Tranmere make it three in a row

FOOTBALLTranmere Rovers1Middlesbrough1
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The Independent Online
Tranmere Rovers may not be that accomplished when it comes to reaching the Premiership, but when it comes to the play-offs it is a different matter. For the third year in succession, they got their ticket for the end-of-season lottery, and fingers, toes, and anything that can be crossed will be on the Wirral.

This point was enough to ensure that they would pip Barnsley for fifth place in the First Division, no matter how many goals the Yorkshire team scored, and the only point in doubt was their opponents. During yesterday afternoon's match, that identity changed several times before the roulette wheel came to a stop and Reading (first leg at Prenton Park on Sunday) emerged.

As a spectacle, it beat Bert Millichip plucking balls from a bag, but once it became clear that Barnsley could not intrude on the top five positions, that was what we were watching: a glorified cup draw.

Not that these teams treated this match as a glorified friendly. Middlesbrough had pride and a championship celebration to put a zest in their tackles, while Tranmere could attack with abandon once the tension had been eased after six minutes with the scoreboard flashing that Barnsley were losing. Kenny Irons and Jan Age Fjrtoft scored, but there could have been many more goals.

The first almost arrived after two minutes when Steve Vickers, a former Tranmere player, thumped a header against the home bar from John Hendrie's cross, while Chris Malkin headed just wide of the Middlesbrough goal six minutes later.

It was a surprise that the game had to wait until first-half injury time before the breakthrough came. Tranmere's first corner was touched on by Ged Brannan, and the Middlesbrough defence stood like training cones while Irons rolled the ball into the net through a tangle of players.

At that point Tranmere were heading for second place, but that was transformed by an equaliser which belonged to the rich tradition of cock-ups that has been nurtured at Prenton Park in the closing stages of the season.

The substitute, Gary Jones, had been on the pitch only 30 seconds when he was called upon to head the ball back to his goalkeeper. It was a relatively simple task which he accomplished with some aplomb, except that Eric Nixon had inexplicably chosen to leave his line to challenge his own player. The ball looped over him, lapped against the post, and Fjrtoft applied the final touch.

After losing to Swindon and Leicester in the play-offs in the last two seasons, the expression "third time lucky" was no doubt springing to the minds of the Tranmere players.

Tranmere Rovers (5-3-2): Nixon; Thomas, Garnett (Jones, 60), McGreal, Stevens, Brannan; O'Brien, Irons (Kenworthy, 82), Nevin; Aldridge, Malkin. Substitute not used: Coyne (gk).

Middlesbrough (5-3-2): Miller; Cox, Pearson, Vickers, Whyte, Morris (Freestone, 70); Moreno, Liddle, Stamp; Hendrie, Fjrtoft. Substitutes not used: Hignett, Pears (gk).

Referee: A Flood (Stockport).