Sunderland emerged from the sands of the Wirral with three points after a bruising encounter of a game but ultimately inefficient Tranmere side. A solid debut by Bailey Wright filled the void left by Ozturk as Parky stuck to his game plan and Charlie Wyke did the necessary by heading in Maguire’s free-kick at the near post just after the hour, after a first half that was pretty messing both football-wise and pitch-wise.
It quickly became apparent that a combination of our departure time, traffic, the driver needing a break, and Tranmere being in a fairly awkward spot would give us little time for socialising on the Wirral prior to kick-off, so we shared out Taylor’s pies and various ket, watched the rain come down as we neared the Mersey, and cancelled the meeting with Burnsy in the Shrewsbury. Arriving the wrong side of seven, the rain had stopped and we headed for the Tranmere Supporters Trust marquee, which looked as if the father of the bride was about to speak, what with the chandeliers and the fancy roof. Actually, it probably does do weddings (as well as the obvious autumn show, when produce grown on the pitch is displayed) and the various Tranmere folks who asked us what we thought of it were justifiably proud of it. Nice pint as well, and a far, far, better range of refreshments than seen at any ground I’ve visited. As we headed for the Cow Shed, the locals asked us to go gentle with their team, seeming resigned to a season of struggle.
Once we’d worked out that it was unallocated seating despite the tickets having seat numbers on them - so small they had to be pointed out by the stewards – we took our standing positions behind whatever seat took our fancy. The pitch, as we’d seen on the telly at the weekend, looked as if the produce for the autumn show had just been lifted, as two bits of the field resembled particularly bad wickets.
I’m not sure what had happened to Oz, but we lined up:
Willis Wright Lynch
O’Nien Power Dobson Hume
Maguire Wyke Gooch
…and Tranmere started proceedings towards the visiting fans. Their tactics quickly became clear – either hoof it over our central defence for their forwards to chase, or lob it into the sandy bit so that it would stop dead and allow their wide man to chase for it. It was us who created the first chance, on five minutes, when Wyke was hauled down (setting the tone for the evening) as he chased a through ball down the inside left channel. Maguire put in the free-kick, Charlie headed in down, and Wright, whose earlier touches had all been defensive headers, got his boot to the ball for the first time, but the ball flew over the bar. Promising, but we fell foul of the pitch soon after when we tried to pass it along the grass and they intercepted, setting Morris away down the middle. His first touch took him inside Willis, but his second, a few yards outside the box, was heavier than Gus Poyet’s accent, the ball hit a turnip, and McLaughlin was out smartly to drop onto the ball. Lads, keep it off the “grass” - IT STICKS, MAN! I know it was part of our game plan to switch flanks and this keep the ball out of the claggy bits, but it had to be hit a lot harder than usual to find its target.
The ref, who’d had a decent start to the game, missed a pretty clumsy challenge on O’Nien as Luke headed for the corner flag, and his assistant, whose nose the incident was under, didn’t flag. After the application of some vinegar and brown paper Luke was back in the fray, but the when the ref did decide to get involved, it was to book Dobson for a proper cruncher near half-way. Then the man in salmon pink seemed to lose the plot on several occasions, allowing a lot of very obvious shirt-pulling to go unpunished, and ignoring a lot of tackles that would have VAR on permanent for endangering opponents – but it made for a bit of excitement, as the quality of the passing was pretty low. Very few Premiership players would have survived the onslaught of tackles, and very few of them have ever had as much clarts on their shirts as the players out there tonight – apart from Monthe. The big number 6, who looked like Lukaku’s big brother, was in close contact with Wyke for almost the whole of the first half, but never made contact with the ground with anything other than his size fourteens. Their number 10 worked his way to the edge of our box, but after O’Nien had poked the ball away from him as he turned away from goal, he flung himself to the deck a yard or so away from Luke, conning the ref into awarding a free in an awkward position. McLaughlin had to save smartly from the free-kick as it evaded the wall and curved towards his top left corner, drawing applause as well as a big sigh of relief from our followers.
Despite the best efforts of our wide men, we couldn’t create a proper chance, with their central defence dealing with the crosses and their full-backs not allowing Gooch to wriggle into a shooting position. On the other hand, they’d messed up one of the two chances they’d had, and both sides were probably glad that there was only a single added minute before the break.
As we discussed what we needed to do to win the game, the half-time challenge began, with two kids running out with buckets and spades to build sandcastles. Only joking – they were seeing who could pick the most taties.
No changes for the second half, and we upped our game in terms of not giving it away as much. Slightly better passing, making sure it got where it was supposed to. Charlie Wyke was virtually in a running battle with Monthe, especially when they came out to our right as O’Nien and Maguire brought it forward. A number of tussles went unnoticed by the ref, but when Charlie came back inside he won the high ball, allowing Maguire to knock it over the home defence to the onrushing Gooch, but he was challenged as he reached the ball and the volley flew a yard over the bar. Nearly but not quite. Soon after, another Maguire pass, this time a little overhit, had Gooch going through in the box, but having to chase diagonally towards the left, and as he got to the line a challenge meant that his backheel hit his other leg and went for a goal kick. Just after the hour, Monthe was pulled up for pulling over O’Nien, and was booked for his trouble. Maguire, like he does, took charge of the free out on the right, and raised his left arm, which obviously means “near post”, as that’s where it went, and that’s where Charlie Wyke got ahead of his marker, and that was the post that the head flew just inside. Gerrinnnnn! The now customary mini-invasion of the corner of the pitch mixed the celebrating players and fans, and we were ahead. Half an hour to kill the game off, as the home side had worked hard to keep us at bay and wilted noticeably – for a while.
We pressed, mostly down the flanks, where Hume tried to avoid the clarts and O’Nien seemed to revel in trying to play football in the sand. The home side didn’t give up, and it needed a brave block by Wright to keep our goal safe – he knows how to endear himself to the fans. We wondered if Lafferty would be brought on for Wyke, but the goal had lifted Charlie’s confidence, and he was winning balls (hit at the right height to him) and making some good lay-offs. Lynch was booked for tangling with a forward as they headed towards our box, then, with about seven minutes to go, Monthe flattened Dobson out on the left wing after bringing the ball away from the defence and over the halfway line, and the ref had no option but to produce the yellow card again. The big fella’s shirt was still immaculate. Maguire put in the free but Tranmere cleared, and it got a bit frantic as the whistle approached. Maguire chased back to do some good defensive work, but got a bit upset when what looked like a good tackle ended with a yellow card and another situation to clear – which we did. Sensing Maguire’s frustration, Parky decided the sensible thing would be to replace him, and on came Scowen. His first touch won a corner, which was cleared, his second was a clattering tackle, and his third after a dash into the box and lose out in a tackle. Five added minutes had been announced, and we tried to see these out by holding the ball near the corner flag on our right. Right in front of the visiting fans, whose spirits and voices were raised as they roared the Lads on to do the right thing. After Power headed away a cross on the edge of our box, Tranmere won it back and did manage to get a shot on target, but as it trundled towards him, Big Jon had time to adjust his gloves before dropping on the ball. We cheered loudly, as that basically signalled the end of the contest.
Then it really was over, the three points were in the bag, and another clean sheet was recorded. Certainly not a pretty game, and one in which we’d had to show patience, particularly as the pitch prevented us from playing our usual game. The second half was better than the first, even if the improvement wasn’t enough to raise the game to the slick passing level, but a wise man once said “I’d rather win a bad game than lose a good one, bonny lad.”
Man of the Match? An impressive debut by Wright, but it's probably Maguire, as his corners and free-kicks were a constant nuisance, and led directly to the winner.