Tranmere Rovers 4-0 Stockport County

The Hatters’ second meeting in four days with rivals from (historic) Cheshire saw them suffer back-to-back defeats, as they fell to a four-goal reverse at Tranmere.

In what was a first Saturday assignment at Prenton Park in nine visits and nearly a quarter of a century, County fell behind on the half-hour, and conceded twice more – on each occasion, as had been the case at home to Crewe four days earlier, as a consequence of set-pieces – within 18 minutes of the re-start, as well as a fourth late on that made the loss a heaviest one for the Hatters in over three years.

County took to the field on a mild, cloudy afternoon, and showing three changes from the starting line-up at Edgeley Park against Crewe four days earlier – as Dave Challinor, making his second trip as the Hatters’ boss to the club where he had begun his playing career three decades ago, brought in Odin Bailey, debutant Rhys Bennett and Neill Byrne to replace Ibby Touray, skipper Paddy Madden (who both dropped to the bench) and the unwell Fraser Horsfall, as well as handing Ryan Croasdale the captain’s armband in Madden’s stead.

The Hatters’ starters included, in Byrne and Ethan Bristow, two players who could count Tranmere among their former clubs – with Bristow also having featured for the ‘Super White Army’ in the most recent meeting between the two sides at PP during the autumn of 2022. And, among the substitutes, there was a welcome return for Will Collar who had been sidelined by injury for almost three months.

The hosts, for their part, included in the starters their top scorer, and former County favourite over two stints in SK3, Connor Jennings, who was currently enjoying his second spell as a ‘Rover’. Another popular ex-Hatter, Kristian Dennis, was on the Tranmere bench.

Bennett was called into action after four minutes, after a cross from the left by Regan Hendry arrived in County’s six-yard box – but the Manchester United loanee cleared the danger and, courtesy of a deflection off the lurking Harvey Saunders, earned a goal-kick.

At the other end, five minutes later, a good move initiated by Nick Powell culminated in a low delivery from the right by Lewis Cass that was banished from the area by the outstretched leg of home goalkeeper Luke McGee.

Three minutes ahead of the half-hour, Rob Apter released Jennings through on goal – but, in a coming together of players turning out against their old clubs, the former Hatter was blocked by Byrne, off whom the ball deflected beyond the right post.

The contest was still awaiting its first clear-cut chance as the half-hour approached – but when it arrived, it resulted in the hosts taking the lead, with captain Tom Davies bundling home from close range, after connecting with Brad Walker’s free-kick from the right.

Powell was fed by Connor Lemonheigh Evans, before his low shot was deflected behind by Walker – but the Hatters, having minutes earlier conceded following a free-kick, came dangerously close to doing so again when Saunders latched on to Hendry’s delivery from the left and produced a looping header that dipped to force a Ben Hinchliffe upward stretch and catch on the line.

Hinchliffe did well again to parry a well-struck Apter volley from the edge of the box, before Antoni Sarcevic, on the stroke of half-time, saw an effort from distance deflected into the arms of McGee.

HALF-TIME: Tranmere 1 (Davies, 30), County 0. 

The Hatters, ahead of kicking towards the end housing more than 2,000 travelling fans, brought on Collar and Touray – and the former was soon in the thick of the action, as he connected with a Sarcevic cross from the right by-line to head towards goal, only to see his attempt palmed away by McGee.

McGee’s opposite Number One had to be at his best half a dozen minutes into the second period, after Tranmere won possession just inside the County half, and Keiron Morris was played through on goal by Hendry – but Hinchliffe stood firm to beat out the shot.

Bailey went close for County with a low strike that narrowly evaded the left post – but the next opportunity fell to the hosts, who duly doubled their advantage. Once more, too, a free-kick was involved – again from Walker, but this time from the halfway-line – as the Hatters failed to clear from their box, before Jordan Turnbull volleyed in from six yards.

County introduced Madden and Kyle Wootton on the hour, in the hope of boosting the attack – but within three minutes, Turnbull had a second goal, and his side a third, as he headed into the net from Walker’s corner on the right.

The hosts were denied a fourth when Hinchliffe dived to catch cleanly a Saunders strike from just outside the area – and also came close to scoring through Apter, who blasted into the right side-netting, before Hinchliffe kept out Saunders again, and Turnbull headed over whilst on a hat-trick.

The Hatters sought to reduce their arrears through Wootton, who headed over; Sarcevic and Madden, whose respective shots fizzed past the left upright; and Bristow, who fired into the upper reaches of the away end from distance.

But whilst a goal arrived before the end of proceedings, it did so – with almost crushing inevitably on such a disappointing afternoon – for Jennings, who made it four without reply against his old club, after being teed up by Apter, to leave the Hatters beaten by such a margin for the first time since suffering the same scoreline at Hartlepool in the lead-up to Christmas 2020.

As Morris, in added time, saw one shot tipped over by Hinchliffe and another fly over County’s crossbar, there was at least a crumb of comfort for the Hatters through the knowledge that, thanks to second-placed Mansfield’s loss at Walsall, they remained at the top of the table by a point.

FULL-TIME: Tranmere 4 (Davies, 30; Turnbull, 54 and 63; Jennings, 85), County 0.

Team (4-3-3): Hinchliffe; Cass (Collar, 46), Byrne, Bennett, Bristow; Bailey, Croasdale (Capt.) (Touray, 46), Sarcevic; Lemonheigh Evans (Hippolyte, 78), Olaofe (Wootton, 60), Powell (Madden, 60).

[Debut for Rhys Bennett, with a unique SCAN [Stockport County Appearance Number] of 1468.]

Unused Subs: Smith, Richards.

Booked: Wootton, Madden.

Attendance: 7,882 (2,172 away).

Reporter: Gareth Evans.

Photographer: Mike Petch.


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