TRANMERE’S Carling Cup journey ended in hard-fought but honourable defeat to Premier League giants Bolton at Prenton Park last night.
A goal just before half-time by midfielder Mark Davies was enough to take the visitors through to the third round and on the balance of play and chances they earned their ticket.
There was consolation for Tranmere in producing a more focused and disciplined performance against powerful opponents after being comprehensively outplayed by League One front-runners Leeds United last weekend.
John Barnes’s team competed fiercely and defended solidly. They weren’t able to play the kind of enterprising attacking football that had marked all three of their previous home performances this season.
They didn’t carve out a clear-cut chance until injury time when young substitute Ryan Fraughan fired into the side-netting.
But it was understandable against a strong and Bolton side who were determined to force a result against one time arch rivals after losing the first two Premier League games of the new season.
Bolton took the occasion seriously enough to field a line-up of Premier League strength, with manager Gary Megson making just one change from the side beaten at Hull City last weekend.
Tranmere however, were forced into changes.
Shaleum Logan’s absence with a toe injury picked up at Leeds meant Gareth Edds started at right-back. Ash Taylor took over at centre-back from Gavin Dunning who was denied permission to play in the Carling Cup by his club Bolton while teenager Terry Gornell replaced Ian Thomas-Moore in attack.
Rovers made a steadier start than they did at Elland Road, They were the first side to pose a threat when midfielder John Welsh drove a shot from the edge of the box into the chest of goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen on five minutes.
Bolton, also making a cagey start, did not make any kind of response until the 16th minute when a shot on the turn from 15 yards by striker Kevin Davies ran straight at goalkeeper Luke Daniels.
Bolton looked more threatening when full-back Sam Ricketts made space down the right to swing a dangerous cross to the far post where Kevin Davies, jumping above his marker, powered a header narrowly over the crossbar.
Tranmere were reluctant to throw players forward as freely as they had done in some recent games. Even so, Bolton looked more threatening the longer the first half went on and the visitors took the lead on 41 minutes.
Rovers were caught by a swift counter-attack through the inside right channel as Mark Davies, taking a perceptive return pass from Kevin Davies into the box, drove in a low shot that skidded off the underside of goalkeeper Daniel’s body on its way into the net.
Bolton were grateful to see a dangerous left-wing cross from Paul McLaren skid across the six-yard box without getting a touch as the home side looked to make an early second half reply.
But Daniels had to make the first save after resumption when he touched over a deflected shot from Fabrice Muamba that spiralled into the air and dipped towards the crossbar.
The two Davies’s almost carved out a second goal for the Premier League side on 62 minutes when Mark swept in a low cross from the right that found its way to the far post where Kevin, sliding in just failed to get a touch.
It was the signal for Tranmere manager Barnes to change his attacking options.
He introduced youngster Charlie Barnett for Shuker and replaced striker Craig Curran with target-man Michael Ricketts.
The arrival of Ricketts, who enjoyed the best days of his career at Bolton, was greeted by cries of derision from the visiting fans.
Kevin Davies must have thought he had headed a second goal for Bolton after being first to reach a cross by Matt Taylor. But his effort took a slight and telling deflection past Ian Goodison and kissed the left-hand post before running into touch.
Soon afterwards Kevin Davies forced a full length save from Daniels, with a powerful 20 yards shot as Bolton finished the stronger of the two teams.
Substitute Ryan Fraughan probably had Tranmere’s best chance of the night in injury time when he clipped an angled shot from a dozen yards into the side netting.