Bootle increase Northern Premier League playoff pressure as Runcorn Linnets slip to third

Bootle striker Michael Burkey celebrates

Bootle moved level on points with playoff rivals Runcorn Linnets after Michael Burkey’s first-half effort was enough to earn a 1-0 win.

The striker’s sixth of the season proved to be vital as they increased the pressure on their top five rivals, firing low into the bottom left corner after cutting inside from a quick throw-in down the wing inside two minutes. 

Both Linnets and the Bucks were looking to consolidate their position in the Northern Premier League top five going into the encounter. But Burkey’s first-half strike meant that Billy Paynter’s side have now suffered back-to-back defeats as the push from Mick McGraa’s men continues. 

Bootle, who moved level on points with Saturday’s opponents, were made to work hard for their three points and they had to thank goalkeeper Tony Thompson for his role in keeping the hosts at bay. 

The former Altrincham shot-stopper, firstly, made a great reflex save to deny Sean O’Mahony after the defender volleyed goalwards. Thompson’s second save was even better as he left Kieran Knapper frustrated. 

Knapper unleashed a venomous right-footed effort, destined for the top right corner, but Thompson was equal to the strike with a superb stop. 

After an end-to-end first-half, the second half brought few talking points. Bootle looked to test Bayleigh Passant and started strong with Ben Hodkinson’s lob looping agonisingly over. 

The Bucks top goalscorer was denied by an important block from O’Mahony shortly after. But Conor Harwood had the best opportunity only to be thwarted by Passant after bundling his way through. 

For all of Linnets’ possession and pressure in the second-half, they could only muster one clearcut chance in the second-half through Oliver Molloy – but he could only poke wide. 

Bootle’s have now picked up 14 points from their last six games, a run matched by City of Liverpool and only bettered by league leaders Leek Town. Their win takes them level with second-placed Prescot Cables and Runcorn Linnets on 52 points in fourth – their cushion in the playoffs extends to five points. 

Linnets slip to third after Cables’ draw at Kidsgrove Athletic saw the teams swap places as the league heads into its final eight games. Avro, Clitheroe and Nantwich are next on the agenda for Paynter’s side with the pressure mounting to solidify their place in the top five. 

Lacklustre Linnets

Runcorn Linnets would’ve gone in at the break frustrated after failing to break the Bootle rearguard. And after 95 minutes, they were once again licking their wounds.

The record reads two defeats in two for Billy Paynter’s side and while the league table still shows positive reading on paper, questions will continue to be asked after a successive loss. Last weekend’s 3-0 defeat to title rivals Leek Town were been a body blow and now Linnets face the task of getting back up off the canvas and finishing strong.

Saturday’s showing against their Merseyside rivals was lacklustre and after their clearcut chances in the first-half, they rarely threatened in the second. Oliver Molloy’s effort midway through the second-half the best of them, but the forward could only poke wide of the far post.

Runcorn Linnets manager Billy Paynter told Off The Park: “Very frustrating, I thought we were very lacklustre in our display, certainly in our workrate and our pressing. It looked like we had a hangover from Leek, the boys couldn’t shake off that disappointment but you come up against Bootle, a big game, we needed to be on the front foot.

“We needed to move the ball a lot quicker but we didn’t, you look at players in the warm-up and I wasn’t happy with it, so I said make sure we’re ready from the first minute – clearly not, after three minutes they take the lead. You’ve still got 87 minutes so nothing else really changes, individual performances were poor today, wide players didn’t create much but we had good chances to get back in the game, certainly had the half chances.

“Their ‘keeper has made two good saves in the first-half and then you look at it like we could’ve went up 2-1 but that’s hindsight. For me, we didn’t do enough to get back into the game, Bootle worked hard, I spoke to the manager and they’ve got a good togetherness and it shown today.

“My worry is my own players, if they now start looking over their shoulder that is where you slip up. The focus is on the team, we need to turn up and perform on the day.”

He added: “We need to bounce back, I was hoping for a reaction today but didn’t get the reaction that I really wanted.”

Burkey brilliance and terrific Thompson

When Mick McGraa took charge in October, Bootle fans would’ve felt that a five-point cushion in the playoffs with eight games remaining was nothing more than a dream. Less than five months later, the Bucks fans are believing.

A roar at full-time from one end of the APEC Taxis Stadium was shortly accompanied by fist-pumps from McGraa and the eventual match-winner Burkey. Bootle are the second-best team in the league for points away from home, only bettered by Leek’s five-goal advantage, and the statistics are a matter of fact.

The playoff showdown was by no means pretty but the visitors, one would argue, were better value for the win. Michael Burkey was clinical to net his fifth goal since arriving from Vauxhall Motors and at the other end, Bootle had to thank Tony Thompson for his first-half stubbornness, accompanied by steady showings from the back four.

Bootle manager Mick McGraa told Off The Park: “Made up, I thought we thoroughly deserved it, we were the better team. They’re a strong team and put us under pressure but I thought we dealt with it.

“They had chances but we did too, to go in at half-time 1-0 up, I thought it was deserved. It was even in the first-half but I thought we edged it.

“Our goalkeeper has made two great saves but we should’ve killed it five minutes into the second-half, Ben (Hodkinson) has had two great chances, we were good and well worthy of the win. Scoring early gives you a foot-hold and makes it hard for the opposing team, our back-four was excellent today they ate up everything, we’re happy with three points.”

He added: “We’re not talking about the playoffs. Stalybridge have been here, Witton, a few teams have been in and out, we don’t talk about it. We’ve got eight massive games to go, I think we need 15 or 16 points to get in there so we’ll try and get it.

“We’ve got to beat teams around us, if you want to stay in the playoffs you need to beat teams around you. We’ve drawn Linnets and Prescot back in, City of Liverpool are on a good run as well, it is now just a fight for who gets in the playoffs. We’ll keep battling.”

[Featured Image: Will Griffiths]

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