1st January 2022, 1874 Northwich v Runcorn Linnets FC : 1-2
Linnets made the short New Year's Day trip to Barnton, looking for a festive local derby treble.
They made it interesting by gifting 1874 a goal inside 30 seconds. They turned it around with eight minutes remaining, when Iwan Murray's solo winner finally broke the resolve of Northwich No1, 'Big Tony' Aghayere.
Most of the 645 fans were still shuffling to their vantage points when the home team went ahead.
Michael Koral and Joe Woolley exchanged passes up the right. What was to become a highly-organised Runcorn defensive unit still hadn't turned the ignition key, and Woolley despatched an unhindered cross for an easy chance for Jake Parker.
Joe Young seemed surprised at not having to dive to save, when the ball was nudged weakly towards him. He slapped it no more than a yard forward, and Parker had the easiest of second bites.
The '74 stayed on the attack for a couple of minutes, until Linnets woke up.
A good ball over the top for Ryan Brooke to chase was headed firmly over the bar by centre-half Mark Jones. When referee David Burton awarded a goal-kick, Linnets began to fear that 2022 was not going to start well.
The feeling persisted when James Steele was left in a pained heap by Koral's hefty challenge, and no free-kick was awarded.
Still more on eight minutes, when Ryan Brooke turned two men inside out on the left and crossed to the edge of the area. Iwan Murray won the ball before being felled. Still no free-kick.
Brooke won the ball in the centre circle and played a great ball up the right for Peter Wylie (at right-back following the return of Sean O'Mahony in the middle) to run on to.
He cut inside and curled a sweet shot towards the far corner, but Aghayere made a fine save to guide it past the post.
It came as no surprise to those familiar with 'Big Tony' that it was to be the first of countless fine saves that tested Linnets' patience.
Alex Downes got his head to the corner, but was underneath the ball, and it skewed wide.
It had been all Linnets for ten minutes or so, but Northwich were not going to relinquish their lead without a fight.
Kain Dean, in his first Runcorn start, crossed from the left to Murray in the penalty arc. He was dropped again, and this time it was deemed a foul.
Iwan's free-kick cannoned off a head in the defensive wall, and then Aghayere's fist got to the ball just before Lloyd Marsh-Hughes' head.
After 1874 cleared, Linnets were back down the hill again. Marsh-Hughes glided past four men before attempting a chip shot from 18 yards, but the 'keeper was all over it.
O'Mahony cleaned up from the first three-man attacking Northwich move since their goal, and Brooke was tackled at the second attempt by Jones inside the left touchline.
Murray was sent sprawling by a blatant two-handed shove in the back by Markell Foulds. Only a brief ticking-off preceded the 25-yard free-kick, which was caught by Aghayere.
Midway through the half, a Murray cross from the right was half-volleyed by Brooke on the edge of the area, under pressure from Jones. It swerved on the wind, but Aghayere held on again.
Almost half an hour had elapsed when Callum Gardner managed the second Northwich shot of the game, but he skied it out of the ground.
Dean, Murray and Doyle combined up the left, feeding Steele, who overcame the challenges of Foulds and Kennerley, only to be penalised for fouling one or the other.
Linnets fans who had been at Marine ten days before Christmas worried about a dose of deja vu. Blanket Runcorn pressure for most of the first half had failed to produce a goal there. This time it was worse, given that a goal had been conceded before the big hand had moved off 12.
Their fears were soothed, however, 13 minutes before half-time.
A string of passes across the middle third reached Wylie on the right. He strode forward and swept a great cross through the area to six yards, where Lloyd Marsh-Hughes met it and glanced a perfect header beyond the dive of Aghayere, and inside the far post.
The Runcorn onslaught continued, in search of the half-time lead their domination warranted.
A great Murray dig from 25 yards flew just wide of the left post, although 'Big Tony' probably had it covered.
Northwich progressed into the Linnets area from left then right, but Downes and O'Mahony averted danger.
Former Linnet Taylor Kennerley earned a yellow card for a high two-footed tackle on Peter Wylie.
Brooke bamboozled Jones and Koral again on the left, but his flicked pass ran out between Steele and Dean.
Joe Woolley fouled Marsh-Hughes, but Murray's free-kick from wide on the right flew long on the wind.
A Steele-Lynch one-two found Marsh-Hughes, who beat Kennerley, but the ball outran him for a goal-kick.
A great Murray run past four men reached the area, from where a promising shot was smothered by Aghayere.
1874 centre-forward Jamie Reed was warned for the second time for niggles off the ball, before a series of triangular passes between Steele, Brooke, Dean and Lynch delivered the ball into the area. Foulds intercepted, and a breathless half was over.
They would reconvene on level terms, but if not for a commanding performance by Aghayere in the Northwich goal, Linnets would surely have been comfortably ahead.
Playing uphill and into the wind promised to aid Runcorn efforts to advance up either flank in possession.
In the event, in the next 15 minutes, 1874 were to spend more time with the ball in the opposition half than they had in the whole of the first 45.
When they reached the Linnets area, though, Downes and O'Mahony continued to limit threats to Joe Young's goal. Wylie, Dean and Doyle picked up loose balls to put their side on the attack, albeit more sporadically than before the break.
Matthew Woolley and Jake Parker both got away to have a punt at goal, but Young picked up both with ease.
Dean turned Koral twice on the left, and crossed for Brooke, but he wrongfooted himself and the ball squirted clear.
Two Northwich free-kicks from either wing were headed away, then Steele and Marsh-Hughes were outnumbered, but Steele was fouled.
Murray's free-kick was heading for Aghayere, but Brooke nipped in front of him to glance a header wide.
Steele gave way to a new wide threat in the shape of sub Dapo Olarewaju, on 55 minutes.
Lewis Doyle picked up a yellow card for a late challenge on Parker, after 1874 broke away from an obvious obstruction on Marsh-Hughes, but when are they ever penalised?
Murray cut inside from the right corner flag before being tripped by Gardner, who also kicked him on the ground, right in front of the referee's assistant. No card resulted.
Murray's free-kick cleared Foulds at the far post, and Downes headed powerfully, just over the bar.
With 25 minutes remaining, Gardner gave way to MacKenzie O'Neill.
Two more Runcorn free-kicks for fouls on the halfway line were launched long into the penalty area, but they were easy meat for Aghayere.
Murray and Marsh-Hughes were both fouled, a second apart. The free-kick for one or the other was headed away by Jones.
Northwich were away downhill, but Joe Woolley hooked a shot way wide.
Dean passed up the left to Olarewaju, who cut inside past two markers and shot, but it was blocked at close range.
Jack Irlam replaced Sam Hare for Northwich, with 15 minutes remaining.
There was no slacking in Runcorn efforts to turn domination into victory. Marsh-Hughes overlapped with Brooke from the right, and his shot from just inside the area dipped over the bar.
Lloyd swapped passes with Iwan on the right, and crossed for Ryan to head down inside the far post, but Aghayere was there again to save at full stretch.
Lloyd Marsh-Hughes had given everything to turning the game around for 75 minutes since going behind. He was set to score his second goal when he jinked between Foulds and Matthew Woolley on the edge of the area, but he was pulled back by the pair grabbing an arm each.
Mr Burton showed Foulds a straight red card, but nothing to Woolley, despite delivering a lecture for his having committed precisely the same offence.
The free-kick was delayed by Parker's endless stroll to the dugout, to be replaced by Lucas Weir. It was struck perfectly by Murray towards the top right corner, only to draw another great save from Aghayere.
Perhaps Linnets wouldn't get the reward their tireless attacking efforts had deserved. But Murray disagreed.
He picked up a loose ball wide on the right, and cut in towards goal. Once he reached the area, none of his three pursuers dared launch a tackle.
Ryan Brooke was closing in on the far post, awaiting a cross, but Iwan had seen 'Big Tony' cut out too many of them, so he hammered it over the 'keeper into the roof of the net instead.
It was a solo goal to rival Brooke's at Clitheroe back in September.
It had taken more than 80 minutes for Runcorn to achieve a deserved lead, and they were not keen to let it slip, a third goal being the best insurance policy.
Balls to Dapo wide left kept up the pressure, Kain Dean backing him up. Twice he reached the area, only to have shots blocked at close quarters.
Murray was subbed with a minute of normal time remaining, for Jacques Welsh to make a cameo return from long-term injury.
Iwan left from the opposite side of the pitch from the dugouts, and it enabled him to receive the acclaim of Linnets fans around 50% of the perimeter, for a match-winning performance.
Five additional minutes were played, and while 1874 never gave up, their opponents had learned a lesson from that pedestrian opening minute. Swift and decisive tackles pounced on every downhill foray into Runcorn territory.
The final whistle sparked noisy mutual adoration between the away fans and their team and management. That is rapidly becoming a Runcorn Linnets tradition.
Nine points, from three local derbies in two weeks, had propelled Linnets to fifth place, with games in hand on the four teams above.
A nostalgic Cheshire Senior Cup trip to Winsford will follow, on Wednesday 5th, before the league visit of Kendal Town on Saturday 8th.
Runcorn Linnets: Joe Young, Peter Wylie, Kain Dean, Lewis Doyle, Alex Downes, Sean O'Mahony, James Steele (Dapo Olarewaju 55), Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke, Iwan Murray (Jacques Welsh 89), Lloyd Marsh-Hughes. Subs not used: Stuart Crilly, Ally Brown, Rhain Hellawell.
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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