Floppy hair and flapping hands

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

18 January 2022

A clear, cold night with a bitter wind blowing down the Mersey. The Town players strolled out for their warm up with barely 100 spectators in the stadium, and most of them were hiding from the wind underneath the stands. The 11th to 24th Town spectators to arrive were the Junior team led by Ian Knight. They made a bee-line for the drinks machine and loaded in their pocket money. They wondered why no drinks were being dispensed, until one of them noticed that it hadn’t been turned on. The Town future is safe with minds like these. You'll be happy to hear they got their money back, after a steward rocked the machine, and then found someone with a key. No tears before bedtime here.

There was a major surprise in the Town line up, which I must confess I did not notice for 20 minutes. We were remarking upon Pouton's invisibility when we noticed it wasn't Pouton on the left, but Adam Buckley. This may give you a clue to how many times the ball went out there in the first half. Anyway, the Town team lined up in the usual 4-4-2 formation as follows: Coyne, Butterfield, Gallimore, R Smith, Groves, Coldicott, Burnett, Donovan, A Buckley, Ashcroft, Lester. The subs were Croudson, Black, Pouton, Allen, D Smith. Town played in the first kit, which is fortunate as the reserve kits would have clashed with Tranmere’s white shirts with blue shorts.

1st Half
Yet again the referee (Stephen Lodge from Barnsley) started the game before the official time, at 7.44. Town kicked off towards the (fool)hardy 100. There appeared to be barely 3,000 spectators, though we felt sure they would claim the psychologically important 5,000 mark had been breached.

The early skirmishes were not encouraging. The Town players looked lethargic and definitely not a coherent unit. There was no urgency and they were reacting to Tranmere's play, rather than imposing Town's style. Tranmere's "style" is awful. It's like watching American Football in that they have one tactic – launch it upfield to the big men. Plan A is get a throw-in, Plan B is get a free kick, and Plan C is repeat ad-nauseum. The huge number 5, Challinor, has a throw-in that can only be appreciated by being present. Absolutely anywhere in Town’s half resulted in him lumbering up and launching a throw that travelled well beyond the far post. What Town needed was a tall bloke who can head – where were you Mark Lever in the one game you were required?

After about 10 minutes of torturous trash, in which the only notable moments were two long throws (the first was headed wide by Allison, the second missed everybody), a Town supporter ran up the stairs and walked in front of me. At this moment Tranmere scored. It appeared to come down Town's left, where a full-back was left unmarked near the edge of the box and he swung over a high cross, which was nodded to Coyne's left by the unmarked Allison.

Town's response was a long ball headed on by Lester to Ashcroft, who drifted by his marker. Ashcroft was free 20 yards out, centrally placed, so he wafted the ball five yards over the bar. About eight Town fans bothered to stand up in anticipation. The other 100 knew it wasn't going anywhere near the goal. A couple of minutes later Ashcroft got his third whack from behind and, after a two-minute delay, he carried on for another minute before being replaced by Allen.

After another 10 minutes of throw-ins to Tranmere, Town got another opportunity. Yet another ball over the top of the Tranmere defence, down the left channel, found Lester rolling into the penalty area and around the defender. He got to the six-yard box, a couple of yards from the touchline, and dragged a weak shot a yard wide of the right-hand post. About 50 Town supporters were suckered into hope on this occasion.

After another five minutes of Tranmere throw-ins, during which Coyne became increasingly erratic, Town, to everyone's shock, equalised. Another ball over the top saw Lester free and bearing down on goal. Lester shot weakly against the keeper's body and the ball ricocheted back and hit Lester near his left shoulder. The ball squirmed across goal and virtually stopped seven yards out. Lester looked nonplussed by an open goal and a stationary ball. Fortunately Bradley Allen knows how to "sniff" and he wellied the ball in gleefully. The Town fans rose as one to laugh as Town had been terrible up to that point. Maybe a lucky goal would change the course of the game?

Enter Mr Danny Coyne, or should that be exit Mr Danny Coyne. Straight from the restart Tranmere whacked the ball down the Town left. One of the Town defenders needlessly kicked the ball out for a throw-in. Challinor launched a flat throw beyond the far post and Allison headed in to an open goal. Where was Coyne you ask? Strangely enough that is exactly the question the rest of the Town players were asking. As the throw-in came in you could see Coyne wandering around with the obvious intent of catching the ball, wherever it went. He didn't, obviously. The Tranmere supporters taunted him with "You'll never play for Wales" – some Town fans sotto voce muttered "he should never play for Grimsby".

The remaining 15 minutes of the half stretched to over 20 with injury time. Tranmere had a couple of long shots way off target, a low drive from Mahon, from about 25 yards, which skidded a few inches past Coyne's left-hand post, and loads of long throws. Town's efforts were a Richard Smith header that rolled just over the angle of the right-hand post and bar from a free kick on the Town left, and nothing else.

The first half had been laughable torture, with not enough team spirit or individual commitment from many Town players. Adam Buckley did not do anything (good or bad), in fact he looked overawed or frightened. Whenever he did get the ball (about three times) he passed it backwards immediately. He never once attempted to get past his full-back. He had no confidence at all and the crowd were very unhappy that he had been chosen before Pouton, D Smith and even Black. No one heckled or booed him.

The Town method of attacking Tranmere was to chip balls over the top of the defence, or on to the forwards' heads. Surprisingly big Bradley and jumping Jack didn't win many headers against defenders a foot taller. Defensively, Town were just plain stupid. Every player played without any gorm, taking the easy option of knocking balls out for throw-ins. Either Town failed to do any homework, or the players are very dim. I suspect the players are dim as Tranmere's only tactic was to launch long throws – they should have realised this by about the eigth minute at latest.

Town had been hampered by a very poor linesman. Lester and (when on) Ashcroft were constantly flagged for offside when, incredibly for them, they weren't. The linesman only put his flag up when a Town player received the ball, he was definitely ball watching and a coward. The referee also had a habit of giving offsides which aided Tranmere territorially, but not for Town. When a ball was played over the top, the linesman (invariably) flagged for offside, even when the ball had gone to a Tranmere player or their keeper, and there was no Town player within 20 yards. The result was to bring play 40 yards upfield. When that happened the other way round, the referee was content for play to continue, thus keeping play 40 yards back into the Town penalty area. That's when they bothered to give Tranmere offside, of course.

Buckley's half time tea dispensing would do the trick. Wouldn't it?

2nd Half
Neither team made any changes at half-time.

Of course what Town needed to do was to hold on to the ball, take the pace out of Tranmere's game, and above all KEEP THE BALL IN PLAY. Within two minutes Town had carelessly tapped the ball out for a Tranmere throw near the left corner flag. Coyne completely missed the ball and it bounced away past everyone. Just the thing to calm any nerves - some more flapping.

After 15 minutes of tedious hoofing and throw-ins Tranmere got a third goal. The ball was headed on after innocuous play in midfield to Allison, who came back from an offside position to stand underneath R Smith. R Smith fell over the top of Allison and the referee gave a free kick to Tranmere. The free kick was swung in low, from the Town right halfway inside the half, to somewhere near the penalty spot. R Smith lost his tussle with Jones, who glanced a header low past Coyne, from about two foot off the ground. So Town were 3-1 down from a free kick that should have been Town's, after an offside that wasn't given.

Right after this Buckley took off Burnett and A Buckley, replacing them with Black and Pouton. Black went to the left, Pouton played centrally. I don't recall the pattern of the game changing too much. Tranmere had even more throw-ins, though for variation they let someone else take them. The other player's throws were just long, that is they went to the near post only! With about 20 minutes left Town seemed to have hit upon a strategy to save the game. If they kicked enough balls out of the ground the game might be abandoned. In a five-minute period they kicked the ball over the small stand to our left four times. Unfortunately, Tranmere Rovers appear to be well-endowed in the ball department.

In the last 15 minutes Town seemed to step up a gear (i.e. into neutral from reverse). Lester, in particular, found more space and began to turn the defenders more. On a least three occasions he got free, only to mess up the opportunity when it came to pass or shoot. "Whenever two or more are gathered together Jack Lester shall dribble the ball into them."

Finally, with 10 minutes left, the ball was played over the top (by Coldicott I think), down the left channel. Lester was free, behind the defence, with only the keeper to beat. Somehow the ball was played to the right (some say Lester looked up and passed, others that it was a terribly misdirected shot, others still that the defender did it when tackling), where Allen side-footed into an empty net. Never have I seen a Town goal drenched in so much disdain and apathy. Four youngsters got up and shouted "Yes", waived their deflated Harry Haddock and sat down. Everyone else remained rooted to their seats, the merest flicker of an eyebrow the only discernible reaction. The battle-hardened regulars were not going to be fooled by a late goal, Town have done it to us so many times in the past, raising false hope.

Suddenly the Town players woke up and started to run around a bit more. I haven't mentioned Donovan yet have I. And I won't again, as he did not do anything all night. I can't remember him touching the ball. With a couple of minutes left Lester hooked a volley low to the keeper's left (when Allen was free three yards away), and R Smith launched a couple of long throws into the area. Coyne finally earned some of his wages when he dived low to his left to divert a 20-yard drive round the post for a corner.

The so-called fourth official held up the board to show one minute of added time, which was an insult – there had been three separate substitutions (counting the Town double substitution as one), and a couple of long injury delays. Nothing happened in the extra time and that was that.

A really awful game with virtually no football played. Their centre-back played like a quarterback with his incredibly flat and fast long throws. Tranmere, of course, played to this strength, and organised the ground for this purpose. Every 10 yards their was a gap in the advertising hoarding for him to get a long run up, and the ball boys carried towels for his convenience. At one stage Town's substitutes blocked the gap when he went off to do his run. Several supporters were imploring Black to trip him up (logic – Black injures him so he can't do it anymore, Black gets sent off, but as he's not on the pitch we still have 11 men, and Black won't be missed anyway). But he didn't. Now if Town were not such a sporting team, someone would have nobbled Challinor "early doors", or at least stood on his fingers after a challenge. Of course, the other way to combat this weapon is to keep the ball in play, or at least ensure that the ball goes out of play in their half. Town's football was physically and mentally lazy, and none of the players can be absolved.

It was a "turn up and see what happens" sort of performance, and typical of a midweek, away from home against non-sexy opposition fixture. For Tranmere read Southend in many previous seasons. Town have an annoying habit of playing at the same level as the opposition – if someone beats us that normally means they are rubbish. A weird kind of endorsement. With any luck Tranmere will go down this year - they would not be out of place in the second division playing so crudely.

Oh – the positives from this game – Sniffer Allen's goals and that is it.