On We Go
The run has ended. The run-in hasn't.
Perhaps nothing highlights Tranmere Rovers' progress such as the disappointment of last night's 2-0 defeat at Oldham Athletic. Having compiled a superb sequence of seven consecutive victories, belief and confidence oozed from every available pore and crevice at Prenton Park in the build-up to the Boundary Park fixture.
The performance that followed was as unexpected as the unlikely winning streak that had preceded. With the exception of a dismissal, everything that could go wrong did. Runs went unnoticed, passes went astray and the ball evaded Scott Davies twice on its way into the Rovers goal.
Off the field, tactics and substitutions didn't appear to have the desired impact on the game, the iFollow service conspired to be even more unreliable than is usually so and Rovers missed the opportunity to leapfrog Mansfield Town into fourth place in the League Two table.
It was simply one of those nights.
However, the significance of the result — or lack thereof — is illuminated by the light of day on the morning after the event.
If one thinks back to 5th February, Tranmere had just suffered a 1-2 home defeat at the hands of Northampton Town, their third successive loss leaving them in tenth position in the League Two table. They stood eight points from the play-offs and twelve away from automatic promotion. Forget pre-season expectations — if you had offered any Rovers fan the current position a mere eight weeks ago, it's likely you'd have been relieved of a hand.
Twenty-five points from the subsequent thirty available, fifth in the table, top of the form table — it has been some upturn in fortunes for a Rovers side that won just three of their previous thirteen matches. With just six games remaining, the gap to the automatic positions is four points, whilst Tranmere have a seven-point buffer inside the play-off positions; the teams from eighth down effectively requiring a three-result swing to displace Rovers.
With games against Milton Keynes Dons (second), Forest Green Rovers (sixth), Lincoln City (first) and Bury (third) remaining, Rovers are still well placed to contest the automatic promotion race. With three of those fixtures taking place at Prenton Park, where Tranmere have the joint-best home record in League Two with thirteen wins, four draws and just three defeats, it is far too early to be giving up on a top-three finish.
Not that anyone at Tranmere should, or will, be giving up. In terms of scoring goals, Rovers have the most effective striker in League Two, twenty-nine-goal (all competitions) James Norwood eight clear of his nearest rivals in the race for the Golden Boot. With regards creativity, no player in League Two has more assists than Connor Jennings' ten, whilst at the back, Scott Davies has the greatest number of clean sheets in the league, his total of seventeen four clear of his second-placed counterparts at Milton Keynes Dons and Oldham Athletic respectively.
In addition to their own strengths, Tranmere must also be aware of their rivals' weaknesses. As Rovers were losing at Boundary Park, Bury were losing 0-3 at home to Cambridge United, their second successive defeat having won just one of their last five. Mansfield Town have also won just one of their last five, whilst no side third-tenth have won more than two of their most recent quintuplet — except Tranmere.
Tuesday's visit to Boundary Park was Rovers' first league outing at Oldham for almost six years. On that occasion, 31st August 2013, Ryan Lowe scored a ninety-fourth-minute penalty to secure a 0-1 victory for Rovers — their only win in the first ten matches of the 2013-14 season (seven defeats).
At that juncture of history, Tranmere's slow descent down the footballing pyramid was about to escalate into freefall, the 2013-14 season culminating in the first of successive relegations. The club had become a shell of its former self and the general atmosphere off the field was in the process of turning toxic.
Fast-forward to 2nd April 2019 and Tranmere were served a reminder of those times, although not in the manner one may suspect.
Relegated from League One in 2017-18 after a substantial period of coasting to survival — Oldham hadn't finished in the top half of League One since the 2008-09 campaign (eight seasons) —, there is a definite disconnect between the supporters and the Latics. They entered last night's game nineteen days removed from a disastrous short-term spell under a John Barnes-esque 'name' manager, Paul Scholes. And in the stands, just two thousand, eight hundred home supporters attended the fixture.
Everything about Oldham 2019 is eerily reminiscent of Tranmere 2009-2015; Stale, declining and simultaneously living off of, and dying under, the weight of former glories.
So yes, as Rovers left the field a defeated team, the disappointment of a lost opportunity was palpable. However, if ever a defeat could signify the progress Tranmere have made as a club in the past four seasons, it was the result on Tuesday night.
Rovers' spell in non-League has changed the mindset at Prenton Park. Five years ago, that atmosphere simply doesn't exist in that away end after that performance and that result. One suspects it would have been an equal yet opposite reaction to the unfolding on-field events.
That doesn't happen any longer due to the chastening impact of non-League reversals to the likes of Woking, Welling and Wrexham. Tranmere, and by extension the SWA, are battle-hardened and steely in their determination to right a half-decade of wrongs.
It's not just Tranmere. Four of the top seven in League Two have recent non-League experience. Lincoln City escaped alongside Forest Green Rovers in 2017, whilst Mansfield Town earned an EFL return in 2013.
This is not a new phenomenon. In 2018, Luton Town were promoted to League One just four years after their EFL return. In 2016, Oxford United were promoted to League One within six years of their EFL return, whilst Bristol Rovers secured back-to-back promotions — a feat Tranmere are seeking to emulate.
Nobody likes losing to a rival. However, some defeats are beneficial in achieving long-term goals. Rovers' defeat at Oldham could be one such result.
It gives everyone an opportunity to take a step back, assess the situation and refocus on the remaining six games of the season. The statistics show that Tranmere belong in the promotion race, with best-in-the-league individuals at either end of the pitch. Reflecting upon the overall situation at Oldham, Tranmere are reminded of previous battles faced and won. And observing the progress made by clubs such as Luton Town and Bristol Rovers reinvigorates the drive to continue the club's upwards momentum.
Everything is in place to complete the job.
So…on we go.