Well, after a tremendously exciting week for U’s fans everywhere, what better way to calm things down than remembering the daily grind of league football.
Tranmere Rovers v Colchester United
Saturday 12th January 2002
Nationwide League Division 2 (Tier 3)
Match #23 of the series, and we have a visit to Prenton Park to watch the U’s play John McGreal’s former club Tranmere Rovers. This has been a fairly frequent destination for me over the years, with very good friends (Ange and Chris) and their family living in the north west, and Chris a Tranmere supporter as well. With the U’s previous visit to Prenton Park almost exactly 13 years earlier (before we had met), this was the first opportunity for us to attend a match between our two sides, so I travelled up on the train Friday evening to be collected by Chris at Manchester Piccadilly, for a relaxing evening of beer and good company. Saturday morning, we all drove out to Prenton Park, picking up a couple more of his mates on the way, and arrived in good time for a few pints at the Mersey Clipper before kick-off. Another great pub by the way!
Under Steve Whitton, we were settling into an indifferent season in the league. We’d started well, in and around the play-offs for most of August and September (even top after the first match beating Chesterfield 6-3) – we’d even beaten Tranmere 2-1 in the corresponding home fixture. However, by the start of 2002 we’d slipped back to mid-table, and needed to raise our game if we wanted to again challenge the play-off spots. Tranmere had been relegated from Nationwide League Division 1 the previous season, along with Huddersfield and QPR, and most expected them to be one of the stronger sides this season. However, they too were struggling to adjust, and were only 1 point better off than the U’s going into the match. They did have the slight distraction of an ongoing FA cup run as well, and after despatching Southend United 3-1 at Roots Hall just five days earlier, had been drawn at home to fellow Division 2 side Cardiff City in the 4th round later in January.
The U’s lined up:
3….Joe Keith (Dean Morgan 78’)
17..Bobby Bowry (Thomas Pinault 45’)
There were a few names in the Tranmere line-up that resonated, not least Achterberg in goal, Mickey Mellon, Welsh international Jason Koumas and journeyman striker Wayne Allison. The one name missing from the teamsheet that day was long-throw specialist Dave Challinor. He is listed in the programme as no. 5 in the squad, but either had already or was just about to sign for Stockport County. Curiously, considering most teams seem to rely on a long-throw specialist these days (take a bow Jacko), I recall back then he was considered something of a freak by supporters of other clubs, his ability almost akin to cheating by some.
Me, Ange and Chris had considered seating arrangements already, and decided for this one we’d part ways to our respective ends, to meet up again at full-time. In matches to come, more often than not we all would sit in the away end, always tricky for Chris particularly when Tranmere scored.
As goal-less matches go, overall it actually wasn’t too bad a game. The first half was fairly pedestrian, not necessarily poor, just solid and unimaginative from two teams that rather cancelled each other out. In the circumstances, at half-time I was probably the happier of our party, a point at a recently relegated Division 1 side certainly not to be sniffed at, if we could hold on. At half-time, Whitton decided to bring on the attacking flair of Pinault for the more defensively-minded Bowry.
In the 52nd minute the game really did come to life, as Joe Keith raced clean through on goal, only to be scythed down by Graham Allen. I’ve found a very grainy photo of the aftermath, the look on Allen’s face clearly showing he knew what was coming – and sure enough, a straight red card was shown by referee Mike Pike.
However, despite the numerical advantage, we simply couldn’t break through a resolute Tranmere defence. With just over 10 minutes to go, Dean Morgan came on as a last-ditch attempt to get something from the game, and he forced not one but two brilliant saves from Achterberg in those final few minutes, but then again Brown also kept us in it, doing well to keep a Jason Price effort out after a wicked deflection off Fitzgerald. Right at the death in injury-time Tranmere really should have won it. Firstly, as our defence went missing, Koumas latched on to an excellent pass from Price, but fired straight at Simon Brown, and then secondly a Clint Hill header was cleared off the line.
In that context, even though playing against ten men, those late close calls gave the 0-0 result a bit more of a positive blessed relief feel to it, and I was quite happy with the point. We all collectively agreed post-match that it was just about the right result too, so it wasn’t just me.
Tranmere Rovers 0 Colchester United 0
The pack chasing the play-offs at the time was incredibly close, with just one point separating Oldham in 7th and the U’s in 12th, so despite only gaining one point, we actually jumped two places to 10th after this result. Though we weren’t to know it at the time, that was as high as we managed from then to the end of the season, eventually finishing in 15th place. As a fair reflection on the match outcome, Tranmere also finished mid-table, in 12th place.
Tranmere easily brushed Cardiff aside in the FA Cup 4th round, winning 3-1, to earn a plum home tie against Tottenham Hotspur in the 5th round, which they lost 4-0
How embarrassing for them, couldn’t even beat Spurs…