Tranmere won a good point on Saturday, in difficult weather conditions, away to a team enjoying a definite upturn in form. However, with rivals Macclesfield and Aldershot both winning, the Birkenhead club lost ground in the battle for the title and the top play-off places.
Rovers had been victorious by two goals to one when the two sides met in a televised match back in early October. That night saw Ben Tollitt’s first comeback attempt, which was curtailed just before half time, leading to Dylan Mottley-Henry’s debut in Wirralian white. But while Tranmere’s form has dramatically improved since then, Orient had struggled near the foot of the table until the appointment of Justin Edinburgh as boss. The former Tottenham left-back has overseen something of a resurgence, as the former league outfit try to save themselves from what would be a disastrous second successive relegation.
Adam Buxton was not yet considered fit following his pre-match problem last weekend, so Liam Ridehalgh continued to deputise at right-back, with Eddie Clarke slotting in on the left hand side. There was a recall for goalkeeper Scott Davies, with the Lancastrian having made a much quicker recovery from his groin injury than had initially been expected.
The home side seized the initiative on the muddy pitch, putting the Rovers rearguard under pressure almost from the first whistle. But the back line was resolute, and Orient struggled to find a way through. It was Jay Harris who had the first decent attempt on goal, bursting forward only to fire wide. However, referee Alan Young called play back, and Ridehalgh was given a free kick, which he curled over the wall, bringing a decent palmed save out of Dean Brill.
Connor Jennings then played an excellent ball through to James Norwood, but his volley was weak, and Brill was able to collect for Orient. Nexy, pacey right-back Jake Caprice had the first shot on Davies’ goal, but blazed over the bar from distance.
The pressure on Davies and co was increasing by the minute, with a long range Ebou Adams effort taking a deflection and only just clearing the bar, before midfielder Craig Clay hit a low drive and produced a good full stretch stop from the Rovers keeper.
Then, with one minute of regulation time to go before the break, Josh Ginnelly took a left wing corner with his right foot, curling the ball in for the unmarked Ritchie Sutton to meet with a forceful header from point blank range.
Rovers were fortunate to be ahead, and were perhaps guilty of losing concentration, because attacker Dan Holman was immediately allowed to dink a shot over Davies, which Ridehalgh had to head off the goalline.
The visitors went in a goal to the good, but it was obvious that Orient would try to ratchet up their performance levels as soon as play resumed, and this they did, grabbing a deserved equaliser thanks to some rather unfortunate defending. A shot from Caprice’s right wing cross was well saved by Davies, but the ball bounced to Holman, who gave the keeper no chance with an effort which deflected off the Tranmere man.
Momentum firmly swung to the O’s, and with the majority of the London crowd behind them, they looked to take the lead. But the course of the game was changed by the timely introduction of Ben Tollitt. The rangy Liverpudlian winger is stepping up his comeback from long term absence, and his appearance quickly shifted the focus of play from the Tranmere goalmouth to the other end of the pitch.
In a reversal of their traditional roles, Andy Cook was soon played through on goal by Norwood, but Brill lived up to his name, pushing a very decent shot onto a post and out for a corner.
The woodwork came to Orient’s rescue twice more just a couple of minutes later, as Jennings had a shot bounce onto an upright, before the Mancunian contrived to hit the horizontal from just six yards out.
In the final minutes, play swung wildly from end to end, and Sutton made a vital block, before Tollitt twinkled his toes past five challenges in a gliding run, before laying the ball off perfectly to play in Norwood, whose shot made it far too easy for Brill to prevent a Tranmere triumph.
It’s still exceptionally tight at the top of the table, but it’s looking like Rovers will have to average better than two points per game for the rest of the season if they are to become champions and win the coveted sole automatic promotion place. With ‘six pointers’ against Bromley and then Macclesfield to come at Prenton Park during the next ten days, Tranmere will need the people of Wirral to support them like never before.
Tranmere: Davies; Clarke, Sutton, McNulty, Ridehalgh; Jennings, Norburn, Harris, Ginnelly (Tollitt 63); Norwood, Cook. Subs not used: Taylor, Gumbs, Kirby, Mangan.
Attendance: 4631 (Tranmere 740)