BRENTFORD and Tranmere delivered some compelling testimony at Griffin Park to back arguments that says big budgets and big support don’t have to be the principal requirements for success at League One level.
There are times when small can be beautiful too – and this season may be one of them.
The first and fourth placed teams don’t have the financial clout of the five clubs who dominated the division last season. The point has been made that football’s third tier is not as strong as it was 12 months ago, when Charlton Athletic, the two Sheffield clubs, Huddersfield Town and MK Dons played in a league of their own at the top and the rest competed for sixth place. This year the field is wide open.
That should not diminish the achievements of the teams staying ahead of the high rollers after more than half of the 2012/13 programme.
The Bees and Rovers have spent this season showing that at this level, money isn’t everything. Good teams can be fashioned by shrewd management, insightful coaching and players with character and ability.
They produced a contest on Saturday that was bristling with enterprise and attacking intent, stretching and testing each other while keeping 6,948 spectators on the edge of their seats from start to finish.
Tranmere took the points and held on to top spot with a performance to rank among the most resourceful and resilient on the road this season. But it was an afternoon of fine margins.
Brentford could point to some hard luck stories and wasted opportunities in losing for the first time in 14 League One outings and for only the second time at Griffin Park this season. The game was never less than delicately balanced.
The Bees have a money-spinning FA Cup fourth round tie at home to Chelsea to look forward to next weekend. There were no signs here that they allowed the meeting with the European champions to distract them from the pursuit of promotion points.
They set a high tempo from the start, which Tranmere matched, and were throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the visitors’ penalty area in the eighth minute of injury time, in pursuit of an equaliser.
Rovers’ outstanding performer was Ash Taylor, who was at the top of his game in anchoring the central defence. He needed to be, because he was up against Clayton Donaldson, arguably the most dangerous striker in League One with 18 league and cup goals under his belt this season.
Goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams made a handful of sharp saves on the occasions when Brentford were able to put efforts on goal.
The Welshman was tested in other ways. He was pelted with snowballs by home fans behind the goal at the start of the second half and later complained the missiles included cigarette lighters.
Brentford manager Uwe Rosler felt compelled to move from his dugout to plead with the supporters to desist.
Fon Williams later earned a booking for a retaliatory gesture after being caught by Harry Forrester’s late challenge.
The defenders had something to protect during the final half-hour after Adam McGurk struck a winning goal that showcased his flair and ambition. The Irishman stunned the home crowd by putting the visitors back in front on 66 minutes after Andy Robinson’s 42nd minute penalty had been cancelled out by an equaliser from Brentford centre-back Harlee Dean.
The game went ahead in spite of the weekend’s Siberian weather, thanks to the efforts of more than 100 supporters, some from Tranmere, who volunteered to remove snow from the pitch covers that kept the surface in remarkably good condition.
Referee Darren Deadman was able to give the go-ahead after an 8am inspection.
If Tranmere enjoyed some good fortune it was in the visitors’ failure to make the most of the opportunities they created in the opening 20 minutes when both teams sought to break each other down with pass and move football played at pace.
Dean put a header straight at Fon Williams on two minutes, Fon Williams made a parrying save from striker Marcelo Trotta’s rising 30-yard shot and stopped another effort from Jonathan Douglas.
Brentford’s problems at the other end centred on the difficulty of countering the pace of front men Jean Lewis Akpa Akpro and David Amoo.
Akpa Akpro was denied by a near post save from goalkeeper Simon Moore after skinning left-back Shay Logan on a run from the left.
The game was just dropping off the boil for the first time when Tranmere went ahead three minutes before half-time.
Brentford were undone by a long clearance that bounced in front of centre-backs Tony Craig and Dean. Akpa Akpro was able to force his way between the pair then knocked the ball into the path of Amoo, running through the inside left channel.
When Amoo went past Dean and tripped over the defender’s trailing leg, Mr Deadman had an easy decision to make in awarding a penalty. He also booked Dean.
Andy Robinson converted by guiding the spot-kick low into the bottom corner, a change of style since his effort at Bury was saved by the goalkeeper.
Tranmere held onto the advantage for only five minutes of the second half.
Then they were caught flat-footed by a free-kick, launched from deep on the right by Jake Bidwell, which was headed home on the run by Dean.
The visitors’ afternoon took another turn for the worse when they lost Akpa Akpro after the Frenchman fell awkwardly when jumping for a high ball near the managers’ dugouts in the 59th minute.
Seven minutes later McGurk put Tranmere back in front. Attacking the box from the right, McGurk made good use of Danny Holmes’ decoy run on the outside by cutting inside and between two defenders.
A couple of yellow shirts lined up for the cross in the goalmouth but McGurk went for the jackpot and found the far corner of the net.
Substitute Sam Saunders came closest to equalising with a 30-yard shot that Fon Williams kept out.
Referee Deadman added a minimum of six minutes of injury time and played close to eight.
But in spite of piling players forward, Brentford were not able to repeat their last gasp escape at Prenton Park in September.