Fleet’s first trip to Prenton Park ended in disappointment as a powerful Tranmere Rovers wrapped up all three points and never looked like relinquishing them once they’d got their noses in front. It puts Tranmere well and truly into the title race but Fleet must take stock as February began where January left off and the visitors recorded their fourth blank in succession.
There were two changes for the Fleet, with Andy Drury and Jack Powell making do with a place on the bench, earning recalls for Dean Rance and Myles Weston. An injury to Sean Shields ruled him out entirely.
With Tranmere looking for their eighth straight win at Prenton Park, Fleet were seeking to frustrate the home side in the first exchanges. The visitors looked assured enough before Tranmere could really get into gear and Jack Payne found some space to get the first shot on goal but the home side had men back and goalkeeper Rhys Taylor wasn’t tested.
Chris Bush and Dean Rance were robust in defence and midfield and it led to a few exchanges between the two sides. Jay Harris went to ground twice complaining of harsh treatment and Myles Weston was first into the referee’s book on 13 minutes after another minor set-to in midfield.
Rovers’ movement was good but they didn’t really threaten until they found the opening goal on 17 minutes. A ball from midfield found Andy Cook and he struck from 20 yards before Dave Winfield and Sam Magri could close him down, the ball billowing the net to Nathan Ashmore’s left.
Fleet tried to claw their way back into the game and Dave Winfield’s header was cleared out of the six-yard box while Danny Kedwell attempted to get on the end of a Chris Bush delivery but was shepherded wide by Ritchie Sutton. James Norwood went into the referee’s notebook on 20 minutes as relations between the two teams remained somewhat testy.
After that, however, Tranmere began to stamp their authority on the game and Ashmore prevented a certain goal when he pushed James Norwood’s shot aside after Rovers’ speed in attack outfoxed the Fleet defence. Jay Harris then saw his effort from the resulting corner hacked off the line by Rance, who also caught his goalkeeper on the head with a boot. Despite a head bandage being applied, Ashmore bounced back to make another important stop moments later as Cook and Norwood, with Harris and Josh Ginnelly in support, continued to enjoy a little too much freedom in the final third to test the goalkeeper.
Weston might have done better on the half-hour mark when a return pass from Kedwell saw him fire over and six minutes later, after Steve McNulty had got in the way of a Kedwell effort, Winfield met a corner that Rhys Taylor had to hold on his line. But no sooner had Fleet seen that attack break down than Tranmere grabbed a second. From a ball upfield, Norwood gathered in plenty of space, dug the ball away from Winfield and before he was closed down, he fired past Ashmore from a similar distance as Cook’s opener and the home side were in an unassailable 2-0 lead.
Tranmere were hungry for a third and Cook saw a shot deflected behind for another corner before Fleet had a short-lived spell before half-time, Weston drawing a save from Taylor and Kedwell’s well-struck shot hitting the side netting.
Tranmere should have been 3-0 up straight after half-time when Norwood latched on to a pass and raced through a gap to go one-on-one with Ashmore but his shot lacked real intent and the Fleet keeper stopped it with his legs. That was the only real noteworthy moment in a lifeless first 25 minutes of the second half. Weston struck a shot over on 53 minutes and Rance was yellow-carded as his spat with Connor Jennings continued to rumble on.
Bradley Bubb was introduced for Luke Coulson on the hour mark and on 64 minutes a Winfield effort again struck the side netting. And, like the second goal, just as Fleet were on the attack, Tranmere pounced at the other end. The home side attacked at pace from a goal kick and Cook nodded a ball on to Norwood who, having failed with his first showdown against Ashmore, made no mistake at the second time of asking and directed a shot out of the goalkeeper’s reach for 3-0.
Fleet enjoyed a few instances of possession but it wasn’t nearly enough to unlock the Tranmere back line and the game was done as a spectacle for the 140+ Fleet fans. Tranmere welcomed back long-term injury victim Ben Tollitt to wide applause on 74 minutes in a double substitution and they probed for a fourth goal in the final quarter of an hour while enjoying the surety of three points.
More fine build-up play allowed Cook sight of goal and his shot was again well saved by Ashmore, who could only watch two minutes later as Jennings’ dipping strike from 35 yards whistled over the bar. For the visiting fans, there was little to excite but Kedwell’s free-kick took a deflection for a corner and then the same player fed a cross along the Tranmere box for Bubb who was agonisingly close but not close enough to the pass.
Tollitt could have sent the home fans into a frenzy as he waltzed through two challenges three minutes from time but sent a shot up and around the upright and the substitute then supplied fellow bench-warmer Jeff Hughes for what seemed a certain fourth goal but Ashmore again came to the rescue, pulling out another worthy save. Fleet face the long journey home knowing they came up against a team with real title credentials but equally certain that fortunes will need to be improved with some potentially winnable games ahead.
EUFC: Ashmore, McCoy, Magri, Bush, Winfield, Rance, Payne, Wilson, Weston, Coulson (Bubb 60), Kedwell. Subs not used: Drury, Powell, Connors, Jordan
TRFC: Taylor, Clarke, Ridehalgh, Sutton, McNulty, Harris, Cook, Norwood (Mangan 85), Jennings, Norburn (Tollitt 74), Ginnelly (Hughes 74). Subs: Pilling, Gumbs