Defiant Rovers secure return to the EFL with incredible show of bravery and desire
No, not the number of gruelling battles fought during the National League season and subsequent play-offs, referring instead to the number of seconds played as Liam Ridehalgh was unceremoniously dismissed from the hallowed turf of Wembley.
Unable to join the ranks of the SWA making the journey to the national stadium, I watched from a distance as Rovers' promotion ambitions appeared to begin unravelling before the game had even begun. Words cannot do justice to the conflicting emotions coursing through the veins during that opening minute.
Initially, there was disbelief, stunned into momentary silence as the mind rushed to process the events unfolding in front of the eyes. As a crestfallen Ridehalgh took the lonely walk to join Clint Hill in the Tranmere Rovers Wembley Naughty Boys Club, that disbelief morphed into a stomach-churning sense of injustice against a referee that had, after all, managed to order a retaken kick-off and brandish a red with less than a minute played. However, as the seconds elapsed and the incident was replayed, Neil Hair (the referee) was vindicated in his decision and the internal struggle between rage and sympathy for Ridehalgh took hold.
On the one hand, everyone involved with Tranmere knows that Liam Ridehalgh is a model professional, an excellent left-back and, perhaps most importantly, has suffered with the Club over the past five seasons. For him to make that tackle on this stage was completely out of character. On the other hand, he'd made that tackle on this stage in the first minute. Torn between sympathy for Liam and sheer frustration with his actions, one has to dust oneself down and hope, indeed pray, that it isn't the moment that condemns us to a fourth season outside the Football League.
As we were all trying to familiarise ourselves with the new task at hand, namely playing at least eighty-nine minutes with a man disadvantage, the emotional pendulum swung entirely in the opposite direction.
Just five minutes into the match, the ball went out of play on the left-hand side mere yards from the scene of that infuriating prior dismissal. With the ball thrown in, James Norwood's sublime movement afforded him the time to collect the ball and whip a pin-point cross into the centre of the Boreham Wood goal. Weighted to perfection, Rovers' leading scorer Andy Cook lost his marker, sprinted to the near post and slammed his head forward, sending the ball flying past the helpless Grant Smith in the Wood goal.
The ferocity of that header was duplicated in the fervent scenes of celebration both on and off the field, with Rovers' players, staff and supporters exploding with joyous relief that they now had something on which to hang their promotion hopes. As one idiot from Boreham Wood decided to throw a bottle at Josh Ginnelly during the Rovers celebrations, that excitement was quickly replaced with a practical realisation that we were still very much up against the odds.
But this is Tranmere Rovers. When things appear to have gone wrong, you are so often reminded that they can get so much worse. Four minutes after taking the lead, manager Micky Mellon made the tactical decision to replace Larnell Cole with Eddie Clarke, freeing up Jeff Hughes, who had slipped into the left-back position in the post-Ridehalgh defence, to move back into the midfield.
On the thirty-four-minute mark, Mellon took the monumental gamble of using a second first-half substitute, replacing Ginnelly with Connor Jennings, a player who less than a fortnight ago had been seriously ill in hospital. I was seething. I could not believe that, with an hour yet to play and the very real prospect of extra-time, Micky had taken the decision to make this tactical change. It appeared reckless and I don't mind admitting it felt like a potential career-changer for the Rovers manager, as how can you justify that decision if we fail to keep a clean sheet and have to play a further thirty minutes with ten men and one substitute? How could we freshen it up? Why are we risking Connor Jennings, a player who will give his all but has been extremely ill, for over an hour in those circumstances? With just one replacement remaining, if we get a further injury, we've had it.
And then it happened.
Five minutes into six minutes of first-half stoppage-time, Ritchie Sutton collapsed in agony. It was immediately obvious his match and season were over. With the introduction of Jay Harris to the right-back berth, Rovers had burned through all three substitutes before the break and the decision to replace Ginnelly, who was apparently not injured, began to feel like a massive blunder.
As if things couldn't get any worse, the deck was further stacked against the Super Whites in the ninth minute of first-half stoppage time when, for the first time in the entire game, Rovers were cut open. Bruno Andrade arrived in the centre of Tranmere's penalty area to slam the ball between the legs of Manny Monthe and past Scott Davies into the bottom left-hand corner of the Rovers goal.
Scored in front of the travelling SWA, you could visibly see the deflating effect that goal had on the long-suffering Tranmere contingent. The half-time whistle sounded just seconds afterwards, a state of shock and resigned unfairness present on the face of Micky Mellon as he held his watch aloft and pointed to his wrist in disgust at the officials.
The tension apparently spilled over into the tunnel, presumably frustration leading to Tranmere assistant-manager Mike Jackson being sent to the stands during the interval, compounding what could possibly be the most unfortunate forty-five minutes of football ever witnessed at Wembley.
The fifteen minutes of half-time seemed to evaporate as quickly as Rovers' expectations, the players re-emerging a little too quickly considering the turmoil they, and the SWA, had just endured.
Here they were, a ten-strong band of brothers thrown into the battle and flat out of options. In front of them lay the potentially gargantuan task of a further forty-five minutes, followed by a subsequent thirty-minute extra period and a possible penalty shoot-out as an added inconvenience.
They would be directed from the touchline by a man with no cards to play and whose assistant was, cruelly, given a better vantage-point of the carnage that more than a few people expected would ensue in the second-half. One injury and Rovers would be at a two-man disadvantage. One mistake and they'd be behind on the scoreboard. There would be no further injections of energy. There was no cavalry to rescue them if things were going badly. The hopes and dreams of thirteen thousand Rovers inside Wembley, and the thousands watching around the globe, lay at the feet of the half-score of men donning the famous white shirt.
Quite simply, they were bloody fantastic.
In the face of superficially bleak odds, to a man the Rovers players exuded their tenacious resolution, visiting the well of obstinacy long after most would have declared it dry.
Marshalled by the colossus named Stephen McNulty and the cult-icon that is Manny Monthe, the defence afforded the Boreham Wood forwards nothing. When a comrade made a mistake, as was always likely to happen as legs became heavy and time ticked by, a Rovers shirt pounced to clear the danger immediately.
In the middle, Jeff Hughes, Connor Jennings, Ollie Norburn and James Norwood ran themselves into the ground, calling upon reserves lesser men would have never known existed. And in attack, Andy Cook produced the perfect 'target man' display at the precise moment we needed him to, selflessly putting himself in harm's way time and time again as he gave the Rovers defence an outlet.
Tackles were won, crosses were blocked, shots were closed down and bodies sacrificed in a determined display of defiance and heart. Fifty-five minutes, sixty minutes, sixty-five minutes … as time went by, the embers of belief indicated they had not been fully extinguished by the first-half's events.
And as the embattled Rovers players continued to exhibit their desire to overcome the odds, the ranks of the Super White Army turned up the volume of their war cry. The division in the stands fed the section on the pitch, a self-fulfilling feedback loop created in an attempt to secure the season's objective regardless of the treacherous path that had unfolded.
Then, with the Rovers players visibly tiring from their exploits, the miracle occurred. Connor Jennings, scorer of a wonder-goal in last season's heartbreak, produced a wonder-assist in this. Sending the ball into the middle of the Boreham Wood box, it was Norwood's turn to make a perfectly-timed run towards the ball.
Leaping into the air, he was suspended in an anticipatory position for what seemed like an eternity before finally glancing the ball back in the direction from which he had just run. As the ball made its heart-stopping journey towards the bottom corner of the goal, Grant Smith watched in unison with the SWA behind the goal as his outstretched hand failed to prevent the ball from sneaking in at the far post.
Cue mass euphoria in the stands and dugout as the realisation of what could be once again dawned. With just ten minutes left to play, it was now unlikely we would lose in ninety minutes. But could we win? Could we, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, pull-off the least Tranmere-esque performance from what had become a seemingly most Tranmere-esque situation?
As the final whistle blew and Micky Mellon charged towards the SWA in a display of unbridled jubilation, the answer came back as a distinct 'yes'.
Yes, with over one-hundred minutes in the legs, the Rovers plays did have the energy to sprint towards the gathered masses of Super White joy assembled behind the west goal at Wembley. Yes, after twenty-seven years of being the bridesmaid, Tranmere had finally managed to wed themselves to a dream fulfilled. Yes, they had managed to escape non-League football after three arduous seasons outside the English Football League.
The achievements of these heroes should not be underestimated and must not be forgotten. In scoring the winner, James Norwood becomes the Chris Malkin of this generation, joining the iconic frontman in an exclusive club of Wembley-promotion-goal-scoring strikers.
Top-scorer Andy Cook now keeps exclusive company too, his name alongside David 'Ned' Kelly, Connor Jennings et al in the select group of players who have scored at Wembley for Tranmere Rovers.
Stephen McNulty enhanced his own personal promotion credentials, adding to his triumphs with Barrow, Fleetwood Town and Luton Town by captaining Tranmere back to the EFL. In doing so, he joins the ranks of legendary Club skippers.
Special recognition must be made of the coaching staff, led by manager Micky Mellon, whose bravery of thought and fortitude in action sent a message of defiance that resonated with everyone connected with the Club. In times of adversity, real character shines through and the example set by those in the dugout unquestionably won the game for the team. Micky Mellon took a massive risk and, having watched that gamble work in his favour, will rightly receive the plaudits he justly deserves.
Finally, the owners, Mark and Nicola Palios, whose dedication and commitment to the Club has never been questioned, can proudly survey Tranmere's new surroundings in League Two knowing their off-field transformation has eventually translated to forward momentum on-field.
The argument can be made that, in achieving promotion, Rovers have merely rectified the wrongs of three seasons ago. That they have returned from whence they came.
No, no they have not.
In defying all odds, in overcoming the big stage and in snatching victory from the jaws of potential defeat, the seemingly infinite era of persistent underachievement is finally over. Kaput. Finished. Dead. The events of the last 24 hours simply would not have happened even two years ago. These things had simply stopped happening to us.
In writing this article, my computer legitimately crashed, almost as if the words 'Tranmere Promoted' were never, ever supposed to be spoken or written ever again. After wrestling it back into action, I can assure you that they, and the story of the 'Wembley Warriors', have been firmly and permanently written into the history books.
It's official, we did it. As anyone under thirty was passed the tales of Malkin, Muir, Steel and Co. by our parents and grandparents, so too will our children and grandchildren be regaled with the legend of Cook, Norwood, Harris, McNulty, Hughes et al — the men who took Tranmere Rovers back into the Football League.
The 'Trip to the Moon 2' has officially taken off. Strap in, because the climb up the leagues can be every bit as turbulent as the descent down them.
Congratulations to the players, staff, owners and SWA of Tranmere Rovers.
We're back in the EFL. Next stop, League One.