12th September 2020, Runcorn Linnets FC v Albion Sports AFC : 2-0 Sponsored by Hedley Edwards
Runcorn saw its first competitive football in the usual way - with an FA Cup Preliminary Round tie: a first ever meeting with Albion Sports.
The visitors from Bradford are members of the North East Counties Premier Division, one pyramid step below the hosts.
New manager (we'll stop calling him that soon) Calum McIntyre fielded a line-up including only four players, who ended the ill-fated 2019-20 season in yellow and green, a likely fifth in Peter Wylie suspended, and new faces representing an array of talent demonstrated in the pre-season campaign.
An impressive 384, just 16 short of the newly-doubled maximum allowed, were there to see it.
The 2-0 victory suggests a comfortable enough progress into the first qualifying round, but it implies no disrespect to a very able Albion Sports to say that the margin could have been very much greater.
It's a compliment to their defensive abilities, and a superb performance by goalkeeper Declan Lambert, that it wasn't.
The game was only two minutes old when he had to make a fine save to keep out a sweeping shot from left-back James Short from just inside the left touchline.
Two ensuing corners looked threatening, with centre-half Spencer Gordon just preventing a Ben Wharton header from severely testing Lambert.
It was only two minutes later that a 20-yard free-kick from Craig Lindfield narrowly cleared the top-right corner. It was to be one of many attempts to shave or hit the woodwork, often with the assistance of the Albion No1.
The early possession and pressure all came from the hosts, and it was the eighth minute before a man in away sky blue had the ball in the Runcorn half, when a hopeful long range free-kick floated tamely into the arms of Paddy Wharton for his his first contribution as a Runcorn player, having signed in time for the game.
Rather like his fellow new custodian, Ryan Nield after the Vauxhall friendly, we were left waiting to judge his true mettle. Thanks to a commanding performance from the Runcorn rearguard, he had little more to test him all afternoon.
Another Linnets corner had been cleared after Jacques Welsh's near-post header, when Sports' giant
centre-back Kamron Basi made an early exit with what looked like a hamstring pull, being replaced by Ben McCready.
Runcorn pressure was resumed, with Brown and Murray combining on the right to create headaches for the visiting defence and seeking to set up Wharton, Lindfield and Brooke to cause trouble in front of goal.
It's a joy to watch the young Welsh wizard Iwan Murray wrestle with the dilemma of whether to set up a teammate or take everybody on and score.
He can do both in style, and the opposition clearly agreed, resorting to a number of trips and fouls to prevent either.
In the first quarter of the game, rare forays into the Runcorn half by Sports were limited to sideways possession, which was dealt with by Lycett and Welsh in the middle.
Overlapping defensive work by the full-backs plus Turner and Nolan from midfield prevented this from developing into anything more offensive.
The first Albion shot came after 20 minutes, when a corner on the right was hit long and a follow-up ball from the left found Charlie Flaherty outside the area. But he fired a swerving shot wide and high over the fence to the right of the goal.
The middle of the half saw a decided drop in Linnets possession and pressure, but not for long.
On 24 minutes, a timely intervention by right-back Ryan Clay prevented Lindfield giving it both barrels from 22 yards, and shortly afterwards an Ally Brown cross from wide right was headed narrowly over by Ryan Brooke.
Then Wharton, back to goal, won the ball twice from his twin markers inside the left corner of the penalty area and turned inside to curl a right-footed shot that clattered off the right end of the bar.
Seconds later, a 20-yard Lindfield shot drew a vital parry for a corner from Lambert. You sensed that trouble was brewing for the visitors, and it was.
Just before the half-hour, Murray took possession in the right side of the area under pressure and pulled it back inside for Joe Nolan to bury a shot into the far corner, giving the 'keeper no chance.
The hosts kept up the pressure. Flaherty got to a Lindfield free-kick aimed perfectly for the head of Wharton, to concede a corner and another following Clay's trip on Murray evaded the head of Brooke inside the six-yard box by a whisker.
Then after a neat Murray-Wharton one-two, Iwan was felled by Clay with no obvious designs on the ball, but the largely-excellent referee, Callum Jones saw no offence.
There were seven minutes to the break when Brown left three defenders in his wake, cutting in from the right inside the goal line, and crossed through a crowded six-yard box.
It deflected to Lindfield near the far post. The Linnets captain, standing in for newly-appointed skipper Wylie, couldn't miss - and he didn't.
It was 2-0, and could already have been several more if not for Albion defenders being quick to limit shooting room, and Lambert being in the right place at the right time. Nobody could fault him for either goal.
The first Albion Sports possession for quite some time in the Linnets half ensued three minutes from the break, but again the defence didn't give an inch or a second for intruders in blue to find an open window.
The Bradfordians could play, but they saw out the first half looking like a team who were aware they were striving to compete with opponents from a level above.
In added time, a precision long ball by Scott Lycett from outside his own penalty area into the path of Wharton brought a shot by the No9 that rattled the bar for the third time in the half - and only after Lambert's fingertips had deflected it upwards.
It allowed a follow-up by Brown just inside the six-yard box that drew a fine reflex block by Lambert. The man in bright orange had thoroughly earned his half-time brew.
The home fans had to be impressed with the first 45 minutes of competitive football by the new-look Linnets. If there was any reservation, it might be about the exploitation of Ben Wharton's calibre as a powerful target man.
In his brief Runcorn career before Covid lockdown, I was not alone in feeling that there was a need for more poaching from his prowess at winning the ball upfront and holding it up.
Having won the ball, too often he was left to finish the resulting chances himself. There were still shades of that in this game.
Things were a little different in the second half. There was a visible pattern of attacking triangles involving Wharton, Murray and Lindfield, fed by crosses from Brown and Short on either side, and from Turner, Brooke and Welsh through the middle.
It gave the Sports defence and midfield a demanding workload, and required continued vigilence from Declan Lambert, but they were largely equal to the challenge.
Lesser teams could have been on the receiving end of a hiding.
Chances continued, but no sitters were missed. Before the hour mark, a Murray shot from a Turner through ball skirted the left post; Iwan's run from a ball won in the centre circle was slipped left to Short, whose hard cross demanded a timely punch by Lambert; it took three defenders to subdue Lindfield after a one-two with Wharton; Wharton's header down to Murray for a cross to Lindfield to turn and shoot was thwarted by a great tackle from Ryan Clay, injured in the process; Gordon intervened in similar fashion to limit Brooke to a toe-poke that trickled wide.
This might read like the tunnel-vision of a 'homer' reporter, ignoring the opposition's attacking efforts, but there really were very few openings made at the other end.
It wasn't all one-way traffic, but when Albion got forward, Linnets' work as a defensive unit left the other Wharton with little to worry about.
With half an hour remaining, Sports did get the ball in the net, but the defence had stopped chasing as the combination effort was well offside.
At the other end, Ben Wharton was also offside when Murray slipped two defenders and passed to him at the second attempt, the first having rebounded off the heels of Gordon.
On 67, a Runcorn dynasty took shape, with Tom Ruffer replacing Ryan Brooke. The former Chester FC youth is the son of 90s Runcorn FC centre-back and captain Carl. Tom's focus is on attack, and he made determined attempts to get on the end of crosses by Brown, Short and Lindfield without finding a decisive way past tireless defensive work and the continued excellence of Lambert.
In the closing minutes, a curling Ruffer shot also went just wide of the post.
Murray's last involvement before being replaced by Adam Barthram was when he broke away from the 'triangle' to go it alone, and scraped the right post and side netting.
Between those two events, an Albion attempt echoed Flaherty's early effort, swerving high and wide to the right.
Runcorn's last sub was Louis Hayes, after Turner had taken a heavy knock in the centre circle.
Twice more Craig Lindfield was within a foot of the target, from a 25-yard free-kick and after a neat pass out right by Wharton.
The final chance came as Ruffer and Barthram combined to provide a cross into the six-yard box. For once, Lambert fumbled, but Wharton couldn't get a firm enough contact to prod it home, and Gordon scrambled clear.
Reading this report back, it suggests a catalogue of missed chances in a game that should have resulted in a thumping Runcorn victory. It wasn't like that.
Both sides deserved a great deal of credit - the hosts for achieving a vast amount of controlled possession from the back to the front, to build meaningful opportunities; the visitors for allowing minimal space and time to be able turn them into
chances that really should have been converted.
The league programme begins next Saturday, 19th September, at Pontefract Collieries.
Linnets get to rub their hands in anticipation of the next step on the road to Wembley, and to wonder how the entertaining regime of a quick and accurate passing game will transfer from our sublime new carpet of a pitch to different surfaces.
Kick-off is scheduled fot 3pm. If it's at 2.58 like last year, hopefully we won't be a goal down by 3.00. Where's a winking emoji when you need one?
Runcorn Linnets: Paddy Wharton, Ally Brown, James Short, Joe Nolan, Scott Lycett, Jacques Welsh, Craig Lindfield, Alex Turner (Louis Hayes 81), Ben Wharton, Iwan Murray (Adam Barthram 75), Ryan Brooke (Tom Ruffer 67).
NB. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Runcorn Linnets FC or its Board.
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