County bowed out of the Cheshire Senior Cup in the first round at Edgeley Park, as a goal in each half from Harvey Saunders and Rob Apter saw Tranmere emerge victorious.
In what was their first Cheshire Senior Cup tie since winning the competition in 2022, County named a number of first-team players in the starting XI, as well as two trialists in defender Matt Lowton and striker Christian Norton.
Jordan Smith started in goal, behind a back four of Lowton on the left, Alfie Pond and Akil Wright in the middle, and Jayden Richardson on the right.
Callum Camps made his first appearance since August after recovering from a shoulder injury – he started in a midfield diamond alongside Cody Johnson, Ashton Mee and Joel Cotterill. Up front, Norton partnered Paddy Madden, who notched his first league goal of the season at the weekend in that big win over Wrexham. Cody Johnson captained the side on the night, with regular skipper Madden deciding to give the armband to the youngster.
Chances were few and far between for either side in the first half, although it was the visitors who saw more of the ball, and felt they should have had a penalty 18 minutes in. Harvey Saunders’ runs in from the left had been causing County problems, as he latched on to a through-ball before going down under pressure from Jayden Richardson – referee George Eaton though, was uninterested.
It took until 38 minutes for either keeper to be called into action, Smith showing good reactions to tip Rob Apter’s effort from the edge of the area over the crossbar. From the resulting corner, Apter headed wide at the back post.
Saunders continued to pose questions of the County back line and it was he who broke the deadlock – picked out by James Norris, the former Bristol Rovers man let the ball run across his body, before finishing emphatically into the far corner to give Rovers a half-time lead.
Half-Time: County 0-1 Tranmere Rovers (Saunders, 42′).
Saunders was almost celebrating again early in the second half, former County man Kristian Dennis sliding him through on goal but Jordan Smith made himself big to make a brave, brilliant save at his near post.
Callum Camps looked to spark some life into County, embarking on a mazy dribble that saw him glide past four players before eventually being denied by a last-ditch challenge from Connor Wood.
Just before the hour mark, Tranmere did find a second goal – Smith denying Rhys Hughes at his near post, Pond managing to deflect Apter’s follow-up onto the crossbar, before at the third attempt Apter was able to force it home. County, at this stage, could have few complaints about the scoreline.
The introduction of Josh Popoola did make a difference for the Hatters late on, and County were unlucky not to pull one back when twice the woodwork came to the visitors rescue. Popoola did well to get to the byline and pull back, Norton saw his effort thunder off the underside of the crossbar and away, before Richardson’s powerful follow-up also rattled the bar.
Saunders had two opportunities to grab his second late on, but the impressive Smith was able to deny him again with two good stops, whilst up the other end Cotterill saw an effort saved by Joe Murphy.
Full-Time: County 0-2 Tranmere Rovers (Saunders, 42′; Apter, 59′)
Line-up (4-4-2): Smith; Richardson; Pond; Wright; Lowton; Johnson; Camps; Cotterill; Mee (Popoola, 57); Madden; Norton.
Attendance: 756 (63 away fans)
Photographer: Mike Petch