Once more, Tranmere folded in injury time, providing another hugely disappointing ending to an away game. Before kick-off, manager Micky Mellon may well have taken a draw away to a team in a play-off place, but he will have his work cut out rallying a playing staff and fan base for whom that result may well feel like a defeat.
This was the club’s first attempt to bounce back from what had been a wretched week, with the costly 5-0 defeat at home to Peterborough in the cup, followed by a last minute sucker-punch up in Gateshead. But Macclesfield was not the easiest place to find better fortune. In decent form, and in the pack chasing first place, the home side were full of confidence. What’s more, the Silkmen have a good record against Rovers since hostilities were resumed between the two in 2015/16, denying Tranmere a place at Wembley with a win in last season’s FA Trophy semi-final. The winning goalscorer that day back in March? One Ollie Norburn, now a key part of the whites’ midfield.
Mellon kept faith with the 4-4-2 which has served Rovers relatively well when deployed over the last month or so. Pacey eighteen year old left-back Eddie Clarke made just his third start, in place of the injured Liam Ridehalgh. Andy Cook retained his place up front, while Connor Jennings had to settle for a place on the subs bench following his one match suspension.
Macclesfield started by far the stronger, as Rovers struggled to do anything more than lump the ball up to Cook, completely bypassing the midfield. Elliott Durrell got one bobbling wide from range, before Davies had to save a Scott Burgess drive from the edge of the box, after the central midfielder had done well to run down the left and cut inside.
But it was Tranmere who made the initial impact on the scoreboard, breaking away from a Town corner. Norwood charged through midfield, finding Norburn making a run to his right. Though the latter might have wanted a go at scoring against his former employers, he unselfishlessly squared the ball first time for Larnell Cole, who had an open goal, and hit it into the roof of the net.
Macclesfield came back strongly, with Burgess again shooting from distance, but Davies acrobatically tipping his effort over the bar. An unmarked Scott Wilson then glanced a header wide. But the hosts were level on 39 minutes, after captain Steve McNulty wrestled George Pilkington to the ground on the edge of the area, giving away a penalty and picking up a booking which will see him suspended for the visit of Maidstone. Danny Whitaker’s poor penalty was parried by Davies, but Wilson reacted fastest, beating Adam Buxton for pace, and lashing the ball home.
The momentum should have been firmly with Macclesfield, and they did force another quick corner. But again Rovers made them pay on the break, with Clarke steaming down the left, before finding Cook in the Macclesfield D. Under pressure from a centre-back, last season’s leading scorer held the ball up, swivelled, and fired an unstoppable left footed effort across Baghdad-born Shwan Jalal in the Town goal.
So Rovers went in one goal up, despite having been under pressure for large sections of the first half. As the teams re-emerged, Jennings replaced Cole, who had slightly tweaked a hamstring.
The second half followed a similar pattern, with Macclesfield trying to turn the screw on their opponents, but Rovers looking dangerous on the counter, with James Norwood particularly involved. Unfortunately, he fluffed three good chances.
On 68 minutes, Macc defender Keith Lowe messed up an interception, but Norwood could only fire wide from twelve yards out. Moments later, Cook broke free down the right, and crossed low for the Sussex-born forward, but Jalal was able to deny him at the near post. Finally, Norwood instinctively reacted to a poor header back to the keeper, but his finishing was not as sharp, as the lobbed effort glided over. Mellon ran out of patience with the wayward marksmanship, and Gerry McDonagh replaced the frustrated paceman. Meanwhile, as the clock ran down, Josh Kay replaced Cook, to make his debut.
It was second half stoppage time, and for the third occasion in a month, this meant that Tranmere were to concede a heart-breaker. Macclesfield were awarded a controversial free kick, and a daisy-cutting cross from the left caused chaos in the six yard box, where Tyrone Marsh was w
aiting to smash it past Davies. There was still time for both sides to have one more attempt each, but the game ended all square.
Again, in isolation, this was actually a good result. If, as was expected in August, Rovers had been top and secured a point away to the third placed team, the fans would have been happy. But in the context of trying to close the points gap to the play-offs, ‘doing a Tranmere’ yet again has thrown many into despair. Unusually for him, Mellon also publicly vented his frustrations, stating that the players had let the Super White Army down, because “…we’ve lost another last minute goal. It’s not good enough and we accept that. You have to show more aggression to see yourselves over the line.”
Tranmere have four days to channel that disappointment into determination, before high-flying Maidstone make the journey to Prenton Park. Despite all the let-downs, a win would put Rovers just two points behind a team currently in a play-off place.
Tranmere: Davies; Clarke, McNulty, Sutton, Buxton; Cole (Jennings 46), Banks, Norburn, Mottley-Henry; Norwood (McDonagh 85), Cook (Kay 90). Subs not used: Pilling, Gumbs.
Attendance: 1,709 (Tranmere 629)