Pudding of a pitch, small squad and cup comebacks... The lowdown on relegation-fighting Tranmere Rovers
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Ipswich Town take on Tranmere Rovers in a League One clash at Prenton Park tomorrow afternoon. STUART WATSON takes a look at the Merseyside hosts.
Following back-to-back promotions, both secured via play-off glory at Wembley, Tranmere saw some key men leave in the form of talismanic striker James Norwood, centre-back and leader Steve McNulty, plus popular midfielder Jay Harris. Micky Mellon had to rebuild a squad that had developed a 'band of brothers' team spirit. Now they find themselves in the thick of a League One relegation fight.
The fate of Bolton and Southend looks sealed given they are both yet to hit double digits for points. Tranmere, third bottom, are within touching distance of AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons as it stands.
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Rovers have claimed just six points from their last nine league games (W1 D3 L5).
They drew 0-0 at Southend last weekend, making it two stalemates against the struggling Shrimpers this season. Over the festive schedule, they shipped four goals against both Coventry (4-1 at home) and Burton (4-2 away).
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Their last two league wins have come against AFC Wimbledon (1-0 at home, Dec 21) and MK Dons (3-1 away, Nov 2). Their previous three league victories came against Coventry (Oct), Burton (Sept) and Bolton (Aug).
Assessing his team's goalless draw at Roots Hall, manager Mellon said: "It was a very, very tight game but it was crying out for a bit of quality. We needed that in the final third and it was lacking."
The FA Cup has acted as a welcome distraction.
Mellon's men came from 2-1 down to draw against Wycombe at home in round one before coming from behind again to win the Adams Park replay in extra-time. Non-league side Chichester City were then despatched 5-1, setting up a third round tie at Premier League side Watford.
Tranmere found themselves 3-0 down at Vicarage Road, but responded to their manager's half-time plea to do their travelling fans proud by storming back to secure a 3-3 draw. The scheduled Tuesday night replay was all set for a bumper Prenton Park crowd before a late postponement due to a waterlogged pitch.
The club have put out a lengthy statement regarding the reasons behind their playing surface being in such bad shape. It's covered in sand and has been under a protective tent for much of this week.
Tranmere have kept just four clean sheets all season. They've conceded first in 25 of the 33 games they've played across all competitions. Nine of their 22 league points have come from losing positions.
"We have to give ourselves more of a chance, instead of chasing games," said Mellon. "We know that they're not lacking in ability to battle back and show character, having done that many times, but we have to give ourselves a better chance by getting more first goals and clean sheets.
"If we can put a whole performance together, we can compete with anybody. We have to be mindful that we haven't done that enough."
Ollie Banks, Harvey Gilmour, Mark Ellis, Evan Gumbs, Ishmael Miller, Darren Potter... Injuries and suspensions have hit Tranmere hard this season. In January, they saw Manchester United recall defender Cameron Borthwick-Jackson from a loan spell too.
"It has been difficult to manage the games because we haven't had many people to choose from," said Mellon. "We have been running with 18 players most weeks; there has not really been anyone fit and sitting in the stands. We have carried forward a lot of long-term injuries from last season, so it has been difficult.
"I don't remember a time this season where we have done anything tactically, in order to choose the team. It has usually been injuries or suspensions that have forced things on us. It would be nice to have a squad to choose from."
Tranmere moved quickly to boost their squad with two early January additions.
Experienced centre-back Peter Clarke arrived from Fleetwood on New Year's Day. The 38-year-old, who started his career as an Everton youth player, is back on Merseyside having played for the likes of Blackpool, Southend, Huddersfield and Oldham.
Two days later, former Braintree and Lincoln midfielder Alex Woodyard was signed on loan from Peterborough. Both went straight into the starting XI at Roots Hall last weekend.
Clarke said: "Through the course of my career, I've played with a variety of central-defensive partners, all ranging in age. I talk, communicate and am a bit of an organiser on the pitch. Hopefully some of those qualities will come to the fore in the coming weeks."
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Manny Monthe, a man mountain of a defender, has been linked to Portsmouth but reports suggest that the south coast club could be put off by a £750k price tag.
Winger Kieron Morris, Connor Jennings (the man whose initials James Norwood got tattooed on his leg following promotion), Morgan Ferrier and Stefan Payne (one of Paul Hurst's strikers at Shrewsbury) are the main attacking threats.
Clarke, 38, David Perkins, 37 and Neil Danns, 37 provide an experienced core.