All the goals came in the last 17 minutes, one of them to Kerry Dixon on his Millwall debut, and they helped redeem much of what had gone before in a scrappy and only fitfully exciting encounter. Tranmere had the chances to win and were clearly the classier side, but Millwall's greater willingness to battle proved decisive.
Perhaps the seeds of this outcome were sown last week when the transfer deadline loomed. John King, the Tranmere manager, has largely stuck with the squad that took his team into the play-offs in 1993 and 1994 and saw no reason to get busy in the market now. Millwall, by contrast, were at the centre of dealing activity, receiving £2m from Liverpool for the 18-year-old Mark Kennedy, and recruiting Dixon on loan from Luton.
On the face of it, this did not look like an inspiring move, for all that it swelled Millwall's coffers. But Mick McCarthy's hunch that the 33-year-old striker could inject some life into a team that had lost four matches on the trot was vindicated by a typically wholehearted performance from Dixon, which he capped with the goal that gave Millwall their initial breakthrough.
Tranmere could have done with that sort of application themselves. They appeared to have quelled Millwall's fire and enjoyed their best spell towards the end of the first half, during which Chris Malkin missed two excellent chances and Kenny Irons hit the woodwork.
Had Tranmere been able to maintain their momentum, the misses might not have mattered. But when, midway through the second half, the game began to drift, it was Millwall who realised it first and swung into action.
The tentativeness in front of goal that was to cost Tranmere dear was demonstrated after only four minutes when Jon Kenworthy, brought in on the right wing to replace the injured John Morrissey, was well placed to shoot but took an unnecessary first touch.
After that, not much was created at either end until the 38th minute, when Malkin broke free at the near post but headed Kenworthy's cross wide. From an even better opening that followed almost immediately Malkin shot too close to Kasey Keller in the Millwall goal and when the ball ran free, Irons was unlucky to see his effort strike the junction of post and bar.
Dixon, meanwhile, was seeing quite a lot of the ball, regularly outjumping his markers if not doing a great deal of damage with his flicks and nudges. But when Jason Van Blerk struck a 73rd-minute corner to the near post, Dixon's striking instincts needed no honing, his header catching the Tranmere defence completely off-guard.
Tranmere hardly had time to stage a recovery before Andy Roberts, in the 78th minute, appeared to wrap it up by shooting past an unsighted Eric Nixon from Dave Savage's cross. Chris Malkin promptly pulled one back from the edge of the six-yard box with his 17th goal of the season but his first away from home, and he might have equalised in the closing moments had not Ben Thatcher, Millwall's outstanding left-back, moved swiftly to dispossess him.
Tranmere, though, had left themselves too much to do and having failed at the last for two seasons running now look as if they could well make it a hat-trick - especially with matches against Bolton, Wolves and Middlesbrough still to come.Reuse content