The never-ending soap opera that is Tranmere Rovers Football Club has being particularly eventful lately. Performances have generally been improving, and supporters are hoping that the season is being turned around. The team qualified for the FA Cup first round for the only time as a National League outfit, with a convincing 3-1 away win over Halifax. They then went down 2-1 at Aldershot, in the teeth of Storm Brian, before coming back from a goal behind to earn a good point in Hartlepool. Saturday’s fixture at Prenton Park was the first home appearance for three weeks.
Over those twenty-one days, Rovers have continued to blood young winger Dylan Mottley-Henry, who is on loan from Barnsley, as well as giving some game time to forward Gerry McDonagh – a temporary signing from Nottingham Forest. On Friday, boss Micky Mellon announced two more wingers – ex-Blackburn trainee Devarn Green from Stourbridge, and former Manchester United trainee Larnell Cole. Green was signed for an undisclosed fee, while Cole is on a short term deal, which is due to expire in January.
So excitement was high, as Roverites looked forward to catching a glimpse of yet more fresh wing talent, and taking the game to a side they knocked three goals past just a fortnight earlier. Many fans were surprised by the starting lineup, as Andy Cook was omitted, with the so far less than impressive McDonagh picking up his first full ninety minutes. Jeff Hughes replaced Ollie Norburn in central midfield, with Mellon opting for a 4-4-2 with wingers. It was later revealed that Norburn’s partner was expecting to give birth imminently, so his mind was understandably on other things.
It was a frenetic start, and Tranmere went a goal up after just five minutes. Harris crossed low from the right, following a good build-up by Duggan and Mottley-Henry, and James Norwood made enough of a connection to guide the ball past Halifax keeper Sam Johnson, into the bottom corner. Moments later, after a flick-on by McDonagh, Norwood almost made it two in very similar position, but he couldn’t quite repeat the trick, and the Shaymen cleared their lines.
But it was 2-0 on the quarter hour, when Norwood struck again. Rovers broke quickly from a Halifax corner, and McDonagh tipped it on to Connor Jennings, who slid one forward for Mottley-Henry to chase. Mottley-Henry absurdly back-heeled a quick-moving ball past debutant Halifax midfielder Dan Batty on the half-way line, giving himself the space to charge on and float a beautiful cross to Jeff Hughes. From the edge of the penalty box, Hughes craned his left foot high, bouncing a shot off the ground and towards the goal. Norwood met it with his head, a metre out.
It was the first time Tranmere had been two goals to the good in the league since they won 3-1 against Woking in early August, and the fans went wild, as so much pent-up tension was released. The game wasn’t over yet, of course, but it was as if everything was finally going our way. Wingers doing ridiculous things with the ball, crosses going over, goals being scored. As the chorus of James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’ blared out for the second time in ten minutes, we really did feel good. And after ten weeks of nervy football, many of us hadn’t known for sure that we would.
On a hat-trick, Norwood then set up a chance, skinning the right back, before crossing for Jennings, whose effort was well saved by Johnson, diving low to his left. Another driving Norwood run resulted in him needing stitches in his face, following a collision with a Halifax defender. Unbelievably, he kept hold of the ball, despite sustaining a horrible looking injury. It was the end of an electric twenty-five minute appearance. Larnell Cole came on in his place instead of Cook, as Mellon perceived that the away side were struggling with pace.
The rest of the half was relatively quiet, and indeed for a while the atmosphere resembled a park game, with the players’ shouts to each other clearly audible. But that changed in the second period, because Rovers were attacking the Kop end, and indeed Halifax made it interesting by scoring a 52nd minute goal.
The Tranmere defence failed to mark up properly from a corner, and Halifax centre back and captain Matt Brown arrived practically unchallenged at the far post, to nod the ball past Scott Davies. The travelling Shay faithful started singing, but just thirty seconds later, they were being taunted that “you’re not singing anymore”, as Rovers scored almost straight from the restart. A long range pass found McDonagh, who laid it off to Mottley-Henry. The young star then did something indescribably sensational, and the ball broke to Cole, who cut inside superbly and hit a bobbling shot past a wrong-footed Johnson.
Another few moments, and it was 4-1, and the well-deserved reward for a stellar Mottley-Henry show. His stunning turn of pace won him a loose ball ten metres into his own half, which he then kicked and chased rugby style down the rest of the field. McDonagh and Jennings provided options to his left, but he didn’t need them, placing the ball perfectly under Johnson.
Halifax reduced the deficit with twenty-five minutes remaining, as Rovers again struggled to clear from a set piece, and Batty sliced it past Davies. But they never looked like coming back into it, and it was Tranmere who constantly looked far more likely to score, as McDonagh was repeatedly borderline assaulted by a flailing Halifax rearguard.
The whites have won eleven points from the last six league games – and in a tight league, that should be title-chasing form. Unfortunately, even in October, they have left themselves a hell of a lot of ground to make up if they’re to get anywhere near the only automatic promotion spot. But they’re now just four points away from the play-off places.
Who to praise first? Norwood’s cameo was likely the best twenty-five minutes of his career. He surged forward at every chance, with grit, determination, and phenomenal pace. The touches he got for the two goals were perhaps the least impressive thing about it all. His fledgling partnership with McDonagh looks to have immense potential, and the Irishman continued to add his considerable presence to every forward movement when Cole replaced the two goal hero.
And then there’s Dylan Mottley-Henry. In size, skill and pace, he is reminiscent of Pat Nevin’s time gracing the Prenton Park turf. Some outrageous flicked touches, some unfathomable tenacity. Put two men on him, and more often than not, he will leave them trailing in his wake with a touch of genius which – in the absence of Ben Tollitt – is utterly foreign to the fifth tier of English football. The news that his loan has been extended into the new year is superb for Tranmere’s chances of rising up the table.
That’s obviously very important for the future of the club. But right now, let’s just revel in the fact that Micky Mellon’s selection played like Tranmere Rovers. The many young players gave everything, they tried little bits of flair, and they – in the manager’s favourite phrase – “ran their socks off”. This, for one amazing moment in a grim season so far, was what it is to support Tranmere Rovers, and the raucous celebrations afterwards bore glorious testament to that fact.
Tranmere: Davies; Ridehalgh, Sutton, McNulty, Duggan; Jennings, Hughes, Harris, Mottley-Henry; Norwood (Cole 25, Cook 77), McDonagh. Subs not used: Pilling, McEveley, Norburn.
Tranmere man of the match: Dylan Mottley-Henry – his goal rewarded a performance in which he was a constant threat, and frequently had the crowd gasping.
Attendance: 4,836 (Halifax 384)