Tranmere Rovers are in all sorts of trouble, following a humiliating defeat to Wrexham, in the cross-border derby at Prenton Park. An incident-packed match saw the away side snatch a victory, despite having played more than 75 minutes with ten men. In the final moments, many fans called for the sacking of Micky Mellon, and it’s difficult to see how the manager can possibly turn things around following a disastrous start to the season.
Tranmere went into the fixture in very poor form, having failed to score in their preceding two fixtures – and in half the games so far. An away defeat at Maidenhead, followed by a draw at Ebbsfleet, had sapped already poor confidence levels to almost nothing. With Jay McEveley suspended, Mellon finally bowed to fans’ requests, and tried a conventional 4-4-2. However, goalless James Alabi was preferred to leading marksman Andy Cook, while the ‘wingers’ were Connor Jennings – who lined up against his brother James – and Jack Dunn, who has been played as an inside forward or behind the frontmen since August. Winger Adam Dawson was loaned out National League North side Darlington on the Friday, and looks very far from a first team berth, while Ben Tollitt is still another couple of weeks away from being given the head physio’s all clear. Jeff Hughes dropped to the bench, with Ollie Norburn partnering Jay Harris in the middle of the park.
Wrexham made the short journey from North Wales in confident mood. Unbeaten since 19th August, the Red Dragons have greatly improved since the last time the two sides met, and boast the best defensive record in the league. With Tranmere’s rearguard also not doing too badly, it always seemed likely that one goal would settle it.
The atmosphere was certainly intense. Wrexham brought a large following, which filled most of the Cowshed end, and they took up their chants from half an hour prior to kick off. The Kop responded with several hearty rounds of ‘Super white army’, which was sung with particular enthusiasm because the FA somehow got the club embroiled in a racism row when Prenton Park hosted the England V Russia women’s match in midweek. Police were also present in their hundreds – on horseback, with dogs, and in a helicopter whirring over the stadium. Not many fifth tier matches get this heated.
On the pitch too, this ‘edge’ was obvious from the first minute, with both sides giving everything in a frenetic, full-blooded opening. Challenges were flying, and crosses were also being pinged in at either end.
On 13 minutes, Liam Ridehalgh’s flighted free kick was followed by a spot of head tennis, before James Norwood darted past a defender, and tried a cheeky back-heel, but only found the side netting.
Seconds later, Jay Harris had the ball nowhere particularly threatening, when Sam Wedgbury saw the red mist, came charging in, and took the legs out from under the former Wrexham midfielder. Wedgbury was shown his second yellow, followed by a red, but the horrific challenge could easily have earned a straight red, and a longer suspension.
It took Wrexham a while to reorganise, and Tranmere tried to take immediate advantage. Harris ran into space and rattled a post from distance, before Alabi’s looping header forced a decent save from Luke Coddington on the goalline. Just before the half hour, Alabi used his considerable power to turn defender Manny Smith, and launched an absolute pile-driver towards the bottom right, which Coddington had to be at full stretch to palm away.
Then, as has already happened several times in Birkenhead this autumn, with Rovers not breaching the visitors’ defence in the first half hour, frustration began to creep in, and game plans started making their way to the general vicinity of the window. Wrexham had now placed nine men behind the ball at all times, with midfield virtually conceded to the home team. Tranmere started huffing and puffing, but couldn’t find any way through. As usual, it was the away team who then appeared more threatening, when they could make a break.
It was the fifth consecutive goalless opening period that Tranmere have been involved in, and the ninth so far in this campaign. A remarkable statistic, considering there’s still one more game to be played in September – the second calendar month of 2017/18.
The pattern dictates that Tranmere start the second half with plenty of energy, and come close to scoring. So it proved moments in, when Jennings (of the ‘we signed him from Wrexham’ song fame) headed wide from Adam Buxton’s ball. Then on 53 minutes, Coddington had to tip Ridehalgh’s maybe-cross-maybe-shot over the bar. Rovers had the ball in the net from the resulting training ground set play, but the linesman had flagged when the short corner had caught Dunn offside. It was a farcical moment, and proved to be a turning point, as tempers began to flare once more.
Around the hour mark, Tranmere failed to clear their lines after a deep corner, and Chris Holroyd found himself with easily enough space and time to slam it past Scott Davies. It was to be Wrexham’s solitary shot on target.
Pandemonium broke out. The Cowshed throbbed with the jubilant massed ranks of Wrexham fanatics. A red flare was chucked onto the pitch close to Davies’ goal. At the opposite end, anguished Roverites convulsed with rage. “You’ve got half an hour to sort this out Micky”, bellowed one, his spit flying five rows in front of him, and it seemed like a verdict not just on the match, but Mellon’s tenure as manager. Two well-seasoned Tranmere sufferers offered each other out for a fight. Some angry teens surged down from their perch high in the Kop, before starting to hurl abuse, bottles and even an inflatable plastic sheep at Coddington. Copper coins rained down in showers, as ground officials and police just watched.
Mellon tried to sort it out by bringing on Cook for Dunn, with Norwood going wide – a role he fulfilled successfully during his time at Forest Green. But this didn’t get to grips with the main problem – there was simply no way past the nine players guarding the Wrexham goal. Long ball followed long ball, and Tranmere had completely run out of ideas.
The full time whistle was greeted with delirium at the Wrexham end, and despair on all the other sides. “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” screamed some, while others pointed at Mellon and chanted he would be “sacked in the morning”. Outside, snarling, slobbering canines were waiting to leap up at Tranmere and Wrexham fans alike.
Without a doubt, Tranmere Rovers are now a club in crisis. Though the Palioses have stabilised matters off the pitch since they arrived, their long term plan was based on top six budgets consistently delivering top six finishes. The changes in personnel over the summer may well have meant the wage bill is the same as last year, but McEveley, Norburn, Alabi and Waring came into a dressing room that has seemed to be in disarray, and a play-off place is looking increasingly unreachable. Unless management can somehow pull team spirit out of this tailspin, relegation is a distinct possibility. As things stand, many can’t envisage Mellon – who seems to be at the centre of this chaos – being the man to do that job.
Tranmere: Davies; Ridehalgh, McNulty, Sutton, Buxton; Dunn (Cook 62), Harris, Norburn, Jennings; Norwood, Alabi (Waring 84). Subs not used: Pilling, Gumbs, Hughes.
Tranmere player of the match: James Alabi – didn’t play well at all, but gave it everything, which was enough to set him apart from others.
Attendance: 6,802 (1,478 Wrexham)