On a dismal Tuesday evening, Tranmere Rovers lost on their maiden journey to Maidenhead – a town better known for being the Prime Minister’s constituency than it is for football. The team’s performance was so poor that manager Micky Mellon cut a disconsolate figure at the end, as a club he cares about passionately continues to fall way short of everyone’s expectations. With the voices calling for his sacking getting dramatically louder, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine how the Scot can turn this around.
Birkenhead’s finest came into the match hoping to build on the momentum of Saturday’s fan-inspired late winner at home to Barrow. They knew that if they started to put a run together, they could be quickly propelled up a tightly packed National League. Certainly, there was plenty of optimism that the part-timers of Maidenhead – who were in the sixth tier last season – wouldn’t be able to resist a determined Rovers effort. Of course, that equation needed the team to put in a shift on an atrocious night in Berkshire.
Mellon had made two changes to the lineup that started against Barrow. Young Evan Gumbs made only his second start in a Rovers shirt, replacing injured Jay McEveley at centre back. Connor Jennings came in for Jay Harris, adding some attacking options in midfield. But with the ‘wing backs’ generally struggling to get forward lately, this was effectively five at the back, with two central midfielders deployed just in front of them, against a semi-professional side.
So far this season, such a defensive set-up has still resulted in Mellon’s team at least creating a lot of chances. These have usually been squandered, but at least it generated a bit of excitement, and the manager could tell interviewers that his charges just needed to improve their finishing. However, even this did not happen at Maidenhead.
The game was so insipid that the particularly noteworthy incidents can be listed in one medium paragraph. On 34 minutes, Liam Ridehalgh’s cross appeared to hit the hand of Magpies defender Jake Goodman inside the area, but the referee was unimpressed with Tranmere’s penalty appeals. In first half stoppage time, Scott Davies had to be alert when Maidenhead’s Harry Pritchard tried to chip him from distance. In the opening moments of the second period, Rovers’ James Norwood beat a couple of players before hitting a powerful shot straight at keeper Carl Pentney. A while later, Adam Buxton broke from defence, and an excellent run ended in an attempt which Pentney saved with his legs. Finally, with two minutes of normal time remaining, Pritchard swung a boot at a right wing Harold Odametey cross, beating Davies from the edge of the box.
Following this game, Tranmere have now failed to score in five out of ten games – an abysmal record for a team which averaged a very respectable 1.7 per match last season. Their defence has remained quite solid – only conceding eight times so far. But Rovers are simply failing to put the ball in the net consistently enough to look like challengers – and didn’t really threaten to against Maidenhead.
Mellon made no excuses. In fact, at times he seemed to be struggling to find any words in his post-match interview.
“We quite clearly weren’t good enough. There were a lot of disappointing performances. That was way below the standards they have set and what is needed in order to win games. At the end of the day, I’m responsible for performances because I’m the manager.
“We looked disjointed, so I’ll look at myself as I always do and we’ll all have a look at ourselves and take our share of responsibility but that was not good enough.
“We tried to change the shape of the team and went to a back four but it then became a running game and it opened us right up so we brought on a midfield player to try and stiffen it up, and that’s a decision that we made and it didn’t work so again you take responsibility for that.”
The three hundred-odd Super White Army members who made the trip came home devastated, and many were calling for the removal of Mellon, plus some of the players. A few were pleased to see that former Southampton manager Nigel Adkins was in the crowd. Birkenhead-born Adkins – who started his professional goalkeeping career at Prenton Park – has repeatedly been spotted around the club in the past couple of weeks.
It seems highly unlikely that Rovers could afford to a) pay off the rest of Mellon’s contract, and b) employ a manager with Premier League experience, no matter how much affection he has for the club. But his continuing presence will do nothing to settle Mellon, the players or the fans, as they look to an extremely uncertain future.
Tranmere: Davies, McNulty, Jennings (Alabi 80), Cook (Harris 72), Buxton, Norburn, Ridehalgh, Gumbs (Dunn 60), Hughes, Norwood, Sutton. Subs not used: Pilling, Waring.
Attendance: 1483 (308 Tranmere)