Prenton Park and the Racecourse Ground are 22 miles apart. There was only one point between the two sides in the play-off places before kick off. The historical head to head figures are separated by just one Wrexham win. Many players have played for both outfits, including Rovers’ Connor Jennings, whose brother James was in the Wrexham lineup. Small wonder that the tickets completely sold out, with the Wirral club shifting their allocation in just thirty-six hours, leaving many regular away travellers frustratedly pleading for spares
Yes, it was a huge game – the biggest so far this season for everyone concerned. An away win would have been massive, but neither club could really afford to lose ground on leaders Macclesfield. As it turned out, neither did.
An hour before kick-off, the Super White Army had shed their police escort, and filled up their allotted seating. With the strangely ramshackle stadium otherwise nearly empty, they started to build the noise. Then the team news came through, and there was no surprise to see that Andy Cook returned up front following his one match suspension, with Jake Kirby making way. At ten to three, the bulk of the Wrexham contingent finally arrived, and as a terrible song played over the PA, pints were downed and fists were clenched. This was it.
Tranmere set off explosively, with Josh Ginnelly looking particularly menacing down the right. It was a challenge on Ginnelly which quickly brought James Jennings’ afternoon to an end, and the left back departed the field with pro-Connor songs ringing in his ears. He was replaced by West Kirby-born former Roverite David Raven.
Ginnelly then recovered a poorly hit Liam Ridehalgh free kick, and cut inside from the right, before his low shot demanded an excellent save from Wrexham keeper Chris Dunn. The custodian was then similarly alert to see a looping Ridehalgh cross over the bar. But Tranmere were about to draw first blood.
James Norwood headed down a Ginnelly corner, and amidst chaos in the Wrexham box, Ritchie Sutton swivelled and scooped the ball beyond Dunn and the covering near post defender. Limbs flew everywhere as Sutton celebrated in front of the travelling Rovers support.
But their joy would be incredibly short-lived, as the Red Dragons took advantage of a concentration lapse to hit back immediately. Sam Wedgbury – who was sent off in the autumnal reverse fixture – found forward Scott Boden, who immediately chipped a superb pass to his namesake Quigley on the edge of the area. The striker – making only his second appearance on loan from Blackpool, turned too quickly for Ridehalgh and Steve McNulty, and hit a stunning strike which left Rhys Taylor helpless.
That was bad enough, but the home team would soon have a lead. As a corner was flighted over, Sutton challenged his opposite number Shaun Pearson in the air. The Wrexham man tumbled to the ground, and the momentum brought Sutton down on top of him. No-one appealed for a foul, but referee Andrew Miller awarded a penalty anyway, which Chris Holroyd converted.
The Welsh fans on two sides of the ground erupted, and Tranmere followers were in a very unfamiliar situation over the past few years – massively outnumbered by the supporters of a team they were losing to. But after reeling in stunned near silence for a few minutes, they found their voice once more, as the Rovers rearguard regained their composure.
Tranmere were coming back into it, and enjoying most of the possession. Andy Cook had a few attempts blocked, before he produced a stunning save from Dunn, when the keeper clawed a downward header away from goal. Jay Harris then hooked over from distance.
In injury time, Rovers won a free kick on the right. Buxton pitched it to the near post, where an onrushing Cook sent a bullet header past Dunn. In the ensuing pandemonium, Tranmere’s leading scorer was booked for celebrating in the stand with the fans.
As the players walked off for the interval, everyone snatched a breath. It had been an epic forty-nine minutes of football, and there was much anticipation of what the second half might bring.
In the event, there was something of an anticlimax. Though the derby atmosphere and high stakes made for plenty more heart-in-mouth moments, the actual play had much less to do with that! Tranmere had the better of territorial possession, but couldn’t fashion much in the way of opportunities.
Five minutes after the restart, it was Wrexham who threatened first, with Ridehalgh mopping up a Boden header which Rhys Taylor had only been able to parry. The Port Talbot man then pushed a Quigley shot round his left post, with Rovers fans frustrated he didn’t make a catch.
Micky Mellon then introduced Eddie Clarke in place of Ginnelly, with the youngster operating as a left winger, instead of his usual full back role. Clarke normally gallops forward anyway, and he wasted no time in doing so again, setting up Norwood with a delightful ball, but the angle was a few degrees too acute, and Dunn was able to get something on it, before Cook’s follow-up was cleared off the line. Aside from a Buxton free kick – which many Wirralians thought had made it under the bar instead of over it, earning them jeers from the home faithful – that was it.
The full time whistle went, but the drama wasn’t over. Outside, travelling supporters in search of the train station were directed backwards and forwards by North Wales Police, and then eventually through a narrow gate, towards oncoming thousands of their opposite numbers in red. There were tweeted reports of fan skirmishes, and batons drawn.
Despite this, the vast majority of Tranmere fans went home in good spirits. The ‘wools’ had crossed the frontier, many carrying inflatable sheep, and they had returned thoroughly entertained, with a potentially crucial point secured. The fixture at home to Ebbsfleet next Saturday will seem tame in comparison, whatever its outcome.
Tranmere: Taylor; Ridehalgh, Sutton, McNulty, Buxton; Jennings, Norburn, Harris, Ginnelly (Clarke 73); Norwood, Cook. Subs not used: Pilling, Dunn, Kirby, Hughes.
Tranmere man of the match: Adam Buxton – an resolute performance and an assist from the ultra-reliable right back, who had sadly lost his grandfather the day before.
Attendance: 8471 (Tranmere 1774)