The Northern Premier League

2nd January 2023, Witton Albion v Runcorn Linnets FC : 4-2

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Linnets returned to the home of their first four seasons, from 2006, to face old friends Witton Albion in the first fixture of 2023.

They were hoping to bounce back from a disappointing end to 2022, with only a point from the games against bottom-three sides Widnes and City of Liverpool.

Their bench featured two new attacking teenagers.Former Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End winger Vaughn Green had joined over the New Year weekend from Bamber Bridge, and manager Dave Wild celebrated his birthday by announcing the signing of Malick Diakite who had provided a persistent attacking threat for Clitheroe, when Linnets celebrated Bonfire Night with a hard-fought 1-0 win up in Lancashire.

In the event, Runcorn were unable to give Wildy the present of any points. While a catalogue of decisions from the day's officials might be most diplomatically described as baffling, it became an uphill battle after Linnets allowed Albion to score two goals far too easily inside the opening 23 minutes.

They fought back with admirable determination, and scored twice themselves within another nine minutes, although the officials failed to see that Jamie Rainford's second was blocked - and cleared from - at least two feet behind the goal line.The scoreline therefore stayed at 2-1.

Jamie did complete a brace just three minutes into the second half, but the recent Runcorn trend of conceding goals on the break saw Witton ahead again within two more minutes.

Albion put the game to bed with a fourth goal in added time, again after breaking 80 yards out of defence.

Alarm bells should have rung over the need to defend rapid pitch-long attacks, as early as the fourth minute.

James Short and Eden Gumbs fashioned the first assault of the game up the left, and Mike Koral did well to get ahead of Eden to shield the ball out of play.

From their goal-kick, Witton had two shots at goal in quick succession, Danny Taberner having to recover swiftly to save both.

Albion pressure continued, and when Sam Heathcote's header from a corner on the left didn't travel far enough to reach safety, Joe Duckworth was one of three men in red and white stripes in too much open space, and he easily gave the home side an eighth-minute lead.

Linnets set out to redress the balance with urgency, but more time on the ball, rather than quick long passes, might have made it harder for Albion to intervene.

An excellent Tom Moore ball from inside the left touchline found Ryan Brooke wide on the right, and his cross was met by a Rainford volley that was blocked at close range.

Change came early to the Witton defence when Ben Harrison limped off to be replaced by Oliver Hitchcox, but Linnets struggled to benefit from the disruption, with their passing game looking disjointed and clumsy.

Speaking of clumsy, Witton scorer Duckworth appeared lucky to escape a yellow card when he brought down Sidi Sanogo's forward charge into the Albion third. The free-kick gave Sanogo and Rainford a half-chance between them, beyond the right post, but the ball was scrambled away.

Eden Gumbs won a corner when Koral intercepted his cross from the goal line on the left, and Sam Heathcote and Ryan Brooke both attempted shots from James Short's cross, but neither found a way through to test Albion 'keeper Ollie Martin.

Witton were awarded a free-kick 35 yards from goal, for Sidi's back-tracking tackle on Kingsley Williams, and when the ball ran loose from the ensuing ball into the area, Elliot Rokka hit a peach of a shot to put his side two ahead.

Rokka had been the first player to score against Linnets during the managerial tenure of Michael Ellison, in a 2016 pre-season friendly against Radcliffe. At the time, your correspondent was teaching Elliot to drive. A car, rather than a football.

Recent question marks over the solidity of the Runcorn defence, which had been the least generous in the NPL West during the first four months of the season, remained. But Linnets showed determination to apply some firepower at the other end of the pitch, recognising that they really shouldn't have been two goals behind.

Ally Brown did very well to catch a runaway ball up the right wing and keep it in play, delivering a cross which was met by a bullet of an Eden Gumbs shot from the edge of the area. Martin pulled off a great save to palm it over the bar, but that denied Linnets a reply by mere seconds.

Martin punched the resulting corner, but only as far as Jamie Rainford inside the far corner of the six-yard box, and he dispatched a cracker of a hooked shot through the crowd and into the net, on the half-hour mark.

Just two minutes later, Jamie struck again, as Runcorn men queued up to connect with Lewis Doyle's free-kick from inside the right touchline. His shot from six yards out was blocked by a defender standing a yard behind the line, and instant Linnets celebrations turned to protestations, as play continued.

From his head-on view, referee Daniel Tyas couldn't have seen that the ball had crossed the line, but the assistant on the right was no more than two yards from the corner flag, and surely had to be able to see the whole of the ball through the side netting. It was as clear as Frank Lampard's famous non-goal against Germany in the 2010 World Cup, which predated goal line technology by two years.

England ultimately lost that game 4-1, but it has often been argued that, had England been correctly declared level at 2-2, the final outcome might have been very different. Therein lies the direct parallel with events at Wincham Park. But England's overall performance was as questionable as that of the officials, so the echoes continue.

While injustice prompted ever more urgent attacking intent from the yellow and green, Linnets fans continued to wince when Witton responded, as Williams, Rokka and Duckworth were still given too much time and space on the ball in dangerous areas.

A final chance for Runcorn to level before half-time came when Rainford passed for Short to cross into the six-yard box. Martin held on, and Brooke was penalised for continuing his challenge for the ball.

Witton's Jordan Barrow replaced Cameron Fogarty at half-time.

Linnets started the second half determined to achieve the parity they should have already had, and did so within three minutes. But it was to be short lived.

James Short led the way, with two sprints and crosses from the left. After the first was cleared, Harry McGee received a yellow card for an altercation with the Runcorn captain. Shorty's next ball in was controlled by Jamie Rainford at the edge of the area. He turned and delivered his second touch into the far corner, with Ollie Martin clutching at air.

Celebrations between Runcorn players and their fans behind the goal reflected the belief that honours were belatedly even, and that the visitors would go on to take control.

That faith was tested just two minutes later, and sluggish Linnets defending in the face of rapid attacking on the break, proved costly once again. A long ball into the area was anticipated by Danny Taberner, but he was a fraction slow to meet it, and he was chipped by Duckworth, his second goal putting Witton 3-2 ahead.

It was unknown how many of the 819 bank holiday crowd were neutrals, but it must have been an entertaining match for any groundhoppers.

Albion remained on the offensive, winning two corners in quick succession, both dealt with by Taberner.

Linnets threw bodies forward in the effort to level again, and care was needed to avoid yet more vulnerability on the break.

Malick Diakite waited on the touchline for a full five minutes to make his Linnets debut, as the ball remained in play from half to half, without any threat to either goal.

That was ironic, given that the remaining half an hour, including added time, after his introduction in place of Eden Gumbs, was punctuated by an endless catalogue of free-kicks resulting from almost every challenge. The great majority of those were awarded to Albion.

Most of the Runcorn threat during the second half came from the crosses of former Witton man James Short, and Gumbs' final contribution came when he combined with Rainford to capitalise on a Short ball into the area. They were crowded out by Koral and Harrison, and then another Short cross was held crucially by Martin, with Rainford running in on goal behind him.

Jamie came within a foot of completing his hat-trick on 64 minutes, when he powered just over the bar, from Ryan Brooke's pass.

Within seconds of coming on for his Linnets debut, Malick Diakite was fouled by Williams. Brooke and O'Mahony both tried to convert Short's high free-kick, but Martin held it.

The referee played advantage after former Linnet Taylor Kennerley had fouled Sidi Sanogo, and a Rainford shot was blocked before Brooke's horizontal bicycle kick narrowly skirted the right post.

Mr Tyas retraced his steps, and showed a yellow card to Kennerley.

Despite their lead, Witton appeared flustered, and resorted to some robust challenges, mostly followed by time-consuming injuries to the perpetrator.

Mayhem ensued for several minutes after Sidi Sanogo was rugby tackled to the floor before he could collect a pass from Lewis Doyle.

It was difficult to see who had done what in the melee near the halfway line, but when the dust settled, the result was yellow cards for Albion's Barrow and Duckworth, and straight red for Sidi.

We could only conclude that Mr Tyas had identified violent conduct on the part of the Runcorn No10, who was undoubtedly the injured party in the first instance.

There was no let-up in Runcorn efforts to salvage the game, but they were hampered not only by the numerical disadvantage, but also by almost every 50/50 challenge during the final quarter of an hour resulting in Albion free-kicks.

Linnets were honoured by a free-kick when Diakite ran on to Brooke's crossfield pass, but was hauled back by his shirt. Sam Heathcote headed over from Doyle's 30-yard ball into the area.

Will Igoe replaced Elliot Rokka with 12 minutes remaining, and he quickly had a chance to make his mark. Danny Taberner cleared a backpass under pressure, and had to make a reflex save to stop Igoe's shot from the edge of the area.

Lewis Doyle was the next name in the referee's notebook, for a challenge in the middle of the pitch.

Vaughn Green waited on the touchline to make a brief Runcorn debut, but with no break in play materialising, he returned to the bench.

Short crossed from the left yet again, and Doyle and Rainford both had shots blocked, before Diakite had a go, and hooked it a yard wide of the right post.

Brooke did well to keep a loose ball inside the left touchline, and turned Koral before crossing into the area. Heathcote headed wide, but a free-kick was awarded to Albion anyway.

Behind the goal, we debated whether the assistant's flag was signalling offside or an infringement by Heathcote, but nobody was remotely offside, and Sam wasn't within touching distance of anyone.

James Short won the ball from McGee's advance up the right wing, and his infield ball for Lewis Doyle was hoofed into touch by Igoe. A throw-in was awarded to Witton.

O'Mahony closed down Duckworth's run up the right wing, and the Albion man ran the ball out for a goal-kick. Witton were awarded a corner.

From an Ally Brown throw-in, the ball reached Diakite in the Witton area. He turned to control the ball, and was tripped from behind. Malick took offence, although the referee didn't see one. The substitute retaliated as Albion broke away at speed.

Runcorn's finest were spread across the middle third of the pitch, all eager to join the quest for another equaliser, and were caught cold once again. Four faced three, including Tabs, and Connor Hughes had all the time he needed to find the top left corner, and seal the three points.

Insult was added to injury as, on his assistant's say so, the referee showed Malick a yellow card.

The game was up, but the visitors didn't give up. Rainford and Brooke swapped passes inside the Witton area, looking for an opening to shoot, but an offside flag was raised, despite the presence of three defenders between them and the goal line.

A miserable festive league programme left Linnets with one point from three games, with an aggregate score of 3-7. But they remain in fourth position in the league, demanding the perspective of a highly-satisfactory first half of the season.

Dave Wild had no time to discuss any perceived injustice, as he described the last three games with the single word 'poor'.

Linnets will regroup for the visit to the APEC Taxis Stadium of fifth-placed Mossley on Saturday 7th, and the fans can focus positively on impressive form to date against top-six teams.

Runcorn Linnets: Danny Taberner, Ally Brown, James Short, Lewis Doyle, Sean O'Mahony, Sam Heathcote, Eden Gumbs (Malick Diakite 64), Tom Moore, Jamie Rainford, Sidi Sanogo Fofana, Ryan Brooke. Subs not used: Macaulay Clifton, Josh Roberts, Vaughn Green, Louis Holden.

Attendance: 819.

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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