Feb 21 2013 by Nick Hilton, The Liverpool Post
It’s too early to write off Tranmere Rovers’ unlikely promotion bid
TRANMERE are having such a wretched February that some in the game are writing it down as the month that burst the bubble of the most improbable promotion challenge of recent years.
Consecutive defeats to three teams of mid-table status or lower – Carlisle, Leyton Orient and Shrewsbury – were followed by a 3-1 loss at home to new leaders Swindon Town on Tuesday. Along the way key players were sent off, suspensions and injuries kicked in and proved costly.
Now Rovers, the leaders through most of the first five months of the campaign, have dropped into a large pack of clubs all of whom, with the possible exception of Yeovil, can throw larger budgets and resources into the final dozen games of the campaign.
Even so, a few scraps of encouragement blow in the chilly winds. Enough for anyone with a grasp of the realities of football at third tier level to judge that writing off Rovers’ prospects of a top six finish at this stage would be a mistake.
There’s no denying injuries to key players and the ending of a loan agreement for leading marksman Jake Cassidy ripped the spine out of the team that surged into pole position in the early months of the season.
The players lost were among the most influential: Pacey front man Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro, sidelined in October by a broken metatarsal that kept him out for three months; James Wallace, inspirational skipper and creative driving force from midfield, forced out of action by a knee ligament injury at the start of December; Centre back Ben Gibson, whose partnership with Ash Taylor gave Tranmere stability at the heart of the defence, forced to return to parent club Middlesbrough after sustaining a groin injury in December.
Tranmere’s results in the absence of the trio have been respectable rather than disastrous.
In 13 League One games since both Gibson and Wallace were forced out of action, Tranmere won five, lost six and drew two. Five of those defeats fell in the last six games.
The points return has been good enough keep them in the leading pack if not in pole position but the downward slide has been gaining momentum.
The damage might have been worse if one or two of the leading teams had taken advantage by pulling clear. But no one has been able to make a decisive move in a division yet to reveal an outstanding force.
Bournemouth and Yeovil made strong progress, rising from mid-table to join the leading pack and have the advantage of current momentum. Swindon, who went top after Tuesday’s win at Prenton Park, saw manager Paulo DiCanio and his backroom staff quit this week as the club manages a boardroom takeover and a large debt issue.
Bournemouth, backed by the financial clout of a wealthy Russian investor, quickly encountered the perils of the leadership when they were beaten, for only the second time since October, at Preston last weekend.
Tranmere, with points on the board that say they are contenders, cannot afford to let the decline continue.
It is easy for those who believe Rovers’ challenge is fatally flawed by underfunding, to argue that a slide down the table is inevitable between now and the end of April.
Take for instance the view of Swindon’s experienced midfielder Alan Navarro, a Merseysider who played for Tranmere a decade ago.
“I thought they (Tranmere) would fall away and to be honest I still do think that,” Navarro said this week. “Although you can’t argue against anything they have done so far.”
Navarro’s view is fairly typical of those who do not believe Tranmere have sufficient strength in depth to keep going on resources that should put them in the bottom six of the division.
The view from Prenton Park is that some of the negative factors contributing to Tranmere’s problems over the last three months may be about to take a turn for the positive.
Akpa Akpro, whose long absence through injury was extended by a three match suspension for a moment of petulant retaliation against Carlisle, is due to return to the side at Colchester United on Saturday. Moore signed a replacement for Wallace in the loan market – Paul Corry. The 21-year-old from Sheffield Wednesday is a playmaker, the kind of player Tranmere have been missing most obviously in recent games.
Gibson, whose initial loan from Middlesbrough was cut short by the injury, is due to resume training at Prenton Park on Thursday, with a view to beginning a second loan spell running through to the end of the season. He may sign in time to return to the heart of a wobbly defence at Colchester. Moore also hopes to persuade a tall striker from a Championship club to join Tranmere by the weekend.
Adam McGurk and Danny Holmes, sidelined by injuries on Tuesday, should be in contention for recalls at Colchester.
The team could soon be stronger, in terms of available personnel, than at any time in 2013. Hardly good cause for writing them off.