Newport County vs Tranmere Rovers

0-0 Stalemate Over The Severn

A trip across the River Severn was in store for the twentieth edition of Day At The Football, to see Newport County welcome Tranmere Rovers in a battle between two teams with their sights on promotion out of League Two.

Tranmere entered the day in 5th spot, just 4 points away from a precious automatic promotion place, thanks to an impressive winning streak that was only recently halted away to Oldham midweek. It’s been an outstanding campaign for Micky Mellon and his squad, who only a year ago were fighting to escape the National League. How far they’ve come in such a short time.

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Newport, despite starting the day 6 points behind in the playoff race (but with 2 games in hand), are still very much in contention, and winners of their previous two games. The Exiles made headlines this season thanks to their historic FA Cup run, including memorable defeats over Leicester and Middlesbrough, before finally bowing out to Manchester City.

Naturally for a Tranmere game my friend Matt was accompanying me, and he had made the journey south from Birkenhead early Saturday morning. It’s a shame I haven’t managed a trip to Prenton Park this season but joining the SWA for my third Rovers away game makes up for that a little I suppose.

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We caught the train to Wales before midday and arrived into Newport with the sun shining, a perfect day beside the River Usk. Matt had already scoped out our pre-match plans with a visit to Tiny Rebel, Newport’s premier watering hole. The award-winning brewery in the centre of town has every kind of beer imaginable, with knowledgeable staff in a relaxed environment. I enjoyed a pint of Clwb Tropicana (a refreshing 5.5% tropical IPA) along with their ‘OG’ burger, whilst Matt feasted on the most enormous plate of dirty fries imaginable, complete with onion bhajis scattered on top, plus six vegan seitan wings coated in the hottest hot sauce I’ve ever had.

With considerable effort we got to our feet and began walking off the beer and food. The walk from the city centre to Newport County’s stadium was short and pleasant, and we arrived with an hour to go before kickoff, enough time for one more drink in the away supporter’s bar.

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This was my first visit to Rodney Parade, home to Newport County since the 2012/13 season. They share the stadium with their rugby housemates, the formerly named Newport Gwent Dragons (although now just known as Dragons apparently). The Welsh Rugby Union actually own the rights to the ground and the capacity for football matches is reduced to a cosy 7,850. You can tell that the stadium wasn’t designed specifically for the beautiful game, as there are large expanses of open turf surrounding the edges of the football pitch in the centre. It’s a definitely a quirky look but adds to the overall charm of the ground.

Matt, myself and the 670 travelling SWA were housed between the relatively modern Bisley Stand and a temporary south stand behind the goal. We were sat a handful of rows back from the corner flag and our sight-line was decent overall, although there was some slight obstruction at the other end of the pitch if you wanted to see the corner flag on our side.

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League Two player of the season James Norwood led the Tranmere attack and was desperate to net his 30th goal of the campaign, but both he and the attackers supporting him struggled to really impose themselves against a stubborn Newport defence.

Perhaps it was the discipline of the home side or the choppy playing surface, but Tranmere never found their rhythm and weren’t able to establish their expansive passing game. The visitor’s best opportunity of the first half came from an early corner but centre back Mark Ellis could only direct his powerful header off the crossbar. Newport also struggled against the Rovers’ resolute defence and never seriously troubled Tranmere goalkeeper Scott Davies.

It was more of the same in the second half as both teams simply cancelled each other out. The referee was only too happy to disrupt the flow of the game which added to the fan’s frustrations. Tranmere substitute Chris Dagnall had a glorious chance with half an hour left in the game, when a corner escaped Newport goalie Joe Day (no relation) and fell at Dagnall’s feet, but he could only direct a tame effort onto the post and wide.

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In the final minute Newport thought they had won it, when a free kick was bundled into the net, but to our relief the linesman flagged for offside. That was all there was to it, and the final whistle blew soon after. It was one of the poorest 0-0’s I’ve witnessed in a long time but Tranmere can console themselves with another clean sheet and another point towards securing their place in the playoffs.

Despite the dour performance, the SWA were in good voice throughout, and very fond of the ‘Tequila’ song they’ve popularised in recent weeks. Hopefully I’ll be back amongst them soon enough, maybe even this season if they can put together a good run in the playoffs.

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Cheltenham Town vs Tranmere Rovers

New Year + New Players = New Results

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Swindon Town vs Tranmere Rovers

Robins victorious as Rovers see red at the County Ground

Saturday the 18th of August marked the third match I’ve attended this month, which is a remarkable statistic for me. For fans who can follow their team every weekend, home and away, three games in one month might not seem anything to write home about, but for me it’s significant, as unfortunately I’m not always available to travel to as many games as I’d perhaps like. As a non-London dwelling Arsenal fan, it’s not financially viable to watch them in the flesh very often.

Nevertheless, I found myself in Swindon for my first Tranmere Rovers game of the new season. Rovers, my adopted team from Birkenhead, have had a solid start to life back in the football league, and arrived at Swindon’s County Ground with 4 points from their first two games, including a home win against Cheltenham last week.

Matt, my life-long Tranmere-supporting friend and chief enabler of my Rovers fandom, had managed to get us a pair of tickets in the away end for the day, thus marking my first official game as a travelling member of the SWA (Super White Army for those not accustomed to the Tranmere faithful). It was my first time seeing Tranmere since their promotion to League Two, and I was excited to see the familiar faces in Micky Mellon’s squad, as well as some of the new additions.

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That fateful day the ten men of Tranmere were victorious at Wembley, two thoughts went through my mind; The first, I’m afraid to admit, was my excitement at getting to play with them on this year’s edition of FIFA. The second, and more important, was my newfound access to see the Rovers in person.

Their promotion to League Two has given me the opportunity to see them at Cheltenham, Newport, Exeter, and a few more grounds in the southwest this season. Unfortunately I’m only going to visit Prenton Park maybe once or twice a year, but now I have the chance to see the Rovers away from home on a more regular basis. Their game against Swindon was the first fixture I circled on my calendar, and I was glad it came so early on in the season.

I caught a midday London-bound train and met Matt at Swindon station. The walk to the County Ground was very short and simple, and upon arrival we bought lunch from one of the burger vans close to the Arkell’s Stand. As is my custom, I picked up a matchday programme from a lovely lady at her stand, and we had a brief chat about both team’s chances before kick-off. Every member of staff we met could not have been nicer, so credit to Swindon Town for being such great hosts.

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As we made our way toward the away supporter’s Bar 71, we spotted Dave, editor of Tranmere fanzine Give Us An R. Upon our approach he already had his arm outstretched holding the latest issue and was nice enough to give me a copy. Issue 119 features my matchday report from April’s home win against Aldershot, so if you’re at a Tranmere game this year make sure you pick it up and continue supporting fanzines like GUAR. Print is not dead and we should do everything we can to keep football fanzines alive.

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We entered the relatively small bar about an hour before kick-off and caught the end of Cardiff vs Newcastle, the day’s early game. Matt and I enjoyed a Peroni each (£10.40 for two pints though) whilst watching Newcastle’s Kenedy miss an abysmal last-minute penalty, and half an hour later we made the short climb up into the stands to find a perch for the match. Our £23 tickets gave us our choice of seats and since we’d arrived whilst the players were still going through warm-ups, we had the pick of vantage points. The Arkell’s Stand had a narrow stanchion slightly obstructing our sightline but we made sure to choose seats so it didn’t impact our view of the goals.

The match got underway and Tranmere instantly put down a marker that they would not be one of those newly-promoted sides who would merely lay down and roll over. Within ten minutes they had taken the lead.

On the edge of the Swindon penalty area, striker James Norwood split the defence with a ball into Connor Jennings, entering from the left wing. Jennings opened his body to play a pass across the box, that the outstretched forward Cole Stockton narrowly missed converting. Thankfully Jonny Smith, on loan from Bristol City, arrived from the opposite wing unmarked to tap the ball home at the back post to give Tranmere a deserved 1-0 lead. The SWA were in full voice for the celebrations and every fan around us was ecstatic.

Tranmere didn’t relent and were able to double their lead just three minutes later. A goal-kick from ‘keeper Scott Davies reached the head of Stockton, whose neat flick-on found Norwood. The Tranmere number ten got goalside of his defender and used the outside of his right boot to slide the ball beyond the Swindon goalie Lawrence Vigouroux to make it 2-0. We couldn’t believe our luck, to have such a commanding lead after less than quarter of an hour, away from home. Norwood already has 4 league goals this season, and has thoroughly embraced his status as Tranmere talisman.

Our jubilation wasn’t to last though. Just five minutes later Jay Harris, the tenacious Rovers midfielder, made a shocking “tackle” on Swindon’s Martin Smith and the referee pulled out his red card without any hesitation. From where I was sat, I could only see Harris’ back, and didn’t see at the time just how high he planted his foot on Smith’s leg. It was a reckless and needless challenge, and became the turning point in the game.

From that point on, Tranmere fell apart. The visitors had been in complete control and looked set to put more goals past Swindon, whose fans had grown more and more restless. Now with an extra man in midfield, the Robins began to impose themselves.

Just a couple of minutes after Harris was dismissed, Swindon struck. Striker Elijah Adebayo, on-loan from Fulham, got the better of Rovers right back Jake Caprice and poked home to get his side back in the game. Adebayo was a menace all afternoon and was Swindon’s best player by a country mile. His goal was well taken but his build-up play and ball retention impressed me even more. The youngster was almost unplayable once Tranmere were reduced to ten men.

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Rovers did well to make it to half time with their lead intact but could only stave off the Swindon pressure for so long. With an hour gone the hosts easily bypassed the Rovers’ defence and a simple ball across the box was swept home by Marc Richards for the Swindon equaliser. It felt inevitable to be honest, as Tranmere had spent so long doing their best to repel attack after attack.

The players were exhausted from the effort, and this was no more evident than when Jonny Smith, probably Tranmere’s most positive player of the day, burst onto a loose ball in the middle of the park and nearly had a one-on-one with the Swindon keeper, before kind of giving up on it. He was undoubtedly knackered and you could tell he could give no more. The impressive 21 year-old was substituted directly after, but the signs are there for him to be a big player for Tranmere this season.

In the 72nd minute the Swindon comeback was complete, but it was a catastrophic goal to concede. From a corner, Steven Alzate was afforded too much space on the left side of the penalty area and his low cross was met by Robins defender Joe Romanski. The 18 year-old centre back, in an attempt to control the ball, smashed it off both shins and the ball trickled past the wrong-footed Davies in goal, softly nestling in the back of the net. Even with a man down, it was an awful goal to give away and the Tranmere players were furious.

Sadly, so were a minority of the away fans behind us, who let the red mist get the better of them. It’s not the sort of behaviour you want to see at football, and it has no place in the game anymore. The Swindon fans we spoke to after the game could not have been nicer, and hopefully the little scuffle didn’t diminish their opinion of the majority of us.

Despite the result, I enjoyed my first away day with Tranmere and eagerly await my next trip to see them play. Before Harris received his marching orders, they had looked the superior team and if they can continue to display that sort of form, the Rovers should have no problem competing at this level. Centre back Mark Ellis was my standout player of the day, and looked exceptional in the heart of the Tranmere defence. He rarely looked overmatched and dealt with everything that came his way.

We applauded the team off the pitch and made our exit, managing to grab a train home that got us to the pub in time to see most of the Arsenal game away at Chelsea.

What are the odds that both of your teams lose 3-2 on the same day? Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.

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