By David 'Bill' Davies
Witton Albion made the short journey to Runcorn for the second successive August Bank Holiday, and Linnets were hoping to emulate their Pitching In Northern Premier League West victory in that first ever competitive fixture between the sides.
That was never going to be easy, with injuries throughout the squad hampering the prospect of a 48-hour bounce back from Saturday’s dismal 3-0 defeat at Kidsgrove Athletic.
Limited attacking options remained the greatest problem for Runcorn boss Billy Paynter, but the only personnel change from Saturday’s starting line-up was the return of Eden Gumbs to the No.9 shirt.
Recent loan signing Max Woodcock moved wide with Sam Barratt retreating to the right-back berth, while Harry Hagan withdrew to the bench.
Linnets had scored eight competitive goals so far this season, with eight joint top scorers, all on one each.
Eden was to make a very telling contribution, moving to the top of the chart with two more, but the bounce that Billy had demanded was delivered right through the team. The eventual 4-2 victory was the very least a stirring home performance warranted.
Witton started positively, with an early free-kick for a ‘nothing’ tackle by Lewis Doyle, promptly cleared by Peter Wylie. Peter’s head was first to almost every high ball into the Runcorn area all afternoon.
The visitors kept up the pressure, and in the fifth minute, three separate stabs at goal were thwarted by Linnets defenders getting in the way, rather than by defending with much visible assurance.
That trend was not to continue, as the Runcorn defence went on to perform with the confidence that had been sadly lacking 48 hours earlier.
I beg forgiveness if I am unable to accurately put names to many of Witton’s endeavours, but the numbers on their tangerine away shirts, picked out in thin black outline, were illegible from more than 20 yards away.
Attacking wide man Elliot Rokka had an advantage in being iudentified, as he hasn’t changed much since your reporter taught him to drive, seven years ago.
Linnets started to find their feet, with Max Woodcock looking a real threat from wide on the left. His first shot was blocked for a corner, and his next, deftly backheeled, was cleared to just beyond the 18-yard line, from where Joe Lynch unleashed a rocket to give Runcorn a seventh-minute lead.
It was just the confidence boost they needed, and they took possession and kept it, with quick passing moves. A free-kick from a foul on Joe Lynch set up a Sam Barratt cross which eluded Eden Gumbs’ head by a couple of feet, as it curled in on the stiff downhill breeze.
The ball was soon back in the area again, where Woodcock went down a little too easily to secure a penalty. Referee Jordan Crossley was refreshingly reluctant to penalise innocuous physical contact, with one notable late exception.
There were still only 14 minutes on the clock when the Runcorn lead was doubled from a move, superbly engineered by Sam Barratt. He won a 50-50 challenge with Rokka, ten yards inside the Linnets half, from where he glided past two more opponents up the right wing, and delivered a perfect cross for Eden Gumbs to place a glancing header past Albion ’keeper Harry Wright and into the far corner.
Witton attempted to hit back quickly. Joe Mwasile dived to head on target, but shoved Joe Lynch in the back to get to it, and a distant swipe by Connor Hughes curled harmlessly wide, with the Linnets back line holding the opposition well away from goal.
In between, a Linnets free-kick ran too fast for Will Saxon’s charge up the right, and Sam Barratt shot high, after Gumbs and Welsh had cut through the defence with a neat one-two.
Connor Hughes reached the Linnets area, under close attention from Wylie, but his comical dive for a penalty failed to impress the referee. It didn’t warrant a yellow card, but Hughes did collect one seconds later, for a trip from behind on Lewis Doyle.
Jacques Welsh collected the next caution, for a scissor challenge on Rokka. The free-kick was from a tempting 30 yards, but James Lawrie wastefully launched it way over the roof above the Murdishaw Massive.
The pace had slowed somewhat, with breaks forward coming more from Linnets than from Albion, but after a pair of Runcorn corners had been successfully defended, the hosts were caught out on the break.
A long clearance reached Joe Duckworth, who outpaced Antony Kay into the area. Bayleigh Passant blocked his shot, but it rebounded to Connor Hughes, who was unmarked as he halved the deficit with ease.
The Linnets fans hoped that an imperious first half-hour from their team wouldn’t prove to be a false dawn.
There was a concern that the home midfield were operating a little too confidently upfield, which required Sam Barratt to cover centrally, leaving Oli Roberts and Elliot Rokka too much space on the left.
When Roberts broke away to the goal-line, it fell to a back-tracking Will Saxon to dispossess him, for Bayleigh Passant to pick up. Then Bayleigh held on well to a 30-yard drive from Rokka, who had intercepted a crossfield pass played too slowly by Antony Kay.
Peter Wylie continued to keep himself in the frame for man of the match, as he raced back to catch Hughes’ sprint into the area, and crucially diverted the ball away for a corner.
Linnets ended the first half on the attack. Woodcock, Welsh and Barratt all attempted shots amid a game of pinball in the Albion area.
The last minute of the half, plus added time, were taken up mostly by yellow cards. James Short took one for a risky low slide tackle on Elliot Rokka, before the Witton No.7 received one of his own for a thigh-high lunge at Sam Barratt.
Max Woodcock tempted the card back out of Mr Crossley’s pocket for taking a long shot at goal from wide on the left, well after the whistle had gone for his foul in shrugging off Mike Koral.
Half-time conversation among the home fans centred on the vast improvement in their team’s efforts compared with Saturday’s, and hopes that it would continue sufficiently to extend a lead that should have been more comfortable than 2-1.
Those hopes were rewarded within three minutes of the restart. Witton started the second half on the front foot, but were caught cold when Antony Kay fired a long ball ahead of Max Woodcock. He timed his run past Koral perfectly, to defy any claims for offside, and drilled it home from just inside the area, restoring the two-goal margin.
A bout of challenges both ways in the middle third earned a yellow card apiece, for Wylie and Lawrie, before Witton wasted a decent chance when Duckworth was too slow to reach Hughes’ through-ball into the area.
The 3-1 cushion persuaded Linnets to catch their breath, and allow Witton to secure more possession, but Runcorn were composed and confident in defence, with Doyle, Lynch and Welsh sitting deeper to reinforce the resolve of the back four.
They defied Albion attempts to find a way through on the ground, and when the visitors resorted to high balls up the middle, or from either wing, Peter Wylie’s head was the first port of call with monotonous regularity.
Eden Gumbs took the game to the Witton penalty area once more, with defenders bouncing off him like bullets off Robocop. The referee waved away appeals that Eden had fouled any of them, but the ball was scrambled away from six yards out.
Joe Mwasile looked like the man most likely to breach the Runcorn defence, but his forays up the right were cut out by James Short, with industrious support from Max Woodcock.
After 63 minutes, Elliot Rokka was subbed by Ryan Baxter, and with a little more than 20 minutes remaining, Albion perhaps unwisely swapped danger man Mwasile for Harry Cain. At the same time, Woodcock ended a fine performance by making way for Levi Chiduku.
But those changes straddled the conclusive incident of the game. It was surely over as contest when Welsh and Lynch won the ball in the middle of the pitch, and Joe passed into the area ahead of Gumbs. Eden again defied Fogerty and Hitchcox to force him off the ball, and he sidestepped Harry Wright’s attempted dive at his feet to stroke home his second goal, and Linnets’ fourth.
There were penalty appeals at both ends of the pitch, for shirt-pulls on Joe Lynch and Kingsley Williams. The latter was rewarded with only a corner, which Bayleigh Passant punched well clear.
Adam Moseley replaced Will Saxon for the last 15 minutes, and Adam’s fresh legs tormented the Witton defence, as he picked up balls forward from Sam Barratt and Antony Kay, who had maintained a highly-vocal general’s role while playing through a calf strain he had felt during the pre-matvh warm up.
Seven minutes from time, Moseley beat three men before knocking a pass back for James Short. He caught the Albion defence, and ’keeper Wright, off guard with a curling shot from 30 yards, which flew less than a yard wide of the left post.
Wright did well to save at the feet of Moseley, after his brilliant 30-yard run reached the corner of the six-yard box.
In the final minute of normal time, four Witton passes left Williams in possession, wide of the left post. It was somewhat surprising when referee Crossley, who had been far from picky, judged Peter Wylie’s tackle to be severe enough to warrant a penalty.
Duckworth found the bottom left corner with the spot-kick, as Passant opted to dive the other way.
Four minutes of added time were seen out mostly with composed Runcorn possession, and the only remaining incident was a collision between Harry Cain and Bayleigh Passant.
James Short was closer to Passant than Cain was, when the Linnets ’keeper dropped on to a low through ball into the area, but the Albion sub followed through with both feet, leaving Bayleigh requiring physio attention.
It appeared to warrant a yellow card at least as much as any of those previously presented, but Mr Crossley seemed to think that seven were enough for one day.
The 4-2 Linnets win, which was Witton’s first league defeat, was comprehensively deserved, and if the margin flattered anyone, it was the visitors.
Bucket Hatt Motty, aka Sam Phillips, pulled rank to choose Jacques Welsh from an array of worthy candidates for man of the match. The most popular rival to Jacques for the accolade was Eden Gumbs, whose contribution was undoubtedly game changing. But I also found it hard to imagine that Peter Wylie could ever do more to earn a bottle of fizz.
Linnets fans had been itching to see Eden bag a well-deserved hat-trick, and I later asked him why he had spent the closing minutes lying deeper, when a treble was on the cards. ‘Mr Runcorn’ candidly explained that he was feeling very tired. Those may not have been his precise words.
Resurgent league form was timely, before a cup double over the forthcoming two weekends.
Linnets travel up the M6 to Charnock Richard on Saturday September 2nd, in the FA Cup First Qualifying Round, before entertaining Witton Albion again seven days later, at the same stage of the Isuzu FA Trophy.
Runcorn Linnets: Bayleigh Passant, Sam Barratt, James Short, Jacques Welsh, Peter Wylie, Antony Kay, Will Saxon (Adam Moseley, 76 mins), Joe Lynch, Eden Gumbs, Lewis Doyle, Max Woodcock (Levi Chiduku, 69 mins). Substitutes not used: Harry Hagan, Josh Roberts (GK), Josh Elverstone.