19th September 2017, Runcorn Linnets FC v AFC Liverpool : 5-2By Ste Bignall
The Linnets faithful in attendance at the MLS on Tuesday night could have been forgiven for fearing that the game against AFC Liverpool was heading in the same direction as the Ashton Athletic and West Didsbury & Chorlton fixtures back in August, as Adam Weston converted a penalty to put the visitors from Merseyside 0-2 up after only 20 minutes.
However, the subsequent 70-minute performance and end result were both top class for Michael Ellison's men as they ran out 5-2 winners to keep up their excellent form of late.
Rory Fallon had earned his first start for the Linnets and in fact a first start for any side in almost two years as he continues a long and arduous recovery from major knee surgery. He replaced the injured midfield anchor man Kieran Nolan.
The other change to the starting eleven from Saturday was the return of fans favourite Matty Atherton! "Mr Runcorn", as he is popularly referred to, returned to the club on Monday night to fill the void left by young and uber talented full back Danny McKenna, who leaves the Linnets for Witton Albion with our very best wishes for a career in the game that seems destined to be a great one!
Ellison opted for a change in shape with Paul Shanley dropping into a deeper position than usual, and the change unsettled the Linnets in the early stages as AFC took control of the game from the off. They were already in the ascendancy in the lead up to George Lomax opening the scoring, heading home a cross from the left unmarked from four yards out.
It was soon to get worse for the Linnets as Terry Smith and Danny O'Brien both tried to clear the danger on the far left side of the Linnets penalty area, with Smith needlessly clattering into Kevin Edgar and conceding a penalty that was converted well by Weston.
Under Ello's stewardship, we have been guilty at times, both this season and last, of falling behind in this manner and going on to lose games handsomely, but this game was different as the second goal gave the Linnets the wake-up call that was desperately needed. They went on to put in a top-drawer performance and blow AFC completely out of the water.
The pack was reshuffled to a more familiar feel with Paul Shanley back on the left of a front three, this move had AFC's full back turning inside out as Shanley produced an eye-catching display of attacking football.
A lifeline was thrown Linnets' way as good football set Mark Houghton in, and he was felled by a cynical tackle that was rightly pulled up for a penalty kick. There was a air of tension around the MLS, with Linnets recent form from 12 yards not the best, and Stu Wellstead's kick was on target but saved well by Dominic Garner.
Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the Linnets carried on trying to make inroads back into the game, and deja vu struck on the half hour as the Linnets were given another penalty, Houghton again brought down as he ran into the box - this time body checked by Chris Anderson.
Most felt that it was one of those 50/50 decisions that in many games would not have been given but, equally, there were few complaints that it was.
Wellstead showed tremendous character, having just missed one spot-kick minutes earlier, to shove all other potential takers away and shoulder the responsibility himself as a senior player in the squad. He duly slammed the penalty into the top corner, giving Garner no chance this time around.
The ever so crucial equaliser came at the perfect moment in first-half injury time, Paul Shanley chasing down a ball on which AFC had given up and squaring from the by-line for Mark Houghton to finish at the near post - 2-2 at the end of an eventful 45 minutes in which three penalties had been awarded!
You felt that the Linnets as a minimum needed to maintain the momentum of the last 15 minutes of the first half to get the three points, but they went beyond that and turned in a dominant display with chances galore created and very few given away at the other end.
Atherton grew into the game and soon looked like had had never been away, cutting into the box from the left wing to set up Rory Fallon, who opened up his body to place a delightful finish beyond the reach of Garner into the bottom corner.
Fallon was visibly delighted to get on the score sheet, showing his appreciation to his new team mates and supporters for what must have felt like the finish line at the end of a very long and mountainous marathon.
A lightning quick attack up the left flank again, a source of much fruit for the Linnets on the night, brought about yet another penalty as Shanley was slammed to the ground by Allen Weston inside the six-yard box. Wellstead again stood up to score, this time aiming for same spot where his first penalty had been saved.
With the score at 4-2 Ellison rang the changes. Sam Fitton was handed his debut, with Callum Lucy and Adam Jones also being given game time as Mike Simpson, Fallon and Wellstead were all given a much-deserved rest.
Shanley hit a post with a deflected effort before AFC managed a rare second-half attempt on goal, getting in from nowhere through the middle of the pitch with Smith pulling off a super save to tip the low effort around a post at full stretch.
Shanley was soon at it again as the onrushing Mark Hoighton missed the winger's cross by the width of a sheet of paper. With Shanners constantly serving up treats for other people to feed on, he decided he wanted a piece of the goalscoring action himself.
Picking up the ball on the left wing, he turned back on to his right side and swung in a curling effort that sailed over Garner and nestled into the very top far corner of the net - a wonderful goal to cap a wonderful performance from Shanley.
There was a lucky escape for AFC's Jack Fleming (recently signed from Linnets) in the last minute as he headed yet another troublesome Shanley cross on to his own post. It was the eagerness of Mark Houghton, chasing the ball down, that prevented it from rebounding in - the loose ball hitting Houghton on the goal line and squirming away to safety.
The awareness of Ellison to realise that how he had set the team up early on was getting us into trouble, and the lack of so-called "managerial vanity" in making the required change with only 20 minutes gone deserved the rewards that he got back from his team.
Too often managers have a system and that's it - regardless of what's unfolding in front of them, Ello was decisive and bold when required and deserves huge plaudits for that.
The recent return is 19 goals scored and 4 conceded in the last four league fixtures. Knowing the mindset of this Linnets team and coaching staff, they won't be resting on their laurels; they are more likely working on improving the 19 and reducing the four in the upcoming fixtures. And it's that level of drive that is so pleasing to see in action!
We have our third home game in a week on Saturday as Abbey Hey visit the MLS, bringing a decent recent record on our turf with them. While suffering terribly at the hands of Runcorn on their patch, they have earned a pair of 2-2 draws in the most recent league visits to Linnets - the first of these a real blow in the 2016 title race.
Be there for 3pm on Saturday to see Ello's men seek vengeance!
Runcorn Linnets: Terry Smith, Matt Atherton, Aaron Morris, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Michael Simpson, Paul Shanley, Kyle Hamid, Mark Houghton, Stuart Wellstead, Rory Fallon. Subs: Sam Fitton, Callum Lucy, Adam Jones. Not used: Mitch Bryant, Adam Morning.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.