27th September 2017, AFC Darwen v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-1By Dave Bettley
Runcorn Linnets earned an important and hard-fought victory to reduce their arrears at the top of the table to four points.
Both sides did remarkably well in horrendous conditions, which were such that had the game started half an hour later it may not have finished.
Heavy rain from late afternoon had left the pitch soft but playable at kick off.
However, as the evening wore on, the surface was understandably holding surface water which towards the end was spectacularly splashing up during tackles - in scenes reminiscent of the famous photo which inspired the Sir Tom Finney statue in another part of Lancashire.
This also brought back memories of the waterlogged pitch the former Runcorn club had encountered against Woking in 1994 for the FA Trophy final at Wembley.
Traffic congestion, coupled with poor visibility caused by the inclement weather, meant a longer-than-anticipated journey for what must have been 120 Linnets fans who ventured north on the M6 and then east on the M65.
They were rewarded as Mitch Bryant, on a rare start, scored what would the decisive goal midway through the first half.
The Linnets made five changes from their last two outings with Antony Hickey, Tom Hardwick, Kieran Nolan and Bryant all reclaiming outfield positions.
Meanwhile Matt Holmes, having been re-signed earlier in the day after the briefest of stints with Northwich Victoria, took over from unavailable goalkeeper Terry Smith.
Hickey was, however, forced off in the first half after taking a couple of heavy knocks while Nolan, an injury absentee for the last couple of weeks, lasted only until half-time.
As well as rain, which made it difficult for players to keep their feet from a relatively early stage, the teams also had to contend with a difficult wind. When it was in their favour before the break, the Linnets could quite easily have scored a couple more than the goal they managed.
They were thwarted by some excellent saves from Macauley Scott, including a splendid double stop at the expense of Hickey and Stuart Wellstead.
Only a difficult bounce had prevented the latter from being in complete control of his shot but it was a worthy effort from the in-form striker all the same and a good reaction by the home 'keeper.
The 24th-minute goal which counted followed the quickest of Runcorn counter attacks from the edge of their own box, led by the fleet footed Paul Shanley.
It culminated in Hickey driving the ball across goal from the right of the box for Bryant to bundle it home, despite the attempts of an on-the-line defender to keep it out at the left post.
Fresh from their weekend victory over Glasshoughton in thd FA Vase, AFC Darwen were anything but a push over yet they struggled in the opening 45 to create anything of substance in the final third.
In open play at least, that trend largely continued in the second half as a Runcorn defence, missing (the injured) Aaron Morris for the first time since his arrival at the start of last season, invariably got men on the cover or bodies in the way. 'Keeper Holmes, getting his first Linnets outing of the campaign at the start of his second spell, was typically reliable and produced one superb blocking save at close quarters.
It was a different story from AFC Darwen at set-pieces from which the big outfit posed a considerable threat. Fortunately for Linnets, the hosts had their radar switched off when it came to finishing but it was very difficult to direct headers accurately on this kind of night.
With such a slender lead, the big fear in the closing stages was that one error could cost Runcorn big time. Mistakes were inevitable but thankfully always rectified - with skipper Kyle Hamid taking on greater responsibility in front of the defence once Nolan had exited.
Darwen had been reduced to 10 men from the 47th minute, when their right full back Gary Brown was sent off for a second cautionable foul.
He had been carded in the first half for clattering into the back of Shanley.
With the exit of his closest opponent, Shanley had potential licence to run amok but curiously saw little further action.
AFC Darwen, however, were further galvanised by the dismissal and in time-honoured fashion, appeared to have the extra man at times. It wasn't the kind of occasion when Runcorn could take any real advantage.
They could have made the final minutes less anxious.
But wrong options meant further scoring opportunities were missed late on.
There was one incident, comical in retrospect, when the home 'keeper somehow let the ball go past him and then engaged in a foot race back towards goal - although it resembled one played out on ice skates!
Both 'keeper and Linnets sub Mark Houghton lost their footing, slithering towards the goal line where the 'keeper just about managed to gain possession on his line.
In these conditions, it was all about the result and the victory was much more impressive than the performance. Although the Linnets' endeavour could not be faulted, the usual attacking quality was simply washed away as the game more on.
Manager Michael Ellison, who missed the rearranged fixture due to a prior engagement, will be delighted with the three points and a clean sheet in such trying circumstances. His assistant Matt Cross, who took charge, will along with the players and fans consider it a job well done.
A real bonus was the late appearance off the bench of striker Freddie Potter after a six-week absence with a collarbone injury sustained in August's FA Cup defeat at Ashton Athletic.
Runcorn's attacking talisman was soon in the thick of the action and thankfully, telegraphed a rather wild challenge, largely getting out of the way to escape unscathed. This led to a booking for the AFC Darwen left full back Callum Hoctor.
Runcorn Linnets: Matt Holmes, Matt Atherton, Tom Hardwick, Jimmy Moore, Kieran Nolan, Paul Shanley, Kyle Hamid, Stuart Wellstead, Mitch Bryant, Antony Hickey. Subs: Callum Lucy, Mark Houghton, Freddie Potter. Not used: Adam Jones, Kasie Jones.
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.