Saturday 12th May 2018, 1500 Kick Off
Tranmere Rovers FC vs Boreham Wood FC
The Build Up
It had been a long, hard season in the Vanarama National League, and with Macclesfield Town defying the odds to take the title and automatic promotion, it was left to the Play Off system to decide who else would make the jump to EFL League Two, from this notoriously hard-to-escape division.
Two clubs arrived at this match at very different points in the trajectory of their respective histories. For Boreham Wood, a 4th place finish in the top tier of nonleague football represented an all-time high since their formation in 1948 – in a division they only joined in 2015/16. Tranmere, on the other hand, also took up a National League spot that season, but from the other direction. In April 2015, a defeat to Plymouth Argyle saw the Super White Army end a 94-year stay in the Football League.
Since then, a 6th place finish under Gary Brabin, and subsequent 2nd place under current manager Micky Mellon saw them get as close as a Promotion Final defeat to Forest Green Rovers last year. After a 17-year absence from Wembley, they were now back for the second time in 12 months, hoping to go one better. At the start of the season, the Birkenhead side were many observers’ favourites for promotion, and indeed the bookies had them as short as 30/29 for today’s match. A large part of their success this season had been based on the prolific form of Andy Cook and James Norwood up front, plundering 46 goals between them (26 and 20 respectively). Luke Garrard’s Boreham Wood have also had an in-form striker to thank, with Portuguese speedster Bruno Andrade bagging 22. However, this massive overachievement has not all been down to him, with the likes of Grant Smith, Kane Smith and Angelo Balanta all excelling throughout the campaign.
Due to the revamped Play Off system, the Wood had played twice to reach the final, seeing of AFC Fylde in the new Eliminator stage, and Sutton United in the Semis. A Michael Folivi winner was enough to dispatch Paul Doswell’s U’s – a 3-2 defeat scant reward for their own exceptional season. Tranmere Rovers, however, had only had to face one opponent, but certainly made the most of it. An Extra Time thriller against Ebbsfleet finally being settled when James Norwood and Larnell Cole got the crucial 3rd and 4th to win 4-2.
Make no mistake about this, these two clubs may only have finished two places apart, but they’re as different as two sides in one division can be. Tranmere had averaged 5,100 fans this season at Prenton Park, Boreham Wood’s Meadow Park had seen an average of 655 – the highest and lowest in the league. Tranmere’s highest league finish was 4th in Division One, Boreham Wood’s was 4th in the National League. Tranmere had reached the FA Cup Quarter Final and the League Cup Final, Boreham Wood beat their first ever Football League opponent this season. It was chalk and cheese arriving on their plush coaches in North West London, but both sides had earnt their right to be a part of this fascinating clash, and I couldn’t wait for it to start.
As I got off the Bakerloo Line at Wembley Park, and meandered my way around the rather depressing Wembley High Road, I felt sure I’d heard of this ground before. Turn out, it’s quite famous. Apparently there was an older version of it, which had two towers (like Middle Earth, I think) and was perpetually toppers with flat capped men waving those wooden clacker things at players with shorts that could propel a ship across the Atlantic if they caught the wind right. In 2007, though, all that nostalgia was consigned forever to the black and white TV vaults, and the FA (bankrolled by some Germans) opened the new Wembley Stadium.
Crowned by the 134 metre high Wembley Arch (which is wide enough to drive a tube train through, ironic considering how difficult it is to get a tube train driving anywhere else on a Saturday…), it is a dominant addition to the London skyline, visible for miles around. Criticised by some for a lack of atmosphere when England play, I would challenge anyone to try and generate an atmosphere whilst watching Jake Livermore wearing the Three Lions. Instead, sit back and admire the £800m, 90,000 seater footballing Tower of Babylon in all its glory. And if that doesn’t impress you, get drunk and vomit up the (expensive) pre-match snacks in one of 2,618 toilets – more than in any other building on the planet earth. Although, I don’t know how we got the stats for the buildings in North Korea, so there really should be an asterisk against that one.
In all seriousness, I’ve been to Wembley for England games, and it is shit, but this – THIS – is what the stadium’s meant for. The fans of two clubs, descending on the home of football, for a once in a lifetime match to change the future of their team. Hope, mingled with nervous apprehension, blended with giddy excitement all played out to the theme tune of Grandstand or Match of the Day depending on your age. It’s here where Wembley earns its keep, and it really does impress.
As I headed off towards the photographers’ entrance, with a rather strong case of imposter syndrome, the fans were starting to arrive in their numbers, and the entertainment starting. A pongo band started up, whilst some football freestylers conducted some tricks under Bobby’ Moore’s gaze that I’m sure he’d have disapproved of…
You know that feeling when you’re playing a big match, and get as hyped up as you can? Your first tackle, your first shot or save is going to be your best? 100% effort? Well Liam Ridehalgh knows that feeling. 55 seconds into the game, a loose ball fell for a 50/50 challenge between himself and Ricky Shakes. 10 seconds of maximum effort later, and Ridehalgh was making his way to the plush Wembley showers, shown a (justified) red card for a high, studs up challenge. It was a bloody brave call from referee Neil Hair in the first minute, but absolutely the right one.
A daunting task for Tranmere then, trying to hold on against one of the league’s paciest attacks for 89 minutes, but they made it look like the plan all along just a few minutes later. When a clipped ball over the top bounced invitingly for James Norwood at the left hand side of the box, he whipped over a volleyed cross, where Andy Cook rose between two defenders to head home. As Cook raced to celebrate, there were no Whites fans anywhere in sight, and so it was in front of the Boreham Wood fans that the no.9 went for the patented knee slide. Unfortunately, a few throbbers in the Wood end decided to throw bottles at the Tranmere players, one of which struck Josh Ginnelly. I sincerely hope whoever threw it gets banned.
After nine minutes Micky Mellon made a tactical substitution, with Larnell Cole coming off for Connor Jennings, as the Tranmere manager attempted to mitigate the effect of the early red card, then two minutes later, Steve McNulty dawdled in possession. But for the speed of ‘keeper Scott Davies off his line, Bruno Andrade would have been in on goal.
On 15 minutes, Andy Cook came close to doubling the lead for ten man Rovers, when the previously bottled Ginnelly squared to him in the box. Cook struck from close range, but former Wales U21 international David Stephens managed to divert the ball behind, by literally lying down in front of him. That cross was Ginnelly’s last contribution, as the Burnley loanee succumbed to the injury he sustained from the airborne Heineken bottle.
By twenty minutes the match had settled into a pattern that it would follow all the way through – Boreham Wood would hold almost all the possession, but a deep lying Tranmere defence, and hard pressing midfield, would stifle their creativity. Ollie Norburn and Jeff Hughes in midfield hassled and harried, and the pressure forced mistakes from the Wood players, who passed straight into touch on two occasions.
On 32 minutes, a quick release by Grant Smith in the Boreham Wood goal (who’s distribution in impeccable) found Angelo Balanta on the left. When the Colombian midfielder – with the most famous exertion gurn in nonleague football – slid the ball into the box he found Watford loanee Michael Folivi. Just as he looked set to pull the trigger, in slid Ritchie Sutton, to avert the danger.
After 38 minutes, there was a big shout for a Boreham Wood penalty, but referee Hair (from Huntingdonshire – where on earth is that?!) felt that Manny Monthe’s tackle-cum-shove on Michael Folivi was fair. Just two minutes later Angelo Balanta was in the book for dissent when he protested a little too vociferously that he’d got the ball after the ref had blown for a foul.
A couple of minor injuries, plus the subs, plus the red card, plus the goal, meant there was a fair whack of stoppage time at the end of the first half. Six minutes to be precise. Four minutes into this, Richie Sutton went down injured and had to be replaced, meaning Micky Mellon had used all his subs.
Then, eight minutes into the six, with the Tranmere fans whistling, Boreham Wood struck. A low ball into the box from Danny Woodards on the left arrived at the feet of Bruno Andrade. In the form he’s in, the ex-QPR youngster was never going to miss, and steered his first time shot past Davies with ease. That was pretty much it, and meant we were level at half time.
At half time it felt like Tranmere’s only option was to hold on for extra time and penalties so dominant had Wood been in possession. Luke Garrard though, would need to come up with a way to penetrate the Birkenhead side’s defence if he wanted to avoid that. By sitting McNulty and Sutton about ten yards off the penalty area, Mellon had completely negated the pace of Andrade, and given Balanta and Murtagh no space to play their pinpoint through balls.
I honestly didn’t feel that Tranmere would be able to maintain their work rate though – every man had been putting in a massive shift to accommodate their player deficit, and with no subs available, there was no way they could keep it up.
However, within a minute of the restart they had almost resumed the lead, when Connor Jennings forced a good save out of Grant Smith. With Smith out of the picture, the ball dropped to Andy Cook, but his shot was deflected behind. Five minutes later, there was good interplay between Jennings and Cook. Jennings played a wall pass off his strike partner and as the goal opened up, struck from 18 yards. The winger, who started his career with Stalybridge Celtic, caught the ball with the inside of his foot and just dragged it wide.
Boreham Wood continued to dominate possession, but could not find a way through. Ollie Norburn was everywhere in the midfield, almost to the point of busting physics. At one point I’m almost certain I saw him close down two players simultaneously.
On 68 minutes, Bruno Andrade was brought down on the left twenty yards from goal, and dusted himself off to take the free kick. He curled it in low and right, but Scott Davies had it covered all the way, and tipped wide for a corner.
This led to a succession of three corners for the Wood, the first two dealt with comfortably. This third, however, was claimed by Davies, who subsequently spilt the ball. A minor goalmouth scramble ensued, until the frankly massive Manny Monthe cleared upfield. Having beaten Tranmere with Forest Green Rovers at this stage last season, Monthe’s experience was proving crucial at the back.
There were half chances at either end over the next five minutes. James Norwood couldn’t quite connect with a low driven cross at the back post, there was a goalmouth scramble here, a snatched shot well wide there, but neither side created anything great. The Wood had most of the ball, but for some reason the Tranmere fans were getting more and more vocal. As their side seemed to tire, the fans were growing into the match, and – outnumbering Boreham Wood’s by around 5-1 – their enthusiasm drove on their team and Tranmere started to look more threatening on the break.
On 78 minutes, Jay Harris nearly gifted Boreham Wood an opportunity when he tried to overplay his way out of the corner. A combination of Bruno Andrade and Keiran Murtagh robbed him of possession, but when Murtagh crossed, Ricky Shakes was unable to make contact at the back post.
Then, just 60 seconds later, Tranmere snatched the lead their work rate had earned. When Connor Jennings got the ball wide right, he managed to find Andy Cook. Having scored already, this time the league’s top scorer turned provider, and crossed in for James Norwood. Tightly marked by absolutely no one, Norwood rose and nodded across goal, past Grant Smith, to give Tranmere the advantage.
Garrard began to make his substitutions, bringing on first Joe Quigley, and then Sorba Thomas to try and find an equaliser, but the game was up. With the crucial lead, Tranmere were able to sit back and soak up the pressure even more. Boreham Wood tried – they huffed, and they puffed – but they just couldn’t get through the Tranmere lines.
Tranmere hacked and headed their lines clear time and again. Cook, Norwood and Jennings took the ball to the corner. Oliver Norburn – my Man of the Match – chased every man, dog, cat and shadow. They won fouls, they won throws, they timewasted. As the clock ticked past ninety, the 12,500 (ish) strong Super White Army whistled with all its might, and eventually Mr Hair could hold out no longer, blowing his whistle, and officially signalling Tranmere’s promotion to EFL League Two.
The Wash Up
As the vast majority of the 16,306 present were Tranmere fans, the celebrations were rapturous. Andy Cook jumped into the crowd, Scott Davies went full Diego Maradona-on-nandrolone-eye-bulgy in delight, and Steve McNulty just looked like he needed a rest.
After a while, the Rovers players – by now bedecked in various supporter-donated paraphernalia – were ushered up to the stands to collect their medals. This left the travelling fans to enjoy the moment, and enjoy it they did. Parents lifted children high, like some sort of northern Lion King, and groups of friends crowded around flags to scream their delight.
Moments later, the Tranmere players and management team were lifting the Promotion Final trophy, before coming down on the pitch behind the boards and doing it again. Which seemed odd, but what the hell, it provided some good photo opportunities, and Manny Monthe was really loving spraying people with champagne. I must say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone look as excited as Connor Jennings did about now.
There were two teams involved though, and it would be remiss not to talk about Boreham Wood. They worked hard, and contributed to a tense and engaging final. David Stephens, Keiran Murtagh, Angelo Balanta and Mark Ricketts were all busy, but no one could find a way to break down the Tranmere ranks. This has been an incredible, record breaking season for the Hertfordshire side, and they must pray that no Football League clubs come calling for Luke Garrard, because he is their biggest asset. They will surely lose Bruno Andrade and one or two more over the summer, but if they can keep the man in the hot seat, there’s no reason they can’t compete again next season.
Garrard kept his side out on the pitch at the final whistle, to watch Tranmere lift the trophy – as Micky Mellon did with his charges last season. A nice mark of respect, but also, a very clear motivational message to his players – “remember this moment, because next season, we want to be up where they are”. And if history has anything to do with it, they will be. The beaten finalist has won the next season’s final four years running…
As for Tranmere – I’m not even going to talk about next season. They deserved their victory today, as they’ve deserved promotion across the campaign. Congratulations Tranmere, and try not to drown the Wirral in booze tonight…