Peterborough United manager Darren Ferguson is experienced enough to know a reality check this early in a season can be a good thing.
Ferguson was warning about the dangers of high expectations before the League One campaign had started, and before he’d read his chairman’s wish list which covered every possible success apart from world peace, so a run of 17-0 in four games, which included a smashing of Sunderland, was greeted with suspicion as well as elation.
It’s natural for fans and media to get over-excited by the brilliance of the new ‘fab three’ forward line, and by an improved back four which managed 424 League One minutes without being breached until last night, but opponents will also have taken note and will plan accordingly.
Tranmere, who have beaten only Bolton’s youth team since completing back-to-back promotions last season, decided to field three centre-backs to limit the space Mo Eisa and Ivan Toney had to work in (and to disguise their own lack of pace), and played aggressively and with fierce commitment for 90 minutes to try and nullify a set of undoubtedly superior footballers.
And, if anything, the home side, backed by a raucous crowd, intensified their efforts after falling two goals behind before the second-half was 10 minutes old. They deserved at least their draw as a fine headed goal from Liam Ridehalgh and a superb long-range volley from Ollie Banks brought them level leading to a thrilling final 20 minutes of end-to-end action. Posh ‘keeper Christy Pym’s superb fingertip save to thwart Sid Nelson from a 94th-minute corner meant Ferguson was even grateful to have secured a point.
“We enjoyed a brilliant minute when we scored two goals in the second-half and that was far better than anything we produced in the first-half,” Ferguson admitted. “I’m disappointed we didn’t win after being 2-0 up, but I’m also pleased we didn’t lose because we could easily have folded after they hit back so quickly.
“This league is tough. We will play well and win at times, but we will also have to grind games out when we don’t play so well.”
Posh have seen both sides of that coin in four days following a rout of Rochdale with a stuttering display at Prenton Park. Posh might have conceded twice in six minutes when Maddison’s lame attempt to cut out a cross and a failure to close Banks down proved costly, but the defensive effort still offered encouragement for a 46-game slog.
Mark Beevers and Frankie Kent were dominant in the middle of the back four with the latter’s willingness to throw himself Zakuani-style into blocks accompanying some eye-catching moments in possession.
“Frankie is easy on the eye because he’s so comfortable on the ball,” Ferguson added. “But he’s a tough bugger as well.”
After making the long, speed-restricted motorway trip north on the morning of the match, Posh started this contest sluggishly and were grateful that the home side’s quality didn’t match their determination and spirit. As is their wont this season, Posh did a little bit more with much less possession as Toney’s one-on-one opportunity after a short Maddison pass was smothered by a goalkeeper quick off his line and a terrific Josh Knight cross only just eluded the division’s top scorer.
Tranmere also pressed hard at the start of the second-half before Posh hit them with a rope-a-dope 1-2 which Muhammad Ali would have enjoyed.
From a home corner, Louis Reed and Knight triggered a counter-attack which led to a fine Eisa finish across the goalkeeper and under two minutes later Joe Ward’s dash down the left wing and cross with his weaker foot was expertly converted by Toney.
Game over surely for a Posh team high on confidence and self-belief, and with a rock-solid back four? Er no. Letting Tranmere back into the game so quickly proved crucial and, after losing their comfortable advantage, Posh even had to change formations to match Tranmere’s during a frantic finale when both teams pushed pleasingly for a winner.
Pym made sure Tranmere didn’t get it at the death (he’d also thwarted Stefan Payne from close range at 2-0), while a strong block by Nelson on Eisa, Reed’s failure by an inch to score from 20 yards and substitute Siriki Dembele’s failure to get his head up when a 6-3 break was on ensured Posh didn’t get what would have been a rather fortunate three points.
Ferguson also pointed to video evidence that his side should have had a penalty for a foul on the ineffective Maddison in the first-half, but as referee Tom Nield declined to rule in the Posh star’s favour all night it was never goping to be given.
Posh: Christy Pym, Niall Mason, Dan Butler, Frankie Kent, Mark Beevers, Louis Reed, Josh Knight, Joe Ward, Marcus Maddison (sub Serhat Tasdemir, 76 mins), Ivan Toney, Mo Eisa (sub Siriki Dembele, 86 mins).
Unused substitutes: Conor O’Malley, Harrison Burrows, Idris Kanu, Rhys Bennett, Nathan Thompson.
Tranmere: Scott Davies, Liam Ridehalgh, Sid Nelson, George Ray, Manny Monthe, Darren Potter (sub Connor Jennings, 90 + 2 mins), David Perkins, Kieron Morris, Ollie Banks, Stefan Payne (sub Corey Blackett-Taylor 81 mins), Paul Mullin.
Unused substitutes: Luke Pilling, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, Harvey Gilmour, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.
Goals: Posh - Eisa (54 mins), Toney (55 mins).
Tranmere - Ridehalgh (64 mins), Banks (70 mins).
Sending-off: Tranmere - Mellon (manager, foul and abusive language).
Cautions: Posh - Pym (kicking the ball away), Mason (kicking the ball away), Reed (dissent).
Referee: Tom Nield 6
Attendance: 5,243 (229 Posh).