After three arduous seasons in exile, on Saturday afternoon at Wembley my hometown club Tranmere Rovers, to the immense relief of their long-suffering supporters reclaimed their place in the Football League. But of course they were never going to do it the easy way!
Rovers lost their league status in 2015 after back-to-back relegations that saw the team that once threatened to claim a place amongst the Premier League elite in the early Nineties, marooned in the National League. As one of the big fish in the fifth tier it was hoped that their stay would be brief and they would bounce back immediately, but those aspirations evaporated as Rovers struggled to adjust to non-league life.
Tranmere’s second escape attempt brought greater hope, but after finishing second in the table with a club record points haul of 95, they somehow conspired to lose the play-off final to the unfancied minnows of Forest Green. Thankfully a commitment to watching Feyenoord winning the Dutch title for the first time in eighteen years had exempted me from the misery of that final defeat.
This season Leyton Orient joined Rovers and several others, as another former League club with a proud history consigned to the National League; a factor that as a regular at Brisbane Road caused me to face perhaps the toughest football-supporting dilemma of them all when the two met clubs met back in February: (Football Nerd Weekly Ramblings- Leyton Orient v Tranmere Rovers- Desperately trying to avoid breaking football’s greatest taboo.) suffice to say I was even more desperate than most to see Rovers finally get themselves out of this division and back into the League in order to avoid a repeat next season.
Attendance at a wedding ruled out my Tranmere diehard fan of a mate, Paul, from attending the match, so it was Mrs Football Nerd and I who made our way to Wembley in nervous anticipation. Although it does have to be reported that being unsure of who to support and having actually cruelly enjoyed my suffering in February, the missus kept suggesting that it might be exciting if Tranmere remained down next season. I assured her, in no uncertain terms, that it certainly wouldn’t be!
During the course of our Tube journey from East London to Wembley, the weather had taken an unwelcome turn for the worse, so we did the only sensible thing that football fans can do in such circumstances and headed for the nearest pub. It seemed very much as if the Double 6 Sports Bar were preparing for a much larger crowd than was going to turn up, given the fact that the bouncers on the door and plentiful bar staff outnumbered the paying punters. Still not to worry, as it meant we could get served easily enough for once!
As we sipped our pre-match pints, we got talking to three of the only other customers in the place who it turned out were all based in Hertfordshire and were here to lend their support to their local side, Boreham Wood. After reminiscences of matches and players of the past we bade farewell to our new friends and headed off up Wembley Way.
As we headed out to our seats the size of the respective support of the two sides became apparent: with the Super White Army occupying most of its allocated sections and by my reckoning outnumbering their counterparts at least two or three to one. While the stadium was nowhere near even half full the atmosphere generated by those inside was both genuine and passionate and made a bigger impression than some of the sterile corporate-dominated recent higher profile finals.
Tranmere couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start when full-back Liam Ridehalgh slid through Boreham Wood’s Ricky Shakes with just 48 seconds on the clock. Often referees err on the side of lenience so early in big matches, but Neil Hair brandished a straight red. In truth there could be few complaints even amongst the Tranmere support, the emotion of the occasion clearly having got the better of Ridehalgh. You could feel the sinking realisation amongst the Rovers’ faithful; surely they couldn’t blow their big chance yet again, could they?
However cometh the hour of need cometh the team’s dynamic goal-scoring duo, just six minutes after being reduced to ten men, James Norwood broke down the left, clipped a beautiful cross over for his partner in goals Andy Cook to nod home his 28th of the season. All of a sudden, all around us there was a renewed belief.
Boreham Wood didn’t know whether to stick or twist, and for the most part played out the half in a kind of footballing limbo, allowing the ten men of Tranmere to dictate the play. Controversially though they got back on terms in the eighth minute added on before the break when Bruno Andrade rifled home a low shot, the protests about the amount of injury time allowed resulted in one of Tranmere’s coaching staff being sent to the stands.
Having used all of his subs in the first half Micky Mellon’s ten men were going to have to conjure up a monumental backs-to-the-wall performance in the second, and that is exactly what they did. They hung in there despite the obvious signs of fatigue, the manager at every opportunity imploring the Rovers’ support to get behind their team. The crowd didn’t disappoint and you could see the spirits of the players lift.
Then with less than ten minutes remaining, that man Norwood was on hand to meet Jennings’ looping cross from the right with a flicked header that trickled past the keeper and nestled inside the post. Cue pandemonium and pure unadulterated relief amongst the Super White Army, followed by joyous celebrations as the final whistle brought to an end three painful years in exile.
Back in the Double 6 after the match, we resisted the temptation to rub it in to our new friends from Hertfordshire, who had beaten us back there having presumably not wanted to stick around for the celebrations. We assured them that it might be their turn next year, but deep down the pair of us were hoping that it would be us who would be back but this time watching the O’s find their way back to the Football League.
At least for next season I can rest easy and follow both Rovers and Orient on their own merits without having to contemplate another dilemma of who to support; unless of course they draw each other in the cup… surely football-supporting sod’s law couldn’t be that cruel?