There’s nothing like the magic of the FA Cup to liven up a cold November afternoon.
The plucky non league team battling against the odds to survive an onslaught from their far more illustrious and renowned hosts - a team backed by a large and passionate crowd hell bent on celebrating a long run in the world’s greatest knockout competition - to earn a replay in front of the live TV cameras.
Well that’s the theory anyway, or at least the romantic image the BBC love to project on first round day. The reality at the ABAX Stadium, which was sparsely attended despite generous admission prices yesterday (November 4), was somewhat different.
There were no butchers or bakers in the Tranmere Rovers side or indeed factory workers who dash to the game after finishing a 10-hour shift. They remain a full-time outfit full of experienced, gnarled professionals, comfortably capable of turning up at a club over 50 places higher in the Football League food chain and presenting as well organised and tactically astute. This fact appeared to have passed the Posh players by. It’s doubtful manager Grant McCann’s pre-match words suggested trotting on to the pitch would be enough to win a second round spot.
There were reports (on socal media obviously so not to be taken at face value) of a visiting player asking for directions to the nearest sports shop ahead of kick off because he’d forgotten his shin pads, but otherwise it wasn’t obvious which was the struggling National League side and which was the team with an eye on a return to Championship football next season.
Posh played so poorly and with so little energy throughout this contest one can only assume the attraction of a midweek night in Birkenhead is greater than first assumed. This was woeful from start to finish, so bad the heroic battling victory over mighty Shrewsbury a week before has already been forgotten.
Starting with five defenders - it’s not what’s supposed to happen, but wing-backs Leo Da Silva Lopes and Andrew Hughes rarely ventured forward - was alarmingly cautious against modest opposition, but even when a more attacking style was employed for the second-half, Posh played only in fits and starts as a midfield which displayed very little passing ability or vision ensured set-pieces from Marcus Maddison proved the most likely route to a goal.
“We lacked attacking menace,” Posh boss Grant McCann admitted. He wasn’t wrong. If anything he understated the issue. He could also have stated his side lacked purpose, intent and composure.
Posh should still have won. Tranmere played neat passing football, defended impressively on the rare occasions they had to and won most 50/50 challenges and even some 40/60s, but they lacked the speed and quality to really unsettle a home defence that included rookie goalkeeper Conor O’Malley.
After taking the lead early in the second-half thanks to Jack Marriott’s goal-poaching instincts at a corner, Posh should have been able to see out the game, but Michael Doughty and Gwion Edwards spurned a couple of half chances before the defence fell asleep enabling Jeff Hughes to cross and Tranmere substitute Andy Cook to head home a most deserved equaliser 17 minutes from time.
Posh substitute Idris Kanu, a striker not exactly brimming with confidence, promptly missed a sitter when clean through with all the time in the world to score and if anything Tranmere looked the most likely winners in the final moments. O’Malley, who had made decent stops with his legs in either half from James Norwood and Ollie Norburn, was forced to tip another Norburn shot over the bar in the final minute.
Kanu’s youth and Ricky Miller’s failure so far to step up to League One standard are problems for McCann. He’d probably rather use Maddison in a deeper role where he could get on the ball more (and thus not appear to look as disinterested and frustrated as he did yesterday) and he’d presumably rather deploy Edwards in less advanced roles where his pace and trickery has unsettled better teams than Tranmere this season, but an injury to Junior Morias appears to have caused rather more disruption than it should. The way things are going Morias will become Pele in his absence.
It’s easy to knock a system that appears better suited to strong opposition than weaker visitors until remembering 4-4-2 proved a disaster in the recent Gillingham match at the ABAX.
But the constant sideways passing followed by ill-directed lumps down the wings is hard to watch (Maddison and Marriott certainly don’t like watching it). The lack of legs in midfield is another worry when trying to force the action. Danny Lloyd must be struggling in training if he can’t get a game during the current run of form.
Still it could have been worse. Many League One team bit the dust in the last 48 hours against lower ranked opponents. Posh will need to improve to avoid joining them.
Posh: Conor O’Malley, Jack Baldwin, Steven Taylor, Ryan Tafazolli, Leo Da Silva Lopes (sub Ricky Miller, 86 mins), Michael Doughty (sub Jermaine Anderson, 79 mins), Anthony Grant, Andrew Hughes, Gwion Edwards (sub Idris Kanu, 71 mins), Marcus Maddison, Jack Marriott.
Unused substitutes: Jonathan Bond, Liam Shephard, Danny Lloyd, Callum Chettle.
Tranmere: Scott Davies, Liam Ridehalgh, Ritchie Sutton, Stephen McNulty, Jay McEveley, James Norwood, Connor Jennings (sub Larnell Cole, 68 mins), Ollie Norburn, Dylan Mottley-Henry, Gerry McDonagh (sub Andy Cook, 68 mins), Jeff Hughes. Unused substitutes: Paddy Wharton, Adam Burton, Jake Kirby, Mitchell Dugan, Eddie Clarke.
Goals: Posh - Marriott (53 mins).
Tranmere - Cook (73 mins).
Cautions: Tranmere - McEveley (foul), Hughes (foul)
Referee: Charles Breakspear 6
Attendance: 3,758 (471 Tranmere).