EVERY football fan has heard the line from managers about crowd support “being worth a 12th man to us.” The Prenton Park faithful produced a variation on the theme by helping Tranmere to battle through more than half an hour of football against Swindon Town with a man short – and claim a victory that could be one of the most valuable of the season.
There are not quite so many regulars at Rovers’ home games these days. The recession has seen to that. And a few of the 5,000 could be heard to grumble at half-time after Ronnie Moore’s team were made to look second-best by relegation-threatened Swindon.
But spectators in all parts of the ground recognised they had a role to play as Tranmere mounted a rearguard action in defence of Antony Kay’s 48th-minute goal after Ian Goodison was sent off just short of the hour mark.
As Rovers reorganised and defended with dogged commitment, the noise levels rose and swelled around the drumbeat from the Kop and barely dropped. They cheered every tackle and clearance until the job was done at the end of four minutes of injury time.
“We worked as hard as we could and it helped that spectators were working for us as well,” said Steve Jennings, who led Tranmere’s resistance from the heart of midfield.
The result edged Rovers to within two points of the League One play-off zone and provided the impetus needed ahead of a sequence of five away games out of the seven fixtures in March.
The dismissal that upset the balance of the contest was not a controversial one.
Goodison received his marching orders for felling Simon Cox when the Swindon striker threatened to break clear onto Lilian Nalis’s through pass.
Referee David Webb consulted his assistant before deciding that, in spite of Andrew Taylor’s proximity to the incident, Goodison was still the last defender between Cox and goalkeeper John Achterberg. There was no doubt about about the foul itself.
Kay, whose deft footwork and finishing skills delivered the goal, moved from midfield to centre-back after the Jamaican’s departure. Striker Ian Moore dropped back into midfield, winger Chris Shuker’s creative talents were sacrificed for the defensive skills of substitute Gareth Edds and teenager Terry Gornell did an impressively mature and resourceful job as the lone striker.
Gornell, a first-year professional, was on the field from the 40th minute as a substitute for the injured Bas Savage. He still has many tricks of the striking trade to learn but he showed he already knows more than many a 19-year-old.
No-one did more to thwart Swindon’s efforts to equalise than Jennings, who covered every inch of the tacky mud and grass to make his tackles and blocks in midfield.
Manager Ronnie Moore would not allow his players to forget that the first half showing was a letdown however.
Not for the first time Tranmere struggled to establish authority against opponents from the bottom end of the table.
Goodison, who played after a fitness test on a hamstring injury, may not have been as sharp as he likes to be. When Paynter pulled away on the right to deliver a dangerous low cross in the 22nd minute, Andrew Taylor made a crucial interception to prevent the ball from reaching Cox.
Ben Chorley made an important block from Cox two minutes later, Paynter fired a shot wide of the near post and goalkeeper John Achterberg made a sprawling save from Kevin Amankwaah’s deflected 25-yard shot.
Tranmere meanwhile could not string the passes together well enough to create a scoring opportunity during the first half. Their efforts were not helped by the firm bounce of the pitch and Swindon’s defensive discipline.
It took a moment of individual skill to break the visitor’s resistance three minutes after the interval. Kay controlled an awkward, bouncing ball a few yards outside the box with such dexterity that Swindon’s defenders backed off, almost in admiration.
Wrong-footing his opponents, Kay took the ball forward another couple of bounces before hitting a crisp low shot inside the left-hand post.
During the next 10 minutes Tranmere looked as if they were beginning to exert a grip on the game. Then Goodison saw red and the balance changed again. Rovers’ priority became protecting rather than building on their narrow advantage.
The home side enjoyed a generous slice of fortune on 67 minutes when a scissors kick from Paynter crashed high against the left-hand post and rebounded straight into the grateful arms of Achterberg.