11th January 2020, Brighouse Town v Runcorn Linnets FC : 2-0
Runcorn's finest scaled the Pennines for a rare away appearance in yellow and green, the now customary away kit providing a direct clash with Brighouse Town's orange and black.
It would be an interesting fixture for a number of reasons. The first meeting between the two in late November started an impressive sequence of results for Linnets, the first of four straight league wins which had since become six in an unbeaten run of eight. It had catapulted them up the table to pose a threat to the play-off places.
But the 1-0 result at the Millbank told little of the story. The only goal came from a Louis Corrigan penalty after 35 minutes, faced by defender Reece Kendall after 'keeper Jordan Porter had been dismissed for bringing down Paul Shanley in the area, an outcome which we thought had been eliminated by a new 'double jeopardy' law.
Makeshift custodian Kendall went on to play a blinder, and for the 40 minutes that Linnets had a one-man advantage, until Ryan Gibson also received a soft red card, Brighouse were arguably the better side.
A carbon copy of that unusual encounter wouldn't occur today, as neither Porter nor Kendall were present, the former having just been given a three-match ban for his remonstrations with the referee that day at The Millbank.
Today it was Runcorn players who would repeatedly vocalise their displeasure with referee Jamie Rhodes.
There were a number of decisions it would have been interesting to ask him about, including his failure to reduce Brighouse to ten men for the last hour again here.
But in truth, King Solomon could have officiated and Linnets' unbeaten run of eight games would still have come to an end.
Porter's place in goal was taken by newcomer Matt Smith, and the day's most telling fact was that it was the 70th minute before he had anything to do, apart from taking the occasional goal-kick.
The outcome was decided by two goals four minutes apart, interrupted by half-time.
The journey across the M62, requiring a firm two-handed grip on the steering wheel, made it clear we weren't in for demonstration of total football.
A fierce wind from end to end, which eased slightly in the second half to accommodate lashing rain, made precision passing nigh-on impossible, and long balls were either returned to sender or would have outpaced Usain Bolt.
It was the same for both sides, however, and the hosts dealt with the conditions in both directions considerably better than their visitors.
Against the typhoon, an unchanged Linnets line-up from the turnaround victory over Mossley seven days earlier took eight minutes before entering the Brighouse half with the ball, and the most meaningful activity for both sides in the first quarter-hour was debating whose throw-in it was.
It was no problem for Town to get the ball into the Runcorn third, but catching it and doing something with it was a different proposition.
Even short crossfield passes were tricky, drifting behind the target man going up the pitch, and away from his reach down it.
At the same time, a bumpy surface didn't make keeping the ball on the floor an effective proposition.
The first corner of the game was Runcorn's in the 16th minute, after two throw-ins had been defended, but it predictably overshot on the wind.
After several more Brighouse attacks had flown long for goal-kicks, Linnets had the ball near the left corner flag.
Liam Caddick turned inside from the touchline, but despite his being gripped in a full-nelson by debutant right-back Jay Benn, Mr Rhodes saw no foul.
On 24 minutes, he did award a free-kick for Ousman Cham's late tackle on Connor McCarthy. Louis Corrigan curled it into the six-yard box, Town left-back Reece Kendall heading clear as he would do many more times - although he did appear to push McCarthy in the back to get there.
Several more corners found the Brighouse area up to the half-hour mark, but all were met by the heads of Kendall, Beeden and Grant, with no real threat from a man in yellow and green.
In the 32nd minute a controversy arose which would hang over the rest of the match. A crunching tackle on Kyle Hamid inside the Brighouse half could be heard in every corner of the ground, aided by the echoing Pennine acoustics.
The Runcorn skipper required lengthy attention, and it seemed like an age that the surely inevitable red card for Thomas Haigh was awaited.
Captain Kurt Harris was not the only Brighouse player whose pleas for clemency were waved away by Mr Rhodes, but they seemed to have the desired effect.
Not only did he show Haigh yellow, the same punishment was meted out to Runcorn's Scott Lycett for his reaction to the foul.
The incident might be regarded as a turning point, given that ten minutes later eleven-man Brighouse opened the scoring, and Haigh went on to score their second before being voted his team's man of the match.
The rest of the half was spent downwind in Linnets territory, a succession of throw-ins and corners either failing to produce shots on goal, not troubling 'keeper Emery unduly, or running long and wide.
But a minute before half time an apparently clean, ball-winning tackle on Ousman Cham 22 yards from goal was deemed a foul.
Despite Brighouse No10 Shiraz Khan standing illegally in the defensive wall, Reece Kendall despatched an unstoppable free-kick into the top of the net.
There was another Runcorn corner which came to nothing before the break, at which departing Linnets players complained bitterly that Haigh should have left 15 minutes earlier, and that the goal had come from nothing that resembled a foul.
For my own part, I politely enquired of the referee what had happened to this season's law change forbidding attacking players to stand within a yard of the wall. No explanation was forthcoming.
But sour grapes are best employed in making dry white wine. The home side were justifiably ahead.
With the wind behind them, Linnets had the first attack of the second half, Louis Hayes running wide through the left side of the penalty area and trying but failing to gain a deflection for a corner.
Moments later, at the other end, the Runcorn defence was caught making too many passes across their own third. The ball was lost, and two attempts were blocked before Haigh netted from the third, with Emery off his line.
Two minutes later, Benn, Cham and Keita constructed a move that ended with a mishit shot into the side netting.
Growing discontent with Mr Rhodes' decision making earned Connor McCarthy a yellow card, after he had been penalised for pushing when winning a loose ball on the edge of the Town area.
Two rapid substitutions for Brighouse, Boyle for Harris and Rawson for Keita, were followed by the first Linnets change, with Zac Aley on for Tom Owens shortly before the hour.
A few forays forward by the visitors proved as tricky to catch and control as they had for the hosts first half, and young 'keeper Smith was still required only for goal-kick duties.
A pass from Caddick enabled Corrigan to curl a cross into the area, but it flew just too long for Gibson to connect.
Brighouse boss Vinn Powell made his last change on 64 minutes, with Javelle Clarke on for Cham, just before Hayes departed for Alex O'Neill to apply more pressure for Runcorn.
Within a minute he won a corner after a neat pass on the right from McCarthy. Benn headed it clear, but Scott Lycett joined the throng of dissatisfaction with the referee, as he had been shoved face-first five yards across the area in the process.
The sense of injustice was palpable, but it has to be acknowledged that when Matt Smith made his first save of the game, diving bravely at the feet of Ryan Gibson, there were only twenty minutes remaining.
It wasn't his last, however. Two minutes later, a push on Caddick outside the right corner of the penalty area was recognised.
Louis Corrigan's left wand sent the kick exactly where we knew it would, towards the far top corner, but Smith made a fine save to palm it over the bar.
Louis delivered again from the corner, short into the six-yard box, where O'Neill met it perfectly first time; a certain goal if Jay Benn hadn't cemented an excellent debut by diverting it from point-blank range past the post.
For reasons known only to him, Mr Rhodes decided Alex had missed the target, and awarded a goal-kick.
Kurt Sherlock was given the unenviable task of turning around a bad day at the office, replacing Gibson with 12 minutes of normal time remaining. His first touch, after the ball came loose from an unpunished but seemingly deliberate handball by James Hurtley, was a 22-yard curling shot, but Smith saved it calmly.
Linnets hadn't delivered nearly enough quality, and mounting frustration didn't help, but as ever there was no lack of application.
In the 83rd minute, McCarthy chested down a diagonal ball and shot, but it lacked power and bounced off the deck into Smith's hands.
Two minutes later, he shot wide of the left post, after Caddick had trapped a long clearance from Emery and laid it off to him.
Louis Corrigan collected a yellow card for a foul on halfway, and the compliment was returned with a caution for sub Clarke for a two-footed lunge on the Linnets left-back.
It was a rare occasion when a Corrigan free-kick didn't clear the defensive wall, keen as he was to keep it down in the wind.
Added time loomed when the home side should have made it 3-0. A three-man move left sub Rawson with only Emery to beat, but he scuffed it wide of the post.
One last chance for a Linnets consolation left referee Mr Rhodes with a great deal of work to do over the next eleven months, to get back on Connor McCarthy's Christmas card list.
Connor pushed the ball past Kendall into the penalty area and was bodychecked as he pursued it. The man in black decided that was a foul by the Runcorn No9. It was his penultimate intervention before blowing for time.
If the strange decisions had been shared out, it might have been a draw. If they had gone as consistently in the opposite direction, Linnets would probably have secured a seventh win in nine unbeaten games.
That fact calls for a dose of realism. Three games in the run of eight had delivered seven points for a team that couldn't claim to have been better on the day. Others had brought only a narrow win when they had clearly dominated. Swings and roundabouts.
Linnets fans will have cause to complain when a defeat results from a lack of effort or application.
That's something they have yet to see under Ellison and Cross. And one of few causes for celebration on the day was the presence on the bench of Linnets legend Michael Simpson, after a seemingly endless absence through injury and surgery.
His first touch will receive an ovation, even if he gives the ball away.
Next stop Colne, Saturday 18th January, kick-off 3pm, when it is to be hoped it won't be blowing a gale down the mountain.
A repeat of last season's 6-1 triumph would be a nice start to another winning run.
Runcorn Linnets: Michael Emery, Louis Corrigan, Declan Gallagher, Scott Lycett, Ally Brown, Louis Hayes (Alex O'Neill 66), Tom Owens (Zac Aley 57), Kyle Hamid, Connor McCarthy, Liam Caddick, Ryan Gibson (Kurt Sherlock 78). Subs not used: Jack Hinnigan, Michael Simpson.
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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