There was plenty of festive cheer at Prenton Park on Saturday, when Tranmere eventually ran out comfortable winners over relegation-threatened Torquay, in their final home fixture before the holidays. As the snow flurried on to the pitch, the hard fought victory provided a suitable occasion for a Christmas party, and the Birkenhead club will be looking to climb the table further before the turn of the year.
Rovers went into the match hoping to continue an impressive run, which has seem them top the form charts for the league, and close the gap to the play-off places. The Gulls had also seen their results pick up of late, including an exceptional win at promotion-chasing Sutton. They had not conceded in three games, and were aiming to be an immovable object, standing in the way of Rovers’ recently unstoppable force.
There was only one change to the starting lineup that so convincingly dispatched Maidstone a fortnight earlier, with Steve McNulty replacing young Evan Gumbs in the heart of the back line, and relieving keeper Scott Davies of the captain’s armband. The recently absent Jeff Hughes was fit enough for a place on the bench, so loanee Josh Kay made way.
The home side started with ferocity, threatening immediately. Andy Cook’s physicality was causing problems for the Torquay defence, and James Norwood was chasing everything once again. Six minutes in, Eddie Clarke had the first attempt, but his shot was easily saved by French goalkeeper Vincent Dorel. Then some fancy footwork from Clarke found Connor Jennings, whose delightful through ball to a scampering Norwood sparked ten seconds of havoc in the box, as Tranmere rained shots on the goal, with one effort from Cook being cleared off the line.
Unfortunately, this momentum was soon lost, when Michee Efete went down in the Rovers area following what looked like a nothing challenge with Davies. Initially, many of the super white army suspected gamesmanship. However, the Torquay physio was followed onto the pitch by his Tranmere counterpart, and then a stretcher, so Efete was applauded off, with a rib injury bringing an end to the Congolese defender’s part in the proceedings.
Torquay then had their first significant assault on the Tranmere goal, when Luke Young was afforded far too much space in midfield, and tried a long shot which ended up bobbling into Davies’ waiting arms.
With half an hour gone, Ollie Banks got on the end of a Dylan Mottley-Henry cross, but skied a half volley. However, Rovers were a goal up within minutes. Jennings found Mottley-Henry wide on the right, and the Yorkshireman turned inside his marker, before hanging a nice cross for Jennings, who had made his way to the six yard box, where he placed a nice header in off the post, past Dorel’s despairing dive.
Half-time approached, and Torquay had their best spell of play. They won a free kick in a dangerous position, which was floated in before a desperate clearance. As the players prepared for the resulting corner, McNulty launched a torrent of expletives at Davies for not claiming the cross, firmly showing him who’s still boss. Ruairi Keating then fired over, and moments later Davies redeemed himself with an excellent stop, palming a Young piledriver around the post.
So Tranmere were well on top at the break. Going forward, they had offered by far the most threat, but Torquay had defended well, and there had been few genuine chances. A goal down though, the visitors would have to stretch the play in the second half, leaving gaps for Rovers to exploit.
Five minutes in, Banks floated a corner across, and Dorel punched it only as far as McNulty, whose placed goal-bound header was blocked at the last moment. At the other end, Josh McQuoid tried a speculative one for Torquay, before Jennings found Ollie Norburn springing the offside trap and through on goal. The midfielder dinked a chip over Dorel, only to be denied by yet another last ditch clearance! James Norwood then got in behind the rearguard, but lobbed the ball wide.
At this point, a few nerves started jangling, with Rovers’ misfortune in front of goal reminiscent of times in late summer/early autumn when the Prenton faithful had witnessed chance after chance being spurned or denied, before the away side gained an otherwise undeserved point or even a victory. But of late, this is a far more clinical Tranmere, and the second goal was imminent.
With the ball now literally getting stuck in the mud, Mottley-Henry and Norwood battled well down the right, before the latter produced an excellent cross, and Andy Cook managed to get a toe to the ball, poking it past the visibly distraught Dorel.
A third was to follow in very short order. Clarke picked up the ball halfway into his own half, and stretched his legs, running around seventy metres in seven seconds and barely looking up before sending a delicately perfect cross for Cook, who simply had to meet it with his head. This was the third time in just a handful of appearances that Clarke has created a goal in similar fashion, but this was perhaps the best of the bunch, and the attacking left back looks absolutely unstoppable.
It was celebration time. The Kop choir dedicated their hearts to Micky Mellon with a version of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, while a ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ adaptation recalled the gifts of iconic Jamaican defender Ian Goodison – who left the club more than three years ago! As the final whistle sounded, the festivities spilled out into the surrounding streets.
Surely, there can now be little doubt that Tranmere have found their stride, and are now playing the kind of consistently potent attacking football that could get them near to the top by the end of the season. With thirteen goals in the last four league games at home, the ‘I Feel Good’ factor has certainly returned, and hope springs eternal, even in the depths of a Wirralian winter.
Davies; Clarke, Sutton, McNulty, Buxton; Jennings, Norburn, Banks (Harris 72), Mottley-Henry; Cook, Norwood (McDonagh 86). Subs not used: Pilling, Hughes, Gumbs.
Tranmere player of the match: Connor Jennings – the attacking midfielder has struggled for form this season, but was at the centre of most good things here, and thoroughly earned his goal.
Attendance: 4569 (Torquay 116)