As they failed to find a way past Dover at Prenton Park in front of the BT Sport cameras, the once ‘deadly submarine’ of Tranmere Rovers sank to its lowest depths. Eighteenth place in the fifth tier is the worst position in the club’s professional history. But as atrocious as that sounds, this is a game that they should have won.
Manager Micky Mellon kept faith with the lineup that had overcome Solihull with relative ease in the Midlands on Monday, and he deployed them in the 3-5-2 formation that had won four points out of six over the bank holiday weekend. So Mitch Duggan continued at right wing back, and Andy Mangan retained his slot up front, leaving James Norwood on the bench.
For their part, a very tall, strong and forceful Dover side did exactly what all other visitors have attempted to do so far this season. They gave it absolutely everything, they put almost every player behind the ball, and tried to beat McNulty for pace on the break so that they could get a long distance shot in. Up front, Andy Cook was particularly hemmed in, with two men on him at all times.
Tranmere dominated possession in the early stages, but both sides sporadically threatened from long range, with Mangan and Dover’s Mitchell Pinnock forcing saves from goalkeepers. Twenty minutes in, a Jeff Hughes corner from the left was headed wide by Ritchie Sutton, who moments later hit a powerful effort at Dover’s Mitch Walker from 25 yards.
In the last fifteen minutes of the first period, Rovers continued to try their luck from distance, with Cook, Hughes and Ollie Norburn going close, but not close enough. This was symptomatic of the team’s inability to break down Dover’s tightly packed defensive unit. At the other end, Dover were starting to look more ominous whenever they charged downfield.
The home side looked bright after the break, and three minutes in, Cook connected with a Jay Harris cross, but Walker produced a great save. Norwood replaced Mangan, and his pace instantly started causing Dover some problems. However, as the hour mark approached, it was Jay McEveley’s improbably mazy run from the left centre back position that most caught the eye, ending with a powerful shot which skidded just past Walker’s post, with the keeper beaten.
Connor Jennings replaced Norburn on the hour mark, to the inevitable accompaniment of fans singing their Earth, Wind & Fire adaptation in his honour. But Rovers’ threat suddenly dwindled, Dover substitute Toby Sho-Silva saw his header hit Scott Davies’ bar, and it wasn’t long before two controversial penalty calls decided the game. Norwood had already been booked for ‘diving’ at a moment when he would have been through on goal, before he seemed to be brought down in the box. The referee waved play on, but didn’t show Norwood a second yellow, which a faked penalty appeal would surely have merited if it was faked. Then, as Ritchie Sutton attempted a clearance at the other end, he was harshly adjudged to have fouled Ryan Bird. With just ten minutes left on the clock, Bird stepped up to blast it past Davies.
The Prenton regulars in the stands seemed to have little fight left, but there was still time for more Tranmere chances. Norwood played Liam Ridehalgh through on goal, but the wing back’s effort was well parried by Walker, before Connor Essam frantically completed a clearance off the goalline. Then Cook had an effort blocked, and Harris blazed well over as the seconds ticked down to nothing.
Afterwards, Mellon insisted that his team had created enough to have won the game comfortably, and he was correct. This was far from Rovers’ worst performance this season – the chances were there. So yes, the finishing absolutely needs to improve.
But more than that, they need someone to do something unpredictable, to make something out of almost nothing. With all due respect to Dover, they are semi-pros who can certainly match the whites for commitment when they come to a 16,000 capacity stadium, but could easily be caught flat footed by a moment of magic. When Tranmere get an opening lately, they force it through greater pace, greater talent, occasionally sheer power, but never through a bit of flair or surprising play. There are flair players in the squad. They should be looking to do the unexpected more often, when they are in a position to do so. Statistics show that Rovers were unable to convert far less of their possession into attacks, and far fewer of their attacks into dangerous attacks, compared to Dover.
In addition, Rovers also desperately need more width. When Buxton came on near the end, he became their main creative outlet. However, on the other flank, Ridehalgh sat too narrow for most of the afternoon. The fans are literally crying out for wingers. The countdown to Ben Tollitt’s prodigal son-type return is getting grim with the repetition, but Adam Dawson, Elliot Rokka, and Jack Dunn (who’s been wasted in a more central role when he’s played so far this term) exist. All three should be an option when 3-5-2 (or 4-5-1) isn’t yielding results.
Sixteenth placed Barrow are the visitors next Saturday. It’s easy to predict how they will try to play, but what will Rovers do in response?
Tranmere: Davies; Sutton, McNulty, McEveley; Duggan (Buxton 72), Harris, Hughes, Norburn (Jennings 60), Ridehalgh; Cook, Mangan (Norwood 53). Subs not used: Wharton, Dunn.
Tranmere Player of the Match: Jay McEveley – seems to be growing into the role Mellon expects of him, and nearly scored the goal of the season!
Attendance: 4,101 (79 Dover)