Runcorn & Widnes Weekly News
Runcorn flying high in super derby show
THE endless winter of 2020 finally came to an end with Runcorn Linnets’ first home league game since Christmas week, in a uniquely long awaited fixture loaded with irony.
For the first competitive game of the season to be against nearest neighbours from the other side of the toll bridge might have made it momentous enough, but it was also a repeat of the last league game played at the nowrenamed Apec Taxis Stadium.
An amazing 704 footballhungry souls turned up to see it, a bumper crowd boosted by a contingent from Chester FC, whose game with Curzon Ashton had fallen prey to Covid-19.
If it’s possible for momentum to be maintained after an enforced close season of eight months, Widnes were hoping it would be, having won on December 19 with a windassisted free-kick in the 87th minute. Moreover, that was the visitors’ fourth successive victory in Murdishaw.
Local derbies are notorious for being tight, niggly affairs, and so it transpired.
For much of the first half neither Linnets’ new goalkeeper
Joe Young, on loan from Wolves, nor Widnes’ custodian Owen Wheeler, was put under much pressure. That remained largely the case until Linnets’ midfield league debutant Laurence Smith turned the game, unleashing a 22-yard barnstormer with almost the last kick of the first half.
In the early exchanges Eden Gumbs tested the right side of the Widnes defence, and Iwan Murray and Ally Brown attempted to prise open the other flank, but tight closing down and well-timed tackles by Ben Hampson, Jay Roberts and Kyle Harrison frustrated them, while the heads of Hampson and Matty Makinson thwarted Ryan Brooke.
At the other end, Downes, Welsh and O’Mahony soaked up more centrally mounted forays by the visitors. Jordan Barrow and James Steele tried to find centre-forward Ben Wharton in dangerous positions, but the home rearguard proved more than equal. Barrow had a dig himself from distance, but it flew high and wide.
In the middle third Joe Lynch and Laurence Smith worked hard to gain possession and feed the wings, while Widnes had slightly more joy stringing together a few consecutive passes, but forward progress remained difficult.
Downes in particular was an industrious gatekeeper, and O’Mahony a robust guardian of the home 18-yard line. Fullbacks Brown and Short were winning balls wide, but were also thwarted in getting as far forward with it as they would like. Openings for either side were scarce.
Longer range shots were the only clear option, and not many of them. Joe Lynch cleared the bar by not much on 15 minutes, and shortly afterwards a swerving effort towards the far post was parried by Wheeler.
Steele then found a rare patch of space in the Runcorn penalty area, but his attempt to chip Young landed safely in the ’keeper’s arms.
In the first half hour Widnes edged possession, but the ball had spent more time in their third than in their hosts’, and Linnets possession did threaten to open the door a little more.
That changed after 33 minutes, when Steele advanced into the penalty area, amid cries of offside, and Sean O’Mahony was unimpressed to receive the first of the game’s five yellow cards for pulling him back.
The Runcorn faithful hoped that Joe Young might mark his NPL debut with a penalty save, but he didn’t need to, as former Runcorn favourite Ryan Gibson sent it soaring over the crossbar.
The last few minutes of the first half then saw a burst of Runcorn pressure.
A powerful Ryan Brooke header from a Murray-Lynch exchange went wide under pressure from Hampson and Makinson, and three minutes before the break Gumbs broke into the area and had a shot parried by Wheeler. Brooke laid off the rebound for Ally Brown to fire into an empty net. Brown was definitely onside, so it seemed the assistant’s flag was for Brooke retreating from an offside position.
Then, with the half almost over, Gumbs broke away on the left and passed infield to Laurence Smith, who made Runcorn’s first goal of the season a contender for a trophy at the end of it. His shot sailed way wide of Wheeler’s reach and into the top right corner.
In the second half, Runcorn had much more of the ball, Smith and Lynch taking possession in the middle of the pitch and finding Brown out right and Gumbs wide left, providing more opportunities for Murray and Brooke to mount assaults on the Widnes penalty area.
Widnes tackles became increasingly fierce, and often too late for the liking of referee Mr Nicholson – eventually, Barrow, Steele and Wharton collected yellow cards for their efforts.
Smith might have doubled his and his team’s tally two minutes into the half, shooting a yard wide after a one-two with Murray.
On the hour mark Widnes manager Kevin Towey introduced Ryan Watters and Aditeloye for Gibson and Barrow, having replaced Hajdari with Kennington after half-time.
Watters stood out as Widnes’ most creative force, repeatedly gaining possession and mounting attacks through the middle.
Aditeloye also posed a threat on the right flank, but Short proved equal to it.
The best Widnes chance of the second half came when Steele was set free on the left. But he had no support, and
Short closed on him and bounced a tackle off the Widnes No10 for a goal-kick.
The efforts of Watters might have produced more for the visitors if they hadn’t been reduced to ten men just three minutes after the double substitution, Kennington dismissed for a late lunge on Eden Gumbs.
Pace was added to Runcorn’s threat straight after, with Gumbs replaced by Dapo Olarewaju.
Widnes frustration mounted, Ben Wharton booked for a hefty challenge on former Linnets teammate Jacques Welsh.
When an Ally Brown cross was held by Owen Wheeler he cleared for a rare two-man attack inside the Linnets penalty area, Young getting to the ball first while being sandwiched by Wharton and Steele.
Then Olarewaju was penalised for a shoulder charge on Jack Banister 20 yards out. Watters’ free-kick cleared the angle of post and bar on the left.
The match was put to bed with 14 minutes remaining.
Iwan Murray won the ball out on the right no fewer than three times before slipping it inside to Ryan Brooke. From just outside the 18-yard box he curled a low shot around a three-man defence and past the outstretched Wheeler.
There was to be no bus-parking to protect the 2-0 lead. Murray and Olaweraju both broke into the area with home fans anticipating a third goal, only for Harrison and Roberts to complete great tackles, and a late penalty shout when Murray was brought down in the area was waved away.
Steele, Banister and Aditeloye also constructed a promising late attack for Widnes, but Banister’s shot floated harmlessly wide.
Four minutes of added time eventually lasted seven, as Mr Nicholson coped with a rising tide of Widnes dissent, including manager Towey being dismissed from the away dugout.
The game swung half way through, from a ‘classic derby’ war of attrition to a victory of confident control, won in midfield by towering displays from Smith and Lynch, which freed up their teammates to put the neighbours under mounting pressure.
On another day, Joe Lynch’s tirelessly skilful performance would have edged him man of the match from Smith, but the Runcorn No8 scored a goal. That goal.