Tranmere Rovers vs. Hartlepool United.
Tuesday 17th May 2005.
League 1 Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg.
Tranmere Rovers vs. Hartlepool United.
For many, choosing a favourite Tranmere game may be easy. After all, despite the recent hardships on the pitch there is a proud and celebrated history that surrounds Tranmere Rovers Football Club. From the 0-1 League Cup win away at Arsenal on 2nd October 1973 to the 0-3 away win at Merseyside neighbours Everton on 27th January 2001 and the various trips to Wembley sandwiched between the two, there are a multitude of possible candidates for supporters to nominate as their favourite Tranmere game. These games go down in history as amongst the club’s greatest ever achievements and live on in the memories of those fortunate enough to have been involved.
However, what does a favourite game look like to someone who didn’t get involved in supporting the club until after these momentous occasions had already taken place? Don’t get me wrong, my Dad used to take me to the occasional game during the 1990’s, but I never really started going to the games on a regular basis until the 2002-03 season and as such we have almost always been a Division 2/League 1/Third Tier side during my time supporting the club (a position I’m sure most people would bite your hand off for now). I watched the 2000 League Cup Final on TV and I followed the superb 4-3 Southampton comeback via Teletext and Ceefax due to illness, but I hadn’t yet become a ‘fan’. Tranmere were the local side and I wanted them to do well, however I didn’t see them as my team. Thankfully that changed when I started attending more regularly.
So, ruling out most of what I will presume are the ‘obvious’ candidates, I sat down and really thought about which post-2002 games stick in my memory and a few came to mind. There was a thrilling if unsuccessful 4-5 defeat against Bradford City in 2004 and an ‘almost-comeback’ against Colchester United in 2008 when we came from 1-4 down to lose the game 3-4 (and included one of the best goals I’ve ever seen at Prenton Park from on loan Ryan Shotton). The atmosphere at the opening game of the 2007-08 season against newly relegated Leeds United was amongst the best I can remember but in the end I managed to narrow it down to a choice between two games: An amazing 3-3 draw at home to Cardiff City in 2003 and the 2005 Play-Off Semi-Final second leg against Hartlepool United. Both games are special, but in the end I leant on the side of the Hartlepool game.
There are many reasons why this game is my personal favourite. To my knowledge, the attendance of 13,356 is the largest crowd I have been a part of for a league match and the atmosphere was electric. I can still remember the pre-match remix of the Chemical Brothers’ Galvanize, including commentary of various Tranmere goals, used to give the stadium a shot of belief that we could turn around the 2-0 first leg defeat at Victoria Park. The team sheet contained one of the best starting line-ups I have had the privilege of watching represent Tranmere, with players such as Ryan Taylor and Iain Hume going on to play at a higher level and others such as John Achterberg and Ian Goodison staying to cement their places, in my opinion, as Tranmere legends. It wasn’t just those 4 players though, the whole team was full of quality and had played some of the best football I’ve seen at Prenton Park throughout the 2004-05 campaign. This game was the culmination of a season that included many great displays, for example the 1-5 away win at Wrexham in January 2005, and it was fitting that we would finish the season with what I believe was the best display of them all.
There is always a danger when looking back at events to see them through rose tinted spectacles, but to me, this was the most one sided game of football I have ever seen. The 2-0 score line doesn’t do justice to just how many chances were created in front of the Hartlepool goal that night. Iain Hume, Eugene Dadi, Paul Hall – everyone was playing their part and creating chance after chance in an effort to claw back the 2 goal aggregate deficit. Yet, despite all of the pressure being exerted upon the Hartlepool goal, goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos stood a literal and figurative giant in reply. On that night, he produced one of the finest goalkeeping displays I can remember witnessing and the efforts of the Hartlepool rear guard meant the game went past an hour at 0-0. It just seemed like it was never going to happen until a 70th minute foul on the edge of the Kop-end penalty area gave Ryan Taylor, a set-piece specialist, the chance to take a free kick within shooting range. From my seat in the Johnny King Stand I watched the ball head towards Konstantopoulos’ bottom right hand corner and hit the post before somehow squeezing its way into the net. The ground erupted and at 1-2, Hartlepool faced the prospect of 20 minutes of even greater pressure and Tranmere duly delivered.
That being said, it wasn’t until Mark Rankine miscontrolled the ball on the edge of the area that substitute David Beresford was able to run onto the loose ball and curl an 87th minute effort just inside the left hand post. 2-0 (2-2 on aggregate) and the whole stadium went into a frenzy. This is the only goal celebration that has ever left me injured, a stray watch hitting me just above the eye as arms punched the sky and waved around in celebration. The goal earned Tranmere a period of extra time their 90 minute display had more than merited and although they were not as potent during the additional 30 minutes, they still created the better chances to avoid a penalty shootout. However, it wasn’t to be and the penalties were taken in front of an expectant Kop – we had the better players, we had the better record over the course of the season and, most importantly, we had the momentum of coming from 0-2 down on aggregate. Ultimately Ryan Taylor’s and Ian Sharps’ misses meant Hartlepool captain Ritchie Humphries was able to slot home the winning penalty and shatter any hopes I had that we would be going to the Play-Off Final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Never before had I been so proud and so disappointed at the same time: Proud of the display I had just witnessed and disappointed that such a talented squad had not achieved what they could have. That being said, this still represents the closest Tranmere have been to achieving promotion during my time following the club and, if you disregard a 24th place First Division finish in 2001, it represents the most league ‘success’ too. I have yet to see a game since in which we played as well or created as many chances, but hopefully one day an opposition manager will give a similar interview to those below, given to the BBC after the game:
“I’m delighted, I’ve got great belief in these players and our back four and the keeper were outstanding. Full credit to Tranmere, they battered us. They are a quality team and they showed it…It was an exciting game but it didn’t go to my plan and I aged tonight”
Martin Scott, Hartlepool Caretaker Manager.
“I could not have asked for more. We did everything we could have done. Everybody played well, worked hard and I thought we played some outstanding stuff at times. I thought we were the better team by far…”
Brian Little, Tranmere Rovers Manager.
In reviewing the game for this article, I noticed something that had escaped me at the time – the referee for this match was Euro 2016-bound Martin Atkinson and this match was the last game he officiated before being promoted to the Premier League for the following season. I can only assume the powers that be witnessed the game, saw the standard of play put on by Rovers and decided Mr. Atkinson would be able to handle the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal! Hopefully one day Rovers can also share a league pitch with the Premier League giants.