Confidence is surging through the Tranmere team and their fans, following a superb win at second placed Sutton on Saturday. With a busy round of Christmas fixtures ahead, Rovers got the best possible start, and set the scene for what should be a great battle against Fylde at Prenton Park on Boxing Day.
Tranmere were already the form team in the National League, however, they’d still not picked up an away win since Bromley on the last day of September. Instead, a spate of late goals had turned victories into draws, and draws into defeats. This week, analysis on the Deadly Submarine website had identified that:
“Rovers have scored just 7 goals in 11 away matches and of those 7, just 3 have come in the second half. By contrast, they have conceded once in the first half and 8 goals in the second half of their away games. In fact, Tranmere have taken a first half lead in 3 away matches and went on to win just one of those fixtures. The average time of a Tranmere opening goal away from home is 36 minutes, whilst for the opposition it is 76 minutes, reinforcing the drop-off in performance in the second half of games on the road.”
But Saturday was so different.
Though they’ve fallen away slightly in recent weeks, Sutton have been the ‘surprise package’ so far this season, challenging at the top despite their limited resources, due to a combination of home advantage on a plastic pitch, fighting spirit and the tactical acumen of boss Paul Doswell – who works at the club for free, incidentally. In the reverse fixture back in August, United seized control of the midfield, and I complained that “It’s difficult to diagnose exactly what went wrong without saying ‘everything’.” In September 2016, dismal defeat at Sutton spelled the end of Gary Brabin’s reign.
The super whites also had to pick themselves up from the disappointing FA Trophy exit at Solihull, when they had gone a goal up, seen the first match abandoned due to floodlight failure, and hardly seemed bothered in the rearranged fixture. Micky Mellon made one change to the starting lineup from that debacle, bringing back Scott Davies between the sticks, in place of youngster Luke Pilling. Jake Kirby made a welcome return on the bench, after a long way back from a broken leg sustained in February.
The hosts had the opening effort, with midfielder Simon Walton testing Davies from some way out. But Tranmere then took the ascendancy, and Ollie Norburn had a shot saved.
Rovers’ opener came just eleven minutes in. They were awarded a free kick of the edge of the D, and right back Adam Buxton stepped up to powerfully bend his first Tranmere goal – and only the third of his career – off the angle of bar and post, and past Sutton keeper Jamie Butler.
The ‘Amber and Chocolates’ then established an element of control, as Tranmere took a step back. Forward Tommy Wright forced Davies into another save from range, before the home side drew level with twenty-seven minutes on the clock. Uncharacteristically poor marking allowed captain Jamie Collins to flick on a cross, and Kenny Davis was free to head the ball past his near namesake.
Sutton had earned their equaliser, and looked the better side for the next fifteen minutes too. But it was Tranmere who took the lead on the stroke of half time, as Connor Jennings scored his second in as many league games. When a Dylan Mottley-Henry cross was only partly cleared by Davis, the ball floated over to the former Wrexham man, who met it sweetly on the volley from 25 yards out. The Mancunian later revealed that his goal had been inspired by seeing a Paul Scholes volley on Twitter earlier in the day!
Defying recent away form, Tranmere improved in the second half, and looked for a third, even as Sutton tried to grab an equaliser. Mottley-Henry created the first opportunity after the restart for himself, tearing down the right flank before rifling a shot just over the bar. James Norwood then executed a trademark mazy dribble, leaving three defenders in his wake, before cutting back to find Andy Cook. Unfortunately, the in-form front man couldn’t find the target.
There was still only one goal in it, so nerves set in, and Sutton threw everything at the resolute Rovers back line. Kieron Cadogan and Tommy Wright both had half chances just about dealt with, before Tranmere retook the momentum, with Cook heading wide from a corner, and Ollie Banks having a strong 25-yarder parried by Butler.
Finally, as the seconds ticked away, Cook set the seal on a famous triumph, skillfully making his way into the box before sidefooting the ball past Butler. It only trickled over the line, but when it did so, the Tranmere fans went into festive raptures. The ‘we’re on our way’ chant even returned, last seen drowning in Wembley tears last May, and effectively banned ever since. But perhaps, after a woeful start to 2017/18, it could be even more fitting come next spring.
Certainly, wins like this demonstrate that not only have the Birkenheaders rebuilt their home form since the low point versus Wrexham back in September, they can now go away to any National League ground, play their own game, and expect to win. Dave Challinor’s Fylde side come to Wirral in reasonable form too, but no team in this year’s National League can live with Rovers when they are on song.
Tranmere: Davies; Clarke, Sutton, McNulty, Buxton; Jennings, Norburn, Banks, Mottley-Henry; Norwood, Cook (McDonagh 95). Subs not used: Pilling, Gumbs, Hughes, Kirby.