A Cross To Bear
Rovers must endure in their quest for promotion
As referee Dean Whitestone blew the final whistle of Tranmere's Good Friday defeat to Forest Green Rovers, many in the SWA were left lamenting his unwitting compliance in hammering yet another nail into Tranmere's promotion hopes.
With Forest Green Rovers yet again assuming a Caiaphas-esque role, the Super Whites' promotion credentials were put on trial in a game that descended into little more than a kangaroo court, the Green Devils taking every conceivable liberty without fear of repercussions.
That their gamesmanship prevailed added the insult of injustice to another injury, defender Mark Ellis succumbing to what appeared to be serious damage to his leg. As he was carried down the tunnel on a stretcher, the similarities to the conclusion of the 2016-17 season became ever more pronounced.
Following In The Footsteps?
For Jay Harris, National League Player of the Month for March 2017 and substituted after twenty-six minutes due to injury, read Mark Ellis, key defender in a run of nine clean sheets in twelve and substituted after twenty-seven minutes due to injury. For Kayne Woolery, scorer of the only goal in a 0-1 Forest Green victory at Prenton Park, read Junior Mondal, scorer of the only goal in a 0-1 Forest Green victory at Prenton Park.
Even the dates have conspired to fall within eight days of each other, 19th April 2019 the apparent rerun of 11th April 2017's episode of the Tranmere vs. Forest Green Chronicles.
And so, having proven the sustainability of their renewable energy-powered winning streak against the men from Prenton Park, Mark Cooper's charges move on to prepare for a potential play-off showdown with the Super Whites, just as they did in 2017.
It is somewhat ironic that it is against the Nailsworth-based vegans where the meat appears to have fallen from the bones of Tranmere's automatic promotion challenge, the double whammy of injury and defeat a potentially critical combination for any top three aspirations.
To assume this is not to 'give up'.
Whilst it is mathematically possible to bridge the gap to third-placed Milton Keynes Dons, a team Rovers defeated a fortnight ago, everything should be done to do so. The noises coming from the players, the manager and the SWA certainly suggest that nobody at Rovers is throwing the towel in yet.
Notwithstanding, one has to be realistic and accept that these are testing times for Tranmere, who have been tasked once more with navigating the business end of the season in the face of injuries to several key performers.
As Mark Ellis lay felled on at the foot of the Kop, the scale of the injury crisis enveloping Prenton Park suddenly dawned on many of the SWA.
Just fifteen days ago, the revelation that has been David Perkins was volleying Rovers ahead against Milton Keynes Dons. Minutes later, he was ripped from the team. In the build-up to the Forest Green game, rumours circulated about the fitness of star striker James Norwood, manager Micky Mellon confirming in his post-match comments that the twenty-nine-goal man had not trained all week having been diagnosed with a groin injury.
He tried to play through the pain barrier for the cause, a commendable and most appreciated gesture, but one must be honest; it wasn't the same James Norwood that was ripping defences apart on his way to the League Two Player of the Season award.
Norwood's struggles have seen him go four games without a goal and embody the circumstances surrounding Rovers. Patched-up shadows of what they were a month ago, where Norwood scored in six of seven straight victories, Tranmere have won just one of the last four and require a two-result swing in three matches.
Cause For Optimism
Said difficulties are Rovers' cross to bear.
Still, there is ample evidence to suggest it is a burden they can withstand.
With David Perkins substituted against Milton Keynes Dons, Jay Harris entered the fray and was imperious in the centre of the pitch as Rovers recovered from an equaliser to secure a vital three points.
On one of the few League Two surfaces more unpredictable than Rovers', Tranmere battled to a creditable 0-0 draw at a Newport County side unbeaten in six and who were 3-1 victors over automatic promotion contenders Bury forty-eight hours ago.
And in the final twenty minutes of their own Good Friday reversal, Rovers recovered from multiple in-game setbacks to dominate a talented Forest Green team. Thrown in after little recent playing time, Sid Nelson and Paul Mullin in particular highlighted the spirit fostered by Micky Mellon and Mike Jackson, the former barely putting a foot wrong whilst the latter proved Tranmere's most likely goal threat.
Mellon has repeated, ad infinitum, the importance of answering the questions asked in any particular game of football. If the final three (six?) matches of the 2018-19 campaign are set to pose a question of Tranmere's character, the SWA can be confident in the knowledge they have answered similar questions multiple times in the past.
In 2016-17, Rovers reached a Wembley final in the midst of the aforementioned injury crisis, having posted a club-record 95 points in the process. In 2017-18, Tranmere twice came from behind in the play-off semi-finals before overcoming a forty-seventh-second red card and three first-half injuries to secure promotion with ten men.
Even in 2018-19, the players rallied from a mid-season slump of five successive away defeats and two wins in thirteen to record seven consecutive victories and a place in the automatic promotion race.
Yes, Tranmere are missing some quality footballers. Nevertheless, they have an abundance of quality people; players, manager, owners and fans united in their desire to return the club to League One for the first time since 2014.
Three To Go
Friday's result is history, one to chalk up to experience and move on. With three games remaining of the scheduled forty-six, Tranmere will travel to Sincil Bank to take on champions-elect Lincoln City looking to maintain their own automatic promotion dreams.
If Forest Green were Caiaphas, Lincoln City represent League Two's Pontius Pilate, governors of the fourth tier and potential judge, jury and executioner of Tranmere's lingering automatic promotion hopes.
As the invited guests for the Imps' title confirmation celebrations, surely everyone connected with Rovers is united behind an even more immediate goal of spoiling the party? They have, after all, won just one of their previous four themselves and require a three-point haul to guarantee the title with their own hands. As one of only five teams to defeat Danny Cowley's men this term, can Rovers become the first to do the double over them?
Naturally, it will be a tough ask, Lincoln losing just once and winning eleven of their twenty-one home games to date. In spite of this, draws against promotion challengers Mansfield Town and play-off contenders Exeter City, Carlisle United and Stevenage should give the Super Whites cause for optimism.
Backed by the SWA, Mellon's squad have an opportunity to perform their own automatic promotion resurrection.
They will bear their cross and endure their hardships for the greater good.
Let's make sure the only things celebrated this weekend are Easter, the weather and a Tranmere victory. Who knows how the situation could change by 5pm tomorrow?