Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 13,629
JOHN ALDRIDGE has enjoyed many sweet moments in the FA Cup as a player, but few could surely have given him as much satisfaction as seeing his Tranmere team out-fight and out-play West Ham at Prenton Park yesterday.
The Londoners, filled with cosmopolitan swagger and internationals, were humbled by a club fighting debts of pounds 7m and a team that lives by its commitment and its wit.
Yet, given West Ham's sorry record on their travels and, in particular, in the FA Cup over the years, the result was truly only a little surprise. Once the slate-grey Wirral sky and Tranmere's determined mood and industry were taken into account, this, as Jock Stein might have said, was a day for boiler-suit football, not the stuff of dinner-jackets.
Harry Redknapp took defeat with typical dignity and honesty. "It's the first time this season, but I know the players have not performed and I have been upset. We were second best in everything and they deserved to win. We simply couldn't cope. Tranmere played well and they worked their socks off and they did things which we are not used to and we simply couldn't handle it."
Aldridge, grinning with pleasure, summed up the game in much the same way, but heaped special praise on his goalscorer, Nick Henry, who thundered in the winner with a perfectly-timed volley after 23 minutes. "It was a great strike and I felt very pleased for him in particular because he has had a very frustrating time," Aldridge said. "He's only had one reserve game in the last six weeks, but he made up for that today."
Henry was in the side only because suspension kept out Clint Hill, but it was a perfect opportunity for the Liverpool-born 30-year-old to revel in an occasion that was perfect for his and Tranmere's commitment. His goal came when Marc-Vivien Foe misdirected a defensive header towards him on the edge of the penalty area and he guided his shot beyond the reach of Shaka Hislop.
Until then, Tranmere had been the better side and made most openings with their throw-in specialist, Dave Challinor, creating danger every time he hurled his 50-yard deliveries into the West Ham penalty area. Redknapp had fielded a re-shaped team with a flat back four, but it still struggled to deal with the threat from the muscular Wayne Allison every time Tranmere came forward. Redknapp changed the formation after the interval by introducing Paul Kitson as a substitute for Steve Potts, but that, and the later introduction of Paulo Wanchope for a disappointing Paolo Di Canio, did little to alter the course of the contest.
Indeed, West Ham only forced Tranmere's goalkeeper, Joe Murphy, to make two saves at the end of each half. The first came when Frank Lampard met a precise cross from Steve Lomas and the goalkeeper smothered his close- range shot. And the second was in added time following a free-kick, taken by Trevor Sinclair, which resulted in Rio Ferdinand failing to score from close range.
Tranmere, who flooded the midfield and challenged everything that moved, fully deserved their victory, even if it came in the end with them fighting to survive a late bombardment. Their football was often the more fluent and certainly more dangerous than the "designer play" produced by Redknapp's team, which appeared not to be suitable for the occasion.
"I don't know why these things happen," Redknapp said. "It's been happening to West Ham now for 40 years or more. I remember years ago when Mansfield beat us 3-0 and that was with a team including Moore, Hurst and Peters. We've got to pick ourselves up now because it's an important match coming up on Wednesday."
West Ham's next fixture, like Tranmere's, is in the Worthington Cup quarter- finals. The Hammers entertain Aston Villa, but are not likely to relish the prospect as keenly as Aldridge's team, who will prepare for the visit of Middlesbrough on Tuesday by promising to deliver more of the same.