Tranmere Rovers FC vs Swansea City FC
FA Cup Third Round
Saturday 3rd January 2015
Prenton Park, Tranmere, Merseyside
The first weekend in January must be fairly unremarkable for non-football fans. A new diet, perhaps an impending return to work and lingering doubts over going ‘dry’ for the month are already kicking in. For football fans, though, fresh from bingeing on the festive season’s busy schedule, it’s an early highlight in the New Year’s fixture list.
The FA Cup Third Round is a graveyard for the hopes of many big names of years gone by. From Sutton United to Shrewsbury, tricky ties at lower league opposition have long been the staple ingredient of many famous shocks. And, this time, the draw didn’t disappoint.
Blyth Spartans would face Birmingham City, while Gateshead were rewarded with a trip to West Bromich Albion. For Manchester United, a long trip south-west to Yeovil Town, and for Liverpool, a visit to the reformed AFC Wimbledon, with the ghosts of The Crazy Gang and that famous 1988 Final looming large in the build-up.
Perhaps even that, though, along with Tranmere’s mouthwatering draw against Premier League Swansea City, was overshadowed on Merseyside this week. The announcement of Steven Gerrard’s impending departure dominated national sporting headlines as he announced his plans to leave Anfield after 17 years.
Back in 1998, as the fresh-faced teenager made his Liverpool debut, Tranmere vs Swansea would have been quite a different underdog tie. Rovers were a solid First Division team with a mix of experienced pros and exciting young talent, including future Wales international Jason Koumas, that would go on to provide several memorable cup runs over the next few years.
Meanwhile, Swansea were about to embark on one of the greatest rises through the football league ladder, finishing 98/99 in the top seven of Division Three before defeat to eventual play-off winners Scunthorpe United.
Fast forward to present day and Tranmere’s 60-odd place advantage in the league ladder has been reversed, and to dramatic effect too. Starting the match just outside of League Two’s trapdoor, the home team have endured a terrible start to life in the football league’s basement division following relegation last season after thirteen years in the third tier.
A change of manager and ownership has halted the slide in recent week, with former FA Chief Executive Mark Palios in the boardroom and ex-Leicester and Fulham manager Mickey Adams taking control of the dugout, but there’s little doubt that the task of restoring former glories is a big one.
One source of optimism for revival could be today’s visitors. On the brink of extinction in the late 90’s, Swansea’s rise has been remarkable. An established Premier League team, playing the same attractive football instilled by Martinez, Rodgers, Laudrup and, now, continued by club legend Gary Monk, they’ve even tasted victory at Wembley in the League Cup and enjoyed an impressive European campaign last year.
Tranmere’s team of cup specialists might feel like a distant memory now, but there’s no doubting their giant-killing pedigree. A late David Kelly equaliser in the 2000 Worthington Cup Final looked like it might be enough to force extra-time, and perhaps take Tranmere on their own European adventure, until Matt Elliott’s match-winning second goal secured the League Cup for Leicester City.
It was the FA Cup that would provide relief from a difficult league campaign in 2000/01, with a famous run that took in a 3-0 win at Goodison Park, followed by a remarkable comeback from 3-0 down against Southampton to win 4-3 in a Fifth Round replay.
Liverpool would eventually halt the run in the quarter finals, with Fowler, Owen and the exploding talent of a young Steven Gerrard all on the scoresheet. But Tranmere’s cup exploits were in stark contrast to their league form, and they would finish the season bottom of Division One; they haven’t been back since.
Another impressive run to the quarter finals in 2004 was ended by fellow giant-killers Millwall, and included a 2-1 win over Swansea in the Fifth Round here at Prenton Park. What the locals would give for a repeat performance this afternoon.
Recent form suggests it’s not out of the question. One defeat in eight for Tranmere shows the impact Mickey Adams has had, while Swansea’s win at Hull before Christmas was their first win outside of South Wales since an opening day victory at Old Trafford. John Aldridge backed his side for a draw pre-match, and the 7/1 odds of a home win look long.
Joining me would be my good friend Rich. We’ve been mates for a decade having met while working for Curry’s during our university days. A mutual love of Martin Scorsese, David Brent and Matsui DVD Players saw us strike up a strong relationship, and we last watched football together at the Allianz Arena on his stag do in Munich. I’m returning the favour by bringing him with me to Prenton Park.
Our underdog form as a duo perhaps isn’t ideal. We found ourselves sat high up in the Greuther Furth away end almost two years ago as Bayern comfortably beat the Bundesliga’s bottom side 2-0 in the snowy surrounds of Bavaria. Rich has again come dressed as a German beer maid, as is tradition.
Another fine tradition is also continued, as we’re cutting it slightly fine as we set off from Derbyshire. We park up within half a mile of the ground by about 2.30pm and follow the crowd streaming towards the ground. There’s a long queue to collect pre-paid tickets, much to the irritation of a few fans around us, but we find our way through the turnstiles and into the Kop as the players are about to kick-off.
We’re disappointed to hear that Koumas, the only survivor of Tranmere’s cup runs of old, is out injured today. Swansea’s nine changes suggest a weakened team, but Marvin Emnes and Bafetimbi Gomis offer an impressive alternative to the African Nations-bound Wilfried Bony.
Emnes and Gomis are quick to combine in the early stages, with the France international shooting wide in the early stages. Supported by Nathan Dyer and Modou Barrow on either flank, Swansea counter with pace and look dangerous on every attack.
Barrow in particular begins to cause problems down the right, and is given a League Two welcome in the fifteenth minute with a tough tackle from Danny Holmes that leads to the first booking of the game. Even Rover, Tranmere’s matchday mascot, gestures to a nearby steward that it was the right decision. You know it’s a cruncher when a man dressed as a dog thinks you deserve a booking.
The opening goal comes in the 34th minute. Barrow switches play inside to the lively Tottenham loanee Tom Carroll, who drives forward and finds Nathan Dyer. Evading the tackle of Donacien, he skips into the box, cuts inside and fires a firm shot against the lunging block of Holness. The ball ricochets back and strikes the Swansea player on the arm, dropping kindly for a second attempt that finds the back of the net.
A large chorus of boos follow the loud handball shout, as the home fans realise the goal will stand. The handball wasn’t deliberate but Dyer certainly benefitted; as with a number of similar incidents in the Premier League over Christmas, the advantage went with the ‘offending’ player, and Swansea had the lead. I would later spot my own blurry figure yelling handball from the stands on Match of the Day.
Immediately, Rovers spring into action. The superbly named Tranmere graduate Max Power, reportedly being watched by Celtic and Rangers, forces a save from stand-in ‘keeper Tremmel. It’s Tranmere’s first shot on target, and their second follows soon after, once again from the boot of Power.
Rich nobly heads off to brave the food queue before half-time, receiving wolf whistles as he goes, as Tranmere dominate the final five minutes. With Swansea dominating possession before the goal, it feels like the home side realise they can’t expect to sit back and absorb the pressure of a slick-passing Premier League side as they begin to take the game to their visitors.
The half-time whistle blows and the 10,007 fans let the refereeing team know what they think of the decision to award the goal. Rich returns with hot dogs and chips for both us, plus a cup of Bovril each to stave off the rapidly decreasing temperature. We discuss the salty merits of Bovril, which maintains the state of molten lava well into the second half, while stuffing our faces. It’s not quite up to the standard of Chester FC’s pies, but it’s pretty good for a cold January afternoon.
“Do you police games much?”, I ask him. “Sometimes Derby vs Forest”, he replies. “It’s a fun afternoon if you enjoy having coins thrown at you.”
The half-time scores are greeted with a huge cheer as we hear that Blyth Spartans are two-nil up against Birmingham. Gary Rowett’s teamtalk in Northumberland will perhaps be a little more heated than Mickey Adams’ here, and we agree that the first fifteen minutes are vital in maintaining the momentum of the second half’s closing stages while not allowing Gary Monk’s men the opportunity to kill the game.
Unfortunately for us, that’s exactly what happens. A loose pass from Jennings in the middle of the park gifts the ball to Marvin Emnes in the 49th minute. He plays the ball out wide to Barrow, who draws two defenders in before finding the on-rushing Tom Carroll from midfield. The England Under-21 international controls the ball and beats the last defender with his first touch, before squeezing the ball past Fon Williams from a tight angle inside the six-yard box. It’s 2-0, and it looks like a long way back now for Tranmere.
We notice there’s no announcement of the Swansea goalscorer over the PA system, just as there wasn’t for the opening goal. Maybe if it’s not announced then it doesn’t count? It’s worth a go.
Tranmere make a substitution in the 57th minute, confirming there are speakers in the ground but, with the microphone barely rested back on the PA announcer’s table, Swansea look to have wrapped up the game with a third. Carroll is again involved in getting the attack moving, and Swansea move the ball from left to right, where Gomis’ shot across goal is turned into the net from a couple of yards out by Barrow.
It’s a first goal in English football for the youngster, who also became the first ever Gambian to play in the Premier League in Swansea’s 2-1 win against Arsenal in November.
A young boy aged about five wanders around on the walkway in front of us. He has a small piece of cardboard that reads ‘Goal’ and he appears to be brandishing it while seeming slightly confused that nobody appears to be cheering.
“What has happened to our team?”, a friendly steward asks him. “We should get you on!”
The little lad looks up at him with an even more bemused look on his ‘TRFC’ painted face.
The home team find renewed energy once again, forcing a proper goalmouth scramble that sees them hit the post and have two close-range shots that are somehow blocked almost on the goal line in the 63rd minute. The ball doesn’t cross the line, but it’s the motivation the fans need to get behind their shell-shocked team once again.
A fortunate breakthrough follows. Tremmel lingers on the ball in the 70th minute, encouraging Max Power to charge down his attempted long clearance. The ball hits the midfielder on the back and loops into the empty net, to the delirium of Prenton Park. Power rushes to pick up the ball, fist-pumping to the crowd as he makes his way back to the centre circle.
“He’s one of our own. He’s one of our ooooowwwwwwn. Oh Max Power, he’s one of our own!” sing the home fans. It’s easy to see why he’s a fan’s favourite on this display, as his name is cheered when it’s announced over the tannoy and James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’ pierces the cold afternoon chill.
Both sides make substitutions as Tranmere look to find a way back into the match. The game begins to open up, which undoubtedly suits Swansea’s tactics to sit back and break, and Emnes shows why in the 76th minute.
Picking the ball up inside his own half, he bursts forward, driving Tranmere back in a lightning quick counter-attack, before releasing the ball to Gomis on the edge of the box. The Frenchman, who holds the record for the quickest Champions League hat trick in history (previously held by Mike Newall, who must be absolutely gutted), finds the bottom corner with three simple touches to restore the three goal lead.
Back come Tranmere, with Power’s long, lofted freekick headed across goal by centre-half Holness and onto the head of Stockton, who finishes well. It’s straight from the training ground and, somehow, Tranmere are back in it again with seven minutes to play. Memories of that famous Southampton comeback begin to fill Prenton Park. They can’t, can they?
Well, no, unfortunately not. 90 seconds later, Emnes finds Gomis, who plays the ball into the path of the fresh-legged sub Wayne Routledge. Another clinical finish makes it 5-2. Gomis would twist the blood of Holness in injury time to score a flattering sixth, as the tired Tranmere legs went for broke.
A flare goes off in the Swansea end and is quickly removed. We momentarily feel like we’re watching Galatasaray, despite it being about minus two. It’s in sharp contrast to the dregs of my Bovril, which has retained an impressive 94c, suggesting it might still be warm if I brought it back next week.
2015 won’t be another vintage cup run for the Tranmere Rovers collection, sadly. Attention will turn to pulling clear of the relegation zone and, if the home fans have their way, building a team around homegrown Max Power. For the Swans, a convincing display from a reshuffled side showed the strength in depth of their squad, and reinforced just how far they’ve come in the last decade.
“Blyth Spartans two, Birmingham three,” booms the tannoy, to an audible ‘aaaahh’ as the final scores are read out. Gateshead’s run is also over, with the Heed Army on the end of a 7-0 thrashing at The Hawthorns.
“I don’t just want to end it with ‘the home team applaud their fans’ again,” I say, as the final whistle blows, and my thoughts turn to writing this post.
“I can launch that kid onto the field if you want?”, Rich responds, gamely.
Child-tossing and more flares. It’s what Palios would have introduced more of if he’d been at the FA longer. I wonder if he’s still got Sepp Blatter’s number…
The Underdog Blog Record 2014/15
P 8 W 3 D 2 L 3 F 6 A 14 GD -7
Tranmere Rovers FC vs Swansea City FC
FA Cup Third Round
Saturday 3rd January 2015
Prenton Park, Tranmere, Merseyside
|Tranmere Rovers 2 –||6 Swansea City|
|Power (70)||Dyer (34)|
|Stockton (83)||Carroll (49)|
|Gomis (77 & 90)|
Tranmere Rovers: 1. Williams, 19. Donacien, 6. Holness, 32. Thompson (15. Kirby – 56), 5. Ihiekwe, 2. Holmes, 4. Power, 22. Jennings, 14. Laird (12. Rowe – 72), 28. Fenelon (11. Bell-Baggie – 72), 16. Stockton.
Substitutes: 3. Ridehalgh, 23. Shuker, 26. Brezovan, 33. Madjo.
Swansea City: 25. Tremmel, 29. Richards, 27. Bartley, 2. Amat, 19. Tiendalli, 56. Fulton (53. King – 71), 14. Carroll, 58. Barrow, 11. Emnes, 12. Dyer (15. Routledge – 78), 18. Gomis.
Substitutes: 1. Fabianski, 7. Britton, 23. Sigurdsson, 32. Shephard, 33. Fernández.
Referee: Paul Tierney