30th November 2019, Widnes v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-2
The Linnets paid their bridge tolls (hopefully) for the shortest of all away trips, to the Halton Stadium to take on Widnes.
Despite being rivals for only two previous seasons, it is a fixture that already has history, and more than just local derby significance.
In five previous meetings, including last year's pre-season Reusch Cup, Runcorn's only victory was by 1-0 on mud and in fog at Barnton last Boxing Day, while Widnes waited at length for the artificial pitch at Widnes Vikings' RL stadium to be replaced.
At first sight, the new surface seemed much more appropriate for football, looking far less like shag pile carpet than the old one.
And so it proved, the ball running and bouncing far more predictably, even if it did spin rather when stopped. It would do nicely as a venue for Linnets' first away league win of the season.
The Runcorn starting lineup was unchanged from the 1-0 home win over Brighouse Town in midweek. On the bench, Declan Gallagher returned to the fold from Ashton Athletic, after a couple of appearances in yellow and green last season.
Early exchanges included a thwarted attempt by Paul Shanley to progress and cross out left, and at the other end Ben Hodkinson finding enough space for an innocuous shot from 20 yards, held comfortably by Michael Emery.
After five minutes, Shanley required attention after being felled in the centre circle. As is so often the case for the Runcorn danger man, a pattern was set.
Four yellow cards for the hosts were shared out between opponents, who couldn't get the ball from either him or Ryan Gibson, so took the man instead, and many more times than four.
During the first quarter-hour, the visitors were controlling and using the ball more effectively on the unfamiliar surface than the men who are used to it. Widnes possession was failing to break through a well-regimented defence that limited them to hopeful attempts from distance or from out wide that Emery fielded with ease.
But the longest dig at goal in the game came from Linnets left-back Louis Corrigan, who spotted Widnes 'keeper Aiden Stone out of position and floated it from the halfway line, a yard wide of the right post.
On target, and Stone might well have been in trouble. A minute later Shanley knocked it down from ten yards out for Liam Caddick, who couldn't get a grip on his shot.
Ryan Gibson was a thorn in Widnes sides from the off, and his recent vibrant form made it all the more irritating for Linnets fans that he has a ban coming for the soft red card he was shown against Brighouse.
Sam Heathcote collected a yellow for tripping him outside the corner of the box on 13 minutes, Corrigan's free-kick to the near post being headed away for Lewis McKinney to pick it up.
He too was bundled over, but no free-kick.
Shortly after, the magnificently-named Widnes No9 Anointed Chukwu was almost free in the Runcorn area, with Emery coming off his line, but Corrigan and Hinnigan dealt with the danger and cleared. Shanley picked it up and put Gibson through to score at the other end, but he was whistled offside
before he put it away.
Two minutes later, though, it was advantage Linnets. Shanley came into the box from the left, a neat one-two with Caddick splitting four defenders and giving Shan an easy finish from close range.
Widnes aimed to level almost from the restart, a cross from the right by Runcorn old boy Jay Roberts headed out by Peter Wylie, with Hodkinson's follow-up overhead kick gathered by Emery.
End-to-end efforts continued. Ryan Gibson's long range shot was blocked when a more patient option might have been more effective, and a loose pass by Corrigan permitted an exchange between Michael Grogan and James Murray which ended with Grogan shooting wide.
Widnes were achieving some possession and pressing mid-half, without crucially penetrating the defence, and it brought their first corner on 27 minutes.
Kyle Hamid headed to safety for another, which Emery plucked out of the air in a crowded area.
On the half-hour, after a Runcorn throw-in on the left, Shanley was brought down again, but referee Mr Storey saw no foul. He did see one the other way moments later when Grogan went down holding his ankle, but the hopeful long free-kick again fell straight into the hands of Emery.
Just afterwards, a tidy one-two between Roberts and George Webster by the right corner flag came from a throw-in, but Webster received the return in an offside position.
Then a push in the back on Shanley, far from the first but the first to be penalised, saw a Corrigan free-kick from 35 yards curled across the penalty area. It was missed b everyone, until Shanley and McKinney both had pokes towards goal blocked, with Stone looking nervous.
The move of the half came late on, with Gibson running 50 yards diagonally with the ball from inside his own half and slipping it back to Corrigan, whose first-time ball looped long over to the right for Shanley to pick up and close in on the area, where he was tackled well by Shaun Holden.
Classically in a local derby, neither side enjoyed long periods of consistent possession, but Runcorn's advances had a sharper, more threatening look about them.
The hosts' forays were more stately, made side to side from deep, limited by a Linnets defence closing down quickly and covering each other efficiently to limit the efforts of Hodkinson and Chukwu to break through.
And with the ball in the air, Anointed's considerable height advantage was nullified by determined aerial challenges by Wylie, Hinnigan and even Hamid, who stared Chukwu squarely in the ribs and refused to let him pass.
After the break, Widnes set out to have more of the ball and take it into the Runcorn third, but there was still no usable space permitted by their opponents.
An early WIdnes penalty shout for a perfectly- timed tackle by Wylie was ignored, but a free-kick was awarded to the hosts for a 50-50 challenge in which Runcorn's Ally Brown was injured. Roberts' kick was wasted by a clear offside.
Ten minutes into the second half, another great diagonal run by Gibson from inside his own half was played to Shanley, who headed on for the No11 to play it through to Caddick in the area. But it was Gibson himself who ran on to collect it in the box and shoot.
It was deflected out for a corner, but MrStorey awarded a goal-kick, despite the fact that if defender Ventre hadn't blocked it, it would have been a goal.
The Linnets fans' adherence to the Respect campaign was tested again a minute later when Shanley won the ball just inside the Widnes half and had both legs scythed from under him by centre-half Danny Shaw.
The yellow card must have left Shaw wondering what he would have to do to secure a red.
The free-kick was launched into the area and headed sky-high by Heathcote, a foul on 'keeper Stone being called as soon as he came out to challenge for it.
On the hour mark, Widnes replaced Grogan with James Steele. It took the substitute three minutes to see a yellow card, for a blatant trip on Gibson as he set off once more towards the Widnes box.
The booking was the least of his punishment, as it resulted in a Louis Corrigan free-kick from 25 yards.
We all knew what he was going to do, including Widnes No1 Stone. Stopping him from thrashing it into the top left bin is another matter though, and Linnets had a well-deserved 2-0 lead.
Two minutes later, Widnes had a half chance to halve the deficit. A long ball bisected the Runcorn penalty area, and for the first time in his three-game Linnets career, Emery fumbled it.
Breath was held as it crept wide of the left post. The custodian resumed normal service when he grabbed the ball out of the air from the resulting corner.
Back at the other end, and a slick three- man move involving Brown, McKinney and Shanley was intercepted before Shanley could shoot, just before Sam Sheen replaced Daniel Ventre for Widnes, and the visitors attacked again.
Gibson put Shanley through, but a well- timed tackle dispossessed him.
It ran to Stone, who gathered it just behind the line. The assistant flagged for a corner, but Mr Storey insisted on a goal-kick.
With 15 minutes remaining a Sheen free-kick from inside the left touchline was floated too high for Chukwu to get his head to it. That's high.
Connor McCarthy replaced McKinney straight afterwards and was thrown into a dedicated forward role. There would be no bus-parking from the visitors.
Their hosts' strategy for combatting Shanley remained consistent, both legs being taken away from him again, bringing a yellow card for Webster.
Zac Aley came on for Liam Caddick with ten minutes remaining, and this was no defensive move by manager Michael Ellison.
Aley was involved in a number of swift Runcorn attacks, and from his introduction he was keen to add to his recent tally of headed goals.
From a cleared corner, Ally Brown flicked on to Shanley, who crossed for Aley to head powerfully, but straight at the 'keeper.
Attack remained the best form of defence for Runcorn, but chances on the break are always likely to result.
Time was ticking away when a ball from halfway found Hodkinson 18 yards out, marked by Brown. The Widnes No10 chested it down well and turned his man, firing cleanly into the bottom right corner and giving Emery no chance.
We weren't told how much time had been added, which made it a bit more tense for Linnets fans who remembered their last visit to Halton Stadium, when a 2-1 reverse in March 2018 added nerves to the Runcorn NW Counties title chase, and was ultimately instrumental in Widnes also being promoted to the NPL as runners-up.
In a game Widnes player-manager and former Linnets striker Kev Towey described as "winning ugly", a late penalty winner had been followed immediately by a two-man foul on Paul Shanley (who else?) in the other box, which the referee had deemed fair enough.
Runcorn players and fans alike had on that occasion trudged across the car park shaking their heads and wondering just how they were going home without points.
Added time on this visit was largely a siege at the Widnes end, including four fouls in as many seconds on Shanley finally resulting in a free-kick on the touchline, played short to keep possession.
Not content with shielding the ball at the corner flag, he slipped it through to Gibson, who weaved into the six-yard box and had his shot deflected for another corner.
There was one more nail-biter at the other end, a long ball into the box headed on goal by Steele, but Emery had it covered and stood upright to let it clear the post. And it was over.
Linnets might feel the game had brought an end to the 'Halton Hoodoo', with just desserts from arguably the most complete performance of the season. If it was, it eclipsed the 3-0 FA Trophy win at Trafford, and the same scoreline here would have been no injustice.
After consecutive league wins, it also gave the table a more relaxed appearance, before the 'weather-permitting' trek up the M6 to Kendal next Saturday.
Before that, Linnets are in action on Tuesday, with a much-belated home Integro Cup tie against Leek Town, switched from Leek's ground after two postponements at their behest.
If that brings a third straight win, the Halton derby saga will reconvene a week later, the winners hosting Widnes in the second round on December 10th.
The chance to beat Widnes at The Millbank for the first time would provide extra incentive against the visitors from Staffordshire.
Runcorn Linnets: Michael Emery, Louis Corrigan, Jack Hinnigan, Peter Wylie, Ally Brown, Louis Hayes, Liam Caddick (Zac Aley 80), Kyle Hamid, Paul Shanley, Lewis McKinney (Connor McCarthy 76), Ryan Gibson. Subs not used: Declan Gallagher, Reece Gaskell, Alex O'Neill.
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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