When Tranmere Ruled League 1… For Two and a Half Months in 2012
For twelve games at the start of the 2012/13 season, Tranmere played some of the most electrifying football that the club had seen since the John King era, matching hard work with skill as they stormed to the top of the league. While somewhat ephemeral, it was also fantastic. Ronnie Moore had returned to Tranmere in March 2012 to arrest an alarming slide down the League 1 table. Replacing Les Parry after a run of 1 win in 20 matches, Moore galvanised the club, dragging them to safety with 6 wins and 4 draws from their final 13 games of the season. This run of form carried over the summer and into the start of the following campaign.
The bulk of the squad remained from the year before, allowing Moore to simply tweak what was already in place, rather than starting from scratch. The backline was built around Owain Fon Williams in goal, with Danny Holmes, Zoumana Bakayogo and Ash Taylor three quarters of a watertight defence that kept 6 clean sheets in their first 12 league games. The final piece of the jigsaw was Middlesbrough loanee Ben Gibson, signed to help ease an injury crisis in central defence. Gibson was largely unknown, a 19-year old graduate from the Boro academy with little league football under his belt. Not that this mattered. Gibson was the proverbial old head on young shoulders, with a comfort on the ball that stood him in good stead for a career further up the pyramid.
In midfield, Andy Robinson’s guile complimented Bakayogo’s pace from left back, with Robinson cutting infield and Bakayogo keeping the pitch as wide as possible with his overlapping runs. Moore had pulled off something of a coup by signing the highly rated James Wallace permanently from Everton. At just 20, Wallace had been handed the captain’s armband by his manager. Possessing a fine passing range, leadership and drive, Wallace was inspirational in the centre of the park. Alongside him, Liam Palmer arrived on loan from Sheffield Wednesday. Another relative youngster, Palmer was comfortable in possession and happy to keep circulating the ball with simple passes. Vying for the starting place on the right of the midfield four were Joe Thompson and Abdulai Bell-Baggie, both direct wingers harking back to the days of Johnny Morrissey and Pat Nevin.
The front two were Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro and Jake Cassidy. Cassidy had scored 5 goals in 10 appearances at the tail end of the previous season for Tranmere while on loan from Wolves. This run of form had convinced his parent club to allow him to return to Prenton Park for the first half of the next season. Akpa Akpro was a more maverick forward hailing from France and capable of producing moments of magic, as his song attested. Their different attributes worked well in concert, while permitting both to regularly find the back of the net.
What followed was as surprising as it was entertaining. Tranmere scored 29 goals in their opening dozen games, conceding just 8, and playing attractive, free-flowing football that propelled them to the top of the League 1 table. It was in stark contrast to Moore’s previous spell at the club. Operating with a comparatively limited budget, Moore assembled industrious sides that were often more than the sum of their parts, yet sprinkled with a touch of creativity. Despite their modest means, Tranmere finished 9th, 11th and 7th in successive years under Moore, with the play offs never being too far away. Indeed Moore spoke of his shock at being dismissed following his 3rd season at the helm.
On his return, Moore’s team played with a greater level of expansion that resulted in something of a goal glut, with Cassidy, Robinson and Akpa Akpro the men chiefly responsible, and Cassidy and Robinson both netting hat tricks by the start of September. While goals flew in at one end, the Taylor-GIbson axis was defensively sound at the other. The 6 clean sheets recorded from the opening 12 games was testament to that.
Opening the season with a resounding 3-1 home win against Leyton Orient, Rovers followed that up by beating Carlisle 3-0 at Brunton Park thanks to an incredible trio of goals from Robinson, that included two directly from free kicks. After salvaging a point away at Shrewsbury via a late Akpa Akpro goal, Tranmere then kept 4 consecutive clean sheets while putting four goals past Colchester, with Cassidy notching a hat trick of his own, and seeing off Coventry and Bury comfortably. An away trip to Crawley put Rovers in an unfamiliar position. Having gone ahead early, the Whites were suddenly 2-1 down. A surge down the left from Bakayogo, who picked out Cassidy, levelled the scores, before Akpa Akpro nudged the visitors ahead after the break. Cassidy pounced again to extend the lead, with Robinson rounding off the scoring as Tranmere came away from a barmy game 5-2 winners. Brentford’s 96th minute equaliser stopped the league leaders from recording a fourth straight victory, however it mattered little, as Moore’s men secured two away wins from their next two fixtures, against Scunthorpe and Notts County respectively. The win at Meadow Lane had come at a cost, however. Akpa Akpro had limped off with a fractured metatarsal and would be out for around 3 months. It was a precursor to what would ultimately derail Rovers’ season.
When Yeovil arrived at Prenton Park in mid-October they stunned all in attendance by racing into a 2-goal lead before half an hour had been played. Wallace headed home on the stroke of half time to cut the deficit and rally the home side into mounting a comeback. Just six minutes into the second half and Cassidy had drawn the hosts level, before Holmes completed the turnaround with 12 minutes to play.
The performance epitomised the early part of the season. Moore’s more usual attributes of grit and determination were blended with the creativity that had been on display throughout the campaign so far, to see his side collect 30 points from their first 12 games. It was a remarkable situation, made even more remarkable by the fact that Cassidy, Robinson and Akpa Akpro were all among the leading goal scorers in the division.
Ultimately, injuries would scupper the chances of the team fighting for promotion. Wallace was injured in an FA Cup tie against Chesterfield in December and spent nearly a year out, while Gibson, Robinson and Akpa Akpro all picked up lengthy injuries of their own. Cassidy’s loan was not extended and he played his final game for Tranmere that season on 1st January. The table toppers of late summer and early autumn would never get to play together again once Akpa Akpro hobbled off against Notts County. But what a late summer and early autumn it had been.