Tranmere Rovers brought the curtain down on a rollercoaster 2017 with a dominant victory over relegation-threatened Guiseley. The year that saw a title tilt, a heartbreaking trip to Wembley, and a poor start to the new season has now ended with the club battling away at the top once more, and hopes that by the time the 2018 calendar is used up, Rovers will be a decent league two side.
The super white army received some disappointing news on the Friday evening, when winger Dylan Mottley-Henry tweeted his goodbyes to fans, after the loanee had been recalled by Barnsley. The Yorkshireman had made his debut at home to Leyton Orient on 4th October, and his time on Wirral coincided with what has been a 180 degree turnaround in form.
Undoubtedly, there have been other factors in Rovers’ rise – the change to a 442 formation, the apparent end of the Mellon/Cook feud, Connor Jennings’ improved form, and the emergence of Eddie Clarke. But the fact remains that, while Mottley-Henry was a Tranmere player, the team started scoring goal after sensational goal, and in the month before his arrival, they’d managed just two in six games. So there was a certain anxiety about whether the goals would still flow. Larnell Cole – who was brought to the club three weeks after Mottley-Henry but has struggled for fitness since – came in to replace the talismanic wide player.
Tranmere instantly grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, with Cole fashioning a chance for himself in the opening moments, cutting in from the right before shooting low and wide. Just four minutes in, James Norwood crossed in from the right, allowing Cook to easily fire home. However, the assistant referee had raised his flag, and offside was given – a verdict which assistant manager Mike Jackson later claimed that video evidence had proven to be false.
An unusually densely packed Kop stand was in fine voice, roused by Tranmere’s bright start. More chances came as first Ollie Norburn missed the target, then Norwood couldn’t properly connect with a Clarke cross.
Midway into the half, Ollie Banks made a skillful run down the right, before hitting the bar with ‘was it a shot or was it a cross?’-type effort.
Guiseley had been pretty anonymous, but it soon became clear that 6’4 Rowan Liburd posed the Lions’ biggest threat. On 23 minutes, towering over his marker Steve McNulty, Liburd headed downwards and towards the inside of Scott Davies’ left hand post, but the Tranmere keeper slid low enough to scoop the ball up.
Norwood and Banks both had speculative efforts, but despite all the pressure, Rovers were struggling to find the killer ball to create an out and out chance. Only one shot had forced a save from Jonny Maxted in the Guiseley goal by the time that the half time whistle blew.
Tranmere had been much the better side, but Guiseley were doing everything they could to frustrate them – ten men behind the ball, taking an age over set pieces, falling down at every opportunity. Additionally, the front line looked unsettled by Cole replacing Mottley-Henry. Whereas Dylan would normally take the ball out wide to cross in, Larnell was playing as an inside forward, leading to situations where Andy Cook was trying to take on left-backs and put in crosses for Cole – the smallest man on the pitch! With Connor Jennings also drifting in from the left, there was an alarming lack of width.
It took around ten minutes of the second half for Tranmere – now attacking the end populated by their loudest supporters – to find their stride, as too many passes went astray. Cook headed past the post from a Banks corner. Then Buxton crossed in a free kick, and Jennings slid in, but couldn’t direct his connection towards the goal. In the mêlée, Cook should probably have had a penalty for a push on his back.
Next, Norburn’s forward ball found Norwood through on goal. With only Maxted to beat…well, regular readers and fans can guess the rest.
Time was starting to run out, but then Rovers made the crucial breakthrough. Having failed to do the easy thing and finish a one on one, Norwood picked up the ball on the right, fought off two defenders to cut inside, and then placed a perfect left footer into the corner of the net.
Eventually, Tranmere had got a reward for their efforts, and Guiseley had no response. In fact, they capitulated, as Rovers ran riot, building up their goal difference in the process.
With seventy on the clock, and the game being stretched, Norburn played a long ball into the area, where the on fire Jennings took it past two challengers before slipping it past Maxted.
Jennings set the seal on the win with a third, picking up a loose ball in the box, and quickly pulling the trigger for his sixth goal in four league fixtures.
Cook was then unfortunate to see a twenty yard effort deflected for a corner, before Jake Kirby replaced Norwood, making his first competitive appearance since suffering a broken leg versus Barrow back in February.
Finally, Cook picked up possession on the eighteen yard line, before showcasing yet more of his recent nimble footwork, to create space for an emphatic drive. It was four goals in a quite awesome twenty minute spell that could have been purposely designed to make the football journalist run out of descriptive words!
Over the last three months, Tranmere have shown that they can tear through any team currently plying their trade in the National League. Undoubtedly, their disastrous start to the campaign left them with a proverbial mountain to climb, but they are climbing that mountain. In sixth position, but within striking distance of second place if they win a game in hand, Rovers are now the team to beat. Bookmakers are listing Tranmere as 11/8 favourites to win promotion – something which couldn’t really have been imagined when they sank to a 1-0 defeat at home to ten man Wrexham at the end of September, as the calls for Micky Mellon’s dismissal reached their crescendo.
Almost unbelievably, Tranmere have sold out their specially extended 1,500 ticket allocation for the Fylde away end tomorrow, as the two sides play the reverse fixture to Rovers’ Boxing Day victory. The Coasters’ average attendance is only in the sixteen hundreds.
Something incredible is happening, and everyone associated with Tranmere Rovers Football Club can feel it.
Tranmere: Davies; Clarke, Sutton, McNulty, Buxton; Jennings, Norburn (Hughes 84), Banks, Cole (Harris 77); Norwood (Kirby 81), Cook. Subs not used: Pilling, Ridehalgh.
Tranmere player of the match: Connor Jennings – two more cracking goals, and involved in almost every Rovers attack
Attendance: 5,271 (Guiseley 81)
You can view more of Brendan Garner’s match photos here.