Tranmere Rovers produced a dominant display against promotion challengers Dagenham & Redbridge at Prenton Park yesterday. By winning so comfortably despite two early injuries, they signalled both the strength of the squad now assembled on Wirral, and their determination to make a charge up the National League table. The roaring Super White Army are starting to believe that this season can be turned around.
Dagenham should have provided tough opposition. Despite a disappointing October, they went into the match in a play-off slot, and looking to rebuild form. Relegated from League Two the year after Tranmere, they finished in a strong fourth last season. Moreover, Rovers have really struggled against the top sides under Mellon, something which fatally undermined the 2016/17 promotion push. Back in January this year, the Daggers won 2-0 at Prenton Park.
Mellon chose to operate with the 4-4-2 which has yielded considerable success in recent weeks, with Mitch Duggan starting at right back, and Andy Cook partnering James Norwood up front. It was this partnership that yielded the first goal, which came just four minutes in. The duo swapped passes, before some nifty footwork from Norwood left defender Scott Doe on his backside, leaving the in-form frontman to fire across goal and into the net.
Duggan had taken a tumble earlier on in that goalscoring move, so the next few moments were taken up with his treatment for a hamstring problem. Mellon’s habit of packing the bench with attacking options meant that box to box midfielder Jay Harris was considered the best replacement, despite him only playing right back a couple of times, early in his career. Now is not the time to criticise that though. Harris arguably only put a foot wrong once during the remaining 85 minutes, and looked like an absolute natural right back.
The visitors seemed dazed, and struggled to string passes together in midfield. By contrast, Rovers were full of confidence. A quarter of an hour in, Cook headed over from a curling Liam Ridehalgh free kick, before Steve McNulty did the same from a corner. Dylan Mottley-Henry’s pace, skill and tenacity was causing all sorts of problems. The Daggers responded by surrounding him with two and even three players, but this only served to create space for Ollie Norburn and Jeff Hughes to work some magic in central midfield.
On 21 minutes, some nice Mottley-Henry work down the right found Cook in space on the edge of the area, though he could only fire straight at Dagenham keeper Mark Cousins. But then Tranmere started sitting deeper, allowing their opponents the space and time to find a foothold in the match. Their gameplan seemed to be to get the ball to their own tricky winger – Fejiri Okenabirhie – but Jay Harris simply wasn’t allowing him a way through, and a couple of crunching tackles soon put the fear factor into their tussles
Jeff Hughes then collapsed to the ground clutching his hamstring, and Mellon was forced into going even more attacking, with winger Larnell Cole replacing the central midfielder. Connor Jennings – who isn’t a natural wide man anyway – swapped places, moving into the middle of the park.
With the players of both side still reorganising themselves, Rovers forced a corner on the right. Ridehalgh knocked the ball to the far post, and Norburn met it on the volley with a swinging leg. It was 2-0, and with the away side offering next to nothing – the points seemed secure.
Despite that, the second half started nervously, as Dagenham enjoyed perhaps their most threatening spell, and proceedings developed an end to end feel for a time. But apart from a Michael Cheek header which cleared the bar on 55 minutes, Tranmere still appeared the more likely to score. On the hour, a quick breakaway saw Cook and Norwood link up to good effect yet again, as the former put the latter through on goal, and the ex-Forest Green man was unfortunate to shoot wide as he tried to bend the ball around Cousins. He receives a lot of stick for his frequent inability to finish one on ones, and he looked gutted not to break that sequence.
Scott Davies was then forced into his only meaningful save of the afternoon, but the Lancastrian didn’t have to do much even then, because Charlie Adams could only ping it straight after him. The hard working Norwood had another couple of attempts, but he couldn’t quite find a second finish as good as his early effort.
The whole team gave everything, and ultimately, that’s what Birkenhead crowds demand. We love ‘Steeeeeeeve’ McNulty and Jay Harris because they are local lads who always give wholehearted performances – we see ourselves in them as they industriously battle against the odds. Sure, we love some flair too, but no matter what the score, if there’s enough sweat on the brows, we’re pretty happy.
So the fans were jubilant on Saturday. Rovers are still three points outside the play-off places, but with these levels of resolve, they will get there, at the least. On their day, Tranmere are the best side in the 2017/18 National League by some distance. At the start of the season, it seemed that this knowledge led to complacency from too many players, and that was part of the reason for the poor results.
No more. They are on a roll. Whisper it quietly, because it’s still forbidden to sing this since the disappointing anti-climax to last season, but even so, ‘We’re on our our waaaaaaaaaay, we’re on our way!’
Tranmere: Davies; Ridehalgh, Sutton, McNulty, Duggan (Harris 6); Jennings, Norburn, Hughes (Cole 34), Mottley-Henry; Norwood, Cook (McDonagh 87). Subs not used: Wharton, Green.
Tranmere player of the match: Jay Harris – called into action extremely early on, playing out of position, he nevertheless delivered a heroic near-faultless performance at right back.
Attendance: 5, 227 (Dagenham 131)