Rovers dug deep to overcome the challenge of Maidenhead, on the Berkshire club’s first ever visit to Prenton Park. In doing so, they slashed the gap to the top of the table, and set up a massive six-pointer in the cross border derby versus Wrexham next Saturday.
Two new loanees made their Prenton Park bows, with Fylde’s Rhys Taylor showing home fans what he can do between the sticks, and Burnley’s Josh Ginnelly taking the place of the injured Larnell Cole on the right flank. Liam Ridehalgh deputised for the in-demand Eddie Clarke, while Jake Kirby made his long-awaited return from a broken leg almost a year ago, in a less than familiar forward role, because Andy Cook was suspended for his red card during the win at Woking. So the selection had a somewhat unfamiliar look, and supporters were curious how it would hold together against a mid-table club who had triumphed in the reverse fixture back in September.
Tranmere got off to a superb start, scoring after just four minutes. Following some neat play down the left, Kirby laid the ball off for James Norwood, who struck a powerful effort along the ground, beating Carl Pentney in United goal with ease. The hosts continued to threaten for another ten minutes, utilising the pace and movement of the front two, who combined to excellent effect. Norwood had three more shots in the opening quarter of an hour, all of which were well saved by Pentney.
Then the home side lost their way a bit, as Maidenhead started catching Rovers in their offside trap. So long balls were then played through way too fast, and went nowhere, while attempted crosses from the wings also failed, with the Magpies’ powerful rearguard snuffing out the relatively diminutive Tranmere front two.
Maidenhead striker Moses Emmanuel then limped off with an injury, and was replaced by Samuel Barratt. The newcomer made an instant impact, firing in a shot from twenty yards, which was narrowly deflected behind. Encouraged by this, he would soon try another long range strike, this time blazing over the bar.
Tranmere went in a goal up, but Maidenhead seemed to be far from out of the contest. They had threatened much more after the initial skirmishes, with Taylor very clearly struggling to communicate with his back line, and the home attack looking decidedly disjointed.
Maidenhead came out determined to give it everything they had. Just seconds after the restart, striker Sean Marks was allowed too much space in the box, but Taylor produced a good save to deny him.
However, on fifty minutes, Tranmere gave themselves a two goal cushion, when Norwood played a delightful diagonal ball between Maidenhead’s scrambling defenders, and Ginnelly rushed onto it, cleverly flicking it beyond Pentney, and running on to tap into an empty net.
But the points weren’t safe yet. Just six minutes later, Harry Pritchard – scorer of the winner at York Road – burst down the right, and crossed low into the area, where Barratt just beat McNulty to the ball and steered home.
The tiny contingent of Maidenhead supporters in the Cowshed went into raptures, but their noise was soon emphatically drowned out by a large number of the Tranmere followers, many of whom took up a lung-busting twenty minute ‘super white army’ chant, and the atmosphere crackled.
Andy Mangan replaced Kirby, who received a fully deserved ovation for his hard running. It was Mangan’s first Tranmere appearance since late summer, continuing the theme of a first team squad very much in flux during the transfer window.
Ginnelly also received generous applause as he left the field of battle, to be replaced by Jeff Hughes. This seemed like a defensive substitution, but then Hughes scored with his third touch, beating Pentney with a long range drive which was extremely reminiscent of Norwood’s goal.
It was 3-1, and that should have been party time, but then a dubious free kick produced another mix-up at the back allowing Remy Clerima to head into the far corner.
The nerves started to jangle once more, as Maidenhead got decision after decision in their favour, and piled on the pressure. But it was Tranmere who would have more actual attempts on goal in the closing stages, with Mangan testing Pentney, and Jay Harris having a shot deflected over the bar. Still, as the full time whistle blew, Micky Mellon’s trademark punch of the air in front of the Kop was born of relief, as was the loud cheer in reaction to it.
I don’t make a habit of criticising the refereeing. Ultimately, it gets you nowhere. And the referees of Tranmere games are in the fifth tier for a reason, just like all the players. However, while I expect incompetence, I do not expect what looked very much like bias. With two exceptions, every fifty fifty verdict went Maidenhead’s way. The visitors, who towered over most players fielded by Tranmere, and were often carrying a lot more muscle, somehow won fourteen free kicks for fouls, against six for Rovers – this despite the allegedly dirtier team having 10% more possession. Tranmere were called offside six times – some of them deservedly – but United were not caught once. On one occasion, the Magpies were permitted to steal twenty yards at a throw in, despite roars of protest from the crowd. On another, a midfield tussle saw Ryan Upward commit blatant violent conduct within arm’s reach of ref Simeon Lucas, but he only saw a yellow, instead of the mandatory red.
Anyway, despite everything, Tranmere won, and with Eddie Clarke, Ben Tollitt, James Wallace and Jack Dunn all pushing for recalls following lay-offs, and Andy Cook returning after his suspension, they make the short journey to North Wales full of confidence. For their part, Wrexham have also won their last two fixtures, and are right there in the mix. As table-toppers Macclesfield experience a period of shaky form, the course of the season could end up being defined by a Tranmere win next week.
Tranmere: Taylor; Ridehalgh, Sutton, McNulty, Buxton; Jennings, Norburn, Ginnelly (Hughes 78); Kirby (Mangan 64), Norwood. Subs not used: Wharton, Gumbs, Dunn.
Tranmere player of the match: James Norwood – put in his usual supernaturally tough shift, scored a cracker and set up another.
Attendance: 4980 (64)