VICTORY may have lost just a little of its shine with the two goals conceded in the last five minutes but the underlying polish was still present, Dave Bettley writes.

Runcorn Linnets had never lost to 1874 Northwich, having met six times previously. From the way they went about their business, it was soon clear that this wasn't going to change.

The vim and vigour of a clinical first half brought three goals and a fourth soon after the restart removed any faint hope of a home comeback.

Three of those goals came from set-pieces but Runcorn also monopolised chances in open play.

1874 would again have been expecting to be challenging towards the top of the table. But cup campaigning has left them in a false position in the bottom third of the table.

This was only their fifth league game. Defeat has left the 17th-placed hosts now needing to win all seven games in hand on Linnets to catch up with their second-in-the-table visitors.

1874 had endured a gruelling midweek trip to Yorkshire, returning home in the early hours after going out of the FA Cup to Evo-Stik League side Ossett Town in a shootout after extra-time.

Such an enery-sapping, emotionally-draining experience had perhaps taken its toll and Runcorn were all to ready and willing to take advantage.

The fact that 1874's best spell came late on, when they ought to have been at their most tired, was testimony to their spirit and endurance but more a by-product of Linnets losing focus or stepping off the gas as the finishing line approached.

Aaron Morris had returned in central defence after a two-game absence - alongside Jimmy Moore, whose performances have been impeccable - while Antony Hickey likewise resumed after injury, taking his place on the right of the Runcorn attack.

Despite a suggestion by home co-manager Wayne Goodison that this was a good time to play such fixture, Linnets sensed their opponents might be nursing a bit of a cup hangover.

In the first 20 minutes, they swarmed all over the hosts with a strong, pressing game and the domination continued to the break, although not with quite as much intensity.

Paul Shanley yet again gave his full-back a torrid time with fast-raiding wing play while two-goal Mark Houghton led the line superbly.

The latter's best performance of the season was notable for the strength of his hold-up play, which isn't usually considered a big part of his game, and it was only a pity that Houghton was forced off by what looked like a recurrence of his long-standing groin problem.

Runcorn had taken only nine minutes to break the deadlock. A combination of passes between Kyle Hamid and Shanley on the left saw the former drive in a cross to the far post, where Houghton leapt highest to direct a header across goal and into the opposite corner.

The lead was doubled in the 16th minute as, from a second corner in quick succession, Shanley served up another excellent header from Matt Atherton's right-wing flag kick.

Hickey could promptly have made it three after dashing forward to unleash a long-range effort minimally off target.

1874 got a very rare glimpse of goal when Matt Holmes lost possession under pressure from Scott McGowan while trying to dribble past the 1874 striker to clear Hamid's back pass.

With Holmes stranded, midfielder Sam Hinds' eyes suddenly lit up but a shot which looked like dipping in, dropped over.

Shanley continued to torment 1874, however, and after a good Danny O'Brien interception, the wide man turned inside to curl in a low shot which Greg Hall did well to deal with at his left post.

Michael Simpson's excellent ball to the left flank then saw Shanley this time take the outside route, finding the by-line from where he delivered a telling cross.

Ex-1874 favourite Stuart Wellstead's header had a goal written all over it - until it struck team-mate Houghton.

Runcorn got their threatened third in the 43rd minute, however, when Shanley was fouled around 30 yards out.

Skipper Hamid's disciplined covering of the back four had given others licence to attack from midfield.

It was his free-kick, although intended as a cross, which gave Runcorn a bigger cushion after developing into a shot that had the normally unflappable Hall flailing high at his left post.

The 1874 'keeper might well have diverted the ball into his net but the goal was credited to Hamid, who was really leading Runcorn by example.

Further trouble was after the interval narrowly and only briefly averted by 1874 when, from another Shanley run, Michael Simpson saw a shot blocked just in front of the goal line.

Moments later, Runcorn went four up. Another right-wing corner from Atherton caused further confusion in the home defence. It just cleared Wellstead but Houghton was on the line to make it 0-4 after 52 minutes.

The scorer pulled up in midfield, to be substituted with a little less than an hour played, and within five minutes of being introduced, Freddie Potter was unlucky not to add his name to the score sheet.

Beginning the move himself with a sideways pass, Potter made up the ground to meet the ensuing Shanley cross but was denied by the legs of 'keeper Hall when trying to steer home from the left of the six-yard box.

It was only in the last 20 minutes that 1874 began to find an answer to Runcorn's probing, further substitutions maybe blunting the visitors' effectiveness.

Even so, pockets of home pressure seemed unlikely to bring any significant result until the last three minutes of normal time.

Two 1874 home goals in reply, separated by Runcorn's only booking of the afternoon for Simpson, compared to three Northwich cautions, gave the final scoreline a somewhat lopsided look.

Hind converted an 88th-minute cross to ruin Runcorn's hopes of a third successive away clean sheet.

Then, in the 90th, a deflected Matt Woolley effort ballooned up and over Holmes who had no chance of saving.

Despite these late Runcorn hiccups, it should be remembered that this was 1874's first league defeat and only their second loss in 17 matches in all competitions, the other having come via a penalty shootout.

It was still a fine and convincing win on a ground where National League North side North Ferriby and Mossley from the Evo-Stik League Division One have both already perished.

Linnets continue their run on the road with a league visit this Wednesday evening to an in-form Hanley Town.

Runcorn Linnets: Matt Holmes, Matt Atherton, Aaron Morris, Jimmy Moore, Danny O'Brien, Michael Simpson, Stuart Wellstead, Kyle Hamid, Mark Houghton, Paul Shanley, Antony Hickey. Subs: Freddie Potter, Adam Jones, Mitch Bryant. Not used: Callum Lucy, Kieran Nolan.

Attendance: 436