It felt like groundhog day when I arrived in Liverpool. It was just over a week since the futile trip for the postponed game and, after the two away games at the Liverpool clubs and the cup game against Everton, this was my fifth trip to Merseyside for a football match this season.
I dropped my things off at the hotel and picked up a message from Mike suggesting that we meet in the Excelsior, where we had spent a couple of happy hours on a previous trip. After a quiet pint there, we headed for a pub in the city centre where we had an interesting encounter with some locals. There was a well-dressed eccentric complaining about the long trip that he had taken to Widnes for a funeral. I may well have misunderstood what he was saying but he seemed to be unconvinced that he had attended the correct funeral. Also at the bar, were an elderly mother and son. The son was very friendly and welcoming, the mother not so much, seeming to resent her quiet whisky being interrupted by Watford fans as she pointedly told us that she supported Liverpool. Pete had taken the supporters coach and they had arrived very early. So, after some negotiation with the steward, who didn’t want to let him get off, he made the trip across the Mersey and joined us for dinner.
Mike is friends with Ian Prowse, a brilliant musician who we had seen in concert after the Liverpool game (https://amsterdam-music.com/). Prowsey is a Tranmere fan so Mike had arranged to meet up with him before the game. He had told Mike that he was going to the game with his mate, Nasher. Nasher being Brian Nash from Frankie goes to Hollywood, so we found ourselves in the presence of two Liverpool music legends. We met for dinner and then caught the Merseyrail for the journey across (under) the river and then caught a cab to the ground. As there was still some time before kick-off, we went into the Prenton Park pub by the ground. As we had wine with dinner, Pete and I decided we would continue. The barmaid looked a little confused but found a couple of long glasses in which to serve our drinks.
We said our goodbyes and headed for the ground and I was rather delighted to see that the turnstiles actually had operators to whom I could hand the huge paper ticket. Having just said goodbye to Nasher outside Prenton Park, it was a little surreal to hear “Two Tribes” playing in the stadium. The pre-game playlist also included the theme from “The Rockford Files”, a real flashback to my youth.
Team news was that Pearson was putting out a very young team with first starts for Barrett, Whelan, Hungbo and João Pedro. So, the starting XI was Bachmann; Holebas, Kabasele, Spencer-Adams, Barrett; Hungbo, Quina, Dele-Bashiru, Whelan; João Pedro, Gray. During the week João Pedro had been complaining about the cold on social media, so I can only imagine what he thought when he emerged from the tunnel to find a very muddy pitch and the ground enveloped in an icy fog. Although, regarding the pitch, kudos must be given to the grounds staff who had worked very hard to ensure that it was playable, even if a police officer outside had commented that anyone who attempted a sliding tackle was likely to end up in the stands.
Watford started the game brightly and created an early chance when Hungbo escaped upfield and tried a shot from outside the area, but his effort was blocked. Then João Pedro went on an excellent run before cutting inside and hitting a curling shot that was blocked by Monthe. The Hornets threatened again as Whelan crossed for João Pedro who could only turn the ball over the bar.
Tranmere’s first goal attempt came as a cross-field ball was played to Blackett-Taylor who shot high and wide of the near post. Then Danns tried his luck but his shot flew wide of the far post. Nearly half an hour had passed before the first shot on target which came as a deep ball was played to Morris whose effort was blocked by Bachmann, but the ball dropped to Blackett-Taylor, who should have done better with his shot which cleared the bar. The home side were dominating at this point and a free kick was cleared only as far as Danns who shot high and wide of the far post. Tranmere took the lead on 35 minutes after the Hornets failed to clear from a corner, there was a scramble in the box before the ball fell to Monthe who fired past Bachmann. The Hornets had a half chance to restore parity before the break, but the shot from Hungbo was poor and didn’t trouble Davies in the Tranmere goal.
Pearson made a change at the break replacing Dele-Bashiru with Hinds. The home side won a corner early in the second half, Ridehalgh got on the end of it but his header was easily gathered by Bachman. Then Watford created a decent chance as João Pedro found himself one-on-one with the keeper, but Davies made the save, the rebound fell to Hinds whose shot was over the target.
The first booking of the game went to Jennings for a foul on Hungbo. The Hornets had another good chance to draw level as a free kick was punched clear and dropped to Holebas who met it with a decent volley that hit the post. Tranmere made their first change on 64 minutes replacing Ferrier with Mullin. Watford were almost architects of their own downfall when Bachmann dropped a corner and was a little lucky that the referee adjudged him to have been fouled. The home side looked to increase their lead when Mullin tried a run into the box, but Bachmann was out to gather. The equaliser came from Watford’s first corner of the game, the ball fell to Hinds, his first attempt was blocked, but the ball rebounded to him and he finished past Davies. Tranmere had a great chance to regain the lead almost immediately as Mullin got on the end of a long pass, took the ball around Bachmann but his shot hit the outside of the post. The Hornets then threatened as Hinds crossed for João Pedro, but Davies intervened to put the ball out for a corner. Kabasele had a chance to grab a winner when he got on the end of a cross from Holebas but could not find the target. With 10 minutes to go, Pearson was forced to make a substitution as João Pedro had picked up an injury, Dalby was the man who took his place, another youngster making his debut. Tranmere were pushing for a winner as Danns tried to break into the box, but he was stopped by a great tackle from Spencer-Adams. The home side could have won it in time added on after some terrible defending by the Hornets, Holebas knocked the ball into the path of Danns who really should have done better but shot wide of the target.
So, the game went into extra time. Gray messed up the kick-off, touching the ball twice and so conceding a free kick on the centre circle. Very odd indeed. Andre, who was captain for the night, looked to make amends as he picked up a decent ball, advanced and crossed for Hinds whose header back across goal was cleared. Whelan then had a chance to put the visitors ahead with a lovely curling shot that was stopped by a great save from Davies. Holebas, who really did not appear to be enjoying his evening, went on a gorgeous mazy run through the Tranmere defence. It came to nothing, but it was great fun to watch. With five minutes to go in the first period of extra time, each side made a substitution with Bennetts replacing Hungbo for the Hornets and Danns making way for Gilmour for the home side. There was danger for the visitors as the ball was bobbling around the Watford box, Riedhalgh crossed for Morris but the header was wide of the target. The winner resulted from more poor defending from the Hornets as Hinds had the chance to clear the ball but instead kept it in on the right touchline, the ball fell for Gilmour who put in a cross, Blackett-Taylor flicked it on for Mullin to head past Bachmann to regain the lead for Tranmere. The home side could have extended their lead just before half time in the added period as a corner was cleared to Morris whose shot flew just wide of the near post.
Each side made a change at the start of the second period of extra time with Quina making way for Wise (son of Dennis) for the Hornets and Woods replacing Blackett-Taylor for the home side. Watford never looked like getting back in the game and the home fans were enjoying themselves immensely, with “Tequila” ringing out from the stand behind the goal. As the final whistle approached, there was an announcement asking the fans not to run on the pitch at the end of the game as they would damage it! Needless to say, the request was in vain and, as the final whistle went, there was a mini pitch invasion.
The reaction of the Watford fans at the final whistle was mostly resignation, although one lad was walking down the stand shouting angrily at Gray. The majority politely applauded the players, who responded in kind, and then headed out. The coaches were waiting outside the away end, so Pete left us there and Mike and I headed back to the Prenton Park where a very happy Prowsey was already at the bar and planning to get tickets for himself and his daughter for the visit of Manchester United. Mike and I commented that we already had tickets for that tie that we now couldn’t use. We headed back to the City and the lads bumped into a woman that they knew in the lift at the station. When she left Prowsey said, “That was Janice Long.” I hadn’t recognised her. We had one last drink in a pub that was playing a video of Liverpool icons from the 80s. So, I found myself in the very odd position of watching the bloke I was chatting with on the telly.
In the cold light of day, while it had been a disappointing performance from the youngsters, it was not unexpected. They had started brightly enough and there had been a few decent moments, but the Tranmere team were too strong for them and, ultimately, appeared to want it more. Of the youngsters, Hinds did well when he came on and deserved his goal. Spencer-Adams has looked promising in both games and Whelan had a decent second half. Of the first-team players, Kabasele put in a decent shift, Holebas had a couple of very decent chances but looked unhappy to be there and Gray was mostly anonymous, which was very sad to see.
I have to say that, after three games in a week, I was not heartbroken at the thought of a weekend off. The prospect of playing Man United in the next round had not excited me at all. Given our precarious position in the Premier League, this extended break will likely be beneficial as it gives the team longer to work together on the training pitch. The Tranmere fans will love the visit of United and I wish them a lot of luck as they were tremendous at both of the games.
Travelling to two midweek games in one week, both ending in defeat, may not appear to be the most enjoyable way to use my precious holiday from work. But I have been going to football for long enough not to rely on the game to provide enjoyment and my Thursday night on Merseyside with the rock stars was actually a lot of fun.