Tranmere Rovers had managed to get themselves relegated out of the Football League for the first time in their history at the end of the 2014/15 season and as a result have spent this season trying to get out of the Vanarama National League. Our Kid and I have a friend from school who is an absolute Tranmere diehard and when he suggested a trip to Eastleigh (on the way to Southampton, and no I had no idea either!) as our latest periodic Rovers awayday; I of course had no hesitation in agreeing to make the trip, seeing as Arsenal were away at Sunderland the following day; and realistically what else was I going to do on a free Saturday in April? Unfortunately neither Our Kid nor another long-time Rovers associate of ours were able to evade family-based commitments and so it was left to Paul and I to carry the football pioneering flag.
When Paul and I met up at Waterloo to get our train we both simultaneously realised that the last time we had seen each other had been on Copacabana beach during the World Cup 2014. The event had been completely unplanned on either side but we reminisced about the 2014 World Cup and just about remembered that we had watched Italy lose 1-0 to Costa Rica at the Fan Park on the beach, a game which assured England’s elimination at the Group Stage. We were both certain that the Eastleigh experience was a suitably surreal way to follow up our last meeting.
Armed with M&S’s finest French Lager, selected by Paul in preference to M&S’s finest Belgian Lager, only on the basis that the Euros this summer were in France; we proceeded to dissect what had gone wrong with Arsenal’s season; agree that we were definitely going to Russia for the next World Cup; Paul having used the excuse of his wife’s recent birthday to ‘treat’ her to an advance scouting trip to Moscow; and for Paul to give me the lowdown on what to expect from football at this level. Suffice it to say that by the time we arrived, my expectations were not high; although I was quite looking forward to seeing the ‘fattest professional footballer ever’ and a ‘right back who was incredibly athletic and committed but simply couldn’t play football’!
When we arrived, a helpful local advised us that there were a couple of pubs near the ground but we would be wise to grab a cab as it was a fair old trek. In the end we opted for the Cricketers, based purely on the assessment that the cab driver seemed to have heard of that one. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our pre-match pint was going to be in a quaint country pub; which while a lovely setting, only added to the surreal feeling of the whole trip.
When we got to the ground we were pleasantly surprised to find that not only were there stands on all four sides but also an actual bona fide away end with the option to either sit or stand; being traditionalists, we of course stood.
With Eastleigh ahead of Rovers by 3 points in the table and both teams needing a win to have any hope of making the play-offs; we were expecting a crunch game.
Once the game got underway the level of football was nowhere near as agricultural as I had been expecting, even if it was Eastleigh who did most of the playing in the first half. Although it did feel that there was a reluctance by any of the players on either side to put their foot on the ball and look up, presumably for the fear of being clattered as soon as they did.
As the game wore on, Tranmere’s striker Norwood, who had been largely ploughing a frustrating lone furrow and getting little reward from Eastleigh’s two giant centre backs, started to get himself more and more into the game. Then with just over twenty minutes to go he looked like he had got the goal that would settle the match with a stinging left foot volley that left the keeper with no chance, only for it to be ruled out by the linesman’s flag. However, just when we were giving up hope, a poor free kick was helped on into the area and Norwood was on hand to nod home and secure the three points that kept Tranmere’s faint play-off hopes alive and sent the 533 travelling supporters away happy.
On the way home I reflected on a thoroughly enjoyable football experience, a million miles away from the over-commercialised Premier League and one that reminded me very much of how football used to be. I am hoping that Rovers will be back in the League next season, but if they are still in the National League, I would have no hesitation in going and seeing them again.