Micky Mellon admitted that his side were “not good enough” and “never really got going”, after an often appalling display from a Rovers lineup that just four days ago had played Woking off the park, out of the stadium and back down the motorway.
In his post-match interview, the Tranmere boss conceded that his men were “off it a wee bit all over the pitch”, while he tried to emphasise that the next game will be different. In all honesty, it will have to be. A club aiming for one automatic promotion spot should not play anything like that more than a couple of times per season. Some of the time, they seemed gutless, sloppy, inept. At all times, they were frustrating.
There were no changes from the starting XI who combined to such great effect on Tuesday. Ritchie Sutton kept his slot ahead of Steve McNulty, who had sat out that game through suspension. Jack Dunn remained up front, just behind crowd favourite Andy Cook.
Sutton United came with a gameplan – pack the midfield, hit Tranmere hard in the tackle (less charitably I could say ‘foul them a lot’), test keeper Scott Davies from distance, and tick the clock down at every opportunity. They executed this perfectly, and the home side didn’t seem to know how to respond.
That said, for the first twenty minutes it was an excellent match, with a confident super white army urging their heroes on to the kind of free flowing football witnessed at the start of the week. Liam Ridehalgh was looking particularly menacing, getting plenty of space wide on the left, and putting in cross after cross.
On just two minutes, a Dunn corner was only headed away as far Norburn, who fired it just past the post. Though Sutton also looked sharp on the break, and centre forward Tommy Wright saw two early efforts end up over the bar. Then excellent pressure from Cook won him the ball in a promising position, but a couple of shots were scrambled away, including one off the line from Connor Jennings.
Ritchie Sutton and Jay Harris both missed the target, before Cook got on the end of a deep Ridehalgh cross at the far post, but his cushioned header fell just wide of the near post.
It was at this point that the Yellows started to get a grip on things. Their fast and furious tackles flew in, and Rovers started trying to go long, by-passing the midfield, looking for Cook to replicate his Woking goal. But Sutton managed to get two men on him at all times, and he was too isolated. Tranmere started looking disjointed, and the mood of the match changed, on the pitch and in the stands.
United decisively broke the deadlock on the half hour, when a long ball from the back evaded centre-back Jay McEveley. The powerfully-built Craig Dundas scampered onto it, and was left one on one with Davies. Dundas slid it past the keeper, and Rovers had to show something else.
Cook had a chance on 39 minutes, when he found himself in space at the back post, but could only screw it across the six yard box. Aside from that, Rovers looked like their confidence was shot, and the fans were particularly displeased with Dunn’s contribution. So it was no surprise when James Alabi replaced the ex-Liverpool forward at the start of the second half.
United took a short while adjusting to Tranmere’s all-powerful front two. During that time, Alabi was inches away from getting on the end of a threatening Cook knock-down. Then on 53 minutes, Cook rose highest to meet a flighted Ridehalgh free kick, but it hit the bar and bounced away, with keeper Jamie Butler beaten all ends up.
Sadly, this was to be Rovers’ last meaningful effort on goal. United’s persistent fouling in midfield, coupled with gratuitous timewasting tactics which actually kicked in during the first half, thwarted any attempts to build rhythm. Soon enough, the Tranmere passes started doing the same job, with the whites struggling to string two or three together. The introduction of Mangan in place of Harris did nothing to change this.
In fact, the display was almost summed up in the final seconds of injury time, when confusion reigned in the Rovers box following a Sutton goal kick, and McEveley’s header went beyond Davies, who watched in horror as the ball nearly bounced in off the post.
It’s difficult to diagnose exactly what went wrong without saying ‘everything’. You might think Tranmere were complacent after Woking, but no, they came roaring out of the blocks, and playing the same kind of football. But the turning point came when Sutton began bossing the midfield, and Rovers started trying to avoid it altogether.
With three different types of strikers on the bench, Mellon opted for Alabi, but pumping it into the box is not likely to be very productive when your only two genuine wide men are full backs. Sure, Ridehalgh got many assists last season, and he could have had a couple here with the rub of the green. But Rovers certainly lacked a bit of craft on the wings. A fully fit Ben Tollitt or Jake Kirby could surely have turned this game, but in the meantime perhaps Adam Dawson could have, or Jack Dunn might have gone wide instead of off. Tranmere have so many quality attacking options, it’s almost embarrassing at this level. So the manager shouldn’t be afraid to mix things up, and as he so often says, answer the different questions that each game asks him.
Tranmere: Davies; Buxton, Ridehalgh, Sutton, McEveley; Hughes, Norburn; Jennings, Harris (Mangan 73), Dunn (Alabi, 46); Cook.
Tranmere player of the match: Andy Cook – he battled hard without reward, showing exactly the work rate that Mellon demands of him.
Attendance: 5,050 (Sutton 119)