Tranmere fluff lines in front of full house at Prenton Park
TRANMERE fluffed their lines in front of the biggest crowd seen at Prenton Park all season last night as a debatable penalty handed free-falling Notts County a survival lifeline.
The Magpies – beaten in their previous nine League One outings – battled their way to a narrow victory, boosting their own chances of beating the drop while leaving Tranmere still too close to the drop zone for comfort.
A scrappy contest turned sour in the second half, when mounting frustration with the visitors’ time-wasting tactics boiled over into an injury-time brawl involving almost every player on the pitch. Rovers sub Andy Robinson collected a yellow card for his part in the ugly scenes, while County midfielder Ricky Ravenhill saw red.
It was a sorry end to an eagerly-awaited fixture, played in front of 12,249 fans.
The initial meeting between the two sides, played back in early February, was abandoned due to a waterlogged pitch with County leading 1-0 early in the second half.
Free admission was granted to home and away fans for last night’s rematch, with every remaining ticket snapped up by Monday afternoon.
The stands were packed but, unfortunately, Rovers were unable to reward the bumper crowd with the victory they craved.
Les Parry’s team – welcoming back John Welsh for the suspended Joss Labadie – carved out the first half’s best chances and kept County at arm’s length during the early exchanges, with keeper Tony Warner rarely tested.
Seven minutes in, Enoch Showunmi’s lobbed pass fell perfectly for Lucas Akins, whose pace took him clear of full-back Carl Regan.
But the Tranmere striker’s low shot was not powerful or precise enough to beat Stuart Nelson and the County keeper saved with his legs.
Nelson was called into action just a minute later, arching his back to tip over Mark McChrystal’s looping header from the edge of the penalty area.
Rovers were lacking the kind of intensity which saw them outmuscle Dagenham on Saturday, but they were still comfortably the better side. Showunmi’s mobility and power unsettled the visiting defence, while Akins troubled former Everton and Chester City defender Regan with some dangerous breaks down the right flank.
There was a near miss for the hosts on 24 minutes when Aaron Cresswell’s dangerous cross from the left narrowly avoided Robbie Weir as the midfielder broke into the six-yard box.
From the ensuing scramble, Showunmi’s cross-cum-shot whistled inches past Akins with the goal gaping.
Nelson produced a full-length dive to keep out Weir’s 20-yard drive just after the half-hour mark, but the complexion of the contest changed completely in the 41st minute.
There looked to be little cause for alarm when Jon Harley and Zoumana Bakayogo chased a wayward loose ball as it was running out of play in the penalty area. But Tranmere left-back Bakayogo caught Harley with the faintest of touches and the former Chelsea man tumbled to the ground, drawing the most needless of penalty kicks.
While few fans in the bumper crowd agreed with referee Peter Quinn’s decision, County striker Craig Westcarr put the chorus of boos to the back of his mind and squeezed a low shot under Warner’s dive from 12 yards.
Another round of jeers greeted Mr Quinn when he whistled for half-time, with anger directed more at the official’s penalty decision than the quality of Tranmere’s display in the opening 45 minutes.
It did not take Rovers boss Parry long to introduce teenage forward Dale Jennings in the second half. The 18-year-old – scorer of several spectacular strikes this season – was a 60th-minute replacement for Bayakoyo.
Adam McGurk’s introduction soon after did little to help the flow of what was becoming a stop-start contest – but the Irishman’s guile was exactly what the labouring home side needed.
Jennings showed plenty of his trademark trickery on 76 minutes, only for Westcarr to end his jinking run towards goal with a crude foul. From the resulting free-kick, Cresswell curled a 25-yard shot under the crossbar which required an acrobatic save from Nelson.
Rovers huffed and puffed for the remainder of the match, offering an attacking threat in sporadic bursts.
McGurk came closest to netting a leveller, seeing a header bounce back off the face of Nelson’s crossbar during six minutes of injury time.
Tempers flared shortly before the final whistle as Tranmere’s players grew frustrated with County’s repeated and cynical attempts to run the clock down. Sub Robinson was booked for trying to drag an injured visiting player off the pitch, then Magpies midfielder Ravenhill was dismissed following a scuffle with the Rovers forward.
County’s players and travelling fans celebrated wildly at the final whistle, while Tranmere’s bid to win three games on the spin for the first time this season was left in tatters.