83 minutes into proceedings on a sunny late summer afternoon in Birkenhead. Rovers are 2-0 down, due to a combination of inept midfield work, worse refereeing, and a apparent lack of giving a flying whatever. In the seemingly cavernous Cowshed, a gaggle of maybe twenty away fans – Boreham Wood’s entire travelling support – are partying like it’s 1999. Every passing second, around that number of frustrated Tranmere followers are heading for the exits. Those that remain look despairing, forlorn, like everything in life is wrong. The faces of some have turned a worrying red, maybe two shades darker than the new Roma-style away kit that they wear. Seats are getting kicked. Stewards are starting to hold some people back. And then…
And then the players started playing, like they belonged in a Tranmere shirt, as part of a Tranmere team, worthy of a Kop end in full-throated roar. All three substitutes shook things up, gave it their absolute everything, and were vital in the ensuing comeback.
First, Andy Cook rose to meet a Liam Ridehalgh cross, and his placed header nestled in the net. Cook passionately punched the air, while Andy Mangan scampered to retrieve the ball and return it to the centre spot. Then, in the last minute of normal time, Cook took off again, flicking it on for Ollie Norburn. He cut it back for Mangan, who couldn’t miss. Cue mighty relief, ‘limbs all over the place’, and my camera going flying. In the final few seconds, James Norwood missed a chance for a winner, when he couldn’t quite connect with a flighted ball from Mitch Duggan.
I try to avoid cliches like the plague, but something along the lines of ‘Tranmere pay the penalty’ had been suggesting itself for a headline. Don’t get me wrong, the whites had been dismal for almost all the 52 minutes before Boreham Wood’s opener. They didn’t merit being in front, but the incident did swing the game into the away side’s favour. A Rovers shot was acrobatically saved on the goalline by midfielder and coach Tom Champion, who blatantly got at least one paw to it. But referee Paul Marsden – taking charge of just his fifth senior game – failed to spot the hand of Tom. Rovers stopped to argue, but the sky blues broke to the other end, and the backline were forced into a foul on Bruno Andrade in the area. Incredibly, Marsden didn’t send anyone off, but Andrade did convert the penalty, as it bounced in off the post, just past Scott Davies. Tranmere should have been a goal and a man up, but they were 1-0 down.
Just over a quarter of an hour later, a Tranmere attack fizzled, and suddenly Angelo Balanta had the beating of a sluggish McNulty. He curled one into the top corner from distance, and people started leaving.
From then until Cook’s goal, the atmosphere was among the worst I’d experienced at Prenton Park. Some of the crowd tried to get chants going, but goalkeeper coach Eric Nixon was perhaps the most animated Tranmere fan, giving it absolutely loads on the touchline. The passion and commitment that the big man always showed on the pitch back in the day is a massive part of what has been missing since the Woking game – which was only eighteen days ago, but feels like eighteen months ago.
To give Micky Mellon his due, he did change things up for this fixture, playing wing backs, with two up front. He also named a much more balanced subs bench than recently, with defender Adam Buxton sitting alongside midfielder Jay Harris – instead of four forwards and a keeper.
The problems seem to go much deeper. Whatever the formation, it looks as if the players don’t like each other. They play as individuals, and forget ‘not on the same page’ – they’re in different libraries.
Could this brave fightback be a turning point in the season? It’s not impossible. If they play with the same togetherness and commitment witnessed for thirteen glorious minutes versus Boreham Wood, there’s not a team in this league who can touch Tranmere. Certainly Solihull Moors can’t, so the Rovers players and staff should go there on Monday, remembering that they hit nine past them not five months ago.
Tranmere: Davies; Sutton, McNulty, McEveley; Duggan, Hughes (Harris 72), Norburn, Jennings (Mangan 66), Ridehalgh; Norwood, Alabi (Cook 58).
Tranmere Player of the Match: Andy Cook – came on and fought for the shirt, scored one and was instrumental in another.