Match Report: Tranmere Rovers 2-1 Watford (AET)
By Kevin Affleck
It’s been a tough couple of days for the Hornets.
Floored by a last-kick-of-the-game effort in stoppage time at Villa Park, they were knocked out of the FA Cup in extra-time at Prenton Park. The defeat wasn’t as gut-wrenching as the one in Birmingham, as the stakes are much higher in the Premier League, but this one still hurt. You just had to see the disappointment at full-time to appreciate that. It was a high price to pay for not killing off the tie in the first game at Vicarage Road but this group of young players will have learnt more in the two games with Tranmere, and particularly this one, than they will do in an entire season of Under-23 football.
The disappointment at missing out on a fourth-round tie with Manchester United was clear, but the big plus was that the Hornets finished the match with six Under-23 players on the pitch, including an entire midfield four, while Kaylen Hinds helped changed the course of the game when he came on, scoring the equaliser and looking very much at home at this level. There was also the fact this hastily-put-together team showed the character to recover from going a goal down to take the game the full distance. It would have been easy to throw the towel in amid a febrile atmosphere.
In addition to the obvious benefits for the youngsters, Christian Kabasele was immense at the back and Nigel Pearson will know for sure he can count on the Belgian for the Premier League scrap. José Holebas got 120 minutes under his belt, Joäo Pedro showed flashes in his first start for the club while Callum Whelan grew into the game nicely.
The first half was a tough watch and was largely spent getting to grips with a pitch that was a world away from the manicured surfaces at the training base in London Colney. It quickly became evident that this was not an evening for playing through the thirds or the time for any neat interplay. It was roll-your-sleeves up type stuff and a case of getting it in behind the opposition defence and feeding off the scraps. It was never ever going to be pretty.
It was the perfect sort of game for Kabasele and he set his stall out nice and early by becoming embroiled in an early bit of rough and tumble with Morgan Ferrier, the muscular forward who started his schoolboy career with the Hornets and was plying his trade at Boreham Wood and Hemel Hempstead not that long ago. Domingos Quina and Whelan followed the Belgian’s lead and crashed into challenges in quick succession.
There were some promising signs going forward, too. There was a nice change of pace and shot from Joseph Hungbo, a lovely surging run from left to right by Joäo Pedro, a cross-shot from Quina and then a decent ball across the face from Whelan. That all came in the first 16 minutes, though, and things rather fizzled out thereafter. Indeed, there wasn’t a shot on target in the half as Tranmere upped the ante and turned the screw.
They had 67 per cent of possession and put the ball into dangerous areas. Corey Blackett-Taylor slammed one over left-footed while the very assured Daniel Bachmann made a good save from Kieron Morris and was then relieved to see Blackett-Taylor crash over the loose ball. The pressure was building and the goal was coming, and it duly arrived on 36 minutes. A corner from the left was not properly dealt with and Monthe, up from the back, muscled one in. Prenton Park bounced with delight.
It felt like Pearson needed to change something at the break and he did just that by sending for Kaylen Hinds, the Under-23 player whose physical attributes meant he was well suited to a game of this type. Within minutes, the Hornets immediately looked more forward thinking and fashioned their first shot on target. Joäo Pedro latched onto a flick-on from Gray, took a decisive touch and then hit one low and hard from the right that Scott Davies did really well to save. It was a big chance.
Fortunately, it wasn’t the only one. An effort from José Holebas smacked the angle of post and bar, spectacularly richocheting into the stands and then Hinds made sure on 68 minutes, crashing one in low and hard from a Holebas corner that caused havoc in the Tranmere box. Pearson celebrated with one of his fist pumps, presumably because his half-time sub had paid dividends and because of the desire shown when the ball was slung into the box, which was always where a game like this was going to be decided.
Sensing which way the wind was blowing, the ball was now coming into the box with regularity. Joäo Pedro got on the end of one from Hinds and then Kabasele was a whisker away from connecting with another delivery from Holebas at the far post. There was now a bit of bite about the Hornets’ play. Kabasele was over to remonstrate with Peter Clarke after a challenge left Joäo Pedro on the floor while Holebas was snapping into tackles and barking at anyone in his vicinity.
It wasn’t all plain sailing at the other end, though. Bayli Spencer-Adams was forced to make a couple of last-ditch clearances while Kabasele hacked one over his own bar in a move that had a few hearts in mouths. Blackett-Taylor then had the chance of the match to settle the tie before extra time but, thankfully, he planted his effort wide.
This was now shaping up into a cracking tie and there was no sign of either side coasting in extra time. Whelan forced a flying save from Davies while Holebas was causing havoc with his in-swinging corners. The match could have swung either way, it really was on a knife edge, and even headed to penalties, but Tranmere won it in the 104th minute through Paul Mullin. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but at least all focus can now shift to the league. This defeat won’t be remembered if Premier League safety is achieved.
HORNETS: Bachman (GK); Barrett, Spencer-Adams, Kabasele, Holebas; Dele-Bashiru (Hinds 46), Whelan, Quina (Wise 106); Joäo Pedro (Dalby 80), Gray (C), Hungbo (Bennetts 99).
Subs not used: Dahlberg (GK), Balogun, Janjeva.