It’s been an extremely dramatic week for Tranmere Rovers. There have been two wins – including one live on television in a near-biblical rainstorm. There have been two loan signings, as manager Micky Mellon looks to bolster his side’s attacking strength. There was also the return after eight months of fan favourite Ben Tollitt…who promptly received an injury which looks set to keep him out for half that time again. Finally, there was the small matter of a local derby against Chester.
Chester have been toiling at the bottom end of the table, but the recent appointment of Marcus Bignot as boss saw them beat play-off hopefuls Maidenhead 2-0, and the Seals brought a fighting spirit and renewed self belief down the road for the big game.
As should be expected, the two sides emerged from the tunnel into a cauldron of noise, as a sizeable turnout for both sets of supporters made its presence felt. The Tranmere lineup featured one enforced change from Wednesday night, with loanee Dylan Mottley-Henry getting a first start in place of the star-crossed Tollitt. Striker Gerry McDonagh – borrowed from Forest just two days earlier – secured a place on the bench.
The opening stages saw lots of hard running and tackling from both sides, but little threat posed to either goalmouth. With nine minutes gone, James Norwood had the first effort, when he hit a powerful half volley from 18 yards, forcing Alex Lynch to dive acrobatically to his left. It was the start of the Lynch show, as the Welsh youth international produced arguably the best display of goalkeeping witnessed at Prenton Park in many a year.
A one-two between Nors and Nors – Norwood and Norburn – gave the latter an opportunity for one of his trademark long range efforts, but he hit it straight at Lynch. Norwood and Cook both nodded headers wide of the goal.
Chester were barely getting into the Rovers half, and when they did, Steve McNulty was invariably on hand to snuff out the danger. But this changed on 24 minutes, when a defensive mix-up gave forward Ross Hannah a good opportunity, though he shot wide.
A moment later, a pivotal incident saw Norwood touch the ball past Lynch, and go down in the penalty area. Tranmere fans were hoping to see Lynch red carded, and his replacement immediately face a penalty. Instead, Norwood was booked for diving. Micky Mellon chose his words carefully when describing this passage of play after the match.
With half an hour gone, a quickly worked free kick saw Jeff Hughes connect with Norwood, whose enterprising play won a one on one with Lynch, but his strike gave the keeper a chance of saving it. He succeeded in this, so the ball fell to Cook, whose header was cleared.
Lynch was in action again on 39 minutes, denying Jennings from the edge of the box, following a Cook knock down. Then as is now somewhat traditional, the Birkonians faded badly in the final minutes of the half, and went in 0-0.
Chester had their best period of play after the break, with midfielder Tom Shaw looking particularly sharp, and the central midfield pairing of Norburn and Hughes lacking the incisive bite necessary to get a grip on the problem.
But normal service was resumed just after the hour, following McDonagh’s introduction, at the expensive of the generally pacified Cook. On 65 minutes, Lynch produced maybe the save of his life, when he somehow laid a glove on Mottley-Henry’s header goal-bound from a pinpoint Jennings cross. Then it was McDonagh’s turn to be played through one on one, but the ever alert Lynch did superbly to narrow the angle to one degree, and it was all the young Irishman could do to fire straight at the custodian.
Norwood blasted one from 25 yards, but was Lynch equal to that too. And when the keeper was finally beaten, by a strike from Jennings after good work by McDonagh, the ball struck the post. It really was ‘one of those days’.
There was just time for one more stop, as Lynch gathered an optimistic long range pop from Hughes.
It is difficult to imagine a more one-sided 0-0. Of course, this isn’t the first time that Tranmere have failed to score this season – alarmingly, it is the ninth, and the fourth 0-0. But this was a 0-0 thriller, if you can conceive of such a thing, as Rovers battled against Lynch. Chester didn’t manage a shot on target, and Tranmere notched up eight. Many of the 11 off target were actually painfully close.
So despite a draw at home to a lowly side, there’s still plenty of reasons to believe that the team have turned the corner. But it’s a break from the league next Saturday, when Rovers attempt to qualify for the FA cup first round proper, as they travel to Halifax Town.
Tranmere: Davies; Ridehalgh, McNulty, Sutton, Buxton; Jennings, Norburn (Harris 90), Hughes, Mottley-Henry; Cook (McDonagh 60), Norwood. Subs not used: Pilling, McEveley, Alabi.
Tranmere man of the match: Steve McNulty – marshalled the defence superbly, and occasionally looked good coming forward too.
Attendance: 7172 (Chester 1198)