Promotion to EVO-STIK League secured for 2018-19
Runcorn Linnets put the heartbreak of multiple promotion disappointments behind them by securing a place in The EVO-STIK League as The Hallmark Security League Premier Division champions of 2017-18. Michael Ellison and his team had plenty of cause for celebration in the 100th anniversary year of the founding of the original Linnets, Runcorn AFC, after steering the team into Step 4 of the National League System in only the second season in management for the young boss.
The team had led the table since Christmas as a 5-0 away win over Runcorn Town saw the Linnets unseat their local rivals and early-season pacesetters from top spot. After three runners-up finishes in the previous four seasons, promotion was finally clinched on 28 April 2018 - the 12th anniversary of the fans-owned club’s foundation. Linnets were not in action on the day but results elsewhere guaranteed Ellison’s men the top-two finish they needed for membership of the new EVO-STIK League (Division One) West.
Coincidentally, but fittingly, this was also the date Halton Council had chosen for a commemoration of 100 years of town team football in the borough and Linnets supporters toasted the club’s success against a backdrop of the Mersey Gateway, the recently-opened road crossing linking Runcorn and Widnes, being lit up in their favourite Yellow and Green colours!
The title was duly secured on Thursday, 3 May 2018 with a 5-0 Millbank Linnets Stadium defeat of Blackpool outfit, Squires Gate. Focal point for the party, which lasted long into the night, was the club’s new £1.4m clubhouse, which had opened in November 2017. The long-awaited league crown had been captured with two matches to spare and 100 points – a club record 122 league goals being scored over the 44 games and only 36 conceded. A crowd of 890 – the Linnets’ biggest for a competitive home match – saw the league winners’ trophy being lifted by jubilant club captain, Kyle Hamid and team-mates after a sun-baked final game of the campaign.
A story of rapid progress
The Linnets have certainly come a long way since being founded in 2006 by supporters of former national Non-League champions, Runcorn AFC after a traumatic end for the old club, also three-times FA Trophy finalists at Wembley. The initial aims of the new club had been to bring the Linnets back to Runcorn and re-establish the club as one of which the community could be proud. Both these ambitions were achieved with the club still in its infancy.
The Millbank Linnets Stadium in Murdishaw, Runcorn, opened in 2010 and the winter of 2017 saw the completion and civic unveiling by Mayor of Halton, Alan Lowe of the replacement clubhouse as part of wider redevelopment of surrounding land with retail and leisure facilities. At the same time, football pitches surrounding the stadium were fenced in for use by the Linnets' junior teams with the club also signing a new long-term lease for the extended site with Halton Council.
Other achievements in the club's first 12 years have been plentiful:
• Promotion was gained at the first attempt to the top division of the North West Counties League.
• Victory against Formby in the NWCL Challenge Cup final in 2012-13 brought the club its first winners' trophy.
• Since returning to Runcorn, the first team has attracted good attendances for a club of its size – these were consistently among the highest in what is now The Hallmark Security League Premier Division.
• Runcorn Linnets Ladies landed a Cheshire Women's League double of championship and Challenge Cup in 2015-16. They retained the Challenge Cup in 2016-17.
• The junior section has grown beyond all recognition with more than 400 boys and girls now sporting its colours, achieving various playing successes.
• The club's successful main sponsorship deal with specialist recruitment company The Millbank Group, will enter its ninth season in 2018-19. The deal includes principal shirt sponsorship and stadium naming rights.
Back to the beginning – the formation of Runcorn Linnets
Runcorn Linnets Football Club was born on 28 April 2006 after Runcorn AFC had intimated they would not be in a position to field a team in the following season. Since leaving town in 2001, the now defunct club had suffered a troubled and nomadic existence. Fans met at on their spiritual home of Canal Street – in the then Quayside (now Bridgewater) Bar and Function Rooms, next to the Linnets Park housing estate on which Runcorn's former ground had stood.
Those supporters, determined not to let 88 years of football tradition die, voted to establish a new community club. An existing Supporters Trust was remodelled to run Runcorn Linnets, whose identity was derived from Runcorn AFC's nickname. With only four months to the start of a new season, business and action plans were drawn up and negotiations opened with the Football Association, Cheshire FA, NWCL, Supporters Direct and Witton Albion FC in Wincham, Northwich, (where Linnets ground shared for their initial four seasons). The club was accepted into the NWCL league by the member clubs on Saturday, 17 June 2006 at the AGM in Buxton and former Runcorn player and boss Steve Carragher joined as manager.
Flying start to early years at Wincham Park
Visiting unfamiliar grounds and making new friends along the way, the 2006-07 season was both enjoyable and successful as promotion was won from Division Two (now Division One) to Division One (now Premier Division) at the first attempt - as runners-up on goal difference to Winsford United. Striking a balance between paying the rent, funding the team and building reserves for the desired Runcorn homecoming proved challenging; it also took time to come to terms with the higher standard of football at the next level and the last three seasons at Witton brought modest mid-table positions.
In season 2007-08, the Linnets entered the FA Vase for the first time but after victory in a preliminary round, there was a first-round exit to Salford City. Averaging 180 crowds at Wincham Park and invariably taking up to 100 fans to away grounds, the desire to relocate into Runcorn was always paramount as the R2R ("Return to Runcorn") campaign was launched. Steve Wilkes, who had been manager at Padiham, succeeded Carragher at the beginning of 2008. Goalkeeper Robbie Holcroft provided continuity as the new manager's assistant. 2008-09 saw first-time FA Cup involvement but the campaign highlight was reaching the Vodkat (League Challenge) Cup final at Tameside Stadium in Ashton-under-Lyne although Linnets were beaten 2-0 by league runners-up New Mills.
Season 2009-10 saw The Linnets again finish midway while having little real success in the cup competitions. The main target throughout this time had been to get the club back into its home town. Original proposals to develop facilities at Riverside College in the Dukesfield area proved too costly but in June 2009 plans for the new ground at Murdishaw – on the municipal Halton Sports complex - were passed by Halton Borough Council Executive Board. Just before Christmas, the club was grant-funded £93,000 plus by the Football Stadium Improvement Fund (FSIF).
Coming home to a first winners' trophy
Dreams became reality as The Millbank Linnets Stadium officially opened on July 17th 2010 when the visit of former landlords Witton Albion attracted a crowd of more than 1,000. Season 2010-11, the first back in Runcorn, saw Steve Wilkes and his deputy Ian McGarry replaced towards the end of August. Former Linnet Paul McNally, having been assistant at Skelmersdale United, was appointed manager – his backroom team including assistant Dave Hughes, the ex-Atherton LR boss, and coach Chris Fitzsimmons. A rebuilding process ended in a strong finish for 12th spot and average attendances were 106 per cent up on the previous season at Witton.
The club finished fifth in the NWCL Premier of 2011-12. Highlight of the cup runs was the 4-0 replay defeat of Evo-Stik North One visitors Mossley in the FA Cup. The following season saw Paul McNally leave for personal reasons. Replacement Joey Dunn, a one-time Runcorn team-mate of McNally and assisted by Stuart Humphreys, led the club to its first major trophy. The Linnets defeated Formby in the League Challenge Cup in front of more than 500 fans at Curzon Ashton FC. A three-month undefeated run from the start of the New Year secured sixth spot in the league.
Three successive runners-up finishes but promotion wait goes on!
Excellent early form in 2013-14 brought a run in the FA Cup that saw two Evo-Stik League teams defeated before a 2-0 third qualifying round defeat at North Ferriby United of Conference North. Despite an impressive 95-point return, second-placed Runcorn were beaten to the title by Norton United. Season 2014-15 was similarly exciting but equally agonising. Although the final deficit on champions Glossop North End was 10 points, three quarters of the Linnets' league defeats came in the final month - once they had finally been overhauled by the relentless Derbyshire outfit, also League Challenge Cup winners and Wembley finalists in the FA Vase.
An individual landmark saw winger Matthew Atherton set a new club appearance record with his 203rd Linnets outing in September. By the time he moved on, after the 2015-16 season, Matt had made 276 appearances, scoring 58 times as a winger turned full-back. The versatile “Mr Runcorn” returned to the club in September 2017 – making 36 appearances while notching two more goals, opening the scoring in the title-clinching victory over Squires Gate while ending the season at centre half! The climax to that 2015-16 season had also seen ever-popular club captain Michael Ellison, having appeared more than 200 times for the Runcorn club, announce his playing retirement – having been unable to bow out in the way he would have preferred.
Despite taking 98 points from 42 games, the still luckless Linnets again missed out on the championship – this time to Colne. The honours were settled on the final day as Runcorn Linnets won 4-0 at Padiham - only to see their Lancastrian title rivals snatch a late win by the only goal at 1874 Northwich to prevail by two points. The Linnets had scored more wins than any other team with 32 victories while 35 goals conceded was the fewest in the league and secured Dean Porter the NWCL Premier Division Goalkeeper of the Year award. But, after the third consecutive second-placed finish, Runcorn again had nowhere to go. No promotion - not even a play-off.
Linnets go 'fourth' into the future
In the aftermath of that third runners-up finish, there was a period of dramatic change for the club. Many players from that highly-competitive squad moved onto pastures new. Joey Dunn, resigned after deciding that he needed a break from the game. In July 2016, Michael Ellison made a quick return to the Millbank, when he was appointed manager with another former senior Linnets player, Matt Cross as his deputy. Just four players remained from the previous campaign, but they held the key to what was to come.
After an understandably shaky start, the new team settled and became formidable again. There was a praiseworthy performance in the FA Vase against the eventual winners South Shields that set in motion a rapid improvement - completing a league double over the eventual champions Atherton Collieries and finishing the season a lot stronger. Eventually running out of games, Linnets finished in a creditable fourth place. Long-serving Adam Wade moved abroad at the end of the season, following the final game against AFC Darwen. Adam scored the final goal in an 8-nil thrashing for the Lancashire visitors.
The foundations had been laid for the landmark 2017-18 campaign, which saw Linnets finish, as champions, four points clear of Widnes, who were likewise promoted as runners-up. All at the club are now looking forward to making new and renewing old acquaintances in 2018-19 and rising to the fresh and exciting challenges which lie ahead.