Back to the grind: Tranmere Rovers show they can earn tough wins
WHEN managers talk about the virtue of being able to “grind out results” when influential players are missing, they have in mind the kind of afternoon’s work Tranmere put in at Prenton Park on Saturday.
Rovers were some way short of their fluent best in breaking down the resistance of relegation threatened Scunthorpe United.
They got the job done by stepping up the tempo and the level of their own game during the middle half hour of the contest and squeezed out a narrow victory on merit.
Missing the defensive strength of Ben Gibson, the midfield drive of James Wallace and the pace of striker Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro, Tranmere were well served by a solid defensive performance from Ash Taylor, the work-rate as well as the guile of Andy Robinson and the predatory instincts of young, homegrown striker Cole Stockton, who nodded in the winning goal on 59 minutes.
If taking a home victory at the expense of visitors who have won only one game in the last seven outings was an outcome that was written in the form book, the three points were given additional value by unexpected results elsewhere.
No one could have predicted that bottom of the table Hartlepool would snatch their second win of the season at the home of promotion favourites Sheffield United or that MK Dons would lose at home for the second time in Christmas week.
So Tranmere jumped ahead of the Blades and finished 2012 at the top of the League One table. That really is a scenario to confound the oddsmakers, who would reasonably expect Ronnie Moore’s team to find a position in the pecking order reflecting the modest resources invested in the team.
The absence of those influential players has, as expected, slowed Tranmere’s progress over the last six weeks. However, any rivals who hoped a 5-0 hammering at Swindon in the week before Christmas would signal an accelerated decline have been disappointed.
The narrow home wins over Crewe Alexandra on Boxing Day and then Scunthorpe three days later showed there is resourcefulness as well as resilience in the dressing room.
Rovers could not match against Scunthorpe the compelling second half football that enabled them to come from behind to beat Crewe. They did not have to, because The Iron were less confident and less ambitious opponents.
Brian Laws’ team were well organised and wholly committed to a game plan designed to frustrate Tranmere’s pass and move football on a sticky pitch.
The visitors deployed five men across midfield and for the first hour, did not look to be unduly concerned that lone striker Karl Hawley was offered little support.
The tactics were effective in the first half when Rovers could not find a rhythm and struggled to create a potent threat going forward, giving visiting goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall a trouble-free 45 minutes.
Laws was entitled to take heart from his team’s efforts on a day when four senior players were ruled out by a virus. “It was a spirited performance, especially when you consider the injuries and illnesses running through the squad,” he said. “We disappointed because I thought we bossed the first half. It was nip and tuck in the second.
“There was nothing between the sides on the day. The difference was that Tranmere took an opportunity when it came their way. Mentality was the difference. When you’re at the top you react more quickly.”
Moore, acknowledging that his own team were also slow starters against Crewe, insists there is no instruction from the coaching staff to take a cautious approach at the beginning of games. The opposite is true, he says.
If Scunthorpe midfielder Andy Barcham had shown more composure on 18 minutes when hurriedly side footing Niall Canavan’s pass over the bar from 15 yards, Tranmere might have had a steeper hill to climb when they got going.
There were some signs in the final 15 minutes of the opening half that the home side were beginning to create gaps in the final third of the pitch and find players in dangerous positions.
Moore made a tactical change to help things along at the interval, adjusting Tranmere’s formation from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3. He also made a change in personnel, withdrawing Michael O’Halloran, who was hampered by the effects of a virus, and introducing Stockton.
Most significantly, the half-time pep talk injected some extra urgency into Tranmere’s football.
The tempo increased, the quality of the passing became sharper and the visitors found themselves pressed back into last-ditch defending.
Andy Robinson went close to giving Tranmere a 52nd minute lead when cutting into the box from the left. His low cross was stopped on the line by Mildenhall.
Seven minutes later Ash Taylor met a right wing corner from Robinson with a powerful header. Mildenhall reacted instinctively with a flailing hand but he could only knock the ball up into the air and Stockton pounced to head his fifth senior goal from point blank range.
Laws introduced in extra striker, Matt Goddon, with just under 20 minutes left.
What Scunthorpe needed most however was an injection of confidence going forward. Barcham, given sight of an unguarded net after goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams overstretched in attempting to make a punch, snatched hastily at the half chance and lifted it high into the Cowshed Stand.
Tranmere could not create a clear-cut opening from a number of promising positions in the final 30 minutes but worked effectively protecting their slender lead.