Righting The Wrongs Of Yesteryear
Tranmere's road to promotion reaches a familiar crossroads.
On 17th October 2015, Tranmere returned home having defeated Forest Green Rovers 0-2, goals from Gary Taylor-Fletcher and James Norwood securing the win for the SWA.
This remains Rovers' sole victory against the Green Devils.
Entering Friday's game seeking to address a run of three successive defeats against Mark Cooper's men, Micky Mellon's Rovers will once again attempt to navigate a green and black roadblock in their bid for promotion.
A Rivalry Is Born
In 2015-16, the aforementioned win was supplemented with a 1-1 draw at Prenton Park as Gary Brabin's side missed the play-off positions by two points, Forest Green finishing runners-up before losing the National League play-off final 3-1 to fourth-placed Grimsby Town.
In 2016-17, Rovers travelled to then leaders Forest Green, twice coming from behind to earn a 2-2 draw before a 0-1 home reversal in April 2017 played a major role in halting Tranmere's title challenge. Neither side would win the National League title, Lincoln City claiming the spoils whilst Tranmere and Forest Green finished second and third respectively.
If Forest Green supporters felt aggrieved at losing the 2016 play-off final to a team that finished nine points behind them in the regular season, they would know exactly how many Tranmere fans felt just twelve months later. The Nailsworth-based club would achieve their goal of promotion, at Rovers' expense, following a 3-1 win in the 2017 play-off final.
For large swathes of the SWA, the journey home from that May 2017 defeat was a source of major disappointment, arguably the lowest day in many younger fans' experiences. Although the Super Whites would realise their own promotion ambitions amid jubilant scenes in 2018, there remains a sense of unfinished business with Forest Green, akin to that fans of a certain vintage maintain with clubs such as Swindon Town.
To put it simply, this game means more than a regular fixture.
With the two Rovers able to resume their rivalry in 2018-19, Tranmere would again make the trip to Forest Green on 23rd October 2018, fifteen months after their chastening Wembley meeting. Unfortunately, the result was an exact replica of the previous fixture, Forest Green earning a 3-1 win to leapfrog Tranmere into sixth place, whilst TRFC slipped to seventh.
Fast-forward to this coming Friday and both sides are once again embroiled in a promotion tussle at the business end of the season, the third time in four seasons. At this point, there should be a reluctant sense of mutual respect between the sides, having both shared similar on-field journeys before commendably adapting to a higher level of football.
This respect should be strengthened further by the presence in Tranmere's ranks of three former Forest Green players. James Norwood, the SWA's iconic goal-scoring talisman, was once Forest Green's iconic goal-scoring talisman, second only to Christian Doidge in the Green Devils' all-time scoring ranks.
At the other end of the field, defenders Mark Ellis and Manny Monthé were both successful in their efforts to help Forest Green defeat Tranmere in the 2017 play-off final. Two years removed and they now form the bedrock of a Tranmere defence that has kept nine clean sheets in the last twelve games. They will be tasked with keeping another against their former employer on the 19th April.
The role reversal doesn't end with the playing staff. Even if Tranmere are currently winless in the last five against Forest Green, it is worth remembering that all but one of the meetings between the sides came under circumstances that favoured the Nailsworth side.
In the formative meetings of the rivalry, Tranmere were acclimatising to a division that had housed Forest Green for almost two decades, the 2017 final bringing a nineteen-year tenure in the fifth tier to a close. Rovers' players arrived at the 2017 Wembley showpiece having formerly experienced the situation the previous season, whilst Tranmere's arrived under the weight of expectation, unfamiliarity and injury.
As recently as the first half of this campaign, Tranmere's players were still adjusting to the EFL, the bulk of the team having played in the National League or youth football for years prior.
This is no longer the case. The players, boosted by January arrivals with bags of EFL know-how such David Perkins, Chris Dagnall and Ishmael Miller, are comfortable in their league surroundings. In fact, more than comfortable, they are thriving.
Forest Green will arrive at Prenton Park in the crucial stages of their second-ever EFL campaign. The 2018-19 season is Tranmere's ninety-fifth.
With the strongest home record in the division, the best form in the league and the undoubted momentum built through victories against promotion contenders Exeter City, Colchester United, Carlisle United and Milton Keynes Dons, amongst others, Tranmere will play against Forest Green on their terms, possibly for the first time ever.
The Automatic Race
Yes, the game against Forest Green is massive in the context of the rivalry, however, let's not forget the automatic promotion picture.
Rovers' victory over Milton Keynes Dons, coupled with results elsewhere, saw the gap to the top three halved from four points to two. It is therefore possible, with help from other clubs' results, for Tranmere to end Good Friday in the automatic positions. What Micky Mellon's side must do is ensure that the only reason they may not is because those other teams did their jobs, as opposed to having not done their own.
Forest Green will not prove an easy task, as they have not in the previous meetings between the sides. They are currently joint-top, alongside Tranmere, of the six-game form table with 13 points from 18 available. Nonetheless, respect for their successes should not translate into fear.
Backed by the SWA, Prenton Park is a fortress and Tranmere can, and have, beaten the best the fourth tier has to offer.
So, if you can, get down and support the lads on Friday as they attempt to usher in a new dawn against the men from the New Lawn.