OK, you could be cynical about this. More than a few people are doing just that. It was a home game against a team in lower mid-table. Tranmere scraped a last minute winner, after being fortunate not to go a goal or two down before half time. For large periods of the match, they still struggled. You’d be completely correct to say that. Yet that would be to totally misunderstand the context of the match. This was massive, and to be in the Kop end (or anywhere else in Prenton Park except the Cowshed) when James Norwood slid that one past Stuart Moore, was an experience worth savouring.
After breaking their points record in 2016/17, Rovers have had a frustratingly poor start to their third attempt at getting back into league football. Last week against Dover, they hit a new low – 18th in the fifth tier. For fans who grew up in the 1980s and 90s, this is a world away from the glory days of rising from obscurity to hammer on the guilded door of the Premier League. It’s possibly even harder for younger supporters, who have known nothing other than continual decline, but somehow still believe it can be turned round. The crowds have dwindled, and perhaps we even could say ‘bottomed out’. Last year, the gate averaged 5,173. This season, as the goals and wins have dried up, they’re nearer a worrying 4,000. You have to wonder how much of that sort of gate the club’s finances can stand.
And sixty minutes into the Barrow fixture, there was a worrying familiarity about the match, for those who saw Sutton, Boreham Wood and Dover get their away results over the past month. Rovers had started brightly, but hadn’t scored, and had begun to lose their way around the half hour mark, as the visitors finished the half well on top. Tranmere had come out full of fight for the first five minutes of the second period, before the passes started going astray, and their opponents had started to look dangerous on the break. It seemed like only a short matter of time before the once mighty whites fell behind to another club with no business getting anything at a 16,000 capacity stadium.
Suddenly, apparently out of nowhere, the Kop (and some in the other home stands) collectively seemed to decide that enough was enough. It was a pivotal, almost surreal moment. The team might have been performing poorly in the fifth tier, but they were going to be roared on like it was the height of the Johnny King days, with added drums. For the remainder of the match, those behind the goal that Tranmere were attacking didn’t let up for a second, barely pausing for breath in an epic twenty minute ‘super white army’ chant, followed by a bit more variety in the closing moments. At the death, it was ‘Lord James Norwood’ being exalted to the Birkonian heavens, to the tune of Kumbaya.
Micky Mellon persisted with the 3-5-2 formation he’s used in the last few matches, persisting in his belief that it was merely the end product – not what came before it – that stood between his team and a hatful of goals. The only changes were Adam Buxton replacing young Mitch Duggan at right wing back, and Norwood in for Andy Mangan as the pace man up front.
Both Buxton and Norwood featured in that bright Tranmere opening, with both looking mobile and getting into good positions. It was the latter who expertly brought down a long ball on 5 minutes, before laying it off to Jay Harris, who hit a poor shot wide of goal. Moments later, Norwood broke forward and tested Moore from range. The keeper fumbled it, but gathered possession at the second attempt.
Shortly after, Jay Harris put a superb cross in for Andy Cook, but he could only head straight at Moore, although he was adjudged offside anyway. Then Barrow’s 6’4 central defender Moussa Diarra blasted over Scott Davies’ goal, stinging my fingertips and those of the guy behind me!
Tranmere made a couple more half chances, before the Bluebirds started to exert significant pressure, as the break approached. On 39 minutes, Ritchie Sutton came to Davies’ rescue with a hooked goalline clearance, after the keeper had been caught in no man’s land by a looped ball forward, and been chipped by Tanzanian striker Adi Yussuf. And Barrow had the ball in the net during injury time, when Byron Harrison got on the end of a huge throw by left back Dan Jones, but the referee gave a free kick, for a foul on Davies. Then Diarra prodded just wide with the goal gaping, and Mellon must have been glad to get his team into the changing room.
The home side had dominated the first half hour, but were too often caught between hoofing an aimless ball upfield, or taking too many touches in midfield to carve the Barrow defence open. And despite lots of Tranmere enthusiasm after the restart, it was Barrow who were still looking the more dangerous in terms of opportunities.
Mellon then shook things up, but received a scattering of boos for replacing two hardworking crowd favourites – Andy Cook and Jay Harris – with debutant George Waring and recently out of form Jack Dunn. It was a bold move, but still, nothing was really coming together.
Then the Kop burst into life, and so did the team, who moved the ball around with greater urgency, and showed some nice touches, as if they were trying to prove themselves worthy of the noise being created. It would take many words to fully describe each of the chances created over the next half hour. But Rovers started hitting shots on target, and Moore was superb, denying Jack Dunn after his great run beyond three defenders, and twice flying high to his right to push swerving Ollie Norburn long range efforts around the post. The towering Waring was also unfortunate not to properly connect with a cross.
In the midst of all this, centre back Jay McEveley was replaced by Connor Jennings, as Rovers shifted to an unconventional 4-4-2. Finally, with another frustrating full time whistle looming, Norwood made the most of some battling work down the right by Dunn, latching onto his ball and charging into the box. Half the size of Diarra, but twice his speed, Norwood strained every sinew to comprehensively beat his man, before shooting past the despairing Moore at his near post from an extremely acute angle. The crowd – very much the twelfth man – went into raptures, and the players’ overjoyed celebration showed that it meant just as much to them.
From 50/50 refereeing decisions to substitutions and tactical changes, everything seemed to combine at the last gasp, to give Tranmere a deserved victory in front of impassioned spectators-turned-active participants. Mellon’s side travel to Maidenhead and Ebbsfleet this week, before heading back to Wirral for the always feisty derby versus Wrexham. Just two points off a play-off place, and five off the top, everyone is looking up once more.
Tranmere: Davies; Sutton, McNulty, McEveley (Jennings 78); Buxton, Harris (Dunn 53), Hughes, Norburn, Ridehalgh; Cook (Waring 53), Norwood. Subs not used: Pilling, Alabi.
Attendance: 4,269 (Barrow 194)
Tranmere Player of the Match: Ollie Norburn – a lively performance from the central midfielder. Like Ben Tollitt last season in a different position, he’s a class or two above this level, and can do the unexpected to devastating effect.