Feb 3 2014 by Nick Hilton, Main WIR
MIDWAY through a first half in which MK Dons wasted most of their best chances to beat Tranmere, a small group of home fans sang a song of homage to Ryan Lowe, the goalscorer who left them in the summer.
Those same supporters were throwing cries of derision at Lowe at the final whistle, partly in frustration that the 35-year-old had just poached the goal that defeated their team and partly because his animated celebrations rubbed salt into the wound.
The worst of the pain, however, had to do with the fact that Lowe, a clinical marksman, is precisely the kind of player the Dons need most.
Add Lowe’s 16 goals this season to the Dons’ smart passing football and they would be at the forefront of the promotion race rather than sitting in the middle of the table.
Take Lowe’s 16 goals away from Tranmere and the four-point cushion keeping them outside the relegation places would disappear and they would be deep in the bottom four.
Lowe’s motivation for leaving the Dons for Tranmere in the summer had as much to do with the desire to be closer to his family on Merseyside as football factors.
Either way, Lowe’s contribution, not just in goals but in endeavour and professionalism, provides the brightest beacon of hope in what has often been a grim season of struggle for Rovers.
Lowe’s final minute winning goal was little more than a tap-in after Jake Cassidy had fired the ball across the goalmouth from the left.
He was in exactly the right position, however, on an afternoon when he had been asked to play a wide midfield role in a 4-5-1 formation tailored to counter the home team’s strength in midfield.
He was gentleman enough to apologise to his former club and supporters for the extravagance of the celebrations. The importance of the strike to the visitors could not be underestimated.
Tranmere desperately need a result after going down without much of a fight in a home defeat by Rotherham United in midweek.
Manager Ronnie Moore, demanding a more focused and committed performance from his team, got exactly what he wanted.
He would probably have settled for a point until Lowe intervened.
Tranmere’s defending was strong and diligent. Centre-backs Ash Taylor and Stephen Arthurworrey emerged with great credit, as did full-backs Matthew Pennington and Liam Ridehalgh.
Even so, Rovers’ success owed something to the home team’s shortcomings at the sharp end.
During a first half in which the visitors made the mistake of defending a little too deep and inviting pressure, the Dons created a couple of clear-cut opportunities, several more half chances and missed the lot.
Manager Karl Robinson said: “Other than a 15 minute spell in the second half, I thought we dominated the game. We were the better team on the pitch and I can’t knock the players’ efforts. We had 15 shots in the first half and I think it is evident we need to find a striker.”
The passing and interplay between midfield players Dean Bowditch, Stephen Gleeson, Darren Potter and Samir Carruthers, in support of Ben Reeves and front runner Daniel Powell, was sharp and inventive.
Tranmere worked hard to block off what avenues they could and goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams pulled off a few scrambling saves.
They could offer little going forward in the first half, because Cassidy was often left isolated up front.
After the break, when the players responded to Moore’s instruction to push further up the field, Tranmere were much more effective at stifling the Dons in midfield and more potent as an attacking force themselves.
Defensive midfielder Steve Jennings became a pivotal player in breaking up the home attacks and putting Rovers on the front foot.
By the final phase of the game, the visitors looked the team most likely to score.
Fon Williams made his first intervention on five minutes, parrying a 20-yard shot from Gleeson and made a similar save from Reeves on 25.
A little later the goalkeeper fumbled a shot from Powell which was cleared by his defenders.
Powell missed the target altogether when well-placed on the edge of the box on the quarter-hour, and when the centre-forward was put clear on goal from a sweet through pass from Carruthers, his attempt to chip the advancing goalkeeper also cleared the crossbar.
Seconds before the interval, Fon Williams got his body behind a strong header from Antony Kay and his defenders completed the clearance.
A darting run from the left by winger Matt Kennedy on 52 minutes, finished with a low shot that was well covered by Dons goalkeeper David Martin, served notice that Tranmere were intent on throwing some counter punches in the second half.
Pennington had to make a resourceful block to prevent Powell from forcing the ball over the line on 65 minutes but four minutes later Kennedy created another chance for himself with a run into the home box, only to finish with a tame shot.
Robinson introduced substitute Izale McLeod in the final 20 minutes and Ash Taylor had to clear when the veteran striker headed across the goal-line on 81 minutes.
Tranmere were confident enough to allow Steve Jennings to move forward from his defensive midfield station just as the fourth official raised the board to signal three minutes of injury time.
Jennings picked out Cassidy’s run into the box from the left.
The low ball the 20-year-old whipped into the goalmouth might well have been intended as a shot.
It snaked across the goal to where Lowe was waiting and there was never any doubt about the finish.