Tranmere Rovers 2 Chesterfield 1: Rovers go through to FA Cup third round
AN FA CUP result that delivered exactly what the form book and the bookmakers expected was nevertheless greeted with some relief by Tranmere, because the victory had to be dug out of trying circumstances.
The early departure from the action of James Wallace with suspected medial ligament damage cast a mood of apprehension around Prenton Park that deepened 21 minutes later when Chesterfield took the lead.
In fighting back to win the second round tie through goals by Cole Stockton on 42 minutes and Adam McGurk on 57, Rovers showed both resolve and resourcefulness in the absence of their captain.
Once a more accurate medical assessment of Wallace’s injury has been made, manager Ronnie Moore will know how long his team must get by without the driving force of the 20-year-old midfielder, who was been a key figure in their table topping success this season.
The overriding worry on Saturday night was that Wallace might be sidelined for months rather than weeks, joining Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro and Abdulai Bell-Baggie on the long-term casualty list.
It was a reminder that the FA Cup can be a two-faced competition. Yes, it has the potential to make financial dreams come true for lower division clubs like Tranmere but it also has the potential to inflict collateral damage to teams chasing success in the league.
Rovers just about merited the right to claim a ticket to the lottery of the third round draw, although it was a close run affair.
Chesterfield, fresh from three straight wins that lifted them to within three points of the League Two play-off places, showed they are responding positively to the methods of manager Paul Cook, who has been in the job just over a month.
Ultimately, the difference between the two hard-working teams came down to the quality of Tranmere’s front pair.
Stockton, a teenage target man with the strength of an older player, struck the equaliser when Tranmere needed it most, close to the end of the first half.
It was Stockton’s fourth goal of the season from four starts and around a dozen substitute appearances, not bad for a first year professional who has been understudying Jake Cassidy during most of the campaign.
Rovers’ winning goal, 12 minutes after the interval, was the creation of Michael O’Halloran, playing the second game of his loan spell from Bolton Wanderers.
The 21-year-old Glaswegian, hard-working and energetic on his debut in the 1-1 draw at Stevenage the previous weekend, raised the bar a couple of notches here. His pace and sharpness troubled Chesterfield once Tranmere began to play the right kind of passes for him.
He led the visitors defence a merry dance before teeing up McGurk for the decider and was denied a goal of his own by the officials, who ruled his 85th minute header did not cross the line. O’Halloran later claimed it was a couple of feet over.
The game’s competitive edge became brittle in the second half. Referee Andrew Madley booked seven players - four from Tranmere and three from Chesterfield - without imposing his authority.
Louis Boa Morte, shown the yellow card for a 54th minute challenge on Ian Goodison, was in argumentative mood and survived several warnings from Mr Madeley thereafter.
The former Fulham and West Ham midfielder kept a running dialogue with Andy Robinson. Robinson’s withdrawal on 76 minutes did not prevent the 35-year old Boa Morte having more words with the Tranmere midfielder at the final whistle.
Mr Madley, to his credit, booked Chesterfield’s Sam Hird for diving in search of a penalty and Goodison for deliberately booting the ball at the Chesterfield supporters.
The home side were just beginning to find some rhythm, with Stockton forcing saves from Tommy Lee on 25 and 28 minutes, when Chesterfield went ahead.
Rovers might have thought they’d escape punishment for some sloppy defending when Fon Williams touched away a shot from Danny Whitaker.
But Danny Harrison got in a tangle attempting to clear Boa Morte’s corner and succeeded in hitting his clearance into the path of Liam Cooper, who scored from close range.
O’Halloran might have equalised on 38 minutes when he galloped clear through the middle onto a pass from Robinson, only to be thwarted by Lee’s quick move off his line and blocking save.
However, four minutes later substitute Max Power won the ball in midfield and found Stockton with a sharp pass. With a trademarked turn away from his marker onto his right foot, Stockton fired a low 20-yard shot shot into the far corner.
O’Halloran fashioned the opening for the second goal by winning the ball deep in the Chesterfield half.
He initially ran away from goal, then turned to go back into the box, skinning two defenders to reach the byline and lay a measured pass into the path of McGurk. The Irishman’s finish was about accuracy rather than power.
Tranmere held onto the advantage while surviving a couple of uncomfortable moments. Fon Williams was quick off his line to close down the danger when Marc Richards threatened to break through on the edge of the box and centre back Ben Gibson did well to throw his body in front of a shot by Richards on 86 minutes.