A lot has changed since my last visit to Prenton Park.
Tranmere Rovers, my adopted team from Birkenhead, have enjoyed a meteoric rise up the football ladder over the past couple of years. They were still a non-league club in April 2018, when a James Norwood brace inspired the Rovers to a 2-0 victory over Aldershot Town (whilst I lapped it up like a VIP.) It was a glorious spring day. Tranmere were promoted back to the football league a short time afterwards, and promoted once again a year later, to the lofty heights of League One.
Since that memorable day against Aldershot, I’ve travelled with the SWA four times to support the Rovers away. They were great days out (with mixed results) but I was always keen to return to the Wirral and be amongst the home fans again.
Thankfully, a trip to Liverpool with friends coincided with a Tranmere home game. Shrewsbury Town were the visitors on this occasion.
Saturday morning found Matt (the man responsible for my Tranmere conversion) and I setting off from Liverpool on the train, with the weather brightening up. Our walk to the ground from Birkenhead Central was bathed in sunlight but I was thankful for wearing a warm jacket by the time we arrived at Prenton Park – the wind had picked up and the clouds had rolled over. Perfect autumnal football conditions.
Walking down the Prenton Park Road I saw the incredible new mural of Tranmere legends Ian Muir and Ray Mathias for the first time. Painted on the side of a local house by artist Paul Curtis (he of the Liver Bird wings in the Baltic Quarter fame), his amazing work gives the entire area a shot of colour that helps lend Prenton Park something of a destination feel – it’s part of the matchday experience you have to see if you’re visiting for the first time.
Our next stop was the club shop where I bought my ticket, and nothing else as my willpower remained strong. We then headed into the Tranmere Rovers Trust fan park, a huge beer tent just outside the stadium. Matt and I enjoyed a couple of pre-match Big Waves, and savoured seeing Spurs lose 3-0 to Brighton on the big screen. That made this Arsenal fan especially happy.
In the tent I managed to finally bump into Tom, a Tranmere fan I’d connected with online a while ago but had yet to meet in person. It’s amazing how football, and social media, can bring complete strangers together. We caught up like old friends, and Matt and Tom shared their Tranmere stories from the past. Tom helped me complete my 2018 World Cup sticker album last year and you should follow him on Twitter, if you don’t already, where he destroys Bolton fans on a regular basis.
Kickoff was fast approaching so we bid Tom farewell and headed to our seats. Matt had changed his season ticket since my last visit, so we were in the Main Stand this time, in the Bebington Paddock, just in front of the Director’s Box. I could see club Chairman Mark Palios just a couple of metres away over my left shoulder, so our seats were impressive to say the least. We were almost exactly on the half line, close to the action but with perfect sightlines.
Sadly, the game was a largely dull affair that Tranmere struggled through.
It wasn’t because Shrewsbury were the better team necessarily; they were well organised but hardly dominant.
The visitors took the lead after just 20 minutes, with a tap-in at the far post by Callum Lang that looked suspiciously offside to my eyes. The linesman didn’t agree and Shrewsbury were ahead 1-0 with minimum effort.
In fact, the officiating all afternoon was hideous. Right from the off the referee and his assistants were falling for every trick in the book, halting play after every innocuous challenge. The home fans were understandably frustrated, and things got even worse just before half time when Connor Jennings received a dubious second yellow card and his marching orders. Down to 10 men, things looked bleak for the Rovers.
Stefan Payne and Paul Mullin were charged with leading the line for Tranmere but had zero success against the Shrews’ resolute defence. Payne had a shot well saved in the first half and a header go narrowly wide in the second, but that was about the extent of the home side’s attacking threat. Mullin looked absolutely gassed for most of the game, spending a lot of his time on the floor – we were shocked Micky Mellon didn’t substitute him.
I must admit that Mellon’s team selection left me scratching my head. Midfielder Kieron Morris was selected to start at left back, despite Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, a left back by trade, available on the bench. I appreciate Mellon is juggling numerous injuries within the squad, but the manager’s decision making did puzzle me overall on the day.
In the 76th minute the Shrewsbury captain and former Tranmere midfielder Ollie Norburn was unlucky his low shot rebounded off the inside of the post and out. With an extra man Shrewsbury should have romped to a higher scoreline but they never made their advantage count, and were quite content to keep Tranmere at arm’s length and sit on their narrow lead. To his credit, Rovers captain Scott Davies gave a solid performance in goal, and denied Shrewsbury multiple times.
In the dying minutes of injury time there was a final opportunity for Tranmere. Recently acquired veteran midfielder Neil Danns controlled a pass in the box nicely but saw his low effort palmed away, a great stop by Shrewsbury goalkeeper Max O’Leary.
And that was all she wrote. The referee brought an end to yet another difficult League One afternoon at Prenton Park. He was showered with a chorus of boos as he left the field.
It’s common to see newly promoted clubs experience teething issues as they adjust to life in a higher division but Tranmere’s lack of depth in the squad and their current bout of injuries give some cause for concern, even at this early stage of the season.
Still, there’s a long way to go and a transfer window ahead. Last January, Mellon and his staff rejuvenated the team with a host of new signings that helped guide Tranmere to success. Perhaps some January magic can be weaved again.
We ended the day with one more drink in the tent with Tom before heading into Liverpool for a night on the town. To take our minds off the football we ate ourselves to distraction at Down The Hatch. I highly recommend you visit and order the Taj Mahal – it was superb.
I’ll be aiming for a swift return to Prenton Park in the near future, so it’s unlikely the club will experience two promotions again in my absence. My apologies.