After a difficult 18 months, fans returned to Prenton Park without restrictions yesterday for the season opener against Walsall. And what an opener it was.
We’ve been fortunate enough to have fans in three times for competitive games since the pandemic began, including a home defeat to Walsall last season.
But this time, it was for real.
We were back in our chosen seats, surrounded by the familiar faces we’ve sat next to for years and with no social distancing. Sure, the pandemic hasn’t gone away and is still a danger, but for thousands of football fans up and down the country yesterday it was a day to rejoice. A day for those who have been isolated during a scary and tough period in history. A day for those who have struggled with mental health in lockdown. A day to immerse ourselves back into the old matchday routine which our week revolves around. A day to remember those we wish were still sat next to us.
We were home. Properly home.
An entire book could be written on the community focus of this club and what it has done for people of Wirral during the last couple of years, but yesterday was about the fans and the football.
Oh…and that wonderful Scotsman sat back in our dugout. Where he belongs.
A torrential 1pm downpour had fans racing for the Trust Fan Park rather than for the turnstiles, but while our stunning new pitch absorbed every last drop of precipitation, the SWA were renewing old acquaintances. The club shop was rammed as people snapped up new shirts. Pints were being sunk in the bars around the ground.
This was a proper matchday. Our marvellous old stadium was alive again.
Of course, it wasn’t just Tranmere fans who were back. Away fans are now permitted, and so around 1,300 Walsall fans populated the Cowsheds and by kick-off the atmosphere was simmering away nicely.
The big kick-off
The two teams were welcomed onto the pitch by the fans, a raucous reception for the 22 as they were led out by the match officials. But, the moment we had really been waiting for came a few moments later when Micky Mellon purposefully strode back onto the hallowed turf to greet the SWA.
His brief stint at Dundee United forgotten, his adoring public lifted the roof off. Memories of back-to-back promotions and fist pumps aplenty. If we were to see the obligatory full-time salute to the Kop at full-time today, his new-look team had a big job to do.
Once we got underway, Rovers flew out of the blocks and subjected the visitors to a nervy opening five minutes or so. Paul Glatzel – one of seven debutants in the Rovers starting line-up – flashed a shot wide within the opening few moments. Glatzel was excellent in the first half, the on-loan Liverpool youngster tormenting the Walsall backline at every opportunity.
Walsall got a foot hold in a game pretty swiftly and soon had more than their fair share of possession, though threatened little. It was a first half of few chances. There were a couple of bookings though. Ash Taylor misjudging a bouncing ball (really?!) allowing Liam Feeney to edge in behind him before the 34-year-old began to speed away from Taylor. The ex-Rovers centre back pulled him back for a textbook yellow card.
Callum McManaman also found himself in the book after going down easily on the edge of the Walsall box. He was booked for simulation.
Overall, a solid opening 45 for Rovers. Dieseruvwe was a handful upfront, Glatzel, as mentioned, was lively and the backline was superb. Spearing bossing things in the middle.
The second half saw Glatzel and Dieseruvwe drop off a little and Walsall probably dominated a little more. However, there were a few big talking points.
First was an injury to the linesman who then made the slowest, most overly dramatic limp off the pitch from one side to the other. The Fourth Official replaced him running the line, which meant there was a vacancy as Fourth Official.
Step forward, SWA’s finest, Mike Dean. As is customary when he isn’t officiating in the top flight, Mike was a paying fan. He consulted with Walsall’s manager to make sure he was comfortable with it and then leapt into action as Fourth Official.
Within 10 minutes of that, Rovers took the lead. A lovely move up the left saw Rovers tie the Walsall right-back in knots before Chris Merrie escaped in behind and pulled the ball back for McManaman in the box. The former Premier League winger didn’t need asking twice to take the shot, expertly sweeping the ball home left-footed.
Any concerns that Macca had joined us for a last pay day were soon blown out of the water. He celebrated like it was a promotion-winning goal, running to the fans in the Kop and soon joined by his team mates. He’s a Merseyside lad who understands what football means around these parts. Goals are to be enjoyed.
Suddenly, Micky Mellon’s impact was once again clear. This team showed signs of ‘getting it’. Understanding us. What it means. What we want. 10 outfield players jumping in a huddle with fans was a beautiful sight.
It looked like Tranmere may go on and take the game out of sight. A lovely move up the right culminated in Josh Dacres-Cogley crossing for Liam Feeney whose goal-bound effort was scrambled clear.
Then, controversy. It’s not just the players who need to get used to playing with fans again, but officials need to get a grip of it again too. Sadly, our referee failed miserably.
A solid tackle by Chris Merrie was somehow adjudged a foul. An optimistic appeal from the away end resulted in the official making his first ridiculous mistake of the season, quickly brandishing a red card before giving himself time to think clearly.
Merrie was off, Rovers had four minutes plus a massive seven minutes of stoppage time to see it out.
But they did just that. A few set pieces created decent opportunities for Walsall, but the visitors couldn’t take them. That man Ash Taylor missing the best of them, putting the ball high above Joe Murphy’s crossbar when presented with a header down from Manny Monthe.
The full-time whistle was greeted with a huge cheer – and we all knew what was coming next.
Once the handshakes were complete, Micky turned to the Kop. The fans began to build it up and the Rovers gaffer applauded before giving it a huge fist pump, as passionate and meaningful as we’ve seen.
He patted the badge as he looked toward us, acknowledging our support and admiration.
Micky is home now, and he knows it.
And we love it.
Roll on Oldham.