Somebody else’s party: Tranmere Rovers v Northampton Town

LUDICROUSLY early for a Bank Holiday Monday, the final day of the League Two season meant that fans up and down the country had to leave for their away trips incredibly early. Stevenage’s promotion-happy band, for example, were leaving for Barrow at around 4am. Northampton Town’s hopeful supporters were probably not far behind for their journey to Merseyside and Tranmere Rovers. Clearly, somebody wasn’t necessarily thinking of the football public when they decided on 12.30 kick-offs on a national holiday when trains are notoriously unreliable.

That didn’t deter the Northampton faithful, who travelled to Birkenhead en masse anticipating that their team would get the win they needed to secure automatic promotion to League One. It may have been a home game for Tranmere, but the only noise you could hear was coming from the Cowshed End from the 2,000-odd Cobblers’ fans. The home contingent seemed very subdued about their mid-table performance in 2022-23, but Mark Palios, the Rovers’ chairman, remained convinced the club’s strategy of focusing on young players and their development was the right one. Given the club’s revenues in 2022 amounted to £ 5.5 million, of which £ 3.8 million were consumed by wages, any club of Tranmere’s size has to look at this approach as a pragmatic way to operate.

Tranmere’s season has been a patchy one, but their home form has kept them away from danger. They also gave Newcastle United a hard game in the EFL Cup after a penalty shoot-out marathon (12-11 in their favour) against Accrington Stanley. Their crowds in 2022-23 fell to an average of 6,142 from 6,872 in 2021-22, but there were more than 8,000 inside Prenton Park for the vital game with Northampton. Tranmere, in 2022-23, were in their fifth season since returning to the EFL and their third consecutive League Two campaign after being relegated from League One in 2019-20. 

Prenton Park is one of those “walk in off the street” stadiums that used to proliferate the lower divisions of the Football League. It’s spacious, all-seater and mostly all-covered. It’s a somewhat homely place, one of those football grounds where, beneath the grandstand, the supporters sip their pre-match drinks and devour pies and burgers in expectation.

With so many travelling fans expected, there was a strong local Police presence and an air of vigilance. It didn’t seem to work very well, for despite the body-searching, Northampton fans managed to sneak in some pyrotechnics (where the hell do they put them?). There was a determined party atmosphere, but it could so easily have gone flat without three points, especially if Stockport County won their game at home to Hartlepool United.

Northampton were beaten in the play-offs in 2021-22, so gaining a League One place without the drama of knockout football was the big prize at stake. They were effectively denied promotion on goal difference after Scunthorpe fielded a weak side in their game against Bristol Rovers, lost 7-0 and in doing so, allowed Rovers to go up ahead of Northampton.

They had won three of their last five but had slipped up in their previous fixture at home to Bradford City. Their key man has been Sam Hoskins, a 30 year-old who netted 22 goals before the Tranmere game. 

The kick-off was preceded by the national anthem as Britain’s coronation celebrations continued into a third day. It was actually impossible to hear it and some people clearly didn’t realise it was taking place. The game started at a fast pace with the soundtrack definitely being provided by the visitors. 

It was leading scorer Hoskins that scored the goal that clinched victory and gave Northampton the promotion they craved. It came in the fifth minute and was a powerful, crisp well-taken volley. It sparked off riotous celebrations that included a couple of smoke bombs that engulfed the end of the pitch in pink.

Towards the end of the game, Northampton’s players seemed to be tiring but the fans kept urging them on for the final minutes. Over at Stockport, the score was 1-1 against already relegated Hartlepool. The home side missed a late penalty, which added to the tension in Birkenhead, but Northampton hung on to win and Stockport could only draw. The journey back to the old shoe-making capital of England looked set to be enjoyable, especially after the debacle of 2021-22.

As for Tranmere, their fans have already bought 2,000 season tickets, which is a vote of confidence for the club’s vision. It must be tough always having Liverpool and Everton on the other side of the Mersey tunnel, but equally, it was surely difficult for them on the final day of the 2022-23 season to be at somebody else’s party.

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