Feb 10 2014 by Nick Hilton, Main WIR
THE dwindling core of Tranmere’s regular supporters watched a visiting team leave Prenton Park with the spoils for the seventh time this season and accepted their fate with quiet resignation.
This wasn’t an afternoon for complaint or recrimination because Rovers put in an honest, hard-working shift and ran a good Preston North End team close.
The bottom line, as it has been a number of times before, was that the opposition had better players and just a little too much quality in most areas for the home side to match.
Manager Ronnie Moore could point to some loose defending which contributed to the two Preston goals scored by Joe Garner.
But the balance of chances in an entertaining game favoured Preston and Tranmere had to thank the reflexes and agility of goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams on a number of occasions.
The Lilywhites deserved a narrow victory which strengthened their grip on fourth place in the table and you could see why Simon Grayson’s team have won nine away games this season.
They were confident enough to play a bold attacking system which threw Tranmere onto the back foot in the first phase of the game, yet strong enough defensively to cope when they came under pressure during periods of the second half.
The kind of financial investment it takes to maintain a squad strong enough to keep players such as Iain Hume, Kevin Davies, Stuart Beavon and David Buchanan on the bench is in another realm to the one inhabited by Tranmere, who run on a budget designed to keep operating losses to a minimum. Preston brought 1800 fans to Prenton Park and they enjoyed a raucous afternoon in the Cowshed Stand, sometimes goading the 4000 home supporters scattered around the other three sides.
There was little in the way of complaint or booing from the home crowd as Tranmere fought gamely. But the numbers coming through the turnstiles are dwindling and the empty spaces are most noticeable on the cavernous Kop Stand, where most of the vocal backing used to come from.
During the first 25 minutes it looked as if Tranmere might be played off their own park in the same way as when Rotherham United posted a 2-1 success at the end of January
Preston dominated by outmanoeuvring Rovers in midfield, where John Welsh and Paul Gallagher enjoyed close support from wide men Keith Keane and Neil Kilkenny.
It was impressive to watch as Preston made light of the tacky playing surface.
Unable to get their wingers into the game, Tranmere abandoned the starting 4-4-2 formation after 28 minutes when wide man Jake Kirby was sacrificed and Jason Koumas introduced as an additional central midfielder.
The nature of the game changed from that point as Koumas gave Tranmere some traction with his smooth, precise passing.
The former Wales international’s dangerous delivery from set plays gave Tranmere an additional weapon that, with luck, might have delivered more than a few near misses.
Rovers could have been a goal down as early as the eighth minute when Fon Williams made a full-length save from Gallagher’s 20 yard shot. BUt 10 minutes later Tranmere’s failure to deal with a lofted left-wing cross by Craig Davies led to the opening goal. Liam Ridehalgh, perhaps anticipating Fon Williams would come to claim the ball, allowed Garnett to jump for a header that found the far corner of the net.
Welsh put a header from Gallagher’s corner straight at Fon Williams on 23 minutes, by which time Koumas was ordered to warm up. He had been on the pitch barely a minute when Fon Williams made another leaping save to keep Garner’s back header out of the top corner.
Tranmere, reorganising into a 4-5-1 set-up, could have been undermined straight away when James Wallace launched himself into a fierce tackle on Jake King. The sighs of relief were audible when referee David Coote brandished a yellow card rather than a red.
A block tackle by right-back Matthew Pennington probably saved Tranmere from going two goals down on 37 minutes when Craig Davies ran clear.
Tranmere found some bullets of their own as the half came to an end. Koumas, contriving through skill and determination to nick the ball away from two defenders on the edge of the box, fired a shot towards the top corner that was pushed out by Declan Rudd.
Preston could not clear the resulting corner, Ryan Lowe cleverly worked his way behind the defenders to the byline and played a perfect ball inside for centre back Ash Taylor to smash into the roof of the net.
Taylor almost added a second goal two minutes after the break when his header from a Koumas corner was beaten out by Rudd. Three minutes later Rovers went close again when Koumas curled a free-kick from wide on the left against the face of the crossbar.
Preston’s response was to catch the home team on a counter-attack in which Scott Wiseman played Garner through the inside right channel in plenty of space to place a precise low shot inside the left-hand post.
Wiseman narrowly missed adding a the third goal on 54 minutes, then a mistake by Stephen Arthurworrey let in Craig Davies on 58 minutes, Fon Williams producing the save of the match to keep the low shot out of the net.
Lowe knocked a header from Grayson off the line just before the hour and on 78 minutes was played clear into the box at the other end from a pass by winger Mark Kennedy. The advancing Rudd blocked the shot and Tranmere could not create another scoring opportunity after that.
Garner, given the chance to complete his hat-trick from a pass by Kevin Davies in injury time, could get no power and gave Fon Williams a comfortable save.