Saturday the 14th of April saw me travel north, towards Birkenhead and the home of Tranmere Rovers. Aldershot Town were the opposition, who, along with Tranmere, are in the mix for a playoff place and possible promotion to the Football League.
This was my third time watching the Rovers, and my second visit to Prenton Park (you can read about my first visit here). After having seen them lose at Wembley in the Playoff Final last May, and play out a scoreless draw against Chester in October, I was hoping I could complete the set and finally see them victorious.
The day began with a short dog walk along New Brighton beach, a very attractive stretch of the Wirral peninsula. The spring sunshine was glorious – it honestly felt like the first warm day of 2018, and my sun-deprived skin enjoyed absorbing that UV goodness. A short cab ride over to Prenton Park followed and myself and Matt, my lifelong-Tranmere-fan buddy, headed into the fan tent for a pre-match pint.
Macclesfield, top of the National League and inches away from sealing the title, were playing Leyton Orient on the big screen when we arrived and the Tranmere faithful gathered inside were watching nervously, hoping Macclesfield would drop points. When I last visited Tranmere, the Rovers had begun their season poorly, languishing in the lower half of the table. A few months later and the atmosphere was remarkably different, positivity overflowing through the fanbase, as Tranmere sat comfortably in second place and still hot on the heels of Macclesfield. Leyton Orient were able to peg back Macclesfield for a 1-1 draw, denying the table-toppers from celebrating the league title at home. That is, provided Tranmere could continue their winning ways later that day.
Before the game, Matt had informed me this was not going to be an ordinary day at the football. He had a surprise in store: Matt had managed to secure us access to Tranmere’s Platinum Suite, complete with a three-course meal and fantastic seats on the halfway line.
This was football, but not as we knew it.
We were escorted into the Platinum lounge by a member of staff, given a complimentary match programme (yay free stuff) and fitted with a wristband pass, then seated at our table as we took in our surroundings. It was the most surreal feeling to begin with, almost as if I didn’t belong. The dress code wasn’t too formal, as you might expect in a VIP hospitality lounge, and looking around I saw plenty of other people wearing trainers, so we began to relax and ease into this unknown environment.
Before long our starters arrived; I had the chilli con carne and Matt opted for the leek and potato soup. It was very good, and I shouldn’t have been so surprised at how much I enjoyed it. After our plates were collected, conservation turned to pre-match chat. Matt had recently attended Tuesday night’s match against Gateshead, when Tranmere striker Andy Cook single-handedly changed the game with a 4 goal performance, leading a Tranmere comeback for a 4-2 win. Momentum was with the Rovers and we were both optimistic about their chances against Aldershot.
With about 15 minutes before kickoff our mains arrived, and we devoured them as fast as we could to avoid missing the kickoff. I had the pork schnitzel and Matt chose the fillet of salmon, and just like the starters, I was seriously impressed with the quality of the food.
We made our way from the lounge to the main stand and emerged to see the gorgeous green of the Prenton Park pitch bathed in sunlight. I could not get over how good our seats were and must have remarked my astonishment to Matt more than a dozen times.
The match itself turned out to be a scrappy affair. Aldershot were resolute in defence but had absolutely no cohesiveness in attack, and I only recall them having a couple of minor half-chances, giving Tranmere ‘keeper Scott Davies a relatively uneventful afternoon. Unfortunately Tranmere struggled in the first half as well, with only one chance of distinction occurring, when striker James Norwood forced Aldershot goalie Lewis Ward into a low save.
The half time whistle blew and an unsettling feeling began to creep in: was I seriously going to see two 0-0 draws in a row? Matt would never take me to another Tranmere game ever again.
When we got back to our table, our desserts were already waiting for us. Both of us selected the fresh cream choux buns with a toffee yoghurt. For you non-VIP folk, that’s profiteroles. They were amazing.
Half time flew by and we were soon back in our seats. Early into the second half, a sliced clearance saw the ball head into the stands. I joked to Matt, “heads up, that’s yours,” not seriously thinking it would actually hit him. Before I had even finished my witty remark, Matt had taken control of the stray and instantly catapulted it back into play, a throw Rory Delap would have been proud of. Or he would have been, if Matt hadn’t nearly decapitated a woman in the front row with his effort. In his defence, I thought the wind was a factor.
As each frustrating minute passed, my fears of a 0-0 grew in intensity. Tranmere were pushing for a goal and dominated the second half, but the final ball and finish eluded them. Matt was surely cursing his decision to bring me along, again. I was bad luck personified.
Until, with twenty minutes left in the game, substitute Larnell Cole picked up the ball in his own half and charged towards the Aldershot goal. With the defence closing in on him, Cole threw in a couple of stepovers before playing the perfect through ball into the path of James Norwood, whose defence-splitting run put him one-on-one with the ‘keeper. Norwood calmly slotted the ball home to make it 1-0, and the relief and euphoria in the stadium hit me instantly. Cole had made such an impact since his introduction to the match, and his vision and awareness to create the goal drew plaudits from all those seated around me.
With the deadlock finally broken, Tranmere relaxed and their attacks on the Aldershot goal intensified as they looked to kill the game. And ten minutes later, in the 80th minute, they did just that.
Aldershot centre back Callum Reynolds couldn’t deal with an aerial ball and his headed clearance attempt invited the attention of Andy Cook. The Tranmere forward put Reynolds under enormous pressure and stole possession, and as Cook began to round the ‘keeper and try to get a shot on target, Norwood arrived in the box to pick the ball off Cook’s toe. Norwood capitalized on the confusion to slot home and pick up his second goal of the day, and his 20th of the season.
At 2-0, Tranmere could safely see out the game for three hard-fought points. Aldershot certainly made them work for it but Rovers had too much quality in the end.
After giving the team a huge round of applause at the final whistle, we headed back to the comforts of the Platinum lounge. Matt and I sat down to enjoy a celebratory pint, when suddenly James Norwood appeared just metres away from us, still in full kit. Another perk of the hospitality experience meant seeing the man of the match stop by and say hello, as he conducted a quick interview and stopped for photos with kids.
It was a fantastic day out overall, an experience I will not forget. I must admit I’m relieved to have broken my curse and seen Tranmere win, but also thankful to Matt for sorting us out with such a stylish matchday adventure in the hospitality lounge. Tranmere still harbour hopes of catching Macclesfield for automatic promotion and this win keeps them in the hunt.
As a fully-fledged (perhaps honorary) Tranmere fan now, I sincerely hope they can get back into the Football League this season. They’ve got the squad, the stadium and facilities, and the support of an incredibly passionate fanbase. Time will tell if they can make it.