6th January 2018, Winsford United v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-4
Winsford United 0 Runcorn Linnets 4
Runcorn Linnets carried their form of 2017 into 2018 with another convincing win but with both sides missing chances, the score sheet could have been even more laden.
There was an element of surprise when the pitch was declared playable after a week of yet more wet weather with the St Luke's Barton Stadium having lost a number of games to the elements recently - something perhaps magnified by having two teams using it for home fixtures.
Credit must go out to Winsford's volunteers for preparing a pitch which held up remarkably well.
A trio of "accumulated booking" suspensions meant that Linnets – with assistant manager Matt Cross deputising for boss Michael Ellison – had to shuffle their pack.
Kieran Nolan, Kyle Hamid and Paul Shanley were replaced by Michael Simpson, Mark Houghton and Stuart Wellstead.
The impact was felt the most in midfield, with the naturally attack-minded Kris Holt dropping into the anchor position usually held by Nolan, and centre forward Mark Houghton taking up one of the more forward midfield positions. Both players performed admirably in unfamiliar surroundings.
Adam Jones kept his place at left back after an impressive display against Hanley Town.
It didn't take long for the Linnets to force the initiative. With eight minutes gone, neat play between Anthony Hickey and Freddie Potter set Stuart Wellstead up to open the scoring from 12 yards.
A plethora of chances came and went for the Linnets in the next 20 minutes as they backed Winsford into a corner from which they were unable to escape.
Potter was twice denied by the goalkeeper and Stuart Wellstead had a couple more great chances, first heading wide from Hickey's cross and then falling foul of a heavy touch when rounding the 'keeper.
The pressure became too much for Winsford in the 35th minute when Potter was bundled over from behind in the penalty area, a clear penalty being awarded by the referee to limited protests from the hosts in blue.
Danny O'Brien stood up to find the top corner with a great penalty which beat the goalkeeper with ease, despite him guessing the right way.
Wellstead almost put the game out of Winsford's reach just before half-time with a stunning strike that had looked destined for the top corner but missed the target by the tightest of margins.
To their credit, Winsford came out a much more determined and competitive force in the second half. A couple of very similar chances early in the second half, both flicked headers from set pieces that in turn flashed wide of the far post, were indicators that the home side had not thrown in the towel just yet.
As football goes at times, it was from a period of sustained Winsford pressure that the Linnets scored their third goal to effectively secure the victory. Freddie Potter showed great pace on a left-wing break away and kept his composure to pick out a perfect, low cross that took Winsford's defence and goalkeeper out of the game.
Hickey, at the far post, was in position to convert into an empty net.
Despite facing a continually mountainous task, Winsford still refused to give up and almost pulled a goal back with a far-post header from close range. Matt Holmes did brilliantly to save and hold on to the effort low down.
Winsford's goalkeeper Matthew Green proved that he was also a very capable stopper when he kept out Mike Simpson with a great blocking save, after a delightful move had put the industrious midfielder through on goal.
The goal of the game came with 15 minutes remaining. Simpson made room for himself to shoot from outside the box but opted instead to lay off to Potter, who was lurking around the D of the Winsford penalty area.
Potter caught his first-time volley perfectly, sweeping the strike with immense force off the inside of Green's left post and it eventually nestled in the opposite corner after hovering over the goal line; a fantastic finish by a forward in fine form and full of confidence.
With the game score at 0-4 and the points secured, Linnets made a full complement of substitutions. Kris Holt, Mark Houghton and Jimmy Moore gave way for Mitch Bryant, Matty Atherton and Chris Lawton.
Still Winsford refused to roll over and surrender and they were correctly awarded a penalty of their own in the closing stages.
The penalty was well struck towards Holmes' bottom left corner, but Linnets don't concede goals lightly and Holmes made a magnificent save at full stretch to turn the ball around the post.
Credit must be given to the Linnets keeper for his overall performance in this game. He has a solid unit in front of him and his workload was very light over the Christmas period games, but he made some excellent saves in this game when called upon.
Winsford will have gone away wondering how they didn't break the Linnets' tight defensive seal.
The last notable action of the afternoon was a mass melee of players – an incident that seemed to come out of nowhere in what had been a very timid affair up to that point.
I honestly couldn't tell you what sparked it or what happened, but the referee handled it very well by not panicking. Instead, he let the situation diffuse naturally before eventually showing a yellow card to Runcorn's Simpson and handing bookings to a pair of Winsford players.
Too often in these situations the referee will go flying in, waving unwarranted red cards here there and everywhere. But this was an example of how to manage a situation by the match officials.
It was one of the rare afternoons where all of our challengers picked up maximum points, so the convincing win was crucial as it keeps Linnets at the summit of the league table.
It also keeps going an impressive run of league form which has now reached seven straight wins with only two goals conceded in that time - ten and a half hours of football!
This Wednesday's (Jan 10th) Cheshire Senior Cup visit of Crewe Alexandra brings about a couple of rarities for the Linnets.
Firstly it's unusual for the Millbank Linnets Stadium to host a game on a Wednesday evening, and it's also Runcorn Linnets' first fixture against a Football League club.
This is the last remaining opportunity the Linnets have for knockout competition success this term.
Runcorn Linnets: Matt Holmes, Adam Jones, Aaron Morris, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Kris Holt, Michael Simpson, Mark Houghton, Freddie Potter, Stuart Wellstead, Antony Hickey. Subs: Matt Atherton, Mitch Bryant, Chris Lawton. Not used: Terry Smith (GK).
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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