It could hardly have been a better metaphor for Tranmere Rovers’ season. The tired team was literally overstretched as they pushed for a winner deep into stoppage time, and Gateshead broke. Still, the damage was self-inflicted, as Ritchie Sutton tried to clear a cross from within a reorganised defence, only managing to divert it past his own keeper. Playing catchup in the league, they ended up with nothing, instead of a very creditable draw.
Gateshead away was always going to be an extremely difficult game. The hosts went into the match a couple of places behind Rovers, but arguably in better form, having won seven points from their previous four games. On top of that, the Heed’s FA Cup 1st round win a fortnight earlier meant that they didn’t have to play in midweek. Tranmere’s draw on that day meant that they did, and ended up losing yet more players to injury and suspension during a demoralising 5-0 drubbing.
Prior to Saturday, boss Micky Mellon was expressing uncertainty as to who would play in a dilapidated central midfield, as several players were out of contention. Defender Evan Gumbs was recalled from his loan at Warrington Town, whilst winger Elliot Rokka’s spell at the same club was announced and then frantically cancelled hours later.
Around noon on Saturday, Rovers announced that they were borrowing two central midfielders from other clubs on short term deals – Ollie Banks, who has played several times in League One for Oldham this season, and Josh Kay, a Barnsley youngster who helped AFC Fylde win promotion to the National League last term.
In the event, Ollie Norburn passed a late fitness test, so was able to partner his namesake in the middle of the park. Both Kay and Gumbs took a place on the bench, as Mellon put together a 4-4-2, with Larnell Cole getting his first start instead of the suspended Connor Jennings, and Andy Cook once more swapping with Gerry McDonagh to claim a starting place, as the manager rotated his options up front. Adam Buxton returned at right back.
It was a game of few real chances, and only three shots on target, as both sides predominantly did battle in midfield. Rovers started the quicker, and just four minutes in, James Norwood flicked a header over the bar from a long-range Liam Ridehalgh free kick. Banks also had an effort which was struck with too much elevation, before the home team began to make their presence felt. Scott Davies did well to save a deflected long range drive, before a plethora of Gateshead players strayed off target from well out, repeatedly sending the ball onto the athletics track which surrounds the pitch.
Tranmere’s best chance of the afternoon came next, as some clever interplay between Norwood and Cole saw the latter set free in the penalty area, but he could only fire straight at Gateshead’s keeper Daniel Hanford, when a slotted finish either side would have put the red-clad visitors a goal to the good.
The second half was also a very even affair, as both teams traded possession and pot-shots, with little end product. Norwood nearly played in Cole once more, but this time Hanford was even more alert, and came racing out to smother the ball.
With around twenty minutes to play, Rovers had to shuffle the back line when Ridehalgh went off injured, and Evan Gumbs came on in his place. Buxton shifted to left back, but following a period of pressure from the Tynesiders, Rovers laid siege to the home goal, and had an opportunity following a Gumbs cross, although Banks took one touch too many, and couldn’t score.
Then came the killer breakaway, as the fresh legs of substitute Richard Peniket found space on the Tranmere right, and the unfortunate Sutton did the rest. There was no time for any reply, and Rovers went down to defeat.
It wasn’t a terrible performance or scoreline in of itself. But after suffering ‘the week from hell’, there’s no let up for Tranmere, with two big fixtures versus teams at the top end over the next six days. If they manage to master Macclesfield at Moss Rose on Tuesday, then are victorious over Maidstone at Prenton Park on Saturday, they are likely to be in or around the play-off places. However, two more defeats would see potential promotion rivals pull still further away.
Tranmere Rovers: Davies; Buxton, McNulty, Sutton, Ridehalgh (Gumbs 73); Mottley-Henry (Green 72), Banks, Norburn, Cole; Cook, Norwood. Subs not used: Pilling, Kay, McDonagh.
Attendance: 1,140 (Tranmere 428)