The Hatters’ first home meeting with Tranmere for almost 13 years saw them prevail by the odd goal in five in an entertaining encounter at a sold-out Edgeley Park, and move into the play-off places.
With County’s last three games having produced only three goals in total, the full house was treated to the same number in the opening 45 minutes of this one. Kyle Knoyle netted for the first time as a Hatter, before the visiting ‘Super White Army’ equalised with a penalty, and, five minutes later, Kyle Wootton put County back in front on the stroke of half-time. As the match approached its closing stages, Will Collar added another for the Hatters, which was promptly followed by one, but thankfully no more, from Tranmere.
The euphoria among the County Faithful at the final whistle was in stark contrast to feelings after the most recent contest in SK3 between the two sides, which had seen the visitors romp to a three-goal victory and secure League One survival on the last day of the 2009/10 campaign, while putting the final seal on a wretched season for the rock-bottom, and long-relegated, Hatters who finished 25 points adrift of safety.
County took to the field on a mild and overcast afternoon, showing just one change from the line-up that had started at Crewe four days previously – with Myles Hippolyte recalled in place of Ryan Johnson, who was unwell. Also included on the Hatters’ bench were their two most recent arrivals, Joe Grayson and Aaron Rowe – on loan from Barrow and Huddersfield, respectively.
The visitors struck the afternoon’s first effort on goal after a couple of minutes – courtesy of a drive by Lee O’Connor from outside the area that Ben Hinchliffe dived to smother. And at the other end, with 10 played, County went close when Hippolyte’s low shot was deflected around the right post by Tranmere captain Kane Hemmings.
With their next attack of note, the Hatters went ahead, after Chris Hussey rounded off his surging run down the left with a pin-point cross that was headed by Knoyle into the top-near corner of the Cheadle End net.
Ryan Croasdale was next to try his luck with a swerving thunderbolt of a shot from distance that flashed past the right post. And Wootton also struck a 25-yarder, having spotted Mateusz Hewelt away from his line – although the visiting goalkeeper rushed back in time to catch the shot.
Half a dozen minutes before the break, the visitors were rather controversially awarded a penalty after Hemmings was brought down in the box by Akil Wright – despite a flag having been raised for offside in the build-up. With County protests waved away, the Tranmere skipper dusted himself down and converted the spot-kick into the bottom-left corner.
There remained time for further first-half drama – and all of it involving Wootton, who headed a Collar delivery against the inside of the right post, before going one better as added time was about to be announced, when he latched on to a bouncing back-pass by Josh Dacres-Cogley to beat Hewelt to the ball and nod into an empty net.
HALF-TIME: County 2 (Knoyle, 19; Wootton, 45), Tranmere 1 (Hemmings (penalty), 40).
The visitors went on the attack upon the resumption – with Harvey Saunders having shots deflected past each of County’s posts before 10 minutes of the new half had been played, and Hemmings striking the ball on an awkward bounce that saw the attempt fly over.
Both crossbars were then struck within a couple of minutes, as, first, Ethan Bristow cut in from the left and fired against the Cheadle End one, and, subsequently, Wootton headed Hussey’s assist on to that at the Railway End.
Tanto Olaofe and Ryan Rydel were introduced by way of a double-substitution, and, with a dozen minutes remaining, the former played his part in County’s third goal when he chased down an attempted clearance in the six-yard box to put Hewelt under pressure. The ‘keeper punched the ball away, but only as far as Collar who calmly slotted in.
The visitors, six minutes later, set up a nervy finish by scoring their second. Bristow’s throw-in from the left was well controlled by Jack Burton, before the substitute teed up Kieron Morris to drill home from 12 yards out.
Five minutes were added on to maintain the tension – and Hinchliffe had to be at his very best to tip over a goal-bound header from Burton in the dying seconds – but the Hatters held firm to register a first win in four games, which lifted them up to seventh place and a point inside the play-off positions.
FULL-TIME: County 3 (Knoyle, 19; Wootton, 45; Collar, 78), Tranmere 2 (Hemmings (penalty), 40; Morris, 84).
Team (3-5-2): Hinchliffe; Wright, Byrne, Hussey; Knoyle, Camps (Rydel, 67), Croasdale, Collar, Hippolyte; Madden (Capt.) (Olaofe, 67), Wootton.
Unused Subs: Jaros, Stretton, Lewis, Rowe, Grayson.
Man of the Match: Hussey.
Attendance: 10,231 (1,567 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.