THE margin by which Tranmere notched the eighth victory of a record-breaking start to the League One campaign was not as emphatic as most of those that went before.
Don’t, though, be fooled by the scoreline. The single goal success at Meadow Lane drew more noises of satisfaction from the lips of manager Ronnie Moore and his coaching staff and players than the previous seven, largely because it was achieved by a performance of complete authority without a serious flaw.
It was one for the coaching purists rather than the thrill seekers.
Rovers might have made more of several opportunities to put the contest beyond Notts County’s recall midway through the second half, obliging them to defend some desperate home attacks during the final minutes.
But that would be to overlook the fact that a Magpies team put together at considerable expense and widely tipped as promotion contenders could not break Tranmere’s control of the play or seriously trouble goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams all afternoon.
Keith Curle had his team attempt to out pass, out manoeuvre and out muscle Tranmere.
County tried changing formations and personnel, played with three strikers towards the end and finally resorted to launching long high balls is into the visitors’ penalty area in the hope of getting a lucky break.
Nothing they tried rattled Tranmere’s composure or knocked Ronnie Moore’s team out of their measured passing rhythm.
No matter how the home side worked their tactics, Rovers invariably had cover where they needed it and a player available to take a pass.
Moore, who can be relied upon to start his postmatch comments by referring to aspects of the performance that showed room for improvement, saw nothing to disappoint him this time.
There was no hint of the slow starts that marked the previous three games and no need to acknowledge any fortunate breaks that went Rovers’ way.
Notts County were the lucky team in not suffering a heavier defeat in front of glum supporters who also saw them lose at home to Stevenage earlier in the week.
Tranmere were able to find still more encouragement from being able to put on a commanding show without two of their most influential attacking players.
Andy Robinson failed to start after picking up a hamstring injury early in last Tuesday’s 3-1 win at Scunthorpe – and Saturday’s game was only 17 minutes old when striker Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro had to be withdrawn after pulling up sharply with a foot injury.
Adam McGurk, who demonstrated a shrewd understanding of how to play Robinson’s left-sided midfield role in midweek, was just as impressive here in a central striking position.
And Joe Thompson had been on the pitch only five minutes in place of Akpa Akpro when he headed the game’s only goal from a cross by Abdulai Bell-Baggie.
Tranmere had been fast out of the blocks, eager to deny County an opportunity to take the initiative or build momentum.
Goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski made the first of several skittish saves from Akpa Akpro after a dozen minutes and at the other end County’s first threat was made by Jamal Campbell-Ryce, who fired over with a shot on the run from 15 yards.
The goal rocked County on their heels. It was created by Bell-Baggie’s darting run from the right and a cross that picked out Thomson at the far post. The young midfielder’s header struck fallback Carl Regan on its way into the net.
Three minutes later, a sprawling Bialkowski contrived to save McGurk’s low shot with his knees but did better on 29 minutes when closing down the shooting angle for Jake Cassidy as the striker ran onto a clever through pass from McGurk.
The goalkeeper made two more saves before the interval, first from James Wallace, then from midfield partner Liam Palmer as Tranmere took a firm grip.
The home supporters were entitled to expect County to impose themselves for a least a period of the second half – but it did not happen.
Fon Williams, who could well earn his first full Wales cap in the World Cup qualifier against Scotland on Friday, caught a glancing header by substitute Francois Zoko on 65 minutes but it was no more than a routine save.
Tranmere might have turned the game into a rout during a purple patch midway through the second half that showcased their ability to counter attack with pace.
First Bell-Baggie, breaking from his own half, sent Cassidy scampering clear through the inside right channel. The striker fired a shot beyond the far post while McGurk pleaded in vain for a square pass in front of goal.
A minute later Cassidy was denied by a fine last-ditch tackle by Jordan Stewart after Bialkowski had parried a shot from McGurk.
When Bell-Baggie forced his own passage down the right, he chose to shoot, wide of the far post, with an exasperated McGurk again pleading in vain for a pass inside. That did not discourage Bell-Baggie from going for goal again on 76 minutes and this time his aim was only just off with a low 25 yard shot that struck the foot of the left-hand post and bounced back into play.