Watford FC vs Tranmere Rovers

The Miracle of Vicarage Road

The FA Cup has a habit of bringing people together from every rung of the football ladder. Part-timers and plumbers can face off against the pampered professionals of the Premier League, men who play for their nations in global competitions. It’s the magic of the cup.

When the draw for the third round was made in early December 2019, I kept a keen eye on Tranmere Rovers, my adopted team from Birkenhead (see my previous trips for a history lesson). As the draw progressed I kept hoping Rovers would receive an away tie to a southern team, so I could get there with relative ease. Finally, their ball was drawn and Tranmere were rewarded with an away visit to Watford, of the Premier League. I was overjoyed and knew I had to be there.

And with that the date was set, Saturday 4th January 2020, and my ticket was sorted thanks to my pal Matt (who was never going to miss this one). I boarded my train in the morning, transferred through London and arrived into Watford shortly after 1pm. I met Matt and a couple of his mates in a local pub for some pre-match drinks. The place had been descended upon by hundreds of travelling Tranmere supporters. There was white and blue everywhere.

A short walk from the town centre saw us arrive at the home of the Hornets, Vicarage Road. The 22,000 capacity ground has played host to Watford for close to a hundred years and is a very sleek and impressive stadium, with a gorgeous pitch. We quickly found our seats and began singing along with the 2,500 plus from Tranmere. The SWA were in fine voice and the Vicarage Road faithful were drowned out by the cacophony of noise from our stand.

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For 10 minutes it was going so well and Micky Mellon’s side had acquitted themselves against their Premier League opposition.

Then disaster struck.

Within a four-minute period Tranmere found themselves 2-0 down thanks to a combination of awful defending from the visitors and clinical finishing from the home team. The goals came as a shock and were largely of Tranmere’s making. Watford were making it look easy and Rovers just couldn’t get a foothold in the game.

In the 34th minute Watford extended the lead to 3-0, and you felt the game was dead and buried. The poor chap stood behind us had seen enough. Head in hands, now slumped in his seat, he was in the midst of an existential crisis. “They’re a disgrace,” he said, over and over. Watford’s third goal was all he could stomach, and he was gone soon afterwards, to the pub he said.

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The referee brought the first half to a close and we were understandably shell-shocked. Tranmere are just trying to survive in League One this season; what did we expect from a trip to a Premier League team? At 3-0 down, I honestly just wanted to see Tranmere avoid further humiliation and maybe get a consolation goal to restore some pride.

Micky Mellon and his team hadn’t given up hope. The manager made wholesale changes at half time, scrapping his five at the back formation as he restored the defence to a back four. Corey Blackett-Taylor was introduced to take his place on the left wing and instantly made an impact, terrorising the Watford right back with driving runs and fancy tricks. He looked dangerous every time he touched the ball, and Watford knew it.

Suddenly the hosts looked disjointed, a team of teenagers and reserves caught completely off-guard. Had complacency set in? Watford looked like they had already booked their passage through to the next round. Tranmere had other plans.

In the 65th minute, we were given a flash of hope. Blackett-Taylor took a corner only to see it cleared back to him for a second attempt, and his cross found an unmarked Connor Jennings for an easy header to make it 3-1.

Matt and I were in full celebration but I felt a hand on my arm. The woman next to me said, “no, look at the linesman!” I looked to the pitch and she was right, the flag was up. Goal disallowed. I threw my hands in the air at the injustice, our sole moment of joy stolen away.

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But this was the FA Cup, at a Premier League stadium, with all it’s bells and whistles. Which meant VAR, that scourge of modern football, had to be consulted. With the possibility of VAR restoring the goal, we began to chant for the technology gods to look upon us favourably.

“V A R! V A R! V A R!

The referee had his hand to his earpiece. Then he made the square shape in the air in front of him and pointed towards the half way line. The goal was given! We celebrated again, this time safe in the knowledge justice had been served, and the SWA burst into song once more, louder than ever.

I looked to Matt and said, “if we can just get one more, there could actually be a game here.” It was wishful thinking from me at the time.

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Watford still had a two-goal lead but they were definitely rattled. Tranmere kept coming at them, with Blackett-Taylor leading the charge.

He was involved once again in the 78th minute. Blackett-Taylor sent a free kick from close to the corner flag into the Watford box and goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann looked set to pluck it safely from the air. But Bachmann dropped the ball at the feet of Morgan Ferrier, whose first-time shot could only hit Watford bodies in defence. The rebound fell kindly to Tranmere centre back Manny Monthe, who turned on the ball to fire into the back of the net to make it 3-2.

We couldn’t believe it. The comeback was well and truly on. Belief that a result could be salvaged was coursing through the players and fans, and our stand was physically bouncing in euphoria.

With time running out, Tranmere pressed for the equaliser. A perfectly timed tackle from Kieron Morris won back possession for Jennings who crossed instantly to Blackett-Taylor (him again.) The winger’s touch took him and the defending fullback to the byline, a race for the ball. As both men entered the penalty box, Blackett-Taylor was hauled down by a sliding challenge.

“Penalty!” we pleaded at the top of our lungs, but the referee was adamant there was no foul. He even (hilariously) made the ball shaped gesture to the enquiring Tranmere players.

Ah, but remember. It’s the FA Cup and VAR needs to be checked, again.

We started up the chant once more: “V A R! V A R! V A R!” 

The tension was building with every passing second and I have to admit, the excitement of waiting for the VAR decision only added to the drama and enjoyment. I never expected to say that. The referee soon received news of the decision, he took his hand off his ear, and pointed directly to the penalty spot. The SWA and I screamed in delight: this is it!

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Striker Paul Mullin, on as a substitute for the terrific Ferrier, had the ball firmly gripped in his hands the entire time VAR was consulted. Somehow, he just knew the ball belonged to him for this moment. Mullin calmly placed the ball on the spot and prepared himself. His run-up was short and there was no hesitation. Mullin absolutely smashed the ball, put his laces right through it, and crashed past the helpless keeper. The score was 3-3 and somehow, Tranmere had done it. The League One side from the Wirral had completed the most unexpected of comebacks.

Everywhere I looked was pure chaos. Shirts were off, limbs were everywhere, people bouncing and singing in unison and celebrating the moment.

There were still a few minutes left to close out the result. I had the shaky knees by this point. Whenever I get shaky knees in the final stages of a football match, I know it’s a sign the game has been quality.

The Tranmere fans had one more moment to enjoy when pantomime villain Roberto Pereyra (who had been a dick all afternoon) was shown a straight red card for a putting Morris on his back illegally. It was a lot of fun waving Pereyra off the pitch.

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Shortly afterwards the referee blew his whistle for the final time and I punched the air in relief and delight, along with the thousands in white and blue around me. We applauded the players and manager as they came forward in appreciation of our support. A replay back to Prenton Park secured!

As we walked back into Watford I was still stunned, struggling to grasp what I’d seen. Together we had witnessed a little piece of FA Cup history, one of the most unlikely comebacks you’ll ever see. We couldn’t merely part ways and go straight home; we had far too much energy to release and so much to discuss. Back to the pub we journeyed for a debrief.

After a few drinks and obligatory tequila, I said my goodbyes to Matt and the boys to catch my train back to London and home. At half time it looked to be one of those forgettable days at the football, one you’d prefer to forget anyway. In the end, it was arguably the best experience I’ve had watching Tranmere Rovers, and one that’ll live long in the memory.

They say football is a game of two halves. Tranmere proved that is still very much the case.

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Tranmere Rovers vs Shrewsbury Town

Ten-man Tranmere Toil To Disappointing 1-0 Defeat

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Portsmouth vs Tranmere Rovers

Pompey Pressure Equals Fratton Frustration For Rovers

My adopted Tranmere Rovers were in Portsmouth this weekend for their first away game of the 2019/20 season, and I was on hand to join the SWA on the south coast.

I’m a bit pressed for time this week to provide a complete rundown of my day like I usually do, so I’ve broken it down into quick categories:

The Journey

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Matt, the man responsible for my Tranmere affair, was making the journey from Birkenhead and agreed to pick me up from Bath on the way down. Our drive from the west country paled in comparison to the 260-mile effort the Prenton Park faithful had to endure – our trip in the car was a mere 2 hours (slightly longer with Portsmouth’s awful summer Saturday traffic).

When I climbed into Matt’s car he had a gift waiting for me; my first Tranmere Rovers home shirt, brand-new-in-bag directly from the club shop. I had finally made the decision to own one, completely won over by this year’s very clean and stylish design by Puma. It will be worn to all future Rovers game, that’s for sure.

The Atmosphere

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Fratton Park, the charming and historically cosy home to Portsmouth since 1899, was our host for the afternoon. As soon as the fixture list was released I immediately targeted this match, so I was happy to make the trip to Portsmouth so early in the new season.

It was standing room only at the back of the visitor’s Milton End, packed together with the 689 travelling supporters from the Wirral. We spent the entire game being battered in the face by gale force winds – it was strong enough to make your eyes water. Despite being at the back, Matt and I found no respite from the punishing vortex, yet it did nothing to damper our enthusiasm.

Thanks to Tranmere’s young drummer our spirits were kept high with repeated rounds of Tequila, and all of the SWA were in fine voice throughout the entire day, clearly relishing their first away fixture since promotion to League One.

Oh, and apparently Will Ferrell was in the crowd too. We had no idea.

The Food

Sadly we didn’t have time to savour the delights Fratton Park had to offer. A McDonalds pit-stop on the drive down was the lone meal during the day, but two chaps stood to my right seemed to enjoy their Pompey pies at half time.

They smelled pretty good (the pies, not the men, you pervert).

The Match

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Portsmouth ran out 2-0 winners on the day and were good value for their victory. To be honest, the scoreline could have been larger and Tranmere, despite having a few promising passages of pressure, were clearly second-best; Pompey always looked the stronger team.

Portsmouth’s first goal midway through the first half was a fantastic 30-yard volley by midfielder Ben Close, a really special hit into the top corner that you couldn’t help but admire. Their second goal came with fifteen minutes remaining , a scruffy close-range effort from captain Tom Naylor after Tranmere failed to clear a corner. It was a poor goal to concede and  ended any hopes Tranmere had of gaining something from the game.

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A couple of very windy boys

Micky Mellon’s tactics were difficult to comprehend from the beginning and didn’t bring him the results he might have envisioned. Summer signing Morgan Ferrier (the man with the unenviable task of replacing James Norwood) was pushed out on the wing, and Connor Jennings, a very effective winger, played through the middle instead. Both players looked uncomfortable and struggled to impose themselves against a stubborn Portsmouth defence. We couldn’t understand why Mellon didn’t swap them over.

It was a frustrating afternoon for the majority of the Tranmere squad but one man stood out – new loan signing Kane Wilson, who debuted at right back. The man from West Brom was alert all afternoon and looked dangerous overlapping down the right flank. He made a positive impression on myself and the fans around us with his impact.

Final Thoughts

Despite the result, Matt and I still enjoyed the day and I would gladly return to Fratton Park again. Micky Mellon and the supporters will be disappointed at Tranmere’s start to life in League One but it’s a long season, and there’s plenty of time left to right the ship. I aim to see a few more Rovers games before the end – hopefully results will be in our favour next time.

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