My second game of 2019 took me to nearby Cheltenham Town, in the county of Gloucestershire. I was making the short journey to see my second Tranmere Rovers game of the season, my first since a mid-August trip to Swindon when the 2018/19 season was still in its infancy.
Now deep into mid-season and with the new year upon us, my adopted Rovers have found themselves in contention for a playoff spot. However, their performances away from home have been shaky, and their last win on the road was a 4-3 win at Morecambe in early October. Since then Micky Mellon’s side have struggled to keep the ball out of the net, often conceding multiple goals on their travels. As I boarded my train towards Cheltenham, I did so with some trepidation, and hoped maybe Tranmere could cause a surprise and buck their recent trend.
Father Christmas was especially generous this year and bestowed upon me not one but two new Tranmere scarves, so I was spoilt for choice to keep me warm on what turned out to be a pretty mild Saturday in January. Decked out in the white and blue of Tranmere nonetheless, I departed my train to meet Matt, the man responsible for making Tranmere part of my football life, and his girlfriend’s older brother Edd, a Bristol City fan who I think Matt is secretly trying to convert. Matt was successful with me so I can only presume Edd will be a season ticket holder at Prenton Park before the end of the year.
We made the short trip across town and parked in a residential area surrounding Cheltenham’s ground. The Jonny-Rocks Stadium, capacity of 7,200, is an attractive ground with views of the rolling Gloucestershire hills all around, a very charming home for a football club, very quaint. Our residence for the afternoon was to be the Hazelwoods stand at one end of the pitch, behind the goal.
Outside the entrance for away supporters I picked up my match day programme, The Robin, from a young chap manning his stall. Cheltenham’s programme is a well designed publication altogether and not chock full of adverts like many you find, with some interesting pieces and a detailed write-up on their guests for the day from Birkenhead.
We also stopped to say hello to Dave from Give Us An R, selling the latest issue of the Rovers fanzine, and I purchased a copy as I always do (keep print alive folks). Dave very helpfully suggested a small social club just behind the ground where we could get a drink and mix with some of the travelling SWA who had made the considerable 100+ mile journey to attend. We found the bar easily enough and the three of us shared a drink among a decent mix of home and away fans, all in good spirits prior to kick off.
Before long we had squeezed through the turnstiles and chosen our spot in the stands, a perfect vantage point with no obstructions. Cheltenham reported there was an overall attendance of 3,104, with 471 of us in the Hazelwoods stand, but it did feel like a larger group. Perhaps it was the ever impressive noise from the Tranmere faithful, bellowing out song after song for their team, that made us feel like a bigger bunch than we were. We were stood just to the right of the most passionate from the pack, complete with a drum to keep us all in rhythm.
The game got underway and for the majority of the first half Cheltenham were on top, dominating possession and targeting the left flank, isolating Rovers fullback Liam Ridehalgh and providing him with all sorts of problems. Tranmere grew into the game though and went close through new signing Ishmael Miller, who had two fantastic chances. Unfortunately it was Cheltenham who took their chance just before half time, when their veteran striker Luke Varney struck to give the hosts the lead. From where we were situated Varney looked suspiciously offside and the linesman received a decent amount of protest from the Tranmere players and fans alike.
At half time Tranmere could feel aggrieved to be behind but we were in agreement the team had been second best for most of the opening 45 minutes. Thankfully they came out for the second half absolutely flying and looked like an entirely different team. Cheltenham were stunned when James Norwood, League Two’s leading scorer, linked up with right back Jake Caprice, whose fancy footwork and cutback pass found Norwood in space. The striker’s first effort was blocked but his second attempt made no mistake, and crashed past the helpless Cheltenham keeper to bring the score level, 1-1. The three of us went ballistic and I had plenty room to my left to run up and down the row in celebration.
And so began the Tranmere onslaught that Cheltenham could not withstand. Caprice and Norwood combined again, when a gorgeous curled effort from the striker was saved superbly by Scott Flinders in the Cheltenham goal, a highlight save for sure. Norwood was on the attack once more just minutes later, when he saw his shot saved by the legs of Flinders but Miller anticipated the ricochet and was on hand to tap home for a goal on his Rovers debut. The experienced forward really impressed us all afternoon with his movement and hold-up play, and thoroughly deserved the goal for his efforts. Miller’s connection with Norwood had us speculating what their partnership could bring for the rest of the season and his substitution for Paul Mullin saw him receive a standing ovation from the SWA.
With just under twenty minutes remaining Tranmere put the result beyond doubt. Mullin had only just got on the pitch when he intercepted a loose pass deep in the Cheltenham half and played a low cross to midfielder Ollie Banks on the edge of the penalty area. Banks took a touch to set himself before firing home into the bottom corner to make it 3-1. The three points were secured and heading back to Birkenhead.
To elaborate, Ollie Banks is my favourite Tranmere player. Even though I am almost certainly too old to still have “favourite” players, Banks is unanimously my favourite. As manager of Oldham Athletic on Football Manager in recent years, Banks became my Pirlo in a team I guided to moderate/respectable success. When the classy midfield maestro signed for Tranmere in real life on a short term loan I was overjoyed, and his permanent addition to the squad in the summer of 2018 was validation that I had made the right choice to entrust the status of “favourite” upon him. Banks’ well-taken goal at Cheltenham put the icing on the cake of a great day – it’s always nice when your favourites score, something I must have repeated more than once to Matt and Edd (much to their joy, I’m sure).
When the final whistle brought an end to Cheltenham’s suffering we barely noticed, as the drum was still pounding, the SWA were still singing and the three of us were basking in the celebrations. It was by far the best 45 minutes I have seen Tranmere play in my brief time following them since I signed the adoption papers (Matt insisted my devotion became legal).
The combination of the new year and the new acquisitions of Miller and midfielder David Perkins (energetic throughout and never put a foot wrong) brought new life to Tranmere on this Saturday in Cheltenham. It had us all hoping that this performance could be a significant turning point in their season and Tranmere’s ultimate bid for promotion.