19th December 2020, Runcorn Linnets FC v Widnes : 0-1
Runcorn Linnets returned to Pitching In Northern Premier League action after 'Lockdown 2: The Revenge' with a humdinger of a North West Division fixture against nearest local rivals Widnes FC.
It was far from a humdinger of a game, though, and it ended with Widnes continuing to be a bogey side for Linnets at The Millbank.
No game is ever boring to anyone who is invested in it, but any neutral watching this one would be unlikely to keep it engraved on their memory for longer than it would take to get home.
If it had been a boxing match, the judges would have be praying for a sucker-punch to decide it, to save them the onerous task of picking a winner.
On this occasion they got their sucker-punch, as the Linnets rearguard assumed a needlessly conceded free-kick was flying wide, despite the fact that it had a fierce wind bending it goalwards.
The formbook had suggested a home win, 6th versus 16th, with Linnets unbeaten in the league, yet to finish a game scoreless, and threatening the play-off zone.
Widnes had amassed 5pts from seven games and a solitary victory, 1-0 at home to Mossley.
The first few minutes of the game hinted at the formbook being right, with three solid Linnets openings in the first five minutes. Stuart Crilly shot wide from a Murray through ball; Ryan Brooke was offside when he shot following a James Short throw-in, and from Craig Lindfield's free-kick, after he was pushed in the back, Alex Downes' header was deflected for a corner by former Runcorn stalwart Mike Burke.
Widnes then seemed to get the knack of stemming Runcorn advances in possession through tight marking and fast closing down, and put together an offensive spell of their own.
Right-back Jay Roberts, another former Linnet, turned Short to cut in from the right, his shot being nodded out for a corner, which was fielded by Paddy Wharton.
Banister turned inside from the left and shot over, and a promising Ryan Jennings advance ended with a Jacques Welsh tackle and clearance.
A six-man crossfield passing sequence created an opening for James Steele to shoot, but Wharton saved low and cleared.
That created Runcorn's first chance in almost ten minutes, Iwan Murray's shot flying wide.
Remaining chances up to the 30-minute mark barely qualified for the description 'half'.
A shoulder charge in possession enabled Brooke to set up Crilly in the area, but Burke dispossessed him at the second attempt. Then Holden and Banister combined for the latter to beat Spellman to deliver a cross which was deflected for a corner, cleared by Downes.
A cold wind, behind Linnets in the first half, was making control tricky, and rendered attacking harder than defending. Neither side looked their sharpest.
Ten minutes from the break, Brooke did well on the left edge of the area to resist risky hands-on attention from Hampson, and his cross fed a snappy backheel by the industrious Crilly, but it was blocked at close quarters by a defensive boot.
Then a Runcorn corner from the left led to another on the right from a headed duel between Downes and Burke. That was cleared, the counter attack bringing a corner at the other end, the ball ultimately being played low and evading everybody in a crowded 18-yard box.
The catalogue of corners continued to the half-time whistle, without any real threat.
Terry in the Widnes goal fumbled in the air to concede the last. He gathered Linny's in-swinger with far greater assurance.
The first half saw little of Linnets' characteristic quick passing game. The wind might be offered as an excuse, with the belief perhaps being that playing nto it in the second half should make holding the ball up easier.
In the event there wasn't much difference after half-time, which suggests that Widnes' tight defensive attentions had more to do with Runcorn frustration than the elements did.
Corners continued to be the order of the day, Murray winning the first after the break, off Holden, with Downes left prostrate for a while after an accidental clash of heads at the far post.
Widnes enjoyed a rare spate of attacking threat from open play. Sambor headed wide from Banister's cross, and then Wharton pulled off a great diving save from what looked like an easy tap-in for Steele.
Murray and Short combined up the Linnets left in reply, but Williams hooked clear with confidence.
And then a neat flick by Lindfield into the six-yard box found Brooke, who was strangely judged offside despite two defenders preventing him from turning on goal.
Just before the hour mark, Murray picked up the ball outside the penalty arc and beat four men by moving sideways before advancing on the goal line.
Jay Roberts 'shielded' the ball out for a goal-kick by backing into Iwan over a good ten yards. I looked up The Laws of Association Football yet again afterwards, to check if 'obstruction' is still mentioned. It is, but I still can't remember the last time I saw it enforced.
The first substitution of the game brought an end to an enterprising and hardworking, if frustrated, performance by Stuart Crilly.
Cain Noble came on to try to crack a defensive showing by Widnes that belied their league record to date. But Linnets fans know it's in their DNA to frustrate the men in yellow and green.
Three subs in white and black appeared over an eight-minute period, as Holden, Jennings and Williams called it a day, replaced by Jack Hatton, Michael Conlon, and their ultimate ex-Linnet, Super' Kev Towey - Widnes' co-manager and former Millbank goal-getter.
Before that bout of musical chairs, Iwan Murray and Fisnik Hajdari had both faced referee Liam Corrigan's yellow flexible friend, for what Widnes FC's live Twitter feed justifiably described as 'handbags'.
As the game entered its last ten minutes, Widnes looked ominously more assured, but neutral observers would surely have felt they were witnessing a goalless draw, however many minutes might be added.
The visitors were achieving a barrage of corners and throw-ins in the Runcorn third, but the home team's defensive efforts prevented any of them from producing any gilt-edged chances.
Opportunities at the other end were limited to long-range efforts on the break. Murray wrestled the ball away from Conlon to set up Brooke for a 20-yard shot (Linnets' first for a while). This cleared the right-hand angle of post and bar.
A well-timed Hatton tackle on Welsh wide on the right produced a throw-in from which Short sent a 30-yard drive flying still higher and wider.
Widnes co-boss Towey showed his determination to thwart his former club by earning a yellow card for the use of a forearm to block Linnets skipper Wylie.
Runcorn efforts to break the deadlock were mostly limited to uncharacteristic long balls from the back up either flank. Into a fierce wind, they were surprisingly running too long, conceding throw-ins.
Three normal minutes remained when Banister forged an attack wide left, Spellman resisting his attempts to cross, and a needless trip off the ball gave Widnes a free-kick at the corner of the penalty area.
Banister took the kick, which swerved on the wind towards the far post. The Linnets defence was rooted, waiting for the ball to fly wide. Hampson was unmarked at the far post, and it was initially assumed he had poked it home, but the decisive goal was Banister's, glancing in off the upright.
The home side had five added minutes to preserve their unbeaten league record, and to prevent a fourth straight Widnes victory at The Millbank. But the visitors' application in defence was unlikely to buckle now, and the only remaining chance came from a free-kick wide right.
Terry missed his punch, and Noble's on-target back-flick was headed off the line by Roberts.
Banister had the chance to bag a brace when he cut inside and shot, but Paddy saved well.
Widnes' rejoicing at the final whistle reflected how much it means to them to beat the neighbours, again - possibly more than achieving only a second victory of the season, and their first away from
The recent pattern in Halton derbies seems to be an away win. Linnets fans will have to wait until April, Covid permitting, to see if the trend continues.
Next stop for the Runcorn faithful is another local derby at Prescot Cables on Boxing Day, with yet more former Linnets among the opposition.
Runcorn Linnets: Paddy Wharton, Carl Spellman, James Short, Louis Hayes, Peter Wylie, Alex Downes, Craig Lindfield, Jacques Welsh, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, Stuart Crilly (Cain Noble 60). Subs not used: Scott Lycett, Adam Barthram, Oladapo Olarewaju.
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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