‘The Posh’ ran riot in Birkenhead, as Tranmere capitulated to their League One opponents, in a sorry Prenton Park display in front of BT Sport cameras. The FA Cup is off the agenda for another season, but the mounting injuries and suspensions are causing Rovers problems as they look to ‘concentrate on the league’.
The whites had been in very good form going into the match, on the back of a dominant take-down of Dagenham at the weekend, and a battling, well-organised draw at Peterborough in the original tie. This had raised hopes of progressing to face Woking in the second round, with a potentially money-spinning third round tie at stake. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Micky Mellon was without the services of Mitch Duggan and Jeff Hughes following their hamstring injuries on Saturday, but decided to stick to the nearest possible approximation of the side who did so well at London Road. This meant Gerry McDonagh starting, and partnering James Norwood, even though it was substitute Andy Cook who bagged the equaliser in that fixture. Jay Harris was back in his favoured central midfield, despite his heroics as an emergency right back a few days ago. Dylan Mottley-Henry was again at right wing back, and Jay McEveley returned to the left hand side of a central defensive three.
The home side actually started the better, with Mottley-Henry in particular looking a threat, as he outran or outfoxed his man time and again. But quarter of an hour in, an incident involving three native Merseysiders set in motion a chain of events which would devastate Rovers. When goalkeeper Scott Davies passed to Huyton-born defender Jay McEveley, the latter slipped an appalling ball vaguely towards scouser Steve McNulty. But Wavertree’s own Danny Lloyd was alert to the sloppiness, stole past McNulty, rounded Davies, and slipped it into the net.
One quickly became two in the twenty-second minute, when Rovers failed to deal with a corner. Centre-back Steven Taylor headed a loose ball across the six yard box, and Lloyd was on hand to smash it past Davies.
As Tranmere self-destructed, even worse was to come almost immediately, and Jay Harris scythed down midfielder Marcus Maddison, who shrieked in pain. Harris was shown a straight red card, and though he mouthed ‘What for?’ in disbelief, the answer was desperately obvious. It was the sort of tackle which sometimes ends careers, though thankfully Maddison fell okay, and wasn’t too badly hurt. Harris’ blood and thunder approach had worked well versus Dagenham, but this was a reckless challenge born of pure frustration.
Two goals and one man down against a team fifty-three places higher in football’s pecking order, the match was effectively over, and the main task was now to avoid a cricket score. Despite significant pressure from a Peterborough side who were clearly enjoying themselves, it was somehow 2-0 at half time.
Mellon decided he needed to go for it, and pulled McEveley off, replacing him with Adam Buxton. Now using a back four, Mottley-Henry was pushed upfield. Again, Rovers started the half well, and were unlucky not to score when Norwood lashed the ball into the net, but a Tranmere free kick had been given, and the referee had failed to play advantage.
However, it wasn’t long before the floodgates opened again, and for the second time, the punishment came from a set piece as totally unmarked captain Jack Baldwin strolled up for a curled free kick, and headed in from the edge of the six yard box. Spurred on by a resilient super white army, Rovers refused to throw in the towel, with substitute Cook knocking down a header for Norwood to lash wide. But they were inevitably stretched wide open, and soon another free kick – this time shot from range – was spilled by Davies, allowing the onrushing Lloyd to slot home his hat-trick.
At this point, Norburn left the field, nursing a suspected quadricep injury, and Larnell Cole came on. There was still one more goal in the game, as Davies completed his nightmare evening by bringing down former Aldershot man Idris Kanu in the penalty area. Davies could easily have been dismissed for the foul, but with Rovers having made all three permitted substitutions, perhaps referee Michael Salisbury went easy on them. So Maddison sent the keeper the wrong way, and it was five.
An already booked Connor Jennings also possibly received mercy from Salisbury, as the Mancunian made a couple of tired, rash challenges, but was not confronted by a second yellow card.
It was a real horror show for Tranmere. Their hopes had turned to ashes, almost inevitably after McEveley’s absolute shocker of an error. In the away game, they had caught Peterborough on a complacent day. There was no chance of that this time round, so they had to be absolutely at their best to be in with a shout. In the end, they were so far from their best that some Posh supporters took to Twitter, asking if it was really was the same side that could have beaten them just ten days earlier, or a bunch of Sunday league imposters in disguise.
Which is the real Tranmere Rovers, and which are the imposters? That’s a question regular fans have been pondering all season.
Tranmere: Davies; Ridehalgh, McEveley (Buxton 46), McNulty, Sutton, Mottley-Henry; Norburn (Cole 73), Harris, Jennings; Norwood, McDonagh (Cook 67). Subs not used: Pilling, Rokka, Drysdale, Solomon-Davies
Tranmere player of the match: Dylan Mottley-Henry – on a terrible night, he never stopped running and looking threatening.
Attendance: 4,199 (Peterborough 124)