Over the last several years, as Rovers’ woes have mounted, the phrase ‘doing a Tranmere’ has become quite widespread. It means to somehow manage to throw away a winning position, to draw or, more likely, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Well over the last few days, Tranmere have done the ultimate Tranmere – going one goal up, only to lose 2-0 to Solihull Moors, who sit at the foot of the National League table with only four wins since August.
However, this time we can’t blame a lapse in concentration, or a defensive slip up. Rather, responsibility lies with a combination of Solihull’s shoddy stadium maintenance, the Football Association’s perverse rules, and Tranmere’s general lack of stomach for another FA Trophy run.
Within the club, the attitude towards the FA Trophy has been lukewarm at best. Sure, the tournament offers a chance for non-league clubs to play at Wembley, but like all cup competitions, it can contribute to fixture pile-ups, and all that they entail – weird runs of games, injuries and suspensions, and tired legs.
Last season, in a January article on the ‘FA Trophy Dilemma‘, Ryan Ferguson of Planet Prentonia summed up the feelings of many when he wrote: “Many Rovers fans will remain highly sceptical of this alien competition, and I share some of that sentiment. But I like to believe that, if we’re strong enough, these things will work themselves out. Que sera, sera and all that. Whatever will be, will be.”
The club went on to have a great run in the tournament, eventually reaching the semi-final. But the toll on the squad was considerable, and could have been said to have cost Rovers promotion. Speaking to John Moores University students in March, a couple of days before Tranmere’s elimination, chairman Mark Palios declared: “If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be in the Trophy.” For his part, manager Micky Mellon has expressed an enthusiasm for trying to win every game, but a large minority of fans wanted to lose in the first round this time, or to go as far as possible playing ‘the kids’. There was a sense that the super whites have so much ground to make up in the league, they couldn’t afford the distraction of a ‘tinpot’ trophy.
But no-one could have predicted how Tranmere would go out of the competition this time. Mellon picked a strong lineup for the first round match at Damson Park last Saturday, with the only change being young keeper Luke Pilling getting some experience, ahead of Scott Davies. Tranmere weren’t great, but the team that at full tilt can comfortably beat any team in this league were a goal up, thanks to an excellent free kick from Ollie Norburn. Then, with just a few moments left before half time, the referee abandoned the match due to persistent floodlight failure. Officially, Norburn’s goal never happened, though James Norwood’s booking did.
It was Sunday before the clubs announced that they would go again on Monday – the following day. Not only had Tranmere been deprived of a lead going into a second half, the fans would face the ordeal of travelling to the Midlands twice in three days. This was of course a lot to ask. Transport would have to be arranged, money would have be found, and time reserved for something else would have to be eaten into – a week before Christmas Day. Solihull were at fault, yet lose nothing, gaining the greater chance of progressing to the second round.
With all this in mind, it was no surprise that only 215 made it back to Damson Park for the Monday ‘replay’. This figure will now go into the record books as the lowest attendance ever at a competitive game featuring Tranmere Rovers, beating away to Lecce in the Anglo-Italian cup by 71 fewer attendees. What fans did make were mixed together in Solihull’s unsegregated ground, and the atmosphere, such as it was, was little different to the pre-season friendly versus Cammell Lairds.
On a frosty pitch, with the ground shrouded in mist, Tranmere “never showed up”, in Mellon’s words afterwards, barely testing Solihull keeper Max O’Leary. The home side took the lead (or should that be ‘equalised’ just seven minutes in, when the Rovers midfield afforded Jamey Osborne way too much space in midfield, and he smashed the ball in from thirty-five yards.
The second Solihull goal effectively killed the game, and came in bizarre circumstances. Pilling came out to successfully claim a corner, but the referee adjudged that Ritchie Sutton had somehow fouled a Solihull player in the penalty area He was perhaps the only person present who saw it, and no Moors player had appealed for the decision, but it was given, and Jermaine Hylton’s scored from the spot. Rovers were unfortunate in the extreme, but they didn’t seem too bothered, and offered little going forward.
Whatever various people around Tranmere think of the FA Trophy, and for all the cliches about ‘concentrating on the league’, that’s exactly what they now have to do between now and May. They are away to second placed Sutton on Saturday 23rd, and then play host to former Rovers defender Dave Challinor’s AFC Fylde on Boxing Day.