Tranmere Rovers vs Bradford City preview
@Prenton Park on Saturday 3 May, 2014
By Jason McKeown
I’m really looking forward to this one, and for that I feel I should almost be apologetic.
What is a largely meaningless game for Bradford City could not be more vital for Tranmere Rovers, who are teetering on the brink of relegation. The anxiety, the fear, the misery – we have a box office seat to the range of emotions that Tranmere will be going through. Around 2,000 of us are set to pack out the Cowshed stand, and many of us are openly relishing the close-up viewing of the home side’s torture and anguish, in an almost perverse manner. People who slow down for car crashes and all that.
All I will say is that – ignoring, for a moment, being a Bradford City supporter and our own end of season experiences – I am a big football enthusiast. I love this time of year, where you get to observe other teams concluding their promotion or relegation battles. The agony and the ecstasy. Normally, you only get to see these highly charged, emotional moments on TV. This weekend, I will be watching a high pressure match live without the added burden, or joy, of my own feelings being heavily invested in the outcome.
I have no malice towards Tranmere whatsoever, but I am desperate to see my football team end the season on a high with a final day victory. But whatever happens, we are the sideshow to a huge day in the history of our hosts. I’m sorry, Rovers, but I’m going to enjoy watching you squirm.
After losing 2-0 at Leyton Orient last weekend, Tranmere fell into the bottom four at the worst possible time. A defeat to the Bantams on Saturday, and they will be relegated and have to play in the bottom tier for the first time since 1989. A draw would be enough to keep them up should Crewe – one point ahead but with a worse goal difference – lose at home to third-placed Preston. A win would secure League One football should Crewe fail to win or Notts County lose at Oldham.
If you were in Tranmere’s shoes of needing to win on the final day of the season, a home game against Bradford City would feature reasonably high up your preferred list of opponents. At this late stage, you always want to be playing sides with nothing to play for, rather than those with an equally big incentive to win. In theory Tranmere should be able to bring greater intensity and determination onto the field, which will count for a lot. We’d like to win, they are fighting for their lives.
Rovers caretaker manager John McMahon has viewed the fact that matters are out of their hands as the “worst case scenario” but at least they know what they have to do. “We’re at home and I’m calling on the spectators to come down in numbers and really get behind the players – they will give it everything they’ve got,” he said after the Leyton Orient loss. “We’ve got to be disciplined. We can’t just play six or seven up front. We need to play with our heads as well as our hearts.”
If McMahon could have had one further wish in terms of their opponents, it would surely be that Phil Parkinson would have revealed his retained list prior to the game. A final decision on who can stay and who will go would have a huge impact on the team’s morale, with those who are to be shown the door probably not in the right frame of mind to play and those who are to stay perhaps relaxing. Quite sensibly, Parkinson has made sure that’s not the case. Whilst final decisions have probably been made on every single out-of-contract player, the lack of disclosure means that everyone affected still needs to do what they can to impress, just in case.
Jon McLaughlin is one such example. The statistics show that this has been his best season at Valley Parade, and that has coincided with a step up the divisions. Up until last August, doubts have persisted over whether the Scot could sustain his form over the course of the season – he most certainly has.
I am sat right on the fence when it comes to McLaughlin. He has done little wrong this season, and yet there is a nagging feeling we might need a better keeper to push higher up the league. He lets no one down, but lacks the star quality that sees him earn the club points on his own. Still, this is now six years we have invested into McLaughlin, and I’m not sure if we should throw that away.
There are also question marks against three of the four back four positions, with only Andrew Davies in Saturday’s likely defensive line up contracted to play for City in 2014/15. Stephen Darby will be here next season if he wants to be – although rumours of Championship interest suggest he might have his sights set on a move. Rory McArdle has not enjoyed a perfect campaign but is ending it very strongly. Keep Davies fit for a season – a big if, admittedly – and we can have another brilliant year out of McArdle. It would be a major shock if he was on the released list. James Meredith will probably come in for Adam Drury, as he bids for an unlikely place in Australia’s World Cup squad. Drury has been an excellent addition.
In midfield, Garry Thompson’s match-winning cameo from the bench last week could be rewarded with a start before he is surely released, although the opinion-splitting Kyle Bennett (I personally like him) could come back into the side. Mark Yeates or Rafa De Vita will probably start on the left, with a central two (or three, if Parkinson goes 4-5-1 once more on the road) featuring Nathan Doyle or Gary Jones. My heart sinks that this could be the last time we see either or both of Doyle and Jones. The City skipper was born less than 20 miles away from Prenton Park, and if this is his farewell then I’d be recommending Tranmere bring him ‘home’.
Up front, James Hanson is not expected to be risked and will spend the summer getting over his back problem, meaning a final day outing for Jon Stead and (if 4-4-2) Aaron Mclean. Opinion is split amongst supporters about Stead. For me he is a Ronseal player – he does exactly what you expect, and nothing more. He will never be a big goalscorer, but has other excellent qualities that have made a difference. I’m not saying that I think Parkinson should sign him during the summer – he probably needs to find a wider range of striking options to complement Hanson, Mclean and Oli McBurnie – but I personally feel that Stead has proven to be an effective loan signing who has made a real difference.
For Tranmere is has been a troubled season to say the least, with McMahon recently commenting that mistakes have been made from day one. Ronnie Moore was sacked earlier this month after he admitted to breaking FA betting regulations. Over a three-year period, he apparently betted £1,100 and won back £900, although has stressed that he never once betted on Tranmere to lose. Rovers’ captain Ian Goodison, plus striker Akpo Sodje, have also been arrested over allegations of spot-fixing. Sodje is no longer at the club, but Goodison has continued to feature.
Both Moore and Goodison were the villains of Bradford City’s 1-0 home defeat to Tranmere last October that did much to derail the Bantams’ season. Bitterness over that afternoon has lingered, and it would have been fantastic to be going to Prenton Park on the final day and relegating the pair. But with Moore gone and Goodison uncertain to play, we instead face a very likable football club, going through a horrendously difficult afternoon that will have huge, huge implications for their future.
I cannot wait.