No Cup magic for Tranmere as Cheltenham inflict shock loss
SO MUCH for the magic of the FA Cup infecting Prenton Park.
The world’s oldest and most famous knockout competition had the effect of inhibiting Tranmere rather than stimulating them, and a tame first round exit was the result.
Rovers could not complain about losing to Cheltenham Town on an afternoon when the League Two promotion chasers enjoyed around 60% of the possession and put more than twice as many goal attempts on target as the home side.
Manager Les Parry, marking his 1000th consecutive first-team game in the dugout, would have wanted to reach the milestone in a more positive way than this.
But his experience of around 18 seasons as first-team physiotherapist and just over two years as manager will have taught him that you can never predict what’s around the corner in football – particularly in the FA Cup.
No-one on Parry’s staff could have anticipated a performance as hesitant as this from a side who will owe much of their success in League One this season to a talent for making life uncomfortable for the opposition.
Here Tranmere allowed Cheltenham to set the tempo and dictate the pattern of play from the start. It proved to be a fatal error because the visitors, with a run of five straight away wins behind them, had more than enough confidence and ability to hold onto the initiative.
There may have been some debate about the penalty award that produced the game’s only goal from Darryl Duffy’s conversion on 22 minutes. But not much.
No one could doubt that Cheltenham were value for the advantage they protected by keeping the ball for long periods and defending with discipline and resilience when they had to. Steve Elliott, a centre back with the burly build of a Sunday league player, was a dominant figure.
Cheltenham’s successes on the road have been won with a 4-5-1 formation that gives them an extra man in midfield against most opponents.
They presented Tranmere’s midfield four with a puzzle they could not solve. The home side struggled to build attacks through midfield, to bring their wide men into the game and to give Andy Robinson enough opportunities to get on the ball and create danger.
The problem was more than just about the numbers however. Tranmere were a little too lax in their attention to the essentials of closing down and harrying the opposition and moving the ball quickly.
They backed off enough to allow Cheltenham’s midfielders to control the play for long periods and to get up in support of the lone striker, the hard-working and resourceful Duffy.
Rovers might still have redeemed themselves and rescued a result had they made the most of some isolated opportunities. When those chances came they missed the target more often than not, leaving visiting goalkeeper Scott Brown with only one difficult save to make.
Tranmere’s slow start looked at first as if it might be nothing worse than a settling down period following the 4-3 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy defeat at Chesterfield three days earlier. It gradually became apparent that they could not find the lever to crank their game into a higher gear.
The sting of conceding a goal on 22 minutes did not induce a strong reaction. Lucas Akins argued vehemently against referee Craig Pawson’s decision to point to the spot after he caught the heels of Sido Jombati inside the box. The contract may have been accidental as both players were looking at the ball as it dropped ahead of them. But Akins’ trip prevented the Cheltenham full-back for making anything of the situation.
After Mr Pawson waved away Akins’ protests, Duffy fired the spot kick into the roof of the net.
Tranmere responded four minutes later when Ash Taylor was first to a free-kick whipped in from the right by Adam McGurk and glanced his header narrowly wide of the far post.
Two minutes before the interval Robinson, making the most of a rare opportunity to run at the Cheltenham defence, wriggled past two challenges on the edge of the box then slid his shot wide of the left-hand post. Three minutes after the break Brown scrambled to reach a sweetly struck freekick from Robinson as it dipped towards the bottom corner.
Tranmere could have been two down by that stage because goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams was forced to make a smart smothering save from Duffy’s low shot in a well worked move.
Cheltenham made a claim for a second penalty when Kaid Mohamed fell under pressure from Taylor on 59 minutes. Mr Pawson was having none of that one.
Luke Summerfield, the son of Tranmere assistant manager Kevin, had an opportunity to rub salt into his dad’s wounds when he finished off a break on 65 minutes but shot straight at Fon Williams.
The Welsh goalkeeper then had to scramble to tip over a looping header from Josh Low on 78 minutes and was grateful to see full-back David Buchanan clear off the line from Russ Penn a minute later.
Martin Devaney whipped in a couple of dangerous crosses towards the end and if fellow substitute Enoch Showunmi had released a pass to him a little earlier, Devaney’s 79th minute shot might not have been charged down by a retreating defence. The final act of the game saw Fon Williams make a full-length save to prevent substitute Goulding doubling Cheltenham’s winning margin.