Tranmere Rovers 1 Preston North End 1: Nick Hilton’s verdict
TRANMERE fashioned a piece of precision football engineering to extricate themselves from the powerful grip Preston North End exerted on a game played in front of the largest crowd of the season at Prenton Park.
James Wallace’s cunningly played pass from the edge of the box wrongfooted the visiting defenders and Jake Cassidy, seizing on his only half chance of the contest, rifled a low shot from a tight angle on the left into the far corner of the net.
The 85th minute equaliser enabled Tranmere to escape with a draw that flattered them and demonstrated why Cassidy has been nick-named ‘The Magnet’ by team-mates.
“We call him The Magnet because the ball always seems to find its way to him in the box,” explained midfielder Liam Palmer. “You don’t want anyone else to be on the end of those opportunities. He’s a natural finisher.”
Ten goals in 15 League One games this season add statistical substance to Palmer’s testimony about Cassidy’s powers. It is no wonder Tranmere are so keen to extend the 19-year-old’s loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers due to run out in early January.
Prenton Park has not seen a striker with such predatory instincts and clinical finishing skills since John Aldridge hung up his boots in the late 1990s.
Cassidy’s 87th minute equaliser in the game against Doncaster four days before failed to save Rovers a point because they were stung by an injury time sucker punch from Iain Hume. This time Tranmere were more guarded in protecting the point.
There was no galloping charge forward in search of a winner. The home side took their time over goal kicks and throw-ins. The hard lesson of Tuesday night was well heeded. They hung on to what they had.
Tranmere were much less impressive in snatching a share of the spoils here than they had been in defeat in midweek.
Luck was on their shoulder in denying the match officials a clear view of a handball on the goal-line that should have resulted in a penalty for Preston late in the first half. Rovers were also fortunate that the visitors could not convert a couple of clear-cut opportunities to double the lead earned by Paul Huntington’s 50th minute goal.
Preston manager Graham Westley said: “I don’t make a habit of feeling hard done by but if you get a stonewall penalty where the opposition will go down to 10 men in the same incident, that’s tough, because we earned the right to the goal.”
Preston, using strength and physical stature to good effect, allowed Tranmere precious little time or space to play their passing game. Westley’s side were more than just spoilers however. They produced some sharp passing and movement of their own, particularly in a spell either side of half-time when they threatened to take the game beyond Rovers’ reach.
John Welsh, unaccountably booed by a section of Tranmere supporters on his return to Prenton Park, did a typically effective job at the heart of the midfield. Stuart Beavon was a robust and resourceful leader of the line and no one gave Rovers more trouble than wide midfielder Jeffrey Monakana, who was quick enough to test Zoumana Bakayogo for pace.
Tranmere’s performance fell some way short of the level they hit against Doncaster. They looked less potent going forward in the absence of the injured Andy Robinson’s creative talents and Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro’s electric pace.
Nathan Ecclestone, the former Liverpool striker signed last week on a month’s loan from Blackpool, showed some neat touches but his lack of match practice was also apparent.
Wallace, though not at his best, looked the man most likely to ignite a spark in Tranmere’s football while Abdulai Bell-Baggie probed persistently for a weakness in Preston’s well disciplined defence.
A couple of awkward right-wing crosses from Bell-Baggie were all that troubled visiting goalkeeper Steve Simonsen during the first half. The threat at the other end grew stronger as the interval approached. Ash Taylor had to hack the ball clear in front of an unguarded goal after Owain Fon Williams left his line to close down Scott Laird’s pursuit of a bouncing ball on 36 minutes.
A fine block tackle by Taylor prevented Nicky Wroe shooting from close range and it might well have been Taylor’s arm on the goal-line that kept out a Beavon header.
Fon Williams made a sprawling save from Beavon’s 30-yard effort two minutes after the restart so it was no surprise when Preston went ahead.
Monakana’s cross shot from the right hand edge of the box struck the crossbar and Huntington was first to react.
Things could have got worse for Tranmere. Wroe’s dipping cross from the right touchline on 62 minutes squeezed just past the far post, then on 70 minutes Jeff King, played clear of Tranmere’s back line by Beavon’s pass, rolled his shot wide of the target as Fon Williams advanced.
Preston were given a fair warning that their wastefulness might be costly when Cassidy headed home a right-wing cross from Wallace, only for a linesman’s flag to rule the striker offside.
Bevan could have settled Preston’s nerves but he was thwarted by a top-class reaction save from Fon Williams.
Seven minutes later, Wallace and Cassidy pierced the Preston backline once again – and this time there was no flag to save the visitors.