TRANMERE are betraying signs of becoming a team who have spent too long at the top of the table.
The issue confronting manager Ronnie Moore and his staff after a third defeat in four matches is not that they have gone past their ‘best by’ date or are being found wanting in terms of quality.
Neither should be the case on the strength of their performances over the first five months of the season.
The problem is a whiff of complacency about the way the team have been starting matches over recent weeks. The commitment, the energy and drive that took them to the top of the pile in the first place goes missing in the first half of games.
They are turning up as league leaders who expect to do what league leaders do without applying the high energy formula that makes it all work.
It is not a convincing act.
Perhaps it is not such a blessing that Tranmere clung onto pole position, thanks to the misfortunes of rivals, after finishing an emphatic second-best to mid-table Leyton Orient.
Sliding a place or two down the pecking order might be the kick up the backside that helps the team regain their focus and fire.
Moore, who has never been a manager to duck away from confronting uncomfortable issues, talked after the game about the danger of his bargain basement squad throwing away an all too rare promotion opportunity.
The 600 Rovers fans who made the journey to the Matchroom Stadium could only have shared those anxieties.
They saw Tranmere outplayed and outmanoeuvred in every area of the pitch during the first 45 minutes and witnessed a defence struggling to cope at every corner and free-kick launched into the penalty area.
The visitors were fortunate to reach the interval trailing by just a single goal – Charlie MacDonald’s ninth-minute header.
Centre-backs Ash Taylor and Donervorn Daniels were given the runaround by Orient’s mobile front pair of MacDonald and David Mooney. The full-backs were too busy trying to contain the threat of Orient wide-men Dean Cox and Lee Cook to provide support going forward.
Liam Palmer and Max Power came off second best in central midfield, leaving front-men David Amoo and Cole Stockton with little service.
Tranmere did not do enough pressing and harrying to throw Orient out of their stride. The home team built attacks in more comfort than they should have expected.
The contest could have been over before Moore was able to deliver a half-time pep talk.
Owain Fon Williams’s exceptional penalty save from Martin Rowlands prevented a second goal on 15 minutes and a couple of last-ditch tackles and blocks by the harassed Daniels denied close-range efforts by Gary Sawyer and MacDonald.
Tranmere provided more robust and effective opposition in the second period, raising the pace of their own game and finding some extra zip and accuracy in their passing.
But they were never able to wrestle the initiative away from the impressive home side, who doubled their advantage with a well-struck volley from midfielder Rowlands.
Substitute Michael O’Halloran gave Tranmere some hope by finishing off the most incisive move of the match to pull a goal back on 75 minutes.
But while the visitors played with some urgency during the final phase, there was little inspiration and a lingering tendency to toss away promising situations with unforced errors. The best of the late scoring chances went to the hosts.
While Tranmere and Doncaster have been tripping over themselves to squander the clear advantage they held over the rest of the division a few weeks ago, the chasing pack were closing. Now the top seven places are covered by just five points.
Orient, who spent the first half of the season worrying about issues at the bottom of the table, moved to within 10 points of Tranmere with this result.
A play-off spot would not be beyond Russell Slade’s team on this form. They are not blessed with deep resources – but then neither are Tranmere.
The Londoners tore into the visitors in the opening quarter-hour.
Lloyd James should have put them ahead on five minutes but could not connect his head with Mooney’s cross in front of goal.
On nine minutes Tranmere were undone by a long free-kick from Cox. MacDonald’s first effort at the far post was pushed out by Fon Williams but the rebound sat up for the centre-forward to nudge into the bottom corner.
When Cox, overlapping down the right, ran past Taylor and into the box on 15 minutes, the centre-back’s challenge from behind brought the winger down. Rowlands’ penalty kick was fiercely driven towards the bottom left-hand corner but Fon Williams, guessing the direction correctly, managed to fist the ball over the bar.
Tranmere conceded a second goal on 67 minutes, the visitors again falling foul of a set-play.
A free-kick from the left was half cleared to the edge of the box. Rowlands, taking the ball on the half-volley, made the sweetest of contacts to send a dipping, curling shot beyond Fon Williams’s reach and into the far corner of the net.
Rovers responded quickly. Palmer’s well-placed pass allowed Danny Holmes to make a run to the byline on the right and the full-back’s low cross to the far post was crashed into the roof of the net by O’Halloran.
Tranmere continued to struggle when defending set-plays, however.
Orient substitute Jimmy Smith was left unmarked to head Cox’s corner over the bar and another Cox free-kick was nodded in the far post by Mathieu Baudry, only for an offside flag to rule the strike out.
Four minutes of injury time presented Tranmere with one last chance of snatching an undeserved point but Holmes’s fierce 30-yard shot was well caught by keeper Jamie Jones.