IT is far too early in the new campaign to make a judgement about where Tranmere’s League One journey under John Barnes might lead. But you can already hazard a guess that it’s going to be a lot of fun watching them get there.
Rovers notched eight goals in winning two highly entertaining games in front of their own supporters over the past week. The Prenton Park regulars lapped up the excitement of Saturday’s success over Gillingham and roared their approval at the end of a contest driven by the attacking ambitions of both teams and punctuated by a succession of well-taken goals at both ends.
The spectators appeared to enjoy it is more than Barnes himself, who was quick to voice concerns in the post match press conference about the flaws in Tranmere’s display – just as he did after the Carling Cup victory over Grimsby last Tuesday.
That’s how it should be for a manager who was waited a long time to put his theories into practice and is focused on making them work. Barnes, you can see, passionately believes in the pass and move game he wants to establish at Prenton Park – and his players are clearly enjoying the process of learning to adapt to it.
There were spells in both games last week when they played it to compelling effect. However, the flaws Barnes talks about are also contributing to the excitement for those who simply have to sit back and watch.
Grimsby failed to punish some shaky Tranmere defending last Tuesday only because goalkeeper Luke Daniels made a handful of outstanding saves. On Saturday Gillingham had enough of the game to put themselves in a position to force a victory and could claim they were hard done by to lose by two goals.
Rovers were outplayed for spells in each half when their passing game lost some cohesion while Gillingham, boasting talented individuals in the ranks, produced some attractive football of their own.
The home team came through on the strength of sharper finishing and sharper delivery of the final ball. You sensed that some of the roars around the ground at the end of the game were out of relief that dangerous opponents had been overcome.
The afternoon could hardly have started better for Tranmere. Deft footwork by Shaleum Logan enabled the full-back to deliver a dangerous cross to the far post in the fifth minute.
Ian Thomas-Moore out-jumped his marker to win the ball and guide a downward header into the bottom corner of the net.
Rovers maintained the initiative for the best part of 20 minutes, then allowed Gillingham to take the upper hand.
Curtis Weston’s equaliser on 33 minutes caught Tranmere by surprise because the midfielder’s fierce and accurate 25-yard shot into the bottom corner was fired off with barely any backlift. Goalkeeper Daniels did not have time to move.
Rovers regained the lead three minutes after the restart when Logan’s quick throw from the right sent John Welsh on a run to the edge of the box.
The bouncing ball stood up conveniently for the midfielder to strike a dipping half volley over keeper Alan Julian into the heart of the net.
Once again Tranmere lost some grip after going ahead. Bentley, offered the chance to equalise by Barcham’s left-wing cross on 52 minutes, knocked the ball over the bar. Two minutes later Barcham, making space on the left-hand corner of the box, sent a curling shot arching other Daniels’ reach to finish in the far corner.
If the visitors have been able to capitalise on a period of pressure that followed, the game might have been wrested away from Tranmere.
As it was, Rovers profited from their opportunism and effective contributions from substitute Terry Gornell and Gareth Edds.
Striker Gornell had been on the field only three minutes when the ball broke kindly off Thomas-Moore into his path on the edge of the box in the 73rd minute. The 18-year-old made the most of the opportunity with a shot rifled into the bottom corner.
There was nothing fortunate about Tranmere’s fourth goal in the final minute of injury time. A series of passes took the ball to Logan, whose cross from the right touchline was headed back from the far post by Gornell and nodded into the net at close range by Thomas-Moore.
There was still time left for Daniels to deny Gillingham a third goal by instinctively touching Weston’s 15-yard pile-driver over the crossbar.