Free Book Extract: When Tranmere beat Newport at Wembley
When Tranmere Rovers beat Newport County at Wembley in the 2019 League Two playoff final, I wasn't blogging much. A period of mental ill health stunted my creativity, and Planet Prentonia, the definitive Tranmere blog, lay dormant.
However, I did write about that amazing afternoon where Rovers hauled themselves back into the third division. My heartfelt match report forms chapter thirty-six of Planet Prentonia: The Real Story of Tranmere Rovers, available now in paperback and ebook formats through Amazon.
In a week where off-field machinations overshadowed this fine sport, I'm happy to present the chapter to you, free of charge, in a celebration of lower league football and the emotion it can inspire. Without further ado, I present an exclusive extract from my book. Enjoy the memories everyone.
Tales from a second Wembley triumph in as many seasons.
Ninety seconds separated Tranmere Rovers and Newport County from a penalty shootout to determine the final occupant of League One for the 2019-20 season.
Adam Buxton, an overweight right-back who mastered the art of penalty-taking, was introduced as a 115th minute substitute for Rovers, a rotund symbol of surrender. The boys from Birkenhead would settle for the spot-kick lottery. They would have taken that back in August.
Then Buxton received the ball and trundled down the sideline. Then he faked to cross before slithering past a naïve Newport left-back, encroaching on the penalty area. A murmur of dull hope emanated from the Wembley stands, where Tranmere’s army of 13,000 fans lay weary in the sun, resigned to a nil-nil impasse.
Engineering a sphere of space, Buxton jinked back and offloaded the ball to Ben Pringle, who quickened the play with an instinctive pass to Jake Caprice, who exploded into the space that Buxton created.
The clock continued to tick. Eighty-nine seconds. Eighty-eight. Caprice whipped a devilish cross into the box, better than any he had conjured in a season of faulty byline escapades. It beat the first defender, then the second, third and fourth. It found Connor Jennings in a crescent of opportunity, unmarked and contemplating destiny.
Jennings simply redirected the ball, cushioned it with his head, allowing the wicked pace imparted by Caprice to steer it goalwards, down beneath a sea of suddenly bug-eyed dreamers. Joe Day, the Newport goalkeeper, was a victim of cruel physics, a hurried balance carrying him away from the ball, which tumbled slowly towards the far corner. Over the line, into the net.
When the gyrating mass of utopia settled down, play resumed with scarcely any time remaining. Encouraged by the formless, cacophonous yelp of thousands, Tranmere defended stoutly and killed any designs of a Newport comeback at their embryonic source. Referee Ross Joyce added a few minutes to compensate for the cathartic celebrations of Jennings’ goal, but eventually blew his whistle after almost 140 minutes of attrition. Just like that, Tranmere Rovers secured their second successive promotion after so many years in the wilderness. It was time to party once again.
A football team has played at the corner of Borough Road and Prenton Road West on the Wirral peninsula for 135 years. Until this season, this day, and this header, it had never achieved back-to-back promotions of any kind. Twenty-eight years had elapsed since it last even progressed from one Football League division to another, moving up through the pyramid rather than sliding down it. They were finally back in the third tier of English football after five years languishing at lower levels. Respect was restored, history was made, and we will never forget the feeling.
Micky Mellon duly became the first Tranmere manager since Johnny King to win more than one promotion at the helm. Indeed, only King and Mellon have ever achieved that feat. The last time Rovers earned a Football League promotion, they also triumphed in extra-time of a Wembley playoff final, Chris Malkin’s lone strike defeating Bolton in 1990. Connor Jennings waited twenty minutes longer than Malkin to deliver his headed death knell, but the symmetry was startling. Tranmere Rovers are on the cusp of another dynasty.
This was the third year in a row that Mellon’s men ventured to the national stadium. That had never happened before, either. The first time, we were giddy, losing to Forest Green. The second time, we were desperate, somehow managing to beat Boreham Wood. This time, we were calm and hopeful. Clinical, even. Been there, done that. Let’s keep moving.
Authored in the ruins of non-league confusion, fashioned with meagre resources, the Rovers renaissance has been metronomic. For people like me who grew up after the Aldridge ascension, such overt encounters with glory are a little peculiar. This isn’t the Tranmere we knew as kids. This is a machine heading for the top.
What Mellon has managed to achieve with this squad is nothing short of miraculous. In all honesty, this incarnation of Tranmere was average for vast portions of the season, spluttering its way through mundane matches with frustrating unpredictability. They always tried to play football the correct way, passing out from the back and building intricate combinations, but Rovers never really set the world alight.
Early in the season, we missed Andy Cook and Jeff Hughes, who departed for pastures new. It looked like they had not been adequately replaced, and I even considered our National League heroes to be a squad of greater quality than its Football League successor.
One man changed that, conjuring through sheer weight of productivity extraordinary results from his ordinary team. That man was James Norwood, who cemented his standing as the most important player in the club’s history.
Norwood scored 32 goals in 53 games this season, including 29 in the league, the most by a Tranmere player since John Clayton in 1984-85. Nobody in professional English football scored more this season, but aside from the goals, James’ sheer brilliance made him look out of place in the fourth division. He ran further than anybody else. Nobody sprinted faster, dribbled sharper or salvaged more lost causes. If he were five years younger, such feats of individual domination would pique the interest of Premier League clubs. It was a pleasure to watch him play.
Without Norwood, Tranmere would still be a non-league club. His impact is that profound. In four seasons, he scored 93 goals for Rovers. Only seven men have ever scored more, and only six have reached the century landmark.
It’s difficult to countenance claims that Tranmere are a one-man team, but Norwood is supported by a secondary cast of consummate professionals who have helped him make history. Jennings also contributed 13 goals from midfield in another stellar campaign, combining with Norwood to account for 66% of Rovers’ output.
At the other end, Tranmere tightened their defence and mastered the art of grinding out results. Scott Davies grew into his role as on-field captain, winning the golden glove award for most clean sheets in League Two. Mark Ellis had a transformative impact, usurping Steve McNulty at centre-half with phenomenal leadership. Manny Monthe flourished into a superstar beside him, while Sid Nelson impressed with fearless determination after arriving on loan from Millwall.
Much derided, Caprice became one of Rovers’ most influential attacking options, a constant outlet overlapping from full-back. The guy is a Poundland Cafu, using almost any occasion to throw a step-over, but we love him. I even kissed him on the head amid the playoff semi-final pitch invasion. What more can you want?
Tranmere’s season was truly reshaped by the arrival of two left-footed maestros in January. David Perkins brought a wealth of wisdom to the midfield, teaming with Jay Harris in a feisty engine room, while Pringle added a splash of flair on the flank. Both have significant experience playing at much higher levels, and they added a winning acumen to the existing group. They kept Tranmere ticking towards glory.
As ever, the battle for automatic promotion from League Two was a messy free-for-all akin to the Grand National. Rovers teased and tantalised, raising our hopes then deflating them in equal measure, before eventually settling for a playoff berth. Before the season began, we would have accepted such an achievement. At various times throughout the campaign, eyeing Mellon’s threadbare toolbox, we would have accepted maybe even a little less than that. To compete in the playoffs for a third successive season was redolent of King’s empire. Tranmere faced Forest Green in the semi-final, earning a shot at revenge, as the fanbase was mobilised again in pursuit of triumph.
Ollie Banks loves the cameras, and he saved his best games of the season for the Sky Sports audience. Our languid midfield enigma thumped a thirty-yard thunderbolt in the first leg at Prenton Park, with goal-line technology confirming its validity. Despite playing against ten men for over an hour, Tranmere couldn’t add to their slender advantage, carrying it to Nailsworth for a nervy showdown.
When Joseph Mills scored after just twelve minutes at the New Lawn in the second leg, erasing our lead, that old familiar dread swept over the away following. It was happening again. Yet as he always seems to do, Norwood popped up when we needed him most, thundering a sumptuous volley beyond the Forest Green goalkeeper before shushing the fans of his former club in another iconic motif of the Rovers revival.
In the end, we were left surprised at how easy it all was. We were shocked by the total absence of anxiety, drama or capitulation. The hosts had another man sent off with just over twenty minutes remaining, by which point Tranmere played with a knowing belief of champions. The sands of time ebbed away, blissfully for us, agonisingly for them, a sweet reverse of Wembley '17. At full-time, Rovers fans flooded across the Forest Green pitch, diamonds in the mud, the heartbroken suddenly victorious. How do you like us now?
And so we travelled to Wembley for the fourth time this millennium. Prenton Park South, if you will. From the very outset, there was an understated assuredness to our perpetrations as players, fans and officials. This was a business trip, not a holiday. We knew what we had to do, treading familiar paths along the way, and we went about our task with composed dignity.
Newport were worthy opponents on the day. Mutual respect pervaded, as finally another team matched our following at Wembley. A brutal contest was watched by 25,217 in the baking heat. Chances were few and far between as a pensive worry blanketed the stadium. Norwood went close with a volley and Davies produced a wonderful save at the other end to maintain parity. Something had to give, and a breakthrough arrived in the 89th minute, when Newport captain Mark O’Brien was sent off for a second bookable offence. A glimmer of opportunity opened for Tranmere. They eventually found a way to grasp it.
The way that Newport defended with ten men reminded me of Rovers in the National League playoff final last year. They were resolute, determined and obstinate. Tranmere struggled to break them down, seeing any momentum scuppered and a penalty shootout grow in likelihood. Through five hours of play against Newport this season, spread out over three matches, Rovers failed to score. Then Caprice curled an immortal cross into the penalty area and Jennings did the rest.
Just three years ago, Tranmere lost at home to the amateur minnows of Welling United, all but ending their hopes of securing a playoff place in their maiden National League season. After winning two promotions in a row, Rovers will next season visit Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, which is bigger than ten of the grounds featured in that non-league campaign combined. Such is the scale of Tranmere’s resurgence. Such is the magnificence of their achievement.
Did somebody say three in a row? You wouldn’t put it past them.
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