The rain lashed down, the ball glistened in the glow of the floodlights, and Tranmere Rovers produced a determined, often exciting performance to see off the challenge of Leyton Orient, recording back to back wins for the first time this season. BT Sports viewers will have been entertained by dramatic, impassioned affair at Prenton Park. In many ways, it was the kind of night to remind those present of happier times.
As the match programme pointed out, the last time the two sides met, it was the curtain-raiser for the 2012/13 season, and the game took place in League One – two levels higher. Tranmere won that one 3-1, and the same score, or even four or five to Rovers, would not have been an unjust reflection of events as they transpired on Wednesday.
Both sides – sleeping giants at this level – went into proceedings badly under-performing. Tranmere’s win at Bromley on Saturday had merely lifted them to seventeenth in the table. Orient had been near the top at the end of August, but a shocking September had left them in lower mid-table.
The prodigal return of Ben Tollitt has been trailed for what seems like aeons, but he finally made it for this game, slotting in on the left wing of a conventional 4-4-2, albeit with Connor Jennings slightly out of position as his mirror image on the right. Following his suspension, Andy Cook was preferred to James Alabi, partnering in-form James Norwood up front, as he celebrated his one hundredth appearance in a Rovers shirt.
The conditions were adverse prior to kickoff, and they only deteriorated as time went off. What started off as a greasy pitch quickly became thoroughly sodden, and by the second half, puddles were beginning to form, which would splash and spray whenever players attempted long kicks. Orient keeper Charlie Grainger repeatedly took off his gloves to wring them out. In short, ball and pitch behaved unpredictably throughout, and this was undoubtedly a levelling factor.
Despite this, Rovers started brightly, and – maybe ten minutes aside – were fairly dominant throughout. In stark contrast to midfield-heavy games which they have dominated in terms of possession and territory, they saw far less of the ball in key areas, but made far more of opportunities for key passes when they presented themselves.
Tollitt was in the action from the start, with teammates trying to get the ball to him whenever they could. He burst forward in the third minute, only to be brought down on the edge of the penalty area, for an Adam Buxton free kick which was deflected wide. Soon after, Tollitt skillfully ghosted past right back Jack Caprice, before an unexpected shot forced an awkward block from Grainger. Andy Cook then had a penalty appeal turned down, when his effort on goal struck a defender, before Grainger saved.
But all this control had not forced an opening goal, and as so often, the visiting side did just that on the counter. Steve McNulty tried his best to stifle the breakaway, but the ball fell unfortunately after his robust challenge. A couple of passes later, Jobi McEnuff tried to slice it goalwards. Liam Ridehalgh made a last gasp sliding challenge, but the ball span to James Dayton, who found Matt Harrold in plenty of space to tap it beyond Scott Davies. It was an extremely frustrating moment for Rovers fans.
However, before there was a chance for agitation to settle in, the home side were back level. Norwood had the pace to run onto a peach of a long ball from Jeff Hughes, and though Grainger was equal to his effort, Andy Cook reacted well to poke the rebound past defender and goalkeeper. It was the first time Tranmere had scored in the opening period since they played Solihull on 28th August – eight fixtures and much lost optimism ago.
The excitement was now in full flow, with play swinging wildly from one side of the pitch to the other. Norwood and Tollitt were skinning their opponents for pace with ease, while Rovers were looking vulnerable to direct play through central midfield. There was a huge let off on 33 minutes, when Mark Ellis rose unmarked from a McEnuff cross, but he placed his header wide.
With five minutes til half time, there were audible groans all around the ground, when Tollitt fell under a heavy challenge. He consulted with physio Dai Spendiff, and his replacement – debutant Dylan Mottley-Henry – was stripped off and ready in seconds, for what appeared to be a planned precautionary measure.
Mottley-Henry only joined on a short term loan from Barnsley on Monday, and instantly appeared eager to make his mark in first team football. Swapping wings with Jennings, he was clearly a more than adequate Tollitt replacement.
Tranmere started the second half at a less furious pace, but despite many passes understandably going astray, they would generally win possession back quite quickly, and limited Orient to barely a sniff of goal. It was about another quarter of an hour before they really started to assert themselves, when Grainger was forced into acrobatics first by a long range Ollie Norburn special, and then a powerful downward Cook header.
Grainger went AWOL on 71 minutes though, when a quickly-taken throw-in gave Mottley-Henry a chance to surge past his man, and a cross hit a despairing defender before falling onto the head of an onrushing Norwood. Fortune, skill and determination combined, as Rovers took a deserved lead, and ‘the Lord’ had a goal to cap his a great performance on his century appearance.
Rovers were well on top, but the rain continued to fall in torrents, so play became increasingly farcical and unpredictable. With not long to go, Jennings looked like he would seal the three points as Buxton floated a perfectly weighted ball towards the far post, but the Manchester-born forward perhaps had too much time to think about it, and his header bounced narrowly wide, with Grainger beaten. In the final noteworthy action, Norburn sustained an ankle knock, and was replaced by Harris.
Excitement is now high, going into the Prenton Park cross-border derby against Chester on Saturday. It seems likely that there will be a couple more loan signings on board the deadly submarine by that time. Almost unbelievably, after the abysmal grief of the Wrexham defeat just ten days ago, talk is turning towards promotion once more. What a club!
Tranmere: Davies; Ridehalgh, Sutton, McNulty, Buxton; Tollitt (Mottley-Henry 41), Hughes, Norburn (Harris 88), Jennings; Norwood, Cook. Subs not used: Wharton, Alabi, Waring, Mangan.
Attendance: 4,145 (157 Leyton Orient)
Tranmere man of the match: James Norwood – his pace and determination was a constant threat to the Orient defence.