The Northern Premier League

27th August 2021, Leek Town v Runcorn Linnets FC : 0-1

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

After a week of FA Cup drama, Runcorn Linnets began their Bank Holiday weekend with a rare Friday night fixture in the West division of the Pitching In Northern Premier League against Leek Town, convened at Buxton's Silverland - standing 1,000 feet above sea level,the highest football ground in England.

It was a successive Linnets away game on an artificial pitch, Leek becoming acclimatised to 3G as guests of Buxton, 13 miles up the road, while their own Harrison Park stadium awaits the delayed installation of an all-weather surface.

My dislike for synthetic pitches is tediously well documented, but Linnets players and coaching staff were vindicated in their view that this was a pretty good one. It did offer truer bounce and slicker run than recent examples they had played on.

Leek were first to threaten on it, Jack Wakefield allowed too many seconds of the first minute to advance before Ally Brown intervened, before a headed second attempt bounced off the top of the Runcorn bar.

There wouldn't be a wealth of open scoring opportunities for either side during the next 88 minutes, with tireless covering and tackling by both teams throughout.

The first Runcorn attack found Ryan Brooke offside when he received a cross from a Monaghan-Short exchange on the left. Then Iwan Murray made his way through the middle and passed to Stuart Crilly wide right, where he was brought down.

The free-kick was headed clear, an outcome we expected to see repeated many times, given Leek's frankly massive back line.

Leek were forced to introduce Matt Bell after only seven minutes, when Billy Reeves was injured in a 50-50 challenge, and Runvorn's MJ Monaghan lasted only 10 minutes longer, landing heavily on his shoulder when he climbed for a header and tumbled over the back of centre-half Oliver Harrison. It's a long way to fall.

MJ returned to the pitch after physio attention, but only for the time it took Dapo Olaweraju to warm up and replace him.

It was to be hoped his arm wouldn't remain in a sling for long. Monaghan had started in place of Eden Gumbs, injured during Tuesday's FA Cup replay win over Avro.

Midway through the half, Will Saxon found enough space in the area for a snap shot that Young held with ease, and from the clearance Ryan Brooke was fouled by Harrison when contesting a header inside the Leek half.

From the free-kick, Murray and Olaweraju worked the ball into the area, where Brooke picked it up and turned centre-backs Harrison and Wara, but his attempted shot from 12 yards richocheted away.

The pattern of the game was set, with both sides working intensely hard on and off the ball, and denying each other more than the briefest and narrowest of openings.

After half an hour Reeves, Saxon and Trickett-Smith caused some Runcorn tail-chasing across the 18-yard line, before Saxon headed over.

Then there was a real let-off for Linnets, when a rare defensive slip outside the area set Saxon free again, and with only Young to beat he dragged his shot right across goal and out for a goal-kick.

The roles were reversed with Runcorn on the break, and urgent shouts for a penalty when Dapo clearly appeared to be tripped as he sprinted into the right side of the Leek area. But referee Jamie Conde was unmoved.

Runcorn pressed on, with their most continuous period of attacking so far during the last 10 minutes of the half.

A neat move involving Lynch and Crilly gave Brooke the ball outside the left corner of the area, and he outran Jessy Bavanganga before electing to cross, when a solo run and shot looked more promising.

The cross was too fierce for Crilly, Murray or Brown to connect with it.

A prolonged spell of head-tennis in the middle third was brought back to earth by Jacques Welsh, but he was pushed off the ball before he could spark an attack.

Jack Wakefield made it to the Linnets area with only Young to beat, but was offside, and a four-man Leek move led to a Bavanganga cross, confidently punched away by Young.

They were the only Leek attacks of note in a ten-minute spell where Runcorn took the upper hand, with Welsh, Lynch and Crilly giving the men in blue a lot of work to do, and Ryan Brooke making a nonsense of your reporter's contention that the visitors would get no joy in the air.

He won numerous aerial duels with loftier opponents, but with the home defence pushing up at every opportunity, his backward flick headers were finding open space rather than team mates.

If I moan about anything more than plastic pitches, it's 'shielding the ball out of play', or as it used to be known in the good old days, 'obstruction'.

Leek defenders were avidly exploiting this modern legal loophole to get to a well-earned breather at half-time.

Bavanganga jockeyed and backed into Crilly for the full 18-yards of the penalty area as the ball trickled endlessly towards safety. It didn't get there, as Crilly sidestepped the human barrier to win the ball and turn it in towards the six-yard box.

Mr Conde, however, decided that the Runcorn No.7's perseverance and skill in reaching the ball was a foul but

textbook obstruction wasn't.

Moments later, Oliver Harrison re-enacted the infuriating tactic on Iwan Murray on the other side of the area, before thudding to the ground under the attentions of a man roughly half his size, and pleading for protection from the referee.

It was as comical as Tyson Fury crumbling in a heap from a friendly pat on the back by Amir Khan. When are they going to listen to me? 'If you ain't touched it, you ain't got it!' Yes, I know. Never.

After Olarewaju and Lynch both had powerful shots blocked at close range, the half-time whistle was evidently going to frustrate the promise of Runcorn seizing control of the game. Until Stuart Crilly had other ideas.

In added time, he raced into the area in possession from wide left, and as the defence weighed up whether Brooke or Murray would be the primary target of his cross, Crilly took two more strides and curled a peach of a shot beyond the reach of 'keeper Daniel Roberts and inside the far post. 0-1 at half time.

The second half began as the first had been conducted, without a yard or a second being surrendered by either side.

O'Mahony, Downes, Short and Brown all smothered Leek pressure before shots could be fired in anger, and Linnets were winning and keeping the ball through the centre of the pitch more than so far this season, not least through the exertions of Brooke, Lynch and Welsh.

A gowing irritation in the second half was seeing numerous tackles in a hard-fought game unnecessarily being judged as fouls, if not consistently.

Just beyond the hour mark Ally Brown was shown the only yellow card of the night for a trip on Leek sub Matt Bell, when a minute earlier a virtually identical challenge on Iwan Murray hadn't even warranted a free-kick.

Neither really looked like a foul, but if one was, surely they both were.

The intrusive foul count resulted in many a free-kick from the middle third towards either penalty area, invariably curtailed both ways by rock-solid defending.

Into the last quarter of the game, there were three frustrated near-things for Linnets in as many minutes.

Olarewaju put Murray free on the right, and his looping shot from a tight angle would have dropped in at the far corner had Roberts' fingertips not guided it an inch over the bar.

The ensuing corner met the head of Harrison, and fell to Sean O'Mahony, who looked more winger than centre-half as he beat Bavanganga to the goal-line and hooked a cross into the six-yard box, where Wara did just enough to prevent a Brooke shot.

Dapo was fouled after Brooke had headed down Young's long free-kick, and a Brown-Murray switch produced an Ally cross that a defensive toe was fortunate to divert inches wide of the far post, rather than into the net.

Runcorn attacks were coming more frequently than earlier, but Leek also had their mostly free-kick aided moments, albeit never recreating quite the danger of their two best first-half chances.

With 15 minutes remaining, a Dapo-Murray one-two on the right allowed the former a shot across the six-yard box. The 'keeper elected to leave it, and it grazed the paint of the far post.

At the other end, a safety-first corner resulted in a Wara shot, blocked by Short, and a rebound effort was headed clear by O'Mahony, Marc Grocott taking a knock in the challenge.

There wasn't much fluid football during the last ten minutes, with no let-up in the close defensive attentions of both teams. Ally Brown won 50-50 tackles twice as Leek advanced on the left, and Trickett-Smith managed a shot from the middle of the penalty area, but miscued well wide.

Louis Hayes took over from Jacques Welsh for the last six minutes plus added, to help insure against any late Leek Town surprises.

With the clock ticking down, Murray set Olaweraju on a run into the area. His shot on target was deflected wide by Wara, mysteriously resulting in a goal-kick. From the clearance, a Bavanganga cross was headed out by O'Mahony.

A last gasp attempt at a 20-yard equaliser by Saxon flew high, and three hard-won points were taken from altitude back to Runcorn.

It was the kind of game that always looked as though it would be decided, if at all, by a single defensive or goalkeeping error. It was clinched by neither, but rather by a moment of vision and precision by Stuart Crilly.

And we know how gutted Leek will have been at taking nothing from such an evenly and fiercely-contested match.

It's irritating when media pundits invariably award man of the match to the scorer of the only goal, even if it was his only touch of the game.

Stuart Crilly was a thorn in Leek sides all night, and I felt his sublime goal might have edged the accolade from the one-man power station that was Ryan Brooke.

But a snap poll of Linnets officials, media personnel and fans named eight different candidates in fewer seconds, including every member of the defence.

It was hard to argue with any of them, so it felt best to echo Calum McIntyre's delight with a team display of flat-out effort and application from start to finish, and agree that the star man wore orange.

Or maybe luminous green, as Joe Young was as solid as a rock as well.

A mere three-day wait for the APEC visit of our old friends from 1874 Northwich seems too long. If you haven't been playing, that is.

Runcorn Linnets:Joe Young, Ally Brown, James Short, Jacques Welsh (Louis Hayes 84), Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, Stuart Crilly, Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray, MJ Monaghan (Oladapo Olaweraju 22). Subs not used: Carl Spellman, Sam Harding.

Attendance:301.



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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