Moore and Connor McCarthy injured and Kurt Sherlock and Ryan Gibson retreating to the bench; Nick Ryan and Jack Hinnigan came into the centre of defence while Ryan Wade and Harry Cannon-Noren started in attacking midfield roles.

Straight from the kick-off Pontefract showed their hand, bearing out what a local had told me.

This gentleman was a veteran of Frickley Athletic's peak era in the Conference, collaring me for a snap history lesson and asking "which Runcorn" this was. He advised me that this Pontefract side were very physical and that, to a man, they like to get the ball to the other end of the pitch as fast and as often as possible.

It was a neat summing up, as by the time the men in orange and black had finished sorting out their sock-ties, the hosts had legged it upfield and had the ball in the net from a snap cross and uncontested header by Vaughan Redford.

The Runcorn backline looked like a Subbuteo team, still in its box.

It wasn't yet 3 o'clock when Linnets kicked off again, but they did so with intent: Aley, Gibson, Rainford and Wade progressed to the Pontefract penalty area to fashion attempts which either missed the target or were dealt with by one-time Polish international Seb Malkowski in the home goal.

It was only eight minutes in when the M62 nomads began to realise is was going to be 'one of those days'. The second of two quick-fire attempts by Wade and Aley to cross the ball into the mixer fell to Ally Brown, three yards out from the centre of the goal. For 27 years people have debated how Liverpool's Ronnie Rosenthal managed to miss from that range at Aston Villa. Ally showed them how, by putting the ball over the bar. A mitigation is that Ronnie had the whole penalty area to himself, while Ally had opposition. Another is that the referee saw an intervention from the boot of a Ponte defender that we didn't, as he awarded a corner.

After a number of corners that failed to find a Runcorn man in a decisive position, the visitors' second best chance came on the half-hour mark, when Kyle Hamid set Ryan Wade free down the left flank.

The No10 slipped the ball inside to Jamie Rainford. It wasn't clear whether it was a pass or a shot thatwas stopped by Ally Brown six yards out with his back to goal, but his back-heeled attempt coincidedwith an offside flag anyway.

At Ossett, Linnets had struggled to succeed in the first half because airborne balls forward were repeatedly soaked up with ease by a statuesque defence. There was a similar pattern emerging here, as every 50-50 challenge in the air was won with ease by Ponte's bigger defenders, but there was more excuse this time, as all attempts to execute passing moves to feet were thwarted by the pitch.

A twenty-yard pass along the ground typically changed direction ten times and bounced a foot high another ten.

The 1-1 draw between these sides in the season's opener made it clear that the Pontefract way is to win the ball hard and get it in the air, bypassing the pitch as much as possible, and it was easy to see why.

Despite the fact that this Colls side featured numerous changes from that draw at The Millbank, the style was much the same. It is standing them in good stead at home, with a 100% record that remained intact.

Despite putting together attacks that yielded attempts on goal, the whole game was characterised by Pontefract winning almost every 50/50 challenge to launch (literally) another attack, and almost every contested ball left the Runcorn faithful agreeing that the hosts appeared to 'want it more'.

The notable exception was captain Kyle Hamid, who matched Ponte's ferocity in every tackle. It was a fact not lost on the Pontefract bench, who screamed for his head every time he competed for the ball. Having received a yellow card on 56 minutes for a robust ground-level challenge (in which he won the ball), Hamid was subbed for Kurt Sherlock with ten minutes remaining.

As in the frankly bizarre 4-4 draw at Clitheroe, where four goals were timed later than 86 minutes, Linnets' management acknowledged that the game plan wasn't working, with two changes at half-time. Tom Owens and Ryan Gibson replaced Nick Ryan and Harry Cannon-Noren.

In truth it didn't change things much, although the Runcorn defence and 'keeper Passant did get in the way of most of Ponte's attempts on goal, even if they did continue to leave the advancing men in blue acres of space to try again.

The same was not the case at the other end, where no Runcorn man was given an inch or a second on the ball.

Ponte left-back Connor Smythe was voted man of the match, from a shortlist including Clarke, Redford and Williams, but centre-half Jake Picton should feel hard done by. He won every ball that came his way, and again and again launched another attack with head or boot.

If the Pontefract No5 made a mistake, I didn't see it. What I did see, however, a minute into the second half, was a handball a yard inside the corner of the Pontefract area.

The man in black saw it a yard outside, though, and the consequent free-kick came to nothing. The day's main refereeing conundrum came with 15 minutes to go. Winning the ball in his own penalty area and advancing, Louis Corrigan was upended from behind by Redford, who earned a yellow card for his trouble. In the ensuing recriminations, Redford dropped to the floor holding his face.

So it's either a red card for whoever is supposed to have butted him, or a second yellow for simulation. Apparently, it was neither. Let's not kid ourselves that VAR would have been any the wiser.

The final contentious decision came with two minutes remaining. Ryan Wade was chased by two defenders to the by-line inside the left edge of the penalty area, and as he shaped to cross, he went down under a last-ditch challenge, drawing screams for a penalty. Wade was booked for diving.

From five yards away, I can confirm there was contact, but for the time being at least, football remains a contact sport, and long may it do so.

I was hoping for the cross. That said, Ponte keeper Seb Malkowski reckoned he should have been facing a penalty kick. For the record, Seb took a fair amount of barracking throughout from the cross-Pennine wanderers, and I salute him. He's a nice man.

As time wore on, the imperative for the home team was to maintain their one-goal lead and thereby take 12 points from four home games. It comes as no surprise to see any team lack urgency when defending a slender lead, but the last quarter of the match produced the most extraordinary display of tactical time-wasting this reporter has ever seen, although the only time the referee objected was in awarding a yellow card to Williams for picking up the ball on the touch line before a Runcorn throw-in, and lobbing it over the perimeter fence.

That tactic provided a novel twist on the several occasions where Runcorn throw-ins and free-kicks were delayed by Pontefract players picking up the ball and carrying it away 20 yards or more before dropping it, all without punishment.

We know what late substitutions are about, of course. The new 'nearest point of exit' rule is an attempt to solve the problem, but its efficacy is limited. Instead of substituting the player nearest to a corner flag on the opposite side of the pitch, you now replace the one nearest to the centre spot. He then tiptoes off the pitch like an arthritic centenarian with his slippers full of broken glass.

Before this begins to resemble the bitterest of sour grapes, it has to be said that this marginal 1-0 result could easily have finished 4-4, and therefore could also have been 4-1 either way. And if you hate the opposition wasting time, the solution is to score more goals than them well before the clock ticks down.

Football is ultimately a simple game. Put the ball in the net in front of you, and keep it out of the one behind. Sounds easy, doesn't it?

The principle will be applied next at Trafford in the FA Trophy on Saturday 12th October. Kick-off 3pm, or thereabouts.

Runcorn Linnets: Bailey Passant, Louis Corrigan, Jack Hinnigan, Nick Ryan (Tom Owens 45), Declan McGivern, Ally Brown, Zac Aley, Kyle Hamid (Kurt Sherlock 79), Jamie Rainford, Ryan Wade, Harry Cannon-Noren (Ryan Gibson 45). Subs not used: Josh Dobie, Warren Bellew.

Attendance: 207

Report - David 'Bill' Davies



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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