The Northern Premier League

10th January 2023, Runcorn Linnets FC v Winsford United : 3-1

Report by David 'Bill' Davies

Winsford United braved flooded roads to make the journey to Runcorn to compete for a place in the Chesire Senior Cup quarter-finals, as the sterling work of Linnets' volunteer groundstaff succeeded in easily satisfying a delayed pitch inspection, after two days of torrential rain.

It gave Dave Wild's side an opportunity to take a morale-boosting break from a mid-season dip in league form, and stop the rot of three defeats on the bounce. That's how the night played out, with Malick Diakite scoring his first two goals for Linnets in his first start for the club. Winsford scored in between, eight minutes after the break, and a home quarter-final against Macclesfield was only put beyond doubt by a Jamie Rainford clincher in added time.

Apart from a couple of slick looking patches in the clubhouse half, the pitch looked immaculate, and with a stiff, gusty wind keeping away the rain for the rest of the evening, it played perfectly.

Winsford won the toss and elected to start with the wind behind them. That looked like a wise move, with the first ten minutes or so being conducted almost entirely in the Runcorn half, and Linnets 'keeper Danny Taberner being kept busy, albeit mostly sweeping up safety-first passes from his back four.

He had to be sharp to keep out two corners, one from either side, in the fifth minute, and to get behind a 25-yard Jack Hart piledriver after the second had been cleared.

On ten minutes, a Winsford shot found the side netting, after a throw-in from near the left corner flag.

It was 13 minutes before the first threat to the Winsford goal, when a six-man passing move ended with Tom Moore's ball to Malick Diakite on the right wing. He beat Richard Peters to the goal line, but his cross cleared the penalty area and ran out on the far side.

Another Linnets attack followed, when Moore played on a Taberner clearance ahead of Jamie Rainford. He attempted to chip Blues 'keeper Arran Lyons, but the attempt fell short, and Lyons held it.

Having weathered the early wind-assisted pressure, Linnets started to settle more on the ball, and there were growing signs of Diakite being a fast and tricky Olarewaju-style handful up the right wing.

On 20 minutes, a swift move up the left by Eden Gumbs found Tom Moore, via Louis Hayes, and Tom crossed for Jamie Rainford in the area. Off an awkward bounce, Jamie couldn't get enough grip on his shot, and the ball was bundled away.

He tried again when Lewis Doyle flighted a ball forwards into the area, and Lyons and Peters were a little fortunate to deflect it away from the Linnets assistant manager, when they were undecided who should go for it.

Only half chances had resulted from mounting Runcorn possession, but in the 22nd minute, Diakite was allowed a touch too much space to accelerate away from his marker into the area, and he calmly slotted the ball home past the advancing 'keeper to open the scoring.

Winsford tried to hit back quickly, and Hart's shot was deflected for a corner, which bounced off the top of the bar.

Linnets returned to the attack, and Macauley Clifton was fouled in the middle of the Winsford half. Sam Heathcote's free-kick hit the defensive wall, and then Rainford passed out wide to Diakite, who was fouled inside the right touchline. The free-kick was headed wide by Heathcote at the far post.

Sean O'Mahony fouled Ashley Woods in the middle of the Runcorn half, and after a second attempt to clear from the area, Taberner held on to a weak shot from distance.

Into the last ten minutes of the first half, Eden Gumbs made a great 60-yard run from Taberner's clearing pass, and passed on to Tom Moore, wide on the left. His cross was cleared before it could reach Rainford on the edge of the six-yard box.

Winsford were gifted the chance of an equaliser five minutes before the break, when Sean O'Mahony tried to weave past two opponents after collecting a loose ball on the edge of his own area, and was dispossessed. Louis Holden backtracked to prevent a shot, but a low cross towards the left post reached Woods. From the media platform above the stand, we thought he had scored, but the ball had found the outside of the net.

There was still time for a corner to be won at either end of the pitch. A solid Eden Gumbs header flew wide of the post, then at the Forest End, Tabs punched clear, before a follow-up shot flew well wide.

At the half-time whistle, Winsford would be disappointed they hadn't managed a return on 45 enterprising minutes with the wind at their backs. For their part, Linnets would have hoped to have capitalised on their 22nd-minute lead with more domination of the ball.

Winsford started the second half with real intent, and were allowed enough possession to fire a shot high over the bar in the opening seconds, and to find the arms of Danny Taberner with another.

With Linnets now playing downwind, composure and time on the ball were required, as quick balls forward skipped away rapidly on the breeze. Tom Moore and Eden Gumbs were combining to test the defence down the left, while Malick Diakite tested the speed and resolve of Peters and Goodwin on the other side.

Winsford were able to keep the ball at their feet more easily against the wind. A moment of leisurely defending enabled Skolorzynski to pass inside to Boden, who advanced into the area and set up a shot for the poorly-marked Ash Woods, who fired past Tabs to get the Blues back on terms.

The equaliser might have done Linnets something of a favour, as they looked affronted to have been pegged back. Lewis Doyle became a force of nature in the middle of the pitch, and Gumbs, Rainford and Diakite were eager to get possession within range of goal.

Doyle shrugged off a challenge and shot wide of the left post from 25 yards, and a well-timed McMahon tackle ended a promising Macauley Clifton run into the area.

A corner was conceded on the right to prevent Diakite's charge towards goal.

Pressure mounted, and Gumbs, Diakite and Rainford all had shots blocked, with all but two Blues camped in their own area.

The mission to unsettle Winsford's resolve was fuelled by a double substitution. Macaulay Clifton and Louis Holden, who had both impressed on their recall from dual registrations at Lower Breck, were replaced by James Short and Isaac Turner.

Malick Diakite switched to the left side, and quickly combined with James Short to torment the Blues defence. But it was Tom Moore who set up Malick for his second goal in yellow and green. In the 66th minute, Tom anticipated Malick's path into the area and split the defence with a pass into the space in front of him. His first touch wrongfooted Skolorzynski, and his second slid the ball past Lyons and into the net.

Just two minutes later, it appeared that Diakite had completed a hat-trick, but a raised flag determined otherwise. It was hard to see why. Hart slipped in possession, inside his own half, and Malick pounced on the loose ball, raced towards the area and slipped the ball past the advancing Lyons.

He couldn't possibly have been offside, and no other Runcorn player was involved, so we had to conclude that Hart had been impeded in some way.

The denial of a hat-trick didn't prevent Malick from ultimately receiving the Dron & Dickson- sponsored man-of-the-match award, on his full Linnets debut. A powerhouse performance by Eden Gumbs must have made it a close call.

The score remained 2-1, but Linnets kept up the pressure to close out the win. Lewis Doyle evaded two men through the middle to curl a shot the wrong side of the left post. The hosts were seeing a lot of the ball, with numbers in the Winsford half, which meantt they would have to be wary of attacks on the break.

Rainford and Gumbs exchanged passes outside the area, the latter laying the ball back for a Louis Hayes shot which lacked nothing in power, but flew straight at Lyons.

With 12 minutes remaining, a Winsford attempt on the break soared over the bar, and within the following three minutes, Blues made two changes. Kallam Boyle and Samuel Keenan replaced Gabriel Mooney-Munoz and Damian Skolorzynski respectively.

A bout of loose Runcorn passing allowed Winsford more of the ball, and one such was picked up by Goodwin in the centre circle, setting up a two-man move into the area, and a shot across goal that cleared the right post.

A similar chance, when a long ball up to Jamie Rainford found Dylan McMahon instead, had a similar result.

A second equaliser, and a penalty shoot-out, were not out of the question, but as normal time ticked away, Linnets strove to put the game to bed.

Diakite beat three men on a solo run into the area from the right, and kept possession long enough for Rainford and Gumbs to catch up. Malick passed into the six-yard box, where Rainford flicked the ball away from the feet of Lyons. Jamie managed a back-heel on target, but McMahon intercepted.

Winsford had three added minutes to salvage the tie, and Lyons advanced 40 yards out of his goal to launch the ball towards the Runcorn area. Heathcote and O'Mahony cleared the danger, and Lyons was still retreating into his area when Jamie Rainford chased the clearance.

The Cheshire Cup is ideally a competition in which Jamie can concentrate on developing his management career, as in-game assistant to Dave Wild. But another 90 minutes as principal striker, imposed by the head injury Ryan Brooke sustained against Mossley three days earlier, was concluded by his 20th goal of the season. He won the one-on-one duel with Arran Lyons, stroking the ball home to seal a 3-1 win.

Linnets had a history of positive results against Winsford in the NWCFL years up to 2018, and also beat them 5-0 at Barton Stadium at the same stage of the Cheshire Senior Cup last season. But this young Blues side provided a tough test for Runcorn, which was less comfortable for the hosts than the final scoreline suggests.

A crowd of 247, when the weather had threatened a night in front of the telly, were thoroughly entertained by two teams who again confounded the idea that county cups don't really matter. This one would certainly matter again, with the quarter-final visit of Macclesfield.

Runcorn Linnets:Danny Taberner, Louis Holden (Isaac Turner 58), Tom Moore, Louis Hayes, Sean O'Mahony, Sam Heathcote, Malick Diakite, Lewis Doyle, Jamie Rainford, Macaulay Clifton (James Short 58), Eden Gumbs. Subs not used: Josh Roberts, Ally Brown, Sidi Sanogo Fofana.

Attendance: 274.

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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