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Tranmere meet Forest Green in the play-offs…again
Posted: 07/05/19 | Updated 08/05/19
As referee Andy Haines blew the final whistle of Tranmere's 3-1 defeat at Crawley Town, the curtain came down on the 2018-19 League Two season for twenty of the division's twenty-four clubs. Champions Lincoln City were promoted to League One alongside Bury and Milton Keynes Dons, whilst at the bottom, Notts County and Yeovil Town were relegated to the National League.
For the fifteen clubs between Colchester United in eighth and Macclesfield Town in twenty-second, a place in League Two was confirmed, leaving just four clubs unsure of their 2019-20 destiny.
Tranmere are one of those clubs, qualifying for the post-season play-offs alongside Mansfield Town, Forest Green Rovers and Newport County. With fourth playing seventh and fifth against sixth, the ties see Mansfield take on Newport in the first semi-final and Tranmere locking horns with Forest Green Rovers in the second.
The two legs will be played on Friday 10th May at Prenton Park and Monday 13th May at The New Lawn, extending the ever-developing rivalry between the two clubs by a further two matches.
There is a competitiveness between the sides that has developed rapidly, with Tranmere's first ever game against the Green Devils occurring as recently as 17th October 2015, Gary Taylor-Fletcher and James Norwood securing a 0-2 victory for Gary Brabin's side.
That first encounter was played against the backdrop of a double relegation, Rovers still acclimatising to life in non-League after a ninety-four year tenure in the Football League. Since that meeting, however, Tranmere have transformed their fortunes, missing out on the 2015-16 play-offs by just two points before reaching two successive play-off finals in 2017 and 2018, winning the latter to secure a return to the EFL after a three-year absence.
By qualifying for the play-offs in their first season back in the EFL, they have obtained their third consecutive play-off finish and are looking for back-to-back promotions for first time in the Club's one hundred and thirty-five-year history.
Rovers' noteworthy recent rise has taken them from seventeenth in the National League in the autumn of 2017, to sixth in League Two in May 2019, a jump of thirty-five places — equivalent to a third of the professional pyramid — in circa twenty months.
Whilst the SWA are fully aware of the Club's on-field progress under Micky Mellon, the developments at CH42 have not gone unnoticed throughout the wider football community.
Indeed, when asked about the play-off tie with Rovers following his own side's 0-0 home draw with Exeter City, Forest Green Manager Mark Cooper said the following:
We respect them an awful lot. We think they are a really good club. I think they have very good players…I think they've got a really good manager and we always have a really good game against them
— Mark Cooper (Forest Green Manager), fgr.co.uk, 4th May 2019
Appointed at Forest Green on 9th May 2016, just five months before Micky Mellon arrived at Tranmere (7th October 2016), Cooper has orchestrated an unnervingly similar rise in Nailsworth.
With the Green Devils losing the 2016 National League play-off final 1-3 to Grimsby Town, they would return the following year to emerge victorious, defeating Tranmere by the same scoreline to reach the EFL for the first time since their formation in 1889.
From third in the National League in May 2017, to fifth in League Two in May 2019, they have climbed twenty-two places in twenty-four months and have qualified for the play-offs in only their second ever EFL campaign.
They have improved swiftly.
Compared to 2017-18, Forest Green have surged sixteen league places, obtained 54% more wins, more than halved their losses and enhanced their points total by twenty-seven. By scoring more and conceding thirty fewer, they have also transformed their goal difference by forty-four goals.
It is a phenomenal upturn in just twelve months and to achieve this with just one season of prior EFL experience deserves a lot of credit. Although opinions about their on-field tactics are subjective, one cannot fail to respect the general direction they are taking, not least because it is a comparable path to that which Tranmere are following.
Notwithstanding their achievements, there is more than an element of friction in the relationship between the two clubs, particularly from the Tranmere perspective.
For the best part of three years, Forest Green have picked the meat from the bones of Rovers' promotion ambitions before discarding it to feast on their own vegan celebrations.
When one talks about Forest Green and Tranmere, attention immediately focuses on the 2017 National League play-off final. Decimated by injuries, Mellon's Rovers couldn't live with Cooper's on the day, leaving the SWA facing a five-hour return to The Wirral to ponder another season in the National League.
That result was particularly galling given it was a 0-1 home defeat against the same opposition that had effectively ended Tranmere's lingering title hopes just weeks earlier, ensuring a double whammy of promotion pain.
Furthermore, Tranmere's recent record against Forest Green provides evidence of a sustainable hoodoo, with the Super Whites winless in six, losing the last four consecutively by an aggregate of 8-2.
Included in this sequence are losses in both 2018-19 regular season games, a 3-1 reverse at The New Lawn preceding another 0-1 defeat at Prenton Park that, just like in 2017, dealt a huge blow to Tranmere's automatic promotion challenge.
Rovers' inability to overcome the Green Devils is surprising given their respective forty-six game records.
Forest Green ended the season fifth with a record of W20 D14 L12 F68 A47 GD+21 74PTS, whilst Tranmere finished sixth with a record of W20 D13 L13 F63 A50 GD+13 73PTS, just one point fewer.
With regards goalscoring, Forest Green's top scorer was Christian Doidge (14 goals), supported by Reece Brown (11 goals) and Reuben Reid (7 goals) in all competitions. By Comparison, Tranmere had James Norwood (31 goals), Connor Jennings (12 goals) and Paul Mullin (6 goals).
At the back, the Green Devils kept 12 clean sheets, representing 26% of all matches, whilst Scott Davies kept 19 clean sheets for Tranmere, 41% of all matches.
On home soil, the Nailsworth-based club had a mixed return, sixteenth in the home table with a record that read W8 D9 L6 F28 A20 30PTS, whereas Tranmere made Prenton Park a fortress, a record of W14 D5 L4 F33 A13 47PTS placing them sixth on the home table, Bury and Newport the only sides to earn more points with home advantage (48).
Forest Green reached the play-offs largely due to their outstanding away results, second in the division on their travels with a record of W12 D5 L6 F40 A27 41PTS. A clear area of weakness for two-thirds of the season, Tranmere recovered lately to finish with a record that reads W6 D8 L9 F30 A37 26PTS, leaving them in thirteenth place in the away table.
When referring to form, Forest Green ended the regular season in third place in both the ten- and six-game form tables, their most recent sextuplet yielding four wins, one draw and one defeat. By contrast, Tranmere's final six matches earned them just six points after one win, three draws and two defeats left them in seventeenth place in the most recent form table.
However, such performance should be prefaced with a note of caution indicating the difficulty of Tranmere's run-in, taking something out of each respective game against promoted Lincoln City (0-0), Bury (1-1) and Milton Keynes Dons (2-1), alongside a creditable point at play-off semi-finalists Newport County (0-0).
When the form table is extended to ten games, the Super Whites rise to sixth, further highlighting the tricky nature of their final month.
As one would expect when comparing clubs who finished one point and one place apart, there is little to separate them. Therefore, despite recent evidence to the contrary, Tranmere can beat Forest Green.
Keys To Victory
For Tranmere to win, they must take advantage of the home leg coming first. Tranmere's strength is home form, with 64% of their total points accrued at Prenton Park. With just four home defeats, Rovers have a real opportunity to wrestle the ascendancy going into the second leg.
To advance through the tie, the men at either end of the pitch will prove key. In defence, League Two Golden Gloves winner Scott Davies, in conjunction with a defence beset with injuries, can help the cause with a clean sheet, a feat Tranmere have not achieved against Forest Green since the very first meeting between the clubs in 2015.
In attack, League Two Golden Boot winner James Norwood, aided by the likes of Connor Jennings, Ollie Banks, Kieron Morris et al, will be tasked with scoring more than one goal. In five of seven meetings, Tranmere have scored one or no goals and they've lost four of them, whereas on the two occasions that Rovers have scored twice, they've won once and drawn the other.
Finally, the return of David Perkins adds an extra level of energy, dynamism and most importantly, quality, to the Tranmere midfield, the diminutive enforcer missing the 0-1 defeat against Forest Green through an injury carried over from the Milton Keynes Dons victory in which he scored.
For Forest Green, the venue of the first game is also of paramount importance, given their comparatively weaker home form. At Prenton Park, an arena where they have already tasted success this season, the Green Devils will also have an opportunity to assert themselves on the second leg.
As previously explored, they will arrive at the home of the Super Whites in excellent away form, winning four of their five most recent matches on the road. This should give them confidence that they can achieve a positive result again.
Finally, the return of top scorer Christian Doidge from Bolton Wanderers has the potential to be a promotion-winning happening. The striker signed for Bolton on loan on 31st August 2018, with a permanent move agreed for an undisclosed fee, rumoured to be a seven-figure sum.
On 6th January 2019, he returned to Forest Green after Dale Vince revealed Doidge hadn't been paid by Bolton in four months:
From Monday morning, Christian Doidge is back with FGR. We've taken the decision to recall him after his loan agreement expired last week amid continual contractual breaches by Bolton Wanderers.
It became clear to us that Bolton entered into a contract to loan and then buy Christian last August without the means to honour it, and perhaps the intention to do so as well. They haven't even paid his wages for the last four months (we have).”
— Dale Vince (Forest Green Owner), fgr.co.uk, 6th January 2019
Scorer of the second goal in Tranmere's 1-3 defeat at Wembley in 2017, in nineteen appearances since his return, he has scored ten goals for the Green Devils, including five goals in his last five games. In fact, of the five games, he only failed to score against Tranmere, and he may need to rectify that over the two legs if Forest Green are to reach the play-off final.
Settling The Score
There is no doubt that both clubs have performed incredibly well to secure a play-off berth in League Two this season. Both clubs are just three matches from League One, Tranmere for the first time in six seasons and Forest Green for the first time in their history.
For the SWA, the 2018-19 play-off campaign provides the opportunity to finally lay to rest the ghosts of a double relegation, returning to where most neutral observers would suggest is their natural level. Notwithstanding, it is hard to compare this play-off run to that of 2018, as the price of failure is simply not as horrific as it was twelve months ago.
In 2019, there is perhaps less expectation on the Club to achieve promotion and this should translate into a greater sense of enjoyment. Yes, Tranmere will want to win, as who knows when the next opportunity to scale a rung of the football ladder will present itself?
However, the Super Whites have far exceeded pre-season expectations by finishing in the top seven in their first year back. Irrespective of the eventual result of the semi-finals, and any potential final, Tranmere have had a brilliant 2018-19 campaign. With a squad comprised of several non-League stalwarts, extending their season beyond the forty-six-game mark at the first attempt has to be seen as a welcome bonus to an already commendable season.
Nonetheless, now that Rovers are in it, they have to try to win it.
With Friday's game seemingly suiting both teams' respective strengths, there is an argument to be made that the winner of first leg goes to Wembley. Taking that into consideration, Tranmere need the SWA to pack Prenton Park and make the atmosphere as supportive of the Super Whites as possible. Simultaneously, the crowd can create a hostile environment for the Forest Green players, a point Mark Cooper repeated in the aforementioned post-Exeter press briefing.
As Familiar faces meet once again plotting a route to Wembley, Tranmere definitely owe Forest Green.
Time to settle the score.
For more background on the Tranmere Rovers vs. Forest Green Rovers rivalry, please consult our previous pieces. Links have been provided below. Thank You.