26th December 2020, Prescot Cables v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-1
A second festive season local derby in eight days saw Runcorn Linnets make the short journey in The Northern Premier League North West Division to the Volair Stadium, determined to bounce back from the disappointment of conceding a late only goal at home to Widnes.
Boxing Day derbies tend to be tight, attritional affairs rather than exhibitions of expansive, free-flowing football. This one would be no exception, and the outcome was decided by an Iwan Murray goal midway through the first half.
It also changed the shape of the game, in which Prescot had built a few more meaningful attacks and denied the visitors much telling possession. After the goal, Linnets gained confidence and looked the more likely side for the last hour plus.
There was shuffling in the Linnets line-up that had suggested a change of formation, but there was more familiarity to it than expected as Alex Downes played as left centre-back despite wearing the No2 shirt.
Adam Barthram's excellent performance was executed mostly forward left, with James Short in the attacking left-back berth behind him, despite their numbers suggesting vice versa.
It was Boxing Day oranges versus lemons, as the Linnets away kit was deemed to clash less with Prescot's all-yellow than their green-and-yellow ensemble would have done.
Early exchanges promised a niggly encounter, Louis Hayes requiring attention after a foul inside his own half on three minutes.
There were many free-kicks for fouls throughout the first half, but in truth referee Mark Ryder seemed inclined to award them for what often appeared to be firm but fair 50/50 tackles both ways.
Clear-cut chances were few. Barthram beat two men cutting in from the left, his cross cleared by McCulloch, and Scott Lycett frustrated a similar chance for Lloyd Dean at the other end.
A risky adventure towards the corner by Paddy Wharton to challenge former Linnet Liam Caddick allowed a cross which Peter Wylie had to lift clear of his own bar.
Then, in a crowded Prescot area, McCulloch's attempted clearance flew vertically in a stiff wind and was met by the head of Ryan Brooke, but he couldn't turn it into serious danger.
A period of scrappy challenges in the middle third prevented much threat either way, but vocal appeals after many of them resulted in cheap Prescot free-kicks, all subsequently repelled by the hard work of defenders Wylie, Lycett and Downes.
Up to the 20-minute mark, a neat through ball into the area by Tom McCready found Murray narrowly offside, and one of those 'soft' free-kicks was launched by Prescot's Aaron Fleming into the area from 35 yards.
Three Prescot players went to ground, all appealing for penalties, but the verdict was a goal-kick.
When Runcorn had possession they were unable to string passes together, and lost too many 50/50s, especially up the left flank, where most opportunities were occurring.
Barthram did get into the area from a Short pass, but Hulley marshalled him to the goal-line for a goal-kick, and McCready again slipped a diagonal ball towards the penalty spot, but this time Brooke was offside.
On 25 minutes, Craig Lindfield was sandwiched on the right touchline. The free-kick was played short between him and Hayes, and the opportunity seemed wasted before an intervening tackle ricocheted to give 'Linny' another go down the right.
His cross was headed out of a crowded penalty area, where Iwan Murray unleashed a shot from 19 yards that diverted off centre-half Ben Cartwright and into the net.
It was Linnets' first completed attempt on goal, not that there had been anything fitting the description at the other end either.
A minute later, Runcorn followers' breath was held after an altercation near the corner flag when Wharton again wandered rapidly wide to thwart Michael Monaghan chasing a long ball wide left.
Wharton got there first to concede a throw-in, and was felled late by his opponent, who went down as if butted or punched.
From a distance, under recently-ignited floodlights, it was impossible to tell what had actually happened, but Mr Ryder's cards stayed in his pocket, suggesting Paddy's anger hadn't got the better of him.
It was a few minutes later that the first card did appear, Louis Hayes on the receiving end for an admittedly ball-winning tackle from behind in the centre circle on Monaghan.
The lead was enabling the visitors to spend a little more time on the ball and build passing moves.
Seven minutes from the break, the best by far inolved twelve touches, starting on the left with Short, Barthram, Hayes and Murray, spreading right to Lindfield, who put McCready through into the area.
But it ran a little too fast for Tom, who was becoming an increasingly sharp thorn in Prescot sides in the middle of the pitch.
Two minutes later, a Lindfield cross found Barthram's head, but the close attentions of Cartwright prevented sufficient power for it to trouble Allen.
It was all Linnets now, and three minutes from half-time Iwan Murray was presented with the chance for an action replay of his goal.
McCready found Short, who from the left fed Barthram inside the area.
He pulled it back for Iwan to drive from 18 yards, but McCulloch got in the way of the piledriver.
There were vocal appeals on and off the pitch for handball, but if the Prescot captain had deliberately used an arm, he had displayed far more impressive reflexes then I have ever seen across a number of outings.
There was time for one more chance before the break, and again it fell to the visitors. A triangular move wide left between Brooke, Barthram and Short enabled the latter a chance to cross, but he sliced it out under pressure from Hulley.
After a scrappy start with neither side giving a yard in an icy gusting wind, Linnets had taken control once they went ahead, with Cables unable to build attacks up the flanks as they had earlier.
Their clearances were only that, putting Runcorn back in the driving seat as Wylie, Lycett, Downes and Hayes took possession, and increasingly Linnets kept it.
In the second half, it wouldn't be easy for Cables to pursue their favoured method of advancing up the wings, with the gusty wind behind them.
They seemed to appreciate this fact, and sought to swipe the ball towards the Runcorn penalty area more directly, a first such effort by Fleming nevertheless flying long and wide.
Linnets had more joy coming forward on the deck. Short and Barthram combined yet again up the left and supplied Lindfield on the right, Fleming having to hook into touch for safety.
A Runcorn corner from the right was cleared as far as Murray, who was tripped 35 yards out.
Lindfield's free-kick found Brooke beyond the far post, but he headed wide. Then 'Linny' won an aerial battle with Fleming, from Short's cross, but the ball bounced up from the floor into Allen's hands.
The pressure continued, with Short, via Murray, reaching Lindfield, whose swirling cross was held by the goalkeeper. He was fouled by Brooke's charge after the event.
Approaching the hour mark, Cables achieved their first spell of pressure for some time, sparked by Monaghan's run into the area being blocked for a corner.
It resulted in a pinball session, with several players from both teams on the ground. The ball was eventually cleared for a throw-in on the left.
More penalty area pinball ensued, with two more corners from the left, before Wharton held on to a weak shot from 18 yards.
Van-Aston had been replaced by Hamilton for Prescot, and just past the hour, a superb 61st-minute shift by Adam Barthram ended when he was subbed by Stuart Crilly.
Mid-half Prescot did begin to assert themselves more, with clearences finding Monaghan again - mostly up the right wing, where he gave Downes and Short some headaches with advances into the area, supported by Hulley and Jackson.
Attacks were mounted from the left by Fleming, Caddick and Hamilton. Bodies in the box meant that their efforts were resulting in goal-kicks and corners, the latter blocked and cleared by Wylie, Lycett, Hayes and Downes, or gathered by Wharton.
On the break from a Cables corner, Stuart Crilly went on a diagonal solo run deep into Prescot territory, beating four men before being fouled 25 yards from goal on the right.
Lindfield's free-kick curled across the penalty area, where Alex Downes shook off his marker to beat Allen hands-down with a powerful header.
Linnets fans behind the goal were thinking 'game over', until the ball rebounded off the centre of the crossbar.
On a luckier day, it might have part of a Downes headed hat-trick.
The hard-working Linnet in the unfamiliar No2 shirt was then on the right wing to meet a similar Lindfield free-kick from the left, forcing Fleming to concede a corner. Mysteriously, a goal-kick was awarded instead.
With 20 minutes remaining, the injured Martyn Jackson was replaced by Alex McMilan, and a couple of minutes later Prescot's last chance to ring the changes was taken as another former Linnet, Jamie Rainford, came on in place of Cables' most dangerous player on the day, Michael Monaghan.
The changes didn't stem the flow of orange-clad pressure.
Another free-kick for a trip on Crilly led to an airborne duel won by Scott Lycett, but his header cleared the bar. Crilly himself followed up into the area for an attempt that was deflected for a corner on the right.
Downes' glancing header cleared the left post, via the chest of Ryan Brooke, as he flung himself into the six-yard box for a close-range attempt on goal.
The closing minutes inevitably saw the home side throw everything at salvaging something from the game, the left touchline being the main battle arena. Close attention from Runcorn's defensive ranks conceded throw-in after throw-in, allowing little further progress towards Wharton's goal.
The only shot in a five-minute spell of Cables pressure was a distant one from McMilan and it cleared the bar by a distance.
Linnets were not content to run down the clock, though. A corner needlessly conceded by McCulloch was punched clear by Allen, and a one-two between Wylie and Lindfield produced a low ball across the six-yard line, but no team mate was near it.
A long through ball from McCready found Crilly on the right, where he nutmegged Hulley and crossed, but Cartwright intercepted.
Home fans thought their prayers had been answered with four minutes to go, as Hamilton got free into the Linnets area with only Wharton in front of him.
Howls for a penalty ensued as he went sprawling, and sighs of relief emanated from Runcorn fans. They were much further from the incident than the referee, who insisted there had been no foul play.
Two Iwan Murray advances in as many minutes into the Cables third were interrupted by fouls. Downes met the first free-kick, heading downwards into the ground but wide.
Brooke backheeled into the path of Murray from the second, but Iwan's shot was deflected for a corner.
A clock-bothering substitution as added time beckoned saw Ryan Brooke replaced by Jacques Welsh,and there was just time for one more half-chance at each end.
On the break, the ball was propelled into a crowded Linnets penalty area, loud appeals for handball being waved away by Mr Ryder. Then, at the other end, Murray sprinted into the area to meet a Lindfield cross, but the goalkeeper got there first.
It was a breathless conclusion to a pretty frantic game, with both sides determined to prevail, and to give no Christmas presents.
In the end, the oranges were well worth their victory over the lemons.
In this most troubled and interrupted season, Linnets manager Calum McIntyre has repeatedly praised the application, resilience and never-say-die attitude of his players.
Those accolades had never been more deserved than in this game. There bad been tireless performances all over the pitch and clear confidence among the players in their ability to take away the points.
After Murray's goal, Runcorn were clearly the better side, making Prescot chase the game and frustrating them at every turn.
A similarly impressive team performance would make for a very interesting first game of 2021 at The Millbank, as yet more familiar faces on the pitch and in the dugout return for the New Year's Day clash with City of Liverpool. 'Tiers and tantrums' permitting, of course.
Runcorn Linnets: Paddy Wharton, Alex Downes, Adam Barthram (Stuart Crilly 61), Louis Hayes, Peter Wylie, Scott Lycett, Craig Lindfield, Tom McCready, Ryan Brooke (Jacques Welsh 89), Iwan Murray, James Short. Subs (not used): Cain Noble, Oladapo Olarewaju, Carl Spellman.
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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