Tranmere wrapped up a Christmas double in front of large Boxing Day crowd, moving into the play-off places for the first time this season, thanks to a thrillingly clinical display against Fylde at Prenton Park.
Confidence was high in the Tranmere camp, following three consecutive league wins, including an impressive away triumph at high-flying Sutton on the 23rd. However, there were concerns that ninety minutes on a plastic pitch might have taken its toll on the players, especially with so little time to recover over the holiday.
Fylde have tumbled down the table after an extremely positive start to their first season, following promotion into the fifth tier of English football. But as they showed in their recent FA cup run – where they held league one Wigan to a draw before succumbing to defeat in a replay – they can be a tough team to play against. In former Tranmere legend Dave Challinor, they have a young manager with some tactical insight, who has already spearheaded three promotions in six years.
Tranmere boss Micky Mellon opted not to unsettle the team who conquered Sutton, so Andy Cook and James Norwood continued up front in a 4-4-2. The only alteration came on the bench, where a returning Larnell Cole replaced Jake Kirby, as he also bids to make a comeback from injury. With James Wallace, Jack Dunn and Ben Tollitt all nearing first team contention, Rovers really will have an embarrassment of riches to choose from – a pool of perhaps twenty players who would likely walk into any other national league side.
It was a shaky start, with both teams initially looking like they had overdone it during the previous day’s festivities. The Rovers midfield – which has looked dominant since Ollie Banks came in on loan – was struggling to string passes together. But 13 minutes in, Tranmere had the first notable effort on goal, when Ollie Norburn received the ball from Adam Buxton, and drove a long range shot towards the bottom left corner, which Jay Lynch did well to get down and save. Moments later, Norwood was disappointed to head wide after a pinpoint Buxton cross. The home side were looking strong, but then Scott Davies had to be alert at his near post when a rare mistake by Eddie Clarke let in Fylde wide man Jonny Smith.
Connor Jennings then had a go from 25 yards, and the match seemed reminiscent of some earlier in the season. Tranmere had been largely dominant, but were only really able to threaten from long range, while their opponents appeared to pose a threat on the break. But it’s not August or September any more, and the whites were about to break the deadlock. A Banks corner was floated into the near post, where Norwood flicked it on, and Ritchie Sutton lashed it in for his first goal since February.
However, the Burslem-born defender wouldn’t have to wait long for another – just six minutes. Lynch was only able to parry the shot when Norwood met Buxton’s crossed free kick, and it dropped nicely for Sutton, who tried a header. The ball died near the goal line, so Sutton followed up with what he later described as a “block tackle” from maybe fifty centimetres out! It was two nil, and ‘We’re on our way’ rang out again. Only a matter of seconds later, Sutton was in the centre of things at the other end, when he hooked a goal-bound attempt away from danger. As the supporters scrambled to invent a Ritchie Sutton chant, Rovers went in two goals to the good.
Within five minutes of the restart, Tranmere had a three goal cushion, and the contest was effectively over. Jennings picked up the ball some way out, and struck a sweet drive past Lynch, as he continued his recent purple patch of form. But Challinor wasn’t throwing in the towel, instead making an attacking substitution. This paid off immediately, as with one of his first touches, forward Jack Muldoon held up the ball inside the Rovers penalty area, and laid it off to Smith, who did well to swivel round Steve McNulty, and curl a shot inside a post.
But the previous margin was restored on 68 minutes, when that man Connor Jennings struck once more. Norwood had burst into the penalty area, but a defender hacked it clear, only as far as the ex-Wrexham forward. And as national league back lines are learning lately – a clearance to the feet of Jennings is no clearance at all, no matter the distance to the target. Despite having a postage stamp area of goal to aim at, and a fragment of a second in which to do it, he emphatically succeeded, and that was that.
Still, Challinor made two more aggressive switches, so Mellon responded by replacing the winger Mottley-Henry – who’d been largely nullified – with centre-back Evan Gumbs, and switching to a back three, with the heroic Ritchie Sutton moving to right-back. The rest of the game fell rather flat, as the two set-ups cancelled each other out, and Rovers comfortably held onto their lead.
This wasn’t actually a vintage Tranmere performance – they’ve played better in recent weeks, and even back in September, where they would somehow contrive to lose or draw. But in attitude, this team is miles ahead of where they were back in the autumn. Lately, Tranmere create four or five good chances, and score three or four. Fylde made themselves just as many, but Sutton and Davies were able to deal with all but one.
With momentum surging through them, Rovers are now where they belong – amongst the promotion chasers. In 6th position, they are a point ahead of Boreham Wood in 8th, and have a game in hand over all the teams above them, each of whom are faltering. Ritchie Sutton is talking about a title push, Micky Mellon – as ever – only speaks of winning the next game. But Tranmere are looking a cut above everyone else at the moment, and it will take something special for relegation-threatened Guiseley to get close to them at Prenton Park on Saturday.
Tranmere: Davies; Clarke, Sutton, McNulty, Buxton; Jennings, Norburn, Banks (Hughes 70), Mottley-Henry (Gumbs 81); Cook (McDonagh 85), Norwood. Subs not used: Pilling, Cole.
Tranmere player of the match: Ritchie Sutton – with two goals and a clearance off the line, he was the winning margin.
Attendance: 6,669 (AFC Fylde 164)
More of Brendan’s photos from the match can be viewed here.