16th November 2019, Ramsbottom United v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-1
Runcorn Linnets interrupted their busy cup schedule to squeeze in a league game at Ramsbottom United, whose strong home form promised to give their visitors a hard time in search of an elusive away win.
The form book put the smart money on a score draw, and so it transpired.
Unsurprisingly after the rapturous ten-man FA Trophy victory at Prescot Cables four days earlier, manager Michael Ellison selected the same starting line-up, apart from the enforced inclusion of newly-signed goalkeeper Michael Emery, lately of Rylands FC who has played in his native Lincolnshire with Gainsborough Trinity, Boston United and Lincoln United, his last NPL club.
Bayleigh Passant wasn't fully recovered from the arm injury sustained at Marske, and Richie Mottram had missed a week due to expanded paternal duties. Old crowd favourite Matty Holmes had returned to Padiham, after helping out with two superb performances between the sticks against Cables.
After today's events, no-one was left in any doubt that Linnets have another excellent goalkeeper on the books.
Tuesday's side reselected themselves, even if a few cases of exhaustion would have been understandable.
The first half at the Riverside was a very even affair, with possession and pressure swapping from end to end to share out chances that the two defences ensured were rarely of more than the 'half' variety.
The first of them fell to the Rams after a couple of minutes, Nic Evangelinos putting Iyrwah Gooden through wide, but Ally Brown defended calmly.
Shortly afterwards, a double foul on Paul Shanley led to a Warren Bellew free-kick from which Rams' Kelvin Lumsden got there just ahead of Peter Wylie.
Another saw Jack Hinnigan head narrowly over from Zac Aley's cross.
A third chance in as many minutes had Shanley advancing on 'keeper Tom Stewart, who got a toe to the ball to deflect it to safety.
In the tenth minute, a Rams high ball into the penalty area was permitted a little too easily, but Evangelinos headed tamely into the arms of Emery. That started a spell of three or four minutes in which the hosts kept the ball, but a regimented Runcorn back line limited them to traversing the pitch with passes that didn't create any serious openings.
The next Linnets chance, after 14 minutes, came when Rams' centre-half Thompson slipped, leaving Shanley to centre to Jamie Rainford.
Heavily marked, he strove to turn and shoot when a return pass into the box might have been more effective.
Ffve minutes followed in which several Ramsbottom crosses and corners failed to deliver a solid chance, defenders blocking and clearing, or 'keeper Emery gathering confidently.
Midway through the first half Rainford threatened after leaving Thompson and Lugsden in his wake to
find Ryan Gibson just inside the box, but he was dispossessed by Tom Kennedy.
End to end once more, Rams' Reece Fishwick found himself loose at close range, but Emery threw himself into a 50/50 challenge, and won.
On 34 minutes, a header on halfway was missed, allowing Shanley to advance on the Rams' penalty area, but again Lumsden got his head to the cross before Gibson, and cleared.
A minute later, Zac Aley collected the first of the game's two yellow cards (a refreshing change from Tuesday's confetti-fest, when eight yellows were about half of the number deserved), for kicking the ball away after his 'unnatural position' handball. The free kick went straight into Emery's pocket.
The latter stages of the first half continued like tennis. A multiple passing move involving Shanley, Gibson and Owens became a case of 'too many cooks', and immediately afterwards Gooden was set free for the Rams, but blazed over the bar.
Back to the other end, and Shanley in the middle, played it out left to Bellew, who also powerfully cleared the crossbar.
It seemed that a calamitous mistake would be the only thing to break the deadlock. But it wasn't.
Five minutes from the break, Paul Shanley (he was heavily involved yet again, wasn't he?) won the ball out on the right touch line and fired a cross over the penalty spot.
Zac Aley came in from wide left and achieved a perfect blend of accuracy and power to head past the reach of Stewart into the far right corner.
It was very reminiscent of his header that put Linnets clear of Pontefract Collieries a fortnight previously, although trickier this time, as he had to back-track from 12 yards out to 15 to get to it.
One more solid chance for the hosts came when Jamie Rother fired in a good cross to the six-yard box, but Tom Owens headed clear.
If it had been a boxing match, which after Tuesday's events, happily it wasn't, the judges cards would have had it level. The pep talk from Ramsbottom's corner-men made the second half a very different affair.
Runcorn created the first chance of the second half, Rainford out left pulling it back for Bellew to deliver a great cross that was headed away into the path of Tom Owens, but his attempted thunderbolt was mis-hit.
There were precious few Linnets chances worth their name after that. It was a clean game, although it has to be said that Rams had clearly identified Paul Shanley as the danger man, and throughout the second half he was frequently fouled off the ball.
Referee Mr Kelly saw none of them, but that's how 'off the ball' works.
Otherwise, home possession and opportunities characterised the rest of the game.
The Riverside offers the nostalgic spectacle of steam trains rolling through the station behind the end Rams prefer to attack
second half, and based on these 45 minutes, the railway enthusiasts' guides must surely warn of the hazard of footballs bombarding the platforms.
Then again, Nic Evangelinos is a prolific goalscorer, so we should assume it was an off-day.
United dominated possession, leaving the visitors to chase, harry and block, which they did repeatedly as testament to an unquestionable work ethic, to the relief of the travelling fans.
Many balls into the box, by and for Evangelinos and Gooden, were headed clear by Hinnigan, Wylie, Brown and Aley, or were caught or punched by Emery.
Kyle Hamid tackled and tackled again, but there were few avenues available to build anything when the ball was won.
Seven minutes into the half, a scramble in the visitors' area led to penalty shouts for a trip, but Mr Kelly hadn't seen one.
Five minutes on, the other yellow card of the match was presented to Peter Wylie for what looked like an on-the-ball shoulder-to-shoulder challenge.
Perhaps it's another of the many recent law changes that has eluded me.
The ubiquitous Mr Evangelinos delivered the free-kick on to the 4.08 to Manchester Victoria. For ten minutes either side of the hour-mark, I tried to document the shots from Evangelinos, Gooden, Baker and Fishwick that went high and wide at the railway end, but writer's cramp got the better of me.
A rare promising break by Linnets on 63 minutes did see Rainford overlap his marker from three yards behind to run through on goal, but an offside flag was raised.
Perhaps it was for Shanley, but given that he was running back and studiously remaining out of involvement, it must have been another law change I've missed.
With 22 minutes remaining, Evangelinos ran free into the penalty area again, and this time his shot was no more than a foot over the bar. He was getting closer.
Four minutes later, Josh Dobie was introduced for Rainford to beef up the middle and add more height in defence.
Ironically, and through no fault of the Runcorn sub, the change was a prelude to the possibly inevitable. A rare second-half Runcorn break saw Shanley pulled away from a through ball by the arm, but the ref was okay with it, and the clearance put Rams back on the attack.
Eddie Moran chased to the by-line outside the edge of the six-yard box and pulled the ball back smartly to ten yards, where Evangelinos latched on to it and at last hit the target, giving Emery in the Runcorn goal no chance. 1-1.
Linnets introduced Kurt Sherlock for Bellew with six minutes remaining, and despite a number of efforts to win the ball and get it forward to his fresh legs, opportunities were scarce.
In stoppage time, such an attempt by Aley to find Sherlock was intercepted, resulting in another Rams assault, and a 25-yard free-kick.
It led to an almost certain winner from six yards out, but a phenomenal point-blank save by Emery proved to be the final action of the game.
Before kick-off, any team would have to admit that an away point at Ramsbottom is a deal worth considering. At half-time, Michael Ellison, his players and fans would have said 'no deal'. At the final whistle, Linnets had to be far happier with the outcome than the Rams.
Ten days will elapse before a home fixture against Brighouse Town gives Runcorn a chance to amass more points than games played.
In the meantime, Crewe Alexandra (20th November, 7.45pm) and FC United of Manchester (23rd November, 3pm) will slide down the pyramid to The Millbank Stadium to test Linnets' thrilling knock-out form.
Come on down. It's never boring.
Runcorn Linnets: Michael Emery, Zac Aley, Jack Hinnigan, Peter Wylie, Ally Brown, Tom Owens, Ryan Gibson, Kyle Hamid, Jamie Rainford (Josh Dobie 72), Paul Shanley, Warren Bellew (Kurt Sherlock 84). Subs not used: Ryan Wade, Louis Corrigan, Declan McGivern.
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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