Adventures in Groundhopping – Where there’s a Wirral…
Tranmere Rovers 3 – 0 Stevenage Rovers
Attendance – 8,526
From Preston to Prenton Park, as my autobiography probably won’t be called. With the kind of attractive fiscal responsibility which comes from living in the North, I chose Tranmere Rovers who were using the occasion of auspicious occasion to flog seats away for a fiver. Consequently the gate of over 8,500 broke the season’s record. Additionally – and I am aware the extent to which this is a measure of me for working it out – that figure is more than the cumulative total of all the previous hops for BornOffside.
Tranmere Rovers are the third team of Merseyside, if the good burghers of the Wirral are happy with that geographic label being attached to them. Positioned high up on the peninsula - from the walk to the ground you can see the steep drop to the Mersey and Liverpool beyond – the accent is nevertheless more Scouse than Cheshire. Relatively safe in League One, they came into the Good Friday match with promotion pushers Stevenage with all the conviction of a side comfortably on top. Any one game can’t be used as a full appreciation of either side, as all matches are snapshots as much as exams are, though on the evidence of a pacey game played under stop/start drizzle it was the away side who need to explain why they were constantly on the back foot. If this is end of season nerves, it’s atypical for Stevenage and suggests the former non-league darlings are beginning to see the nature of the challenge in front of them.
Tranmere are a side with decent runs in their past, the high-tide of which is a period of play-offs [for the Premier League] and League Cup Finals throughout the 90s and early 2000s. Their current position in the middle of League One is something of a compromise position between missing out on the play-offs four years ago and wobbling over the relegation places last season. Somewhere in the middle of all this came an infamous and ill-judged choice of John Barnes as manager though it’s not like me to get personal. Their most recent play-off appearance came in 2005, losing Hartlepool on penalties.
The tale of Stevenage is one of great success, back-to-back promotions from the Conference giving them a reputation as a side which rarely backs down. The side is forty years old, give or take, making the slow hike from the Isthmian League in the 1980s to League One this season. History does record that Graham Westley brought around a staggering change in fortunes to see them into break out of non-league football for the first time in their history: it does not record if he sent cuckoo-bananas text messages in the process.
Today Stevenage seemed sluiggish, struggling to get out of first gear. Not one of their defenders, firmly set in traditional positions for most of the game, reacted quick enough under pressure. The opening goal, after just two minutes, saw John Welsh collect a wide-ranging cross absent of any close markers, the weak palm away by keeper Chris Day collected by particularly sparky Wolves loanee Jake Cassidy. It was the fancied Cassidy who turned up again – with a header from a deeply fired corner on just eleven minutes – with Stevenage neglecting to notice any perceived threat.
Tranmere had one weak link amongst an otherwise disciplined side by way of Nigerian international Enoch Showunmi, tasked with playing wide and high but often out-paced and always tripping over his first touch from every pass or cross. It seemed to become obvious in the second half, in the run up to his substitution, that he had been ordered to drop into the middle rather than risk losing any more chances to extend their lead.
It was otherwise a show of confidence and determination from the home side whose 51 points guarantees safety from relegation. Stevenage screwed things up royally, in all fairness and honesty, losing the momentum and watching the gap between them and the play-off places widen. Above them are Premier League exiles and multiple cup winners – the two Sheffields, Charlton, Notts County – reflecting and representing not just the challenge for a side whose home ground holds fewer than 8,000 people, but the measure of the achievement of getting here in the first place.
The walk to and from Prenton Park takes in suburbia both comfortable and not so, dotted with pubs sending out similarly mixed messages. There was time for a quick pit-stop (pint of EPA under two quid, over-flowing urinals priceless) before the stroll back to Rock Ferry train station, from which canary yellow trains spend their whole day on a single loop-line around Liverpool and back again. Tranmere is clearly a town in love with its team, though not perhaps necessarily in too great a number without financial incentive. That said this was a passionate and interesting game, and a good insight for me into the current fortunes of a long-lost non-league team. For my first journey above the pyramid this season (…I think that metaphor works) this was an enjoyable day. Now, back down below…