On a freezing winter afternoon in Birkenhead, Tranmere produced a complete performance to see off the challenge of promotion-chasing Maidstone. The football was often free-flowing, but always dynamic, and pulsating with desire. It was what the Prentonian hordes have missed all too often since August, and continues the gradual improvement towards form worthy of the squad, the fanbase, and the club itself.
Rovers started the match in the bottom half of the table, and five points behind their visitors, who began the season superbly, but have hit indifferent form of late. The Tranmere squad continues to be ravaged by injuries and suspensions, but Micky Mellon picked an attacking 4-4-2 line-up. With Steve McNulty serving a one match ban due to accumulation of yellow cards, young Evan Gumbs took his place, after returning from a loan spell at Warrington. At left back, eighteen year old Eddie Clarke made his first Prenton Park start, while Connor Jennings partnered him down the left, due to Larnell Cole’s place on the treatment table. Goalkeeper Scott Davies took the captain’s armband in McNulty’s absence.
The home side dominated from the start, with Jennings managing a shot on goal in a well-rehearsed move directly from the kick-off. But Tranmere scored from their first real opportunity. Clarke picked up the ball just inside the Maidstone half, and with the crowd roaring him on, he tore down the left before delivering a perfectly-flighted cross. James Norwood slid in to connect with it, and steer the ball past Stones custodian Lee Worgan. It was Clarke’s second assist in a week, and he celebrated it like a goal, punching the air in front of the ecstatic Kop fans.
Andy Cook nearly made it 2-0 moments later, when Norwood dashed through the middle, and unselfishly crossed in for his strike partner. But the ball took an awkward skid in the muddy penalty area, and Worgan was able to parry Cook’s first effort, before the second went narrowly wide.
He would have more joy on 17 minutes though. This time it was Jennings’ turn to burst into space. The former Wrexham player crossed, then Cook displayed unbelievable footwork to daintily skip around his marker, and slide a shot past Worgan, who saw it late and couldn’t get down in time.
Jennings himself headed onto the roof of the net from an Adam Buxton cross, before Maidstone were permitted their best period in the game, as the whites took a breather. Clarke was unfortunate to miss a header, and this allowed a sliding pass from Joe Piggott to pick out Zavon Hines. The Jamaican striker had more time than he realised, but Davies made himself look big, and was able to pull off a good save. Maidstone sensed a chink in Rovers’ armour, and almost immediately played another ball behind the backline, but Davies was able to deny Delano Sam-Yorke. Those were to be United’s only two strikes on target.
The second half started rather uneventfully, as Maidstone huffed and puffed, but could not find a way back into the contest, thanks to solid work from the Tranmere rearguard. At the other end, Jennings created an opportunity for Ollie Banks, who was furious at himself when he scooped it over. But soon enough it would be three.
Clarke surged down the left flank once more, before hanging a high ball up for Cook. Worgan came out and punched, but only as far as Ollie Norburn on the edge of the penalty area. The midfielder took one touch to steady himself, before launching a powerful drive into the top left hand corner, via a deflection.
Maidstone’s dogged but ineffectual resistance now crumbled completely, and a jubilant super white army were loving it, combining with the players to mighty effect. With ten minutes to go, Buxton unleashed an almighty pile-driver from thirty-five yards out, and Worgan produced an instinctive wonder save, drawing generous applause from his opposite number in the Tranmere goal. Bucko walloped another one goalwards seconds later, and Worgan dived down to his right to get a fingertip on it, but Norwood reacted the quickest, and made no mistake with the goal at his mercy.
Devarn Green and Josh Kay were introduced in the dying moments, and the former had time for his own attempt on goal. The final whistle went, and it was party time in the bowels of the Kop once more.
Just like in the match versus Dagenham & Redbridge the other week, Tranmere are showing that when they raise their game, they can quite comfortably beat any other team in the National League. The statistics demonstrate their superiority, but also a clinical touch which has often eluded Rovers in recent months, managing more shots on target than off. Of those seven on target, four goals were scored. The combination of Cook and Norwood was more effective and dangerous than it has been in a very long time. Evan Gumbs was almost faultless in for big Steve McNulty, Scott Davies was every inch the captain, and Eddie Clarke appears to have a very bright future in the game. The thrilled expression etched across his face after the first goal perfectly illustrated the value of having a successful youth development policy.
Rovers now have two weeks to work on shortening that injury list, but even with a squad stripped to the bare bones, the club have more points than any other in the division over the last ten games, dating back to the horror defeat at home to rivals Wrexham. If they can find a little bit more consistency, they should be comfortably back in the promotion hunt by the new year, when the likes of Ben Tollitt and Jack Dunn will be looking to add their talents to the goal rush.
Tranmere: Davies; Clarke, Sutton, Gumbs, Buxton; Jennings, Norburn (Kay 87), Banks, Mottley-Henry (Green 85); Norwood, Cook. Subs not used: Pilling, McEveley, Rokka.
Tranmere player of the match: Eddie Clarke – the teenager seared down the left flank, and thoroughly did the job at the back.
Attendance: 4126 (Maidstone 191)