Supporters of both clubs booed at the conclusion of a match that disappointed almost everyone. Ebbsfleet fans were frustrated that their side had failed to win at home to a team near them in the table, who had been reduced to ten men for almost half the match. Tranmere fans were frustrated that they were hovering around Ebbsfleet’s league position in the first place, and had shown little sign desire to climb higher, before Jay McEveley’s second bookable offence made victory so much harder.
After the distressing defeat at Maidenhead in the week, Roverites were hoping for a more attacking display, combined with a lot more passion. They got neither, at least until their team was clinging on for dear life.
It was the team sheet which first caused alarm. Mellon had gone with a 5-3-2 on Tuesday, but he picked just one out-and-out striker this time – James Norwood – playing Connor Jennings in behind him, at the apex of a narrow midfield diamond. Despite the fact that the Fleet had won just one of their opening ten, Mellon persisted with five at the back – with the recently healed McEveley replacing Evan Gumbs on the left hand side of the central three, despite the youngster barely putting a foot wrong when presented with his opportunity.
If that wasn’t strange enough, the Scot continued his strategy of packing his bench with forwards, even though he only had one on the pitch to start with. All of George Waring, James Alabi, Andy Cook and Jack Dunn have played up front for Mellon so far this season, whilst the other sub – Luke Pilling – is an up and coming goalkeeper. The manager claims that this configuration gives him different attacking options if the game isn’t going Rovers’ way. OK, but what if a defender or midfielder has to go off? As it happened, we were going to find out.
Heavy rain fell from the skies as proceedings got underway. Not surprisingly, Tranmere’s midfield-heavy set-up controlled possession in the early stages, but it took 15 minutes before there was a notable attempt on goal. Ebbsfleet gave the ball away on their right, and Harris got into space before crossing well for Norwood, but he could only poke it past the near post on the volley. Jeff Hughes then tried a shot from 25 yards out, but it was deflected over for a corner. On half an hour, McEveley got himself into the referee’s notebook by losing the ball a long way up the pitch, and then cynically wrestling the home side’s Chris Bush in an attempt to ‘take one for the team’, and avoid a dangerous breakaway.
The hosts were – like every team Tranmere have faced since early August – primarily trying to threaten on the break. Their best opportunity of the half came on 43 minutes, when only a determined Adam Buxton block prevented lanky striker Danny Mills getting a dangerous effort on target from close to the goalline.
The pattern for the second period was set in the 48th minute. Following an early opportunity for Ebbsfleet’s Kenny Clark, McEveley not cleverly hauled down his man, and received a well-earned second booking. For the remaining 42 minutes, it was Ebbsfleet’s task to score a winner in front of a suddenly noisy home crowd, and Tranmere’s to prevent them.
With no defensively-minded outfield players ready and waiting, Rovers went to a flat back four. They defended doggedly, and they were backed in this effort by the travelling support, who rose to the challenge of lifting the team. Still, Ebbsfleet had a succession of half-chances, with Jack Powell, Andy Drury and Mills straying just off target. They went closest in the final few minutes, and Scott Davies produced a stunning double reaction save – first parrying a deflection off Tranmere captain Steve McNulty, and then somehow tipping a Mills follow-up around the post
Micky Mellon expressed satisfaction that his boys had clung on for an away point, but the fans’ expectations are far higher, and they are demanding goals. At one point during the match, some of the Tranmere contingent started chanting ‘Four four two’, forcefully putting in their request for a more attacking formation. A journalist asked Mellon about this, and only received a stern “No comment” for his trouble. This answer infuriated many who had left their beds so early on a Saturday morning to make the journey down to Kent.
Tranmere have scored a worrying eight goals in eleven games, and you have to go back to the 1987 for a worse attacking start than that. Early hopes of another title push seem like an age ago, while the table insists that on this form, relegation to the sixth tier is a much more realistic prospect.
But the fans aren’t accepting this. They still demand a return to the historic Rovers philosophy of giving everything you have for the shirt, and going out to score goals. Next Saturday, Tranmere face Wrexham at Prenton Park, in a cross-border derby. If the Red Dragons slay Rovers, expect the calls for Mellon’s sacking to reverberate through Birkenhead.
Tranmere team: Davies; Ridehalgh, McEveley, McNulty, Sutton, Buxton; Hughes, Norburn, Harris, Jennings; Norwood (Waring 85).