Tranmere Rovers 0
R Reid 29
ARGYLE left Birkenhead with a rare victory, their second away Sky Bet League 2 three points of the campaign, thanks to a magnificent double-handed team performance.
Reid leapt to head home Anthony O’Connor’s marvellously judged cross two-thirds of the way through a first half which the Pilgrims dominated.
The second half was a much more closely-fought, and ultimately fractious affair, but Argyle dug deep and hung on to what Reid had given them and emerged with only their second victory in 16 attempts on the Wirral.
It completed a marvellous week for the Pilgrims, with six points inside eight days taking them into the play-off positions, and progress made in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
Argyle manager John Sheridan had kept the same shape to his side as the one that had reached the last 16 of the JPT four days earlier, although there were four changes of personnel from the line-up that triumphed 3-2 against League 1 Swindon.
The 11 more closely resembled that which had beaten Shrewsbury 1-0 at Home Park in the preceding league game, with both Reids – Reuben and Bobby – Dominic Blizzard and O’Connor regaining their places. The quartet had been rested in midweek, along with Marvin Morgan, the only Pilgrim not to win an instant recall.
That was as at least partly down to Sheridan’s desire to keep Lewis Alessandra up front after his JPT double on a rare start in the vanguard this season. As a further consequence, Lee Cox retained his place in central midfield.
With Nathan Thomas still awaiting the green light to resume playing after his asthma attack against Swindon, and Ben Purrington injured, Kelvin Mellor started in the left wing-back role which he had adopted after Thomas’s untimely exit against the Robins. O’Connor, normally a centre-back who has been operating as a defensive midfielder since joining Argyle loan from Blackburn Rovers, was on string three of his bow, at right wing-back.
Tranmere’s starting line-up included a notable new addition, George Barker, the Swindon striker who had played against the Pilgrims four days previously when he came on as substitute at Home Park. Barker’s hounding of the switched-position Mellor played a part in the Robins’ second-half comeback, not least of all in drawing the admittedly dubious penalty decision which got Town on the scoresheet.
The Rovers’ line-up also included ex-Pilgrim George Donnelly, who has been on a seemingly relentless tour of north-western lower league and non-league clubs at Prenton Park before and since leaving Home Park three years ago.
As they had done on their previous away-day long-haul to Lancashire, Argyle dominated proceedings from the first whistle.
They had one early scare, when Carl McHugh failed to clear his lines and the ball cannoned to Kayode Odejayi, who thundered a first-time shot wide, but that was about the only time Luke McCormick’s pulse jumped above its resting rate.
Otherwise, the back four, with McHugh the central lynchpin, provided a solid base from which the midfield triumvirate of Cox, Blizzard and Bobby Reid dictated proceedings.
Alessandra had an early shot beaten out by Tranmere custodian Peter Brezovan after being threaded through by Bobby Reid, who looks a natural for the ‘hole’ role behind the front two and showed plenty of menace himself with a subsequent drive to which Brezovan was just about equal.
For the main part, though, Argyle contended themselves to retain patient possession and probe for the opening which would capitalise on their dominance.
That came after a sublime period of passing and moving which saw the ball gradually make its way from O’Connor on the right-hand side, all the way to Mellor on the left, and back again before O’Connor slipped his marker and provided the pluperfect cross for Reuben Reid to head home.
The delivery was so good, Tranmere’s defenders so dizzy, and Reid so reliable, that the goal was one of those glorious ones that you can see coming – and thoroughly enjoy – a good time before the ball actually connects with head, never mind hits the net.
As half-time approached, and the Green Army laid into Tranmere’s former Exeter City manager Rob Edwards with gusto, the Prenton Park faithful saw a spirited, but ultimately fruitless response from their team.
The closest they got to breaching an Argyle rearguard that is clearly growing in confidence and cohesion was when Odejayi got a head on Jason Koumas’s corner, but it was a weak attempt which McCormick saved easily. Anyway, the omnipresent Cox was behind him on the goal-line.
The drubbing forced Edwards to change things at half-time, and Tranmere emerged with a new shape and a new attitude designed to knock Argyle – and especially the midfield – out of their comfort zone.
It certainly made more of a game of things and McCormick was called into meaningful action for the first time when Donnelly got plenty of meat behind a header from a cross by the splendidly named Max Power.
The division’s best ’keeper then took care of another header, this time by Barker from right-back Janoi Donacien, as Argyle were being obliged to show as much mettle without the ball as they had done with it in the first half.
They survived a similar incursion on the opposite flank when Danny Holmes’ enticing low cross from the left failed to find a touch as it scudded across the Pilgrims’ six-yard box before Smaelley was sent on to replace Alessandra.
The substitute made an immediate impact, forcing Brezovan to save at his feet, with the goalkeeper doubling up to block Reuben Reid’s follow-up before Edwards went for broke with a triple substitution.
As the final whistle approached, tempers became stretched. Odejayi and Hartley were booked after a fracas, and the former should have been immediately sent off after then following through on McCormick.
An increasingly desperate Tranmere broke from an Argyle corner and twice nearly drew level, First, when one of the three late introductions, Abdulai Bell-Baggie, tried to curl a shot around McCormick, who again stood strong; then when another Donacien cross found no takers.
That was that, though, and Argyle left Prenton Park with plenty to sing about.
Mama, Wirral crazy now.
Tranmere Rovers (4-3-3): 26 Peter Brezovan; 19 Janoi Donacien, 6 Marcus Holness (capt), 5 Michael Ihiekwe, 2 Danny Holmes; 4 Max Power (14 Marc Laird 75), 23 Matt Gill (11 Abdulai Bell-Baggie 75), 8 Jason Koumas; 7 George Donnelly (10 Eliot Richards 75), 9 Kayode Odejayi, 29 George Barker. Substitutes (not used): 12 James Rowe, 15 Jake Kirby, 20 Sam Ramsbottom (gk), 28 Ben Davies.
Booked: Odejayi 77.
Argyle (3-5-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 16 Carl McHugh, 29 Peter Hartley; 28 Anthony O’Connor, 4 Lee Cox, 17 Bobby Reid, 11 Dominic Blizzard (6 Ollie Norburn 89), 2 Kelvin Mellor, 9 Reuben Reid (10 Marvin Morgan 86), 7 Lewis Alessandra (22 Deane Smalley 73). Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner (gk), 8 Jason Banton, 14 Tyler Harvey, 25 Aaron Bentley.
Booked: Hartley 77, O’Connor 88.
Referee: David Coote.
Attendance: 4,952 (501 away).