I have to admit to a slight sense of foreboding ahead of the game. If France can beat England in a rugby World Cup and if Wales can reach the semi-final of anything, the world’s turned upside down – and on a day like that Tranmere turning us over might be par for the course. In the event the football proved to be similar to the rugby in that we put in a first-half display that was well below par and found ourselves deservedly behind. But at least it wasn’t 16-0. We improved in the second and on another day might have taken all three points – undeservedly on the balance of play and chances over the 90 minutes, but with Wright-Phillips of all people failing to convert from a couple of yards out and according to others another penalty denied . We might have lost it too, with Tranmere carrying a threat throughout and Hamer and Morrison grateful that after a failure to communicate and a collision the ball bobbled behind for a corner rather than their guy getting a tap-in. Also, I felt one of theirs should have seen red. By the same token our goal came from the sort of penalty you only get once or twice a season. So, strange day, take the draw and move on.
There were rare changes to the team, with Green and Kermorgant getting the nod ahead of Wagstaff and Hayes, who were on the bench (with Doherty included there as Cort was unavailable). Both had earned the starting places with cameo substitute contributions, and there was an obvious logic to picking Green to provide the crosses if the threat in the air of Kermorgant was to be used. But fact is they didn’t really work. A lot of Hayes’ work involves making himself available and linking up play, helping to get the midfield engine room of Hollands and Stephens going. Without that, we had a tendency to go long towards Kermorgant, and Tranmere were up for that challenge, with an experienced centre-back in Goodison. The related problem in starting with these two is that the options to turn a game around with impact players on the bench were lacking.
With Green struggling to find space and get in the game, we failed to create anything meaningful in the first half. I can only remember a shot from Wiggins on his right foot which went wide. By contrast, Tranmere didn’t look blessed with pace but had a game plan and generally bossed midfield, were in control of our forwards, and with Showunmi carried a threat going forward. They’d already bungled a great opportunity as two went for the ball in the area and got in each other’s way, but after a couple of harmless long-range efforts they took the lead with something of a fluke. Their guy shaped to cross from the left and either he sliced it or it took a deflection (consensus on the way back was that it did indeed come off Solly) and Hamer was left stranded having come a bit off his line, with the ball squirting in at the near post.
At the break we’d given a passable impression of underestimating our opponents and, whatever the line-up, not putting in the drive and effort needed to win the game. It left me thinking that this was the third game in a row in which we’d failed to score in the first period, the second of which we’ve gone in behind. Something for Sir Chris to ponder since as England found out sometimes the game is lost in the first half.
The workrate had to improve in the second half and it did. And we started to see some cracks emerging as once put under pressure Tranmere looked less than comfortable, especially with a goalkeeper who when not timewasting – just why do refs give a guy a warning for this in the first half and when it’s repeated go and have a chat to them instead of just brandishing a yellow? – seemed likely to spill anything that came his way. We nearly had a farcical own goal to celebrate as two defenders managed to contrive to bundle a harmless cross just wide, then said keeper nearly let a shot through his grasp. The play was still fairly even, with midfield keenly contested, but at least we were making some things happen.
Green was more involved in the second half and delivered one excellent cross, but it wasn’t surprising that he gave way for Wagstaff, who nearly had an immediate impact, running through before being blocked off (and Tranmere’s tackling was keen through the game). It was around this time that we were denied a penalty. The ball was being seen out for a corner when their guy clearly shoved ours off the ball. The ref gave a free kick just outside the box where our guy fell, but those I talked to in the North Stand say the challenge was inside. The free kick itself should be glossed over as a training ground move saw it squared straight to a defender.
The penalty when it came was a surprise. Wright-Phillips was doing good stuff outside the box and he won a corner. The ball was crossed and in the usual melee somebody must have climbed on somebody. The ref had no doubts and clearly indicated climbing, but you don’t get them often. Tranmere tried every trick in the book to unsettle Jackson, playing around with encroachment and their keeper even going forward and picking the ball up off the spot. To absolutely no avail as Jackson simply buried it low to the keeper’s left.
That still left around 15 minutes to win the game and our golden opportunity came as the ball bobbled in the box and Wright-Phillips twisted round to bury it a la Mendonca. Unfortunately this time around he made minimal contact and from a couple of yards out it looped up for their keeper to collect. There were other moments, but nothing to compare – except for the Hamer-Morrison misunderstanding that left both in need of treatment and their forward cursing his luck that he couldn’t catch up with the ball. Just one more incident to mention. Just how does their player not get a red card when after a midfield tussle which left him and our guy on the deck and, with the ball 20 yards away, as ours gets to his feet is clearly kicked? The ref gave us a free kick but took no further action.
So, a game we could have lost but which if we’d turned up in the first half might well have won. We’re far from perfect and, after we all indulged in some deserved back-slapping after the Sheff Utd game, this afternoon served as a reminder that there aren’t many walkovers in this division. They didn’t come to shut up shop and more than matched us for passing and movement in the first half. We’ve got where we are by hard work and if the tempo of our play drops we are a shadow of the team that we can be – and need to be if we are to retain our current position. As in the rugby, we gave our opponents hope and something to fight for with a below-par first-half display. That in turn raises the question for Powell as to the best starting X1 as on prevailing form the changes made were justified but sometimes, like a rowing team, the boat goes faster with a different combination. All to be sorted out on the training ground before Stevanage.
Hamer – 7/10. Don’t think he can be blamed for the goal, despite being beaten at his near post, but has to share the fault for the incident with Morrison which could have cost us the game. Otherwise dealt with the high balls well.
Solly – 7/10. Was caught out a couple of times and picked up a yellow for a late tackle, but for the most part held up well once more against much bigger opponents. Their goal may have deflected off him, but that’s just one of those things.
Wiggins – 7/10. Another calmly effective game. Doesn’t seem to like passing or shooting with his right foot, however.
Morrison – 7/10. For the most part he and Taylor dealt well with an evident threat in the air and the physical presence of Showunmi. Just that collision again.
Taylor – 7/10. As with Morrison, no nonsense and effective against a big team.
Jackson – 7/10. I’d just about make him our man of the match for the calmness with which he waited for and then took the penalty. Otherwise mixed game as we seldom had control of midfield and didn’t pop up in the box as he often does.
Hollands – 6/10. We struggled to get our passing game going and central midfield has to be a key part of that. Didn’t play badly, but didn’t stand out either.
Stephens – 6/10. As with Hollands. They are the engine room of the team and for much of the game it didn’t get out of a low gear.
Green – 6/10. He was in the team to provide the ammunition and came up short today. Still seems to be feeling his way back after the missed games.
Kermorgant – 6/10. Again, won a fair share of headers and almost played people in once or twice. But by and large was shackled by their defenders.
Wright-Phillips – 6/10. You wouldn’t have wanted that chance to fall to anyone else, but for once he failed to convert.
Sub – Wagstaff (7/10 – caused them problems when he came on; he and Green are I hope going to contest the spot through the season and it may well be a case of one starting and one finishing a game).