3rd December 2019, Runcorn Linnets FC v Leek Town : 0-1
At long last Runcorn Linnets got to face Leek Town in the Integro Cup.
Originally scheduled in the balmy days of mid-September, the tie was postponed due to Leek's involvement in the FA Cup.
That shows how long ago it was, now being played the day after the Premier League big boys joined in with the draw for the Third Round proper.
After a second postponement, the game had at Leek's request been switched to The Millbank.
One consolation after an underwhelming night's football in the freezing cold was, as one Linnets fan who shall remain nameless remarked: "At least we haven't got to drive home from Leek".
Oh, alright, it was me.
It was never a terrible game, but I have to admit that when I sat down to document it, I was put in mind of a business client of mine some years ago, who stood up to address a conference audience at the end of a long day of presentations.
He said: "At this point I can't help feeling a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor's eighth husband. I know what to do, but I'm not sure how interesting I can make it for you."
Unsurprisingly for a third game in eight days, in the cup, there were six changes from the unchanged side that had started league victories over Brighouse Town and Widnes, including midfield debutants Reece Gaskell and Alex O'Neill, and Declan Gallagher in the centre of defence with Declan McGivern, after two cameo appearances as a sub last season.
Add in very recent recruits Liam Caddick and Louis Hayes, and the performance in a goalless first half will have pleased manager Michael Ellison, as unfamiliar teammates played some neat, cohesive football.
Accrington Stanley loanee O'Neill was probably man of the match up to the break, strong in the tackle, invariably winning the ball, and passing and moving sharply in conjunction with Aley and Brown on both flanks, and Caddick, Hayes and McCarthy in the middle.
Alex's red hair was far from the only parallel that might be drawn with a young Paul Scholes.
It might be expected that such a new lineup would take a half a game to find their collective feet, but ironically it was after the break that the home side somewhat lost its way in a very even game, allowing their opponents to take greater control and forge more threatening advances.
The first few attacks of the game came from the hosts. Gaskell beat Leek No7 Chris Baker near the left corner flag and found McGivern in the area, but he skewed wide, and after Baker dispossessed had McCarthy in the box wide left, Connor won it back to cross, but only 'keeper Danny Roberts was there.
On the break at the other end, Aaron Bott found the space for a close-range shot, but Ally Brown threw himself in the way.
During the first 15 minutes the pace was frantic, advisable in the bitter cold, with frost forming in the less travelled corners of the pitch, and O'Neill was keeping himself warmer than anyone, involved in everything Linnets attempted.
A quick passing move across field involving him, Aley, Hayes,McCarthy and Caddick was lost in the penalty arc, and an eight-touch move among Corrigan, Hayes
and Caddick ended with centre-backs Bavanganga and Agbozo intercepting and clearing.
After Baker and Harry Goode were similarly thwarted out right by Corrigan at the other end, a clever flick over the Leek defence by McCarthy was run on to by Zac Aley.
Amid unrewarded shouts for offside (because he wasn't), his attempt to prod it beyond Roberts shaded past the left post.
Back upfield again, Jacob Twyford crossed from the left for Charlie Walford at the far post, in space, but as he turned to shoot, Louis Corrigan got there first.
That pattern continued throughout the first half, enterprising quick-passing moves failing to produce really solid chances, with defenders on both sides spoiling the party.
O'Neill showed his quality again as Bavanganga made four unsuccessful attempts to tackle him inside the left flank of the penalty area, but his short-range cross was cleared.
Caddick laid off for Hayes to shoot from 18 yards, but Agbozo did enough to force him to fire over the bar.
Approaching the half hour, there were three Leek attempts to get a sight on goal in the Runcorn area, involving Goode, Walford, Baker and Bott, but they couldn't turn Corrigan or slip either Declan sufficiently to attract more than the easiest of catches by Michael Emery.
Then Ally Brown managed two bites to cross from the right by-line, on to Caddick, then O'Neill, who was closed down quickly by Roberts for his attempt to shave the outside of the left post.
Moments later, it was Caddick's turn to trouble the 'keeper, the ball flicked through to him by O'Neill, but Roberts came out quickly and bravely to save at his feet.
In between those two nearish things, a Leek corner came to nothing. Cleared by the head of McGivern, it came to Robert Stevenson on the left, his cross also being headed away to the other side of the area, from where Twyford blazed high and wide.
Both sides had carved out chances first half, and Runcorn had probably more of the clearer ones, but both defences had run the show, and 0-0 at the break was no surprise.
Despite an enforced change by Leek seven minutes previously, with Reeves replacing Baker, referee Liam Corrigan added precisely no minutes at the end of the half.
A warming brew was a more attractive proposition than staying outside for even another thirty seconds.
Linnets started the second half with Lewis McKinney on for Connor McCarthy, with Liam Caddick pushed further forward, but it spoke volumes for the half that Liam was called into action far less than in the first.
The visitors started to see far more possession and to mount more attacks, and the home defence did back away more and allow some space.
Bavanganga played a diagonal through ball for Bott whose header went straight to Emery, and, moments later, the No9 laid it off right for Twyford and Stevenson, who managed to get in each other's way and lose it to Corrigan.
The first Runcorn chance of the half, among not many, came when Brown and O'Neill combined to find Hayes 25 yards out, but his powerful dig flew a yard wide.
From the goal-kick, Stevenson took the ball out left and ran, and ran, and ran, to just outside the area on the left, where Ally Brown fouled him.
It seemed strange to witness a free-kick, as the ref had had almost nothing to do for nearly an hour.
The kick was taken short, for Walford to unleash a shot which just missed the far corner flag.
It seemed that a goal of the season was not on the cards.
Mr Corrigan (Liam the referee that is, not Louis the home left back) did have a job to do two minutes later, but didn't fancy it, when neat work by O'Neill, Caddick and McKinney produced a ball into the area for Aley to head from six yards out.
He didn't get there due to a two-handed shove in the back, but right in line with the incident and 15 yards away, the referee saw no infringement.
After 64 minutes Reece Gaskell gave way for Peter Wylie, who took on a ball-winning role further forward than usual, and it did aid McKinney in seeing more of the ball from the right, where most of the second half was conducted.
He took on defenders and strove to find Caddick, increasingly alone upfront, and O'Neill battled on to win and use the ball. But as the half wore on, balls won in midfield by Linnets or brought forward from the back too often ended with stray passes to the men in blue, who were showing more attacking threat than their hosts.
Brown, Corrigan and the Declans continued to get in the way more often than not, but it resulted in a growing number of corner kicks at the bottom end of the ground.
It was the 85th minute when Runcorn had their first corner of the game, which spoke volumes for the balance of play in the second half.
And it came ten minutes after the decisive one for Leek. It was poorly defended as it reached the middle of the penalty area, and Leek players had three free stabs at it, only the first two of which were blocked, before Twyford found the bottom right corner.
There were 14 minutes left, but the remark to my right, that it was "one of those games where one goal is good enough", was both prophetic and hard to dispute.
A couple of rapid diagonal balls through the area proved too slick for McKinney and Caddick, and in three minutes of added time, mostly for separate late substitutions made for the sole purpose of winding down the clock (I wonder if Twyford has left the pitch yet), there was no further threat.
A penalty shoot-out finale, at which Linnets proved themselves highly adept last season, would have been a get-out-of-jail card.
It wasn't a night to remember for the 151 souls who braved the cold, but the biggest disappointment for the Runcorn faithful would be missing out on the opportunity to beat Widnes for the second time in ten days, in the next round.
So it would be up and down the M6 on Saturday, 7th December, in search of a third straight league win, kick-off (at Kendal Town) at 3pm.
Runcorn Linnets: Michael Emery, Louis Corrigan, Declan Gallagher, Declan McGivern, Ally Brown, Louis Hayes, Liam Caddick, Reece Gaskell (Peter Wylie 64), Connor McCarthy (Lewis McKinney 45), Alex O'Neill, Zac Aley. Subs not used: Paul Shanley, Kyle Hamid, Jack Hinnigan.
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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