By David 'Bill' Davies
The opening game of the 2023-24 league season in Pitching In NPL West saw the visit of Chasetown, who travelled from their Staffordshire home to the APEC Taxis Stadium for only the second time.
Linnets had faced Chasetown twice in 2018-19, Runcorn's first as a Step 4 club,winning both encounters by a 2-1 scoreline. A prompt reorganisation of the leagues saw the Scholars move into the South East Division for a couple of seasons before spending the last two in the Midlands Division from where they were laterally moved back to the West this summer.
They struck a first blow of ‘revenge’ on Runcorn in a very closely-contested game. Linnets’ pointless start to the season boiled down to two minutes of poor defending early in the second half, and three great saves by Chasetown ’keeper James Wren.
Linnets started brightly, and won a first-minute corner that resulted in a Jacques Welsh shot, which flew wide of the right post.
A second early opportunity came from Joe Lynch’s through ball for Lewis Doyle in the fourth minute.
Lewis looked certain to score from 15 yards out, but Wren pulled off a brilliant close-range save.
Superstitious Runcorn fans might have felt that it was a harbinger of a disappointing day at the office for Linnets, and by 4.50pm, it would have been a tough task to argue with them.
On a thankfully dry afternoon, for a change, a stiff breeze was blowing unusually across the pitch, from the main stand side, but from around the 15-minute mark, the wind swivelled to blow in the more customary direction, behind Linnets and towards the Forest End.
Clearances from Wren were slowing and climbing as they reached the halfway line, and a powerful 30-yard drive by Chasetown’s Sam Wilding was at zero velocity by the time Bailey Passant gathered it outside his six-yard box.
Chasetown’s Danny O’Callaghan achieved the accolade of his team’s first yellow card of the season, for a late challenge on Will Saxon. The resulting free-kick flew too high for Ryan Brooke to meet it in the area.Both sides endeavoured to exploit possession on the ground, but few chances materialised either way, in a first half that was characterised by ‘crab football’.
Passing sideways and backwards had nothing to do with tactical negativity. It was a triumph of effective marking and closing down, so that every man in possession found an opponent instantly blocking his way forward.
The result was speculative attempts on goal from distance, by both sides. Welsh, Doyle and Brooke all shot wide or high from well outside the penalty area, while Chasetown specialised in shots or headers that cleared the bar.
Will Saxon provided a threat from the Runcorn left. A 21st-minute shot was saved well at ground level by Wren, and four minutes later, Will was refused an optimistic penalty appeal when his solo run into the area was halted by a third tackle.
The Scholars had clearly identified Saxon as the key Runcorn threat so far, and Sam Wilding took a yellow card for the team with a cynical trip to stop his sprint into the Chasetown half.
Five minutes before the break, a hopeful 30-yard dig by Joe Lynch cleared the crossbar by no more than a foot, but the ’keeper had it covered anyway. Will Saxon received a yellow card for dissent, when he won two tackles to keep possession on the left touchline, only for the referee to declare that the ball had gone out off the Runcorn winger, rather than his opponent.
Will rightly claimed that it had been the contrary, but the card was inevitable and pointless.
Chasetown had the last word of the half, with a free-kick from a clumsy Peter Wylie challenge.
Will Saxon was winded in blocking the resulting cross from the right, and conceded a corner that was cleared by the head of Antony Kay.
At half-time, any neutrals among the crowd of 613 might have recycled the cliche that a tightly-contested game ‘needed a goal’.
Linnets fans would be disappointed to see them proved right, as Chasetown bagged a pair inside two minutes, from the first two defensive lapses of the season.
Runcorn attacked from the restart, but were caught unawares on the break. Jack Langston was left in space on the edge of the area to collect a through-ball and convert off the left post, beyond Bayleigh Passant’s full-length dive, after 48 minutes.
Peter Wylie’s attacking run up the left was halted by a block from Oli Hayward, and it left Runcorn exposed as Chasetown headed downwind.
O’Callaghan’s attempted shot from the penalty arc was blocked by Antony Kay, but the ball ran loose to Luke Yates on the left side of the area.
Passant advanced and dived at his feet, but couldn’t hold on to the ball, and Yates steadied himself to convert into an empty net.
The stalemate of the first half had been based on closely-matched quality from both sides.
The rest of the game was more haphazard, as Linnets chased the game and the Scholars set about securing the three points.
Runcorn boss Billy Paynter inevitably turned the dial towards attack, replacing Peter Wylie with new signing Kenny Brown, with Eden Gumbs retreating into the left-back berth that he reluctantly fills very well.Chasetown, just as inevitably, turned their attention to the clock, slowing the pace at every opportunity, and suffering aches and pains from physical contact as never before.
Kenny Brown’s first contribution was a powerful run in from the right and a pass inside for Joe Lynch, who shot a foot wide of the left post, with the ’keeper beaten.
With 30 minutes remaining, Will Saxon gave way to Levi Chiduku, while Chasetown replaced Jayden Campbell with Alex Melbourne. Ryan Shaw was next to collect a yellow card, for a deliberately late lunge on Joe Lynch, as the Linnets midfielder shaped to pass from the middle of the Chasetown half.Levi Chiduku posed a repeated threat to the visitors for the remainder of the game.
He was inches away from connecting with Ryan Brooke’s through ball from the right, with only James Wren in front of him, and in the 68th minute, he caught the Scholars’ defence cold, cutting inside from the right and converting past Wren into the bottom left corner.
With the margin reduced to one, Chasetown couldn’t rely on applying the brakes. Their defending became more frantic, but they also got forward with more urgency, and the wind at their backs.
Linnets operated an effective back three, comprising O’Mahony, Kay and Passant, scooping up Chasetown’s long clearances, and advancing towards the clubhouse end from the back. Runcorn ’keeper Bayleigh spent as much of the last 20 minutes outside his area as inside it, and his ability with his feet shouldn’t ever be underestimated.
A goalkeeper who can play as a defender keeps ten team-mates available for a pass, and saves precious seconds, removing the need for defenders to chase back into their own third to regain possession.
With 15 minutes remaining, Chasetown launched a long ball into the Linnets half. Danny O’Callaghan went down clutching his knee, after a collison with Antony Kay, and referee Arran Williams saw fit to caution the Runcorn centre-half.
From my elevated vantage point, it seemed clear that O’Callaghan had run into Kay, and the knee injury that required his replacement by Levi Rowley was clearly self-inflicted.
Rowley’s very first touch was a shot from inside the penalty area, demanding an excellent save from Passant.
After Bayleigh had fielded the resulting corner, both sides made a further change. Chasetown replaced Ryan Shaw with Tom Turton, and Alex Perry joined his brother Jacques Welsh on the pitch, in place of Lewis Doyle.
Chasetown were far from content to sit back and protect their lead, but the last ten minutes of normal time, plus five added, were taken up by almost continuous Linnets pressure.
After exchanging passes with Eden Gumbs up the left, Levi Chiduku tried to catch Wren off guard from distance, but the prevailing wind slowed the shot to make it an easy catch for the Scholars stopper.
After neat work by Gumbs and Brown on the left, a great Joe Lynch curler drew ‘oohs’ from around the ground, as it cleared the top right angle by inches rather than feet.
Added time was a siege at the clubhouse end, with stoic Scholars defending preventing Brooke, Chiduku, Brown or Lynch from seriously testing Wren.
But the ‘keeper did have to convince the Green and Yellow that it wasn’t to be their day, with a magnificent tip over the bar from a Jacques Welsh rocket, which had looked goalbound all the way.
A last Linnets chance came from a free-kick for a shirt-pull on Kenny Brown, but that was cleared, and Chasetown had their first three points of the season.
Linnets certainly didn’t deserve to end Day One empty handed, and they have only three days to wait to rectify matters, with an away fixture against City of Liverpool on Tuesday August 15th, kick-off 7.45pm.
Runcorn Linnets: Bayleigh Passant. Harry Hagan, Peter Wylie (Kenny Brown 52), Jacques Welsh, Sean O’Mahony, Antony Kay, Will Saxon (Levi Chiduku 59), Joe Lynch, Ryan Brooke, Lewis Doyle (Alex Perry 78), Eden Gumbs. Substitute not used: James Short.
SUPER SUBS: Kenny Brown (left) after setting up Runcorn's goal by fellow substitute Levi Chiduku. Picture by Tom Paul