TRANMERE ROVERS fans have endured some pretty awful away days this season – most of them during John Barnes’s ill-fated reign as manager – but few have been more dispiriting and exhausting than Saturday’s trek to the south coast.
From an uncovered seating area situated a good 25 metres from the pitch, the 179 hardy souls who made the 550-mile round trip from Wirral to a rain-lashed Withdean Stadium got a thorough soaking as they watched their team crumble to a 3-0 defeat.
Widely regarded as the worst ground in League One, the Withdean – an athletics track surrounded by temporary stands – will not be missed when Brighton make their long-awaited move into the purpose-built Falmer Stadium next year.
A win would have at least given Rovers’ bedraggled fans something to cling to as they made the journey home, but it never looked likely.
Tranmere had gone into the game buoyed by a four-match unbeaten run on their travels – evidence of the team’s steady improvement under long-serving physio Les Parry – but they were soundly beaten by a Brighton side who made light of the dour conditions and uneven pitch by playing some attractive and enterprising football.
The defeat was a worrying and costly setback for Tranmere, who slipped back into the relegation zone and now have it all to do in their remaining nine games.
Having signed three new players before the passing of last week’s loan deadline, manager Parry handed two – Leeds forward Andy Robinson and young Chelsea left-back Ben Gordon – a place in his starting XI and named West Brom midfielder Joss Ladabie on the bench.
The new boys were still settling into the game when the Seagulls took an early lead with a goal that had an element of fortune to it.
Striker Glenn Murray chested a high ball down to Gary Dicker on the edge of the box, and the midfielder sliced his attempted shot horribly. With the Rovers defence wrong-footed, the ball fell perfectly for Murray, who stepped inside Ian Goodison with ease and curled a precise left-footed shot into the far corner from 10 yards.
Seagulls winger Seb Carole, who had an unsuccessful loan spell with Tranmere earlier in the season, spooned a shot high over the bar on 12 minutes when he really should have scored. Then Craig Curran went close for the visitors with a fizzing right-foot shot.
But Parry’s men were left facing a mountain to climb on 29 minutes when in-form Brighton – beaten only once in their previous seven outings – doubled their lead.
Carole skipped past Robinson’s sliding challenge on the right and delivered an inch-perfect cross for Andrew Crofts. The Brighton skipper was surrounded by four Rovers defenders, but he got to the ball first and steered an excellent volley beyond keeper Luke Daniels.
The 2-0 lead Brighton took into the half-time break was suitable reward for their efforts – but they came up against a more determined Rovers side, no doubt stung into action by Parry and his coaching staff, when the second period began.
The introduction of Ladabie on 65 minutes gave the visitors extra impetus, with the powerfully-built midfielder adding drive an athleticism to the Tranmere engine room.
For the first time in the match, Brighton were being forced onto the back foot. They survived a strong penalty appeal for handball on 70 minutes before Robinson, one of Rovers’ better players on the day, saw a snap-shot deflected narrowly wide.
The former Cammell Laird man then drew a finger-tip save from Brighton keeper Peter Brezovan with a sharp 25-yard free-kick, prompting the away fans in the corner to launch into a rare chorus of Super White Army.
They were stunned into silence 12 minutes from time, however, when Robinson threw himself into an ill-advised lunge on Inigo Calderon. Referee Paul Taylor decided the tackle warranted a red card – and as Robinson trudged off to the changing rooms, with him went any faint hope Tranmere had of getting back into the game.
Nine minutes from time, the Seagulls added goal number three when Gordon was caught in possession on the edge of the box and substitute Ashley Barnes fired home a low shot which skidded under Daniels.
It was one-way traffic for the remainder of the game, with Brighton using their one-man advantage to carve out a series of chances.
But Daniels denied Marcos Painter (twice) and substitute Lee Hendrie to keep the score down as Rovers’s fans edged towards the turnstiles at the end of a dismal afternoon.
There was plenty of time for reflection on the way home – and no doubt Parry and his players will have been every bit as unhappy with the result as the fans were.
BRIGHTON: Brezovan, Elphick, El-Abd, Calderon, Painter, Navarro, Dicker (Virgo 86), Crofts, Carole (Hendrie 75), Bennett, Murray (Barnes 71). Subs: Walker, Hoyte, Cox, Smith. Goals: Murray 7, Crofts 29, Barnes 81.
TRANMERE: Daniels, Gordon, Goodison, McCready, Broomes, McLaren (Labadie 65), Taylor, Welsh, Robinson, Savage, Curran. Subs: Collister, Mahon, Barnett, Shuker, Gornell, Bain. BOOKED: Broomes, Gordon. SENT OFF: Robinson.
REFEREE: Paul Taylor (Middlesex).
NEXT MATCH: Norwich City (H), Good Friday, kick-off 7.45pm.