Tranmere produced a fine second half display to turn a 1-0 half-time deficit in to a comfortable 3-1 victory at Cheltenham Town yesterday.
There’s almost a relief around the place that the Spurs game has now gone, and if there is one thing that yesterday’s game demonstrated, it’s that there is no hangover from the FA Cup attention.
Micky Mellon would have been in his element before yesterday’s match. New signings Ishmael Miller and David Perkins were both available for debuts while Ollie Banks was fit again and ready to start. There seemed to be a genuine strength to the matchday squad.
The Tranmere boss stuck with his backline which included three centre backs. Mark Ellis has arguably been the best of the three in recent weeks and deservedly kept his spot alongside skipper McNulty and Manny Monthe. Ridehalgh and Caprice were the full-backs, Scott Davies in goal.
The midfield was changed up significantly, Perkins coming in for a debut while Banks was thrust back in to the starting eleven. McCullough accompanied them both in a midfield three that boasted experience, mobility and creativity.
Up top, Miller got to start straight away with James Norwood. Connor Jennings was injured so missed out completely, while Jonny Smith and Harvey Gilmour were among the subs.
It’s fair to say that Tranmere were a little untidy early on. Clearly the new midfield would likely need a bit of time to gel, as would the Miller-Norwood strike partnership. McNulty also gave the ball away a couple of times early on which is uncharacteristic.
Credit the home side though, they played some nice football in the first half. Their style of play did not suggest they were a team in a relegation battle, but their lack of substance in the final third certainly did. Tranmere seemed more threatened by defenders crowding each other out on the tight pitch than they did by Cheltenham attacks.
In contrast, Rovers were much more direct when in possession, looking to attack or hit the hosts on the break at pace. A long ball by Scott Davies saw Norwood muscle his way in behind a Cheltenham centre back in the box before setting up Miller for a strike. His low drive had the keeper Scott Flinders beaten, but it narrowly missed the keeper’s left-hand post.
Miller again should have probably done better a short time later as he went one-on-one only to be denied by Flinders, while Tranmere also forced a couple of corners thanks to the attacking play of Ridehalgh up the left. Both full-backs were playing quite far forward.
Despite Rovers creating the better of the chances, much of the midfield and defensive play felt a little disjointed and scruffy, and it was that which led to an opening goal for the home team.
Rovers failed to keep hold of possession from a Scott Davies throw-out and Cheltenham put a couple of nice passes together before slotting Luke Varney through on goal. It looked offside at the time, and the TV replays we’ve seen since certainly back up that suspicion. Varney is an experienced campaigned and a good player, he wasn’t about to wait for the flag to go up. Instead he steadied himself before converting low past Davies in the 42nd minute.
Despite having the better chances, Tranmere had to improve after the break. They needed to keep possession better, be more composed at the back and get bodies forward to support Miller and Norwood much quicker. Micky Mellon clearly had strong words with his players because the second half was excellent.
The midfield three suddenly became involved in everything. For Rovers fans who didn’t see the game, David Perkins plays more like a 26-year-old than that of someone 10 years more senior. He covered every blade of grass, and while he started off scrappy in possession, his use of the ball improved throughout.
McCullough and Banks upped their game too, McCullough driving Rovers higher up the pitch at every opportunity while Banks was producing some real quality on the ball.
It took just 56 seconds for the equaliser to come. Norwood received the ball from Jake Caprice after the full-back made a tremendous run up the right and skilfully beat the Cheltenham right-back. Nors took a shot first time, sweeping the ball with the inside of his right foot.
The shot was blocked by a defender, and with Flinders floored, Norwood reacted quickest to brilliantly half-volley the ball home on his left foot.
Norwood went close to scoring again a few minutes later. Caprice played a nice give-and-go with Miller before finding Nors on the right edge of the penalty area. League Two’s top scorer cut inside on to his left and sent a fine curling effort toward the top corner, but Flinders did well to turn behind for a corner.
Rovers were starting to really hit their groove and looked a class above their hosts. Norwood in particular was outstanding. He’s seemed a little sluggish in recent weeks, but yesterday he was on fire.
He was involved again as Tranmere took the lead on __ minutes. He won a header before gathering the ball and running at the Cheltenham backline. Miller made a superb decoy run which opened space up to Norwood’s left. Nors took it, hit a lot shot left-footed which Flinders could only spill to debutant Miller who smashed home from close range.
Miller had put a good shift in on his debut and looked dangerous. He’s one of those players who looks really awkward in possession but must be an absolute nightmare to play against given his size, speed and unpredictability. Mellon eventually replaced him and brought Paul Mullin on in his place. Typically, Mullin would make life difficult for Town almost immediately.
He won the ball on halfway over on the left wing and tried to release Norwood. The ball found its way to a Cheltenham defender who was hassled all the way to the touchline by Norwood. He then tried to lump it up out of danger but Mullin was there again to brilliantly take it on his chest.
He cut inside just on the edge of the box and played the ball across to Banks. The midfielder fired a lovely shot like a missile in to the bottom corner. 1-3. Game over.
Cheltenham brought on one of the biggest centre backs you’ll see for the last 10 minutes. Surely, most managers would throw someone of his stature upfront if your trailing by two goals entering the final stages of the game?
Well, the home team had a go at attacking, but as soon as they did the lack of pace at the back was brilliantly exploited by Mullin. He ran from halfway totally unchallenged and looked set to score a simple fourth. However, he probably had too much thinking time. The keeper came out as the ball bobbled around and Mullin decided what to do – in the end, he stumbled and scuffed the ball harmlessly wide.
It was a shame as his efforts since coming on were excellent, and Tranmere deserved a fourth for all their dominance.
Rovers settled for three though and returned to the Wirral with three points and the play-off charge well and truly on.