It was another routine home victory for Tranmere, and they put three goals past mid-table Ebbsfleet without reply. In fact, by the end of the season, the most memorable things about this game will be 1) Ben Tollitt played without picking up an injury for the first time in near enough a year, 2) James Norwood scored a one on one versus the goalkeeper for the first time in even longer.
Tranmere went into the match as overwhelming favourites – they had won seven home league games on the bounce, in a run dating back to October. By contrast, Ebbsfleet have struggled to find much consistency in this, their first season as high as the fifth tier. They’d held Tranmere to a 0-0 at Stonebridge Road following a Jay McEveley dismissal, but the Rovers of this winter has made that version of the side seem like a distant memory.
Micky Mellon initially named an unchanged lineup from the one that had perhaps been unfortunate not to snatch all three points away at local and league table rivals Wrexham last week. However, Adam Buxton felt a tweak in a leg during the pre-match warm-up, so Liam Ridehalgh was moved to the right back position, and Eddie Clarke was able to slot in on the left hand side. Reportedly a recent target of league one leaders Wigan, the youngster is not a bad player to have in reserve!
It was something of a shaky start. The game was messy, with few decent moves being put together by either side. Tranmere had an overwhelming amount of possession, but couldn’t seem to do much with it. Ebbsfleet were raining in powerful challenges, and Rovers were looking quite disjointed on the right, with Ridehalgh trying to take everything onto his left foot.
But nerves were settled on 17 minutes, when a long punt up from Rhys Taylor on the edge of the penalty area was headed on by a player from each team, before Andy Cook brilliantly controlled the ball, gave himself a yard of space, and walloped a shot beyond Nathan Ashmore in the Fleet goal.
From that moment on, Ashmore was heavily involved. He injured his head making a diving save from a Norwood toe poke, and had to be bandaged up. He then saved with his feet when Norwood went through again, and gathered low when the Eastbourne native had a pop from long range.
But there was nothing the giant Portsmouth-born stopper could do about Norwood’s next attempt on goal. Another booming clearance from Taylor evaded a couple of players before the striker brought the ball past centre back Dave Winfield, and unleashed an unstoppable effort on his weaker left side.
Tranmere had a two goal cushion, and they sat back as some of the super white army went to queue for half time supplies. This allowed the visitors from Kent a little space to come forward, and winger Miles Weston forced Taylor into a flying save, before top scorer Danny Kedwell rippled the side netting.
As the players went in for the break, those two mini scares probably made Mellon’s team talk a bit easier. The contest wasn’t over, so Rovers had to stay tight at the back, and get themselves a third goal to kill off the Ebbsfleet resistance.
Ashmore denied Norwood once again just a few minutes in. But just after the hour mark, one more hoof from Taylor was this time perfectly flicked on by Cook, leaving the onrushing Norwood with only the keeper to beat. He might have failed to do that the previous how ever many times, but this time, in this perfect moment, he carefully placed the ball beyond Ashmore’s despairing dive, and seemed to thank the heavens for lifting the mental burden from him.
Soon after, the Prenton Park faithful were delighted to see the second attempted return of Ben Tollitt. The phenomenally skilled winger was originally injured in February 2017, and his loss was a considerable drag on that year’s quest for promotion. He made a comeback in the rain-soaked home match against Leyton Orient in October, only to fall victim to a different injury on the same knee, even before half time.
So the next twenty minutes were a strange mixture of anticipation and nerves. With the points secured, we wanted to see hopeful flashes of the old Ben, but more than that, we were hoping he’d walk off in one piece. We were to be satisfied on both counts, but despite a couple of brilliant Tollitt moments, there were to be no more goals. Micky Mellon came onto the pitch, and gave his now traditional fist pump to the Kop
With other promotion challengers taking part in FA Trophy action, Rovers moved up to fourth, two points behind new leaders Wrexham. If Macclesfield win their game in hand, they will be back top by three points, but they are a club in crisis off the field, and they still have to visit Fortress Prenton, as do 3rd placed Aldershot.
Tollitt is back, Wallace is nearly back, and Norwood might be about to start scoring his share of one on ones. Confidence could hardly be higher.
Tranmere: Taylor; Clarke, Sutton, McNulty, Ridehalgh; Jennings, Norburn (Hughes 73), Harris, Ginnelly (Tollitt 73); Norwood (Mangan 84), Cook. Subs not used: Pilling, Gumbs.
Tranmere man of the match: James Norwood – scored two excellent goals, got the one on one monkey off his back, and as Mellon always says, he ‘ran his socks off’.
Attendance: 5,138 (Ebbsfleet 140)