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Match report - Leek Town 3 Runcorn Linnets 0

By Dave Bettley

Runcorn Linnets' hopes of the Pitching In Northern Premier League West Division title are all but gone with the pendulum having swung even more in favour of Leek after this emphatic victory.

The Staffordshire side have been knocking on the promotion door for even longer than Linnets, who will now almost certainly have to navigate the play-offs again in pursuit of a Step 3 place.

Runcorn have triumphed in semi-finals at Leek in the last two seasons but the hosts exacted full revenge this time.

Now 12 points clear of second-placed Runcorn, the leaders are on course for a championship landslide.

Leek have now gone 17 games undefeated since losing at APEC Taxis Stadium earlier this season with Saturday's result representing an eight-goal swing on the 5-0 victory enjoyed by Billy Paynter's men.

Runcorn have an excellent record at Harrison Park but they never looked like extending the run of success.

Had they performed to anything like their true selves in the first half, Runcorn might have had half a chance of completing their mission to cut the arrears on the leaders to six.

But Linnets were well below par. The single-goal interval lead was the least Leek would have expected or deserved for their domination.

The home side's threat from free-kicks and corners tellingly unsettled Linnets and they were much the sharper in attack throughout against a nervy away outfit.

In front from the 10th minute, the tabletoppers could have gone into the break with a couple more set-piece goals.

There was a question mark over the referee's decision to award the free-kick, which had led to Leek's opener - Sam Barratt being penalised for a dubious foul.

Tom Scully's delivery from the left was spot on but Runcorn's unease in defending it was costly and symptomatic of their performance.

They made it all too easy for Julius Ndene for the centre back to meet the ball on the six-yard line with the deftest of volleys.

Ndene was to miss an even simpler chance when gifted a free header at the far post from a right-wing corner.

Runcorn were static and subdued. The sum total of their attacking efforts before half-time was an Antony Kay header, also from a corner, which was comfortably wide.

Manager Paynter would have been grateful for the opportunity to address the issues in his interval team talk.

His main gambit was to introduce Ryan Brooke, giving Olly Molloy much-needed company with right winger Kieran Knapper being sacrificed.

Runcorn's wide players were for the most part disappointing but not alone in that.

Brooke's arrival on the scene gave Leek's defence more to think about and Linnets had the leaders under pressure for the third quarter of the contest.

Suddenly, they were hurrying the opposition into mistakes and winning second balls in Leek territory, putting the leaders on the back foot for the first time.

Linnets still couldn't carve out a clear opening to goal.

But the visitors were irate when Lewis Doyle's free-kick, from an almost identical position to that from which Leek had scored, seemed to be paddled away at the back stick by the arm of airborne centre back Oliver Harrison.

Vehement Runcorn appeals for a penalty for handball brought only a caution for Jacques Welsh, referee Daniel Smith deciding that the midfielder had overstepped the mark with his protests.

The visitors sensed there might yet be something positive for them from the game - until they conceded again.

Lost possession in the final third provided Leek with fresh impetus to hit Linnets on the break.

Thomas Carr, who had been pushed up in support of the unrelenting Rob Stevenson - the division's joint leading marksman - upon the withdrawal of co-striker Tim Grice, sprinted way from Sean O'Mahony down the right.

O'Mahony had misjudged the bounce of a deflected pass along the touchline. 

Staying on Carr's heels, but never catching up, the centre half realised that any kind of contact would have led to inevitable dismissal. He had to rely on Carr making a mess of the chance.

But the near-post finish was composed and clinical. With 19 minutes left, Runcorn were left with  double their early deficit.

Linnets tried to rally again, Barratt shooting wide while Welsh came as close as Runcorn had all game, his effort on the turn being cleared off the line.

But the task was now beyond the visitors and Leek removed any lingering doubt two minutes from time.

Tom Reilly, having substituted for Grice on threequarter time, made Linnets pay for a risky exchange of passes in and around their own area. O'Mahony and Welsh had both played the ball back to Passant in the hope of him being able to launch it back upfield.

The 'keeper only succeeded in hitting the ball at Carr and Reilly reacted first to knock the ball home as Passant tried desperately to rescue the situation.

It had been a chastening afternoon for Runcorn, who had set out with such high hopes.

But Leek performed much the better and punished Linnets with three goals which were all partly of the away side's making.

With Leek having one hand firmly on the league winners' trophy, it will take a huge shift in fortunes to deny them now.

Still in a strong position, Linnets will dust themselves down and prepare for the visit this coming Saturday of Bootle, another of the prime play-off contenders.

Runcorn Linnets: Bayleigh Passant, Sam Barratt, James Short, Jacques Welsh, Sean O'Mahonyl Antony Kay (Peter Wylie, 74 mins), Kieran Knapper (Ryan Brooke, 47 mins), Lewis Doyle, Ollie Molloy, Will Saxon, Mackenzie O'Neill. Subs not used: Adam Moseley, Josh Roberts, Eric Byrne.

Attendance: 973.

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