Trapped inside the elephant

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

8 May 2004

A sodden, saturated Saturday in the land of the almost Scousers with around 2,000 (or maybe more) Mariners stuffed into every nook and cranny of the Cowshed End. Yes, you read that right, more than 2,000 - the very core of the support out in force, milling about, willing them on. A raucous rousing reception was given to every player as they strolled out to warm up. Were we all still believers, not a doubt in our minds? When we needed sunshine we got rain.

Around half an hour before the game Messrs Fenty and Furneaux uncomfortably sidled out onto the pitch and whipped the crowd up with self-conscious waving. The giant flag fumbled around the stand, ruffling many a carefully constructed fringe/combover combination, not to mention those bushy-bushy blond hairdos. Harry Haddocks, giant guppies, and a fan dressed as a fish (which is only slightly less disconcerting than a fish dressed as a fan) were dotted about the standing, cheering, shouting massed Mariners.

Town lined up in a 4-4-2 formation as follows: Fettis, Crowe, Edwards, Young, Barnard, Campbell, Lawrence, Coldicott, Jevons, Mansaram and Rankin. The substitutes were Hockless, Warhurst, Ford, Soames and Anderson. Now there's a shock: Young Young, our giant panda, had been yanked out of the bottom of a large community chest and plonked next to Edwards. Everyone else was who you'd expect and where you'd expect under present management.

Before kick-off we had some free entertainment. A local lass roughing up our ears and the pitch, apparently singing. Through the wall of sound created by the Town fans and the tinny tannoy, she sounded like a panicking parrot with piles. Poor lass - no-one was interested, apart from her mum and dad. And we had a pitch-side presenter, wishing Town luck and pronouncing Mansaram as if he had a frog in his throat. Whatever happened to Antoine-Curier? Did he get an ice pick that made his ears burn?

Hume has stupid hair, even by second division standards. An off-centre strip of bleached hair, looking like some badly applied glue on a broken marble. Or maybe the cord from his dressing gown had got stuck following a footballer's bedtime prank gone wrong.

As the kick-off approached the Town players got in the fashionable huggle and the Town fans rose as one and bayed the roof down. What more could they want from us? They asked, we gave; now give us what we ask.

First half
Town kicked off towards the home end. No, let me be more precise. Darren Barnard wellied the ball straight into the home end for a goalkick. So he fancies a contract in Division Three, does he? Achterberg kicked it back. Tranmere piddled about for a few seconds and eventually realised that Campbell and Crowe were not bothering with some little blond-haired bloke on their left wing. So they passed it to him. He took on Crowe and crossed it low into the middle of the area, and Young Levered the ball against the bar from five yards out. Just the start we demanded.

The corner was flipped in, flicked on and over the bar by Jones the steam.

Football? What's that? Town lumped it and legged it; Mansaram and Rankin barging and belting about. A corner, cleared; Stacy chasing, Stacy hoovering up Beresford, who slip-slided away into some advertising boards, head first. Was he winded, or something worse? After a minute or two of treatment off the pitch Beresford returned with cotton wool up his nose. Eurgh, a mighty wind indeed.

The Town fans remained on their feet, singing, some dancing, bouncing along, trying, trying, not yet crying. Jevons: offside. Jevons: not quite. A cross, a block. Is that Campbell? No, it's just an illusion. Jevons again, advancing down the middle, 30 yards out. A snapshot from the centre lightly smacking a defender's backside like a distracted headmaster; pinging, zinging, singing across the mud and a couple of feet past Acterberg's right post. Ooooh.

Roar, roar, roar; on and on. Darn it, the Tranmere players are trying too. Space, always space on the flanks for Hall and Beresford. "Behind you Campbell!" Too late, Beresford free, a cross from the bye-line, a swipe clear by Edwards, a lunging thwack from Young. A last-ditch clearance, the ball not falling for Tranmere. Phew. Hall free, as free as the wind blows, but Barnard's international boot sometimes arrives to clear. Fettis slipped when Edwards left a long punt over the top, forcing the mechanic into some impromptu repairs, sliding away for a corner. He headed that clear too.

Around the quarter-hour mark Town had, in the context of this game, concerted pressure and retained possession. The ball suddenly flubbered through to Rankin, 30 yards out. He shimmied, shammied and burst past Sharps. Out came a leg, down went Rankin on the edge of the penalty area, just to the right of centre. Rankin would have been free, in on goal. The referee walked slowly over and revealed... a chicken! No, not that. A yellow card. O lucky man.

Jevons and Barnard discussed the declining banana production in the Dominican Republic for a few moments, and then the feet of cod curled a right-footed shot over the wall. The ball drooped, dipped and Achterberg left Earth to pinch it over the bar.

The corner was punted into the centre and there was an almighty car crash in the area as the ball bombled and bibbled about, missing the wafting boots and bouncing heads. It was a mixed up, muddled up, shook-up world inside the penalty area. All very exciting in a chaotic sort of way. Something might happen, maybe. If we're lucky.

Yes! Now! By hook or by crook the ball rebounded into space behind the Tranmere defence, on their centre-right. Mansaram suddenly free, inside the penalty area. Inwards, onwards, the left boot drawn back and... a terrible shot sliced a couple of yards wide of the near post. Awful, awful attempt. All Grimbarian heads in hands.

Campbell headed tamely towards goal at some stage. I can't remember when it was; maybe it never was. It was Campbell, after all, and I never am sure whether I have made him up for comic effect. Is he Town's pink rabbit? Have we been victims of mass hallucination for four years? Yes, that's it: he's a secret government experiment, Operation Stuart Campbell, masterminded from Porton Down.

Hang on to your Wembley '98 hats: their full back, Taylor, is rampaging down the middle. Closer, closer still, slowly being subsumed under a monochrome blanket, as Young, Edwards, Lawrence, Crowe and finally Jevons melted the ball away. Still got your hat, have you?

After about 25 minutes Tranmere started to counterattack down the Town right. Coldicott chased after the left-back and produced a magnificent diving, rolling, scraping tackle. The ball rolled back to Crowe, who tippled it down the touchline towards Rankin, just inside the Tranmere half. Rankin rolled and wrestled with Goodison, before using his full complement of testosterone to flex himself down the line. Off he went, with Goodison dunked in boiling water.

Roberts took up the pursuit, manhandling and mauling all the way. Rankin shrugged him off and hared away into the area, defenders plunging back towards goal. Wide of goal, near the touchline with Achterberg wobbling towards him, Rankin clattered the ball through the six-yard box. The ball hit a defender's shins and bounced away from goal. Mansaram hopped on one foot, re-adjusted his weight, swivelled and swiped the ball into the left corner from a couple of yards out. Precision finishing from the boy wonder.

The Town fans? Oh, they were quite happy. It was decided that we were staying up. No, not to watch The Premiership, but in the second division. Chicken counting is our second favourite pastime.

The party started early. Tranmere were reminded that they were supposed to be at home, and offers were made to sing for them. Disappointingly, the Town fans never did decide which song they were going to sing. 'All I Want For Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit' was suggested, but the rich harmonies were too complex for the teenagers. Too many notes, my dear Barnard.

And that's it from Town as an attacking force. Forget it. Nothing. Town stopped what limited football they had been playing and resorted to blind whacks downfield. I suppose the aesthetes would overlook this if Town won. But there were still 65 minutes left. We could hope Tranmere wouldn't be bothered.

Unfortunately, they were.

Beresford pecked at Crowe, Hall nibbled at Barnard and Jones battered Young. Balls crossed; balls ricocheting around; a Lawrence block; another Lawrence block; Coldicott thrusting himself at swiping boots. The ball constantly ping-ponging around the Town penalty area. Young, bravely diving at Jones' feet to head clear from inside the six-yard box. Young again, sliding meticulously to tickle the ball away from Hume. Another shot flannelled through the area, dunked into the stands by Edwards. Edwards again charming Jones away, then heading clear. Hold your breath: Tranmere raging forward again through Taylor, who drifted a shot a foot from the angle of post and bar as Fettis bounced to his left. Another shot: high and wide. Relief.

We want half time. We need half time.

We're not getting half time. Three minutes added? Where did that come from? More crosses through the box, missing limbs. What's happening? That's it, over; half-time happiness.

So there we are. Everything in our own hands. Sitting pretty; safe. We're winning, no-one else is. We'll just go off and wax down our surfboards, we can't wait for June.

Stu's half-time toilet talk
"Are you queuing to come in or go out?"
"This time last year we'd already been relegated. Things are improving."
"Joan Sutherland is too big for our cat flap."
"Hairstyles don't grow on trees you know."
"How can we blow it now?" "Just wait a few minutes."

Second half
Tranmere replaced Beresford with Big Dadi at half time. Oh dear.

Horrible, horrible, terrible, awful. What kind of team talk had Fester the Bogeyman given? Town were incapable of passing to each other, and were static spectators as Tranmere buzzed around. They didn't need anything from the game, yet they were the ones in perpetual motion. Town were forced back, and back, and back, with Dadi causing mayhem and Hume tormenting Crowe. Corners, more corners, hysteria in the wisteria garden.

A corner from their left dropped inside the six-yard box and the ball disappeared into a great big footballing sponge cake, with Dadi the sweet cream filling. Up he leapt to do an overhead kick, down he went. Where's the ball? Don't panic, don't panic. Where is it? Gone, out, somewhere, somehow, by someone.

About 10 minutes into the half Tranmere broke up a Town attack down their right. Jevons stepped up to the full-back and watched him tap it up to a teammate on the touchline. Barnard waddled up and Jevons turned and trotted back, straight to the man with the ball. Taylor simply sprinted up in a straight line and received a little dink infield, before carrying on. Free, alone, a vast acreage to aim for; like wildebeest flowing across the savannah he was a beautiful sight for Tranmerians. He looked up and saw the unmarked Hume waving at him. He crossed. Hume, about a dozen yards out beyond the far post, rose like Poseidon and firmly headed across Fettis, the ball bouncing in off the inside of the post. Silence in the Cowshed.

A minute later, delight in the Cowshed. Mansaram received the ball with his back to goal just outside the Tranmere penalty area, shivered around Sharps and was held back. Free kick to Town. Red card for Sharps. Pandemonium. Delightful, delovely, dewonderful, thought the Town fans. It's all going our way. Nothing happened from the free kick. Hey, all we have to do is keep the ball. Right? Simple. Right?

On the hour Mansaram chased an aimless tip over the top. Achterberg lumbered out and, near the left corner of the penalty area, fly-hacked the ball against Loran. The ball ricocheted back past the keeper, skipping, sliding, sailing towards goal. The Town fans rose, then sat down again as the ball missed the post by a foot.

A corner, then another, tapped short by Barnard, mucked about, messed up, crossed badly. The ball was cleared out towards their left, with Hume running after Lawrence, who underhit a pass to Coldicott. Stacy slid and tackled Hume, forcing the ball off his shins towards Lawrence, who knocked the ball into Town's half. Hume chased. Lawrence, right on the touchline, turned and passed straight back to Hume, who had a clear route towards goal. Hume advanced, Crowe backed off, Dadi ran behind Crowe, while Barnard stopped. Hume smoothed the ball past Crowe and Dadi calmly rolled it slowly across Fettis and into the bottom left corner, via the post. If you turn to page 888 of Ceefa you can read what the Town fans were saying at that moment.

A couple of young men got ejected from the Town end, one presumably for wearing a distressing jumper.

Town shrank into a burbling, bumbling goo. Half the side fought, half the side watched like frightened rabbits. The response was to kick it forward even more quickly, even more aimlessly. Without shape, without form. We've been there before this season, haven't we. Chesterfield were winning, Luton had scored: the usual wild rumours spread, with the home supporters giving arbitrary cheers and jeers, just to fling a bit more rock ferry salt into the gaping head wound. It's so very lonely when you're 2,000 Town fans from home.

In the 66th minute Hockless replaced Mansaram with Jevons... oh, you know the bit that follows. Hockless immediately upped the pace and won a corner with some tomfool-trickery on the left. Shrug if you want to. Nothing happened from the corner.

Town. What were they? Shocking, desperate, a mess, route one dross. Hoping and wishing and praying. A Rankin flick, a Jevons nod. Nearly, almost, maybe, never. The imperious Goodison had Rankin within his sphere of influence. Try as he may, and he did - boy, did he try - Rankin was simply unable. Add any word you want, but Rankin couldn't do anything. Jevons flittered and flattered, dancing feet and no substance, his usual centre-forward performance. With some of the players the more they give, the less you get. And the same for the fans; the more we implored, exhorted, demanded, pleaded, the less Town produced. What's the use of trying? All you get is pain. Are you still a believer?

If anything, Tranmere - yes, ten-man, happy holiday Tranmere - looked the more likely to score. Town didn't have a defence, just the occasional bloke standing about at the back. Edwards and Young seemed to be permanently upfield. While the cats were away Hume was at play, shooting straight at Fettis from the edge of the area. More attacks down the wings, more crosses; Shirley Crabtree a menace, a showboating fancy flicker on a different plane to the Town team. Hume and Dadi were superior. A shot over the bar, a shot from the left, a shot from the right; let's go to Tranmere again sometime.

At some point the Tranmere fans claimed handball against Edwards when he shuffled a huge drop-kick back to Fettis. That's just being greedy, isn't it. They must have realised that we'd come to spoil our own party: they didn't have to do it for us.

Pump it up, pump it long. Hoof, hoof, hoof. Campbell fouled, Campbell jostling, Barnard rolled the free kick towards Crowe on the edge of the area. Let it go! Hockless lurked in the middle waiting, but Crowe drumbled a left-foot shot straight at Achterberg. Without power, without direction, without hope. With about 10 minutes left, suddenly hope: Hockless in space gambolling towards goal. About 25 yards out he let rip; the ball wobbled, Achterberg wibbled and spectacularly punched the ball aside, just past Edwards. Retrieved, the ball was swished back to... Young, on the wing, who sidestepped, twisted and clipped a dangerous cross into the centre. So that's the two centre-backs being the creative soul of the team eh?

As the minutes ticked by the mood sank lower and lower and lower. Even with ten men Tranmere were individually and collectively superior. They passed the ball to each other. And moved. Didn't we used to do that? Barnard smacked a shot through the area, cleared away from goal near the line. Barnard squelching a free kick from about 30 yards straight at the keeper. Hockless almost tip-toed Jevons free, but a giant Wirral boot saved their day from a pinprick of embarrassment.

With a couple of minutes left Campbell was replaced by Anderson., who immediately outfought a defender for a long ball, seared in to the penalty area and crossed into the near post. Straight in Achterberg's arms.

"Nicky, Nicky, give us a wave." Goodbye.

For the sake of completeness you may want to know that Fettis made a save at the end when some Tranmere bloke cut in from their right and shot towards his near post. They probably had some other shots too, but the concrete floor suddenly had a strange fascination.

The whistle blew and we all knew. We'd heard the news today, oh boy. And the news was rather sad. It was only the Tranmere fans who had to laugh. In typical Town fashion, hope clings like a virulent virus, striking at the very last when things just might be turning out fine, despite everything.

Strung out behind us were the banners and flags proclaiming defiance, but the Town team, like the season, lies in tatters and rags. All our pretensions laid bare: we're back in the third, we are a third division team. Once upon a time we were dragged up from the gutter through tough love, and now we're back in it like a recidivist, an alcoholic. You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

Still, we'll be back. Somewhere, someday, somehow.

Nicko's Edwards of the Match
Finally, always and forever, Mike Edwards: a foot, a head, whatever body part needed, it was there. Young Young was OK beside him, but Edwards bestrode the match, the season, this tortuous, treacherous, pregnant season.

Official warning
Mr Penton at Prenton? How fishy. Rather wobbled over Taylor's last-man scythe on Rankin, but made up for it later. Tranmere fans complained a lot, probably to keep them going over the duller summer months, but he wasn't that bad. They would probably describe him as egregious. Adequate and worthy of a seasonally adjusted 6.251.