By David 'Bill' Davies
Linnets made the short journey to Bootle to face City of Liverpool, with both teams aiming to get their Pitching In NPL West campaign off the mark, following opening-day defeats.
A gritty and often niggly first half provided chances for both sides, in which honours remained even due chiefly to well-drilled Purps defending, and their own profligate finishing, as the Linnets defence was somewhat less tightfisted.
Something had to give, and it did in a five-goal second half which saw Runcorn twice carve out a two-goal lead, only for the outcome to be pushed all the way to the end of six added minutes, which lasted for ten.
As is always the case when these two sides meet, both showed intent to attack from the outset.
Will Saxon tormented former Linnets favourite Michael Simpson, in the Purps right-back berth, with a catalogue of advances up the left flank and into the area.
Many of Will’s repeated raids were set up by great balls ahead of him from Antony Kay, from inside the Runcorn half.
It took three CoLFC defenders to chase and block Will’s efforts, which set up attempts at goal by Joe Lynch, Lewis Doyle and Levi Chiduku. But well-organised defending forced two attempts by each of them to fly narrowly wide or high.
Kenny Brown also carved out a pair of chances, cutting in from the right, including a blistering eighth-minute piledriver from 25 yards, which was stopped by the face of Purps centre-half Nick Ryan, another former Linnets man.
Fouls on Will Saxon and James Short, by Simmo and Josh Quarless, produced almost identical Lewis Doyle free-kicks. Both were saved inside the foot of the near post by Purps ’keeper Calvin Hare.
But the first half was by no means a siege on the home goal.
City of Liverpool got forward fast and in numbers, and the apparent majority among the attendance of 382, who had travelled from the other side of the Mersey, felt troubled by the time and space often allowed to the hosts.
Josh Quarless, briefly a Linnet in the early days of last season, had found his way back to the Purps via a couple of other ports of call. He looked like a very tall man with a point to prove, and perhaps tried too hard, as he rushed a couple of very good chances, and boomed shots from the edge of the penalty area well wide of the target.
The Linnets back four chased rather than marked tight, and Bayleigh Passant in the away goal wasn’t required to save the day nearly as much as he should have been. Callum Schorah and Danny Mitchley also shot high and wide, when they had been given the time and space to do better.
Levi Chiduku was playing through a quad strain picked up during the opening day defeat to Chasetown, and after an off-the-ball challenge, ten minutes before the break, he was replaced by Eden Gumbs. It gave Eden the relished chance to fill the centre-forward role, and he was to challenge Will Saxon’s eventual man-of-the-match status, with a robust and tricky performance that stretched the Purps centre-backs to the limit.
In the closing minutes of the first half, Schorah blazed another chance wide, and two CoLFC corners in quick succession were cleared.
At the other end, a powerful Kenny Brown shot on target, from another long Kay pass, was blocked by the turned back of Ryan.
The blank scoresheet at half-time was almost bizarre, given the countless chances at both ends.
It took nine minutes of the second half for the dam to be broken, and it was entirely appropriate that it was Will Saxon, who created the opener.
Eden Gumbs had already fought his way through the defence to shoot low, only for Hare to save on the ground, and for the Purps, Schorah and Mitchley were still being given too much space to advance.
But Saxon turned Simmo once more, and progressed along the goal line from the left. He pulled it back to the edge of the area, where Lewis Doyle was poised to curl a shot past the crowd in front of him, and into the right corner.
CoLFC were denied a quick response, as Mitchley broke free into the area, but he had gone early, and was flagged offside.
The referee produced the yellow card three times in five minutes, the first for Sean O’Mahony, after an argument over a handball decision. Callum Schorah was cautioned for a two-handed shove on Jacques Welsh, and James Short for time wasting over a free-kick wide on the left.
There ought to have been a fourth yellow just afterwards, for a hefty late chop by Mitchley on Welsh.
From the long free-kick into the Purps area, Kay and O’Mahony went for the same header, and the ball squirted wide.
It was magical Saxon footwork yet again that led to Linnets doubling their lead in the 67th minute. He reached the same position he had done to set up the first, and this time found Eden Gumbs, just inside the 18-yard line. Jacques Welsh powered forward from the middle third and made a perfectly-timed shout for Eden to lay the ball into his path.
Jacques drilled an unstoppable first-time shot into the same corner that Lewis Doyle had found 13 minutes earlier.
It was an early bid for goal of the season.
Noisy Linnets fans felt that the job should now be done, but it was never going to be that sort of night.
The margin was halved within five more minutes, when the Yellows' defence failed to clear a crowded area, and as Bayleigh dived at feet, James Short couldn’t prevent Schorah from poking it home from the goal line.
The game was still on, and a frantic pace promised more goals and more cards. The next yellow came for a challenge by Jack Hont which appeared a lot less robust than Mitchley’s ten minutes earlier.
Joe Lynch came close to restoring the two-goal buffer, when he beat three men on the right and floated a shot beyond Hare. But he couldn’t curl it quite enough, and while it missed the far post by inches, it stayed in play, and was hoofed clear.
With eleven normal minutes remaining, Will Saxon departed, to be hailed as Bucket Hat FM’s man of the match.
Ryan Brooke, protecting a persisting early season niggle with a strapped left thigh, joined Eden Gumbs in keeping up pressure on the home penalty area.
Michael Simpson’s tormentor was gone, but he too was subbed on 84 minutes, by Michael Fitzgerald.
A neat flick from Brooky’s head was met by a low diving header by Lewis Doyle, which rolled wide of the right post.
The Purps appealed for handball in the Linnets area, but achieved only a corner, which was held high by Passant.
At the other end, Ibrahim Conteh’s shove in the back on Brooke yielded a 25-yard free-kick, which was met safely by Hare’s leap.
Twice in as many minutes, Eden Gumbs charged past the Purps defence to chase Brooky through-balls, and both times the assistant on the far side obliged home appeals for offside. Neither was.
In the last minute of normal time, a Joe Lynch shot dipped over the bar, from a Gumbs lay-off.
Joe then gave way to Alex Perry, who was to have ten minutes to make his contribution in midfield, rather than the zero that remained on the clock.
Two minutes into the six officially added, Linnets had their chance to make the points safe.
Brooky flicked the ball into the area ahead of Eden, and in an effort to prevent him from reaching it, Conteh handled.
Loud appeals from behind the goal were simultaneous with the referee pointing to the spot. Ryan buried the spot kick in the left corner, with the ’keeper diving the other way.
Surely Linnets would see out the remaining four minutes with the restored two-goal margin intact. But it still wasn’t that kind of night, and after seven of the eventual ten additional minutes, CoLFC pulled it back to 3-2.
A clearance from the Runcorn area was fired back in from the left. Bayleigh pulled off a great point-blank save, but was powerless to prevent Ismail Sonko from giving CoLFC a last ray of hope from the rebound.
There was still time for a sixth yellow card, and as it was Jack Hont’s second, for a foul ten yards inside the Purps half, he received his marching orders.
One more minute was insufficient for the ten men to grab a dramatic equaliser, and Linnets had their first competitive victory of the season.
The win bolsters Runcorn confidence for Saturday’s first tilt at an Emirates FA Cup run, with a home tie against fellow NPL West contenders Stalybridge Celtic.
The Purps will have eight days to prepare for a chance to secure their first points of the season, away to divisional newcomers Avro FC.
Runcorn Linnets: Bayleigh Passant, Harry Hagan, James Short, Jacques Welsh, Sean O’Mahony, Antony Kay, Will Saxon (Ryan Brooke, 79 mins), Joe Lynch (Alex Perry, 90 mins), Levi Chiduku (Eden Gumbs, 35 mins), Lewis Doyle, Kenny Brown. Subs not used: Peter Wylie, Josh Roberts (GK).