By David 'Bill' Davies
Travel can be a lottery during an August Bank Holiday weekend, so a trouble-free trip down the M6 to the Potteries left Linnets fans feeling the omens were good. On their last visit to Kidsgrove, on April Fools’ Day, havoc on the roads had turned the 50-minute journey into three hours.
On that day, Linnets had just managed to assemble eleven players for a start delayed by 20 minutes, for Billy Paynter’s first game in charge after the sudden departure of incumbent manager Dave Wild.
The substitutes bench filled up during the first ten minutes. The bulk of the Runcorn fans arrived at half-time, which was early enough to see the only goal of the game, by Lewis Doyle, keep their side on track for the promotion play-offs.
But on this occasion, fortunes were reversed. Smooth travel both ways was to be scant consolation for an awful Linnets performance, which made it far too easy for Kidsgrove to cruise to a 3-0 win which kept them top of the table, with maximum points from four games so far.
Persisting and new injuries rang more Runcorn changes. Sean O’Mahony was sidelined with an ankle injury sustained in Tuesday’s draw with Newcastle Town, in which he had scored the opener from inside his own half. So Peter Wylie moved into the centre of defence, while Harry Hagan returned at right-back.
With Ryan Brooke still recovering from a thigh strain, Kenny Brown now nursing a hamstring, and Harvey Sample unavailable, Linnets introduced 18-year-old Max Woodcock up front, on a month-long loan from Crewe, for whom he scored against Linnets in pre-season.
Max worked hard to find a way through the formidable Grove rearguard, but high balls up the middle quickly proved futile, as he was the best part of a foot shorter than his marker Oliver Jepson. That might be the reason Jepson’s elbow connected with Max's face in the fourth minute, but referee Connor Everard failed to see the contact.
Quick closing and tackling was an effective approach for Kidsgrove, and it was to make the difference between the teams all afternoon.
The first 15 minutes were taken up mostly with to-and-fro challenges in the middle third, punctuated by a Bayleigh Passant dive at the foot of a post to foil the first Kidsgrove attempt on goal. He caught the resulting corner.
Joe Lynch shot high when forced off balance by close defensive attention, and a pattern was set when Kieran Knapper was given far more space and time on the ball at the other end. But he shot well wide.
Runcorn free-kicks from either flank, for fouls on Woodcock and Saxon, were cleared with ease by a Grove defence with a significant height advantage over their opponents, although they are far from a tall team.
Defences got the better of a number of corners at either end of the pitch, but head tennis in the Runcorn area, and the intervention of Bayleigh Passant, contrasted with first-time clearances by Kidsgrove heads and boots. They neutralised the threat of Linnets set pieces with much greater ease.
A first Runcorn shot on target, in the 23rd minute, saw Lewis Doyle’s effort from outside the area held comfortably by Grove ’keeper Kieran Harrison.
There was no such comfort for Passant five minutes later, when a Kidsgrove free-kick on the right was met by the head of Jepson. He was unchallenged as he steered the ball into the right corner of the net.
Sam Barrett, who had returned to the Linnets line-up on the right wing having recovered from a back injury, sustained in the final pre-season outing against Ashton United, received the first yellow card of the game. He slid in on a surface made slick by persistent rain, and connected late on Jack Bromfield, on the halfway line.
Just past the half-hour mark, Sam almost made spectacular amends for the misdemeanour, with a blistering shot from outside the area that demanded a great diving save by Harrison to keep it out of the top left corner.
It was to prove the only clear-cut Linnets chance of the afternoon, and the resulting corner was cleared first time, as it would be almost every time the ball was delivered high into the Kidsgrove area.
That lesson appeared to have been learned, when a 35th-minute corner from the right was aimed at Jacques Welsh at the near post. But his low header squirted wide.
At the next Runcorn corner, Jepson claimed to have been elbowed by Antony Kay. Both players were cautioned for the ‘afters’ that ensued.
Bad tempered exchanges continued, and when Lewis Doyle went down right in front of the Runcorn dugout, the away bench rose in loud protest at Jimmy Garlick elbowing the Yellows No.10 in the face. The referee couldn’t have seen the contact, but his assistant on that side was in close attendance.
Doyle’s bleeding nose can hardly have been caused by altitude, but no offence was recorded.
The first half had yielded few chances, but given a poor Runcorn performance from back to front, the narrowest of Kidsgrove leads suggested that their own display had been far less impressive in attack than it was in defence.
That continued to be the case, as a second half unfolded in which Linnets saw much more of the ball, but rarely gave the Grove defence much to worry about. Lax defending by the visitors was the primary reason for the eventual three-goal margin.
Will Saxon, unsurprisingly, had been heavily marked out of the game by his former teammates. He did break through five minutes into the second half, but pressure on Sam Barrett forced him to curl a shot well wide when he collected Will’s pass.
Saxon, Barrett and Woodcock tried hard to find a route to goal, but their opponents gave them no space or time on the ball, and the same pressure was applied to Lynch, Doyle and Welsh in midfield.
Increasing Runcorn possession thereby came to nothing, except for countless corners which were cleared at the first attempt, with monotonous regularity.
Eden Gumbs replaced Sam Barrett after 63 minutes, and while Eden did add a bit more steel in competing for balls into the Grove third, a rock- solid defence continued to ensure that an equaliser never looked likely.
Harry Hagan’s header into the area towards Gumbs earned a corner, and for the first time in the game, a Linnets head got to a high cross first. But Peter Wylie could only steer it over the bar.
The lion’s share of possession through the third quarter of the game had yielded little of promise, and there was an air of inevitability about the doubling of Kidsgrove’s lead, with their first meaningful attack of the half.
James Short was unable to prevent Knapper’s advance up the right, and the Grove man cut inside into the area. Any one of three in blue might have dispatched his cross, but the honour fell to Aaron Bott, who prodded it past the unsupported Bayleigh Passant.
Will Saxon’s unhappy return to Kidsgrove ended with his substitution by Levi Chiduku, after 68 minutes.
The change echoed strange weather conditions for the remainder of the game. Steady rain was illuminated by bright sunlight, and Levi’s performance was a shaft of light through the dismal drizzle of a bad Linnets awayday.
Chiduku was the only man in yellow and green to make his way past the league leaders’ defence, and he did so at least half a dozen times. But his crosses and shots, and those of Doyle, Gumbs and Woodcock that were set up by Levi, achieved no more than a succession of corners. Every one was cleared at the first attempt by Jepson, Thorpe or Ofosu.
Four minutes from the end of normal time, Knapper outran the Linnets defence up the right once more, and again there were three Grove men in the area who were more likely to get in each other’s way than they were to be dispossessed by a defender.
It was Bott who drew the long straw once more, and he claimed his second of Kidsgrove’s three goals.
I heard complaints about Bayleigh Passsant. I’m not listening. It also wasn’t his fault that Linnets didn’t score.
Josh Elverstone was introduced in place of Max Woodcock, for the last minute plus mercifully few added.
A possible consolation, though not much of one, was denied when a great Chiduku run past two defenders led to a cross through the six-yard box. Thorpe slid in to intercept, before Eden Gumbs could meet the cross, and it skidded wide of the post, when it could just as easily have been an own goal.
Eden did hit the net in added time, but on the wrong side of the right post.
Chiduku’s threat was sufficient to warrant Ernest Ofosu taking a late yellow card for the team, with a cynical late trip as Levi sprinted away from the halfway line.
It was the last incident of the game, apart from a final Runcorn corner from the left. There is surely no need to describe its outcome.
Few teams will win a game 3-0 without demonstrating clear superiority in attack, but Kidsgrove did. Defensive performances decided this one.
The Grove defence allowed their opposition nothing. They scored three goals, because the Runcorn defence permitted them to do so.
Linnets fans persisted in the opinion that Garlick should have departed for his elbow on Lewis Doyle just before half-time. It was a stretch to imagine that it would have made a substantial difference to the result. The Runcorn performance just wasn’t good enough.
Four games in ten days is heavy going, but it was perhaps no bad thing that Linnets will have only 48 hours to prepare for the last of them, at home to Witton Albion on Bank Holiday Monday.
Regrouping quickly for a good day at the office would hopefully be more helpful than having more time to dwell on an undeniably bad one.
Runcorn Linnets: Bayleigh Passant, Harry Hagan, James Short, Jacques Welsh, Peter Wylie, Antony Kay, Will Saxon (Levi Chiduku, 68 mins), Joe Lynch, Max Woodcock (Josh Elverstone, 89 mins), Lewis Doyle, Sam Barrett (Eden Gumbs, 63 mins). Substitutes not used: Josh Roberts (GK), Adam Moseley.