MATCH REPORT: Tranmere Rovers 1 Bolton Wanderers 1 - Tranmere win 4-2 on penalties
JERMAINE Beckford got off the mark – but those Wanderers fans looking for light at the end of the Birkenhead Tunnel would have been hard-pressed to find many further positives in a frustrating and overly complicated night at Prenton Park.
Forced into extra time and penalties by a League One side struggling for bodies and confidence, Dougie Freedman’s much-changed side was found wanting for the most part.
This one had been billed as a confidence-booster after defeats against QPR and Forest but proved anything but.
Beckford’s arrival brought a touch of class and level terms in normal time – likewise Andre Moritz added something that had been sorely missing when he came off the bench.
But try as they may they failed to break Tranmere’s spirit, and when Andre Moritz and Alex Baptiste saw their penalties saved, it was inevitable that the Rovers men made theirs count.
Freedman made eight changes from the side beaten by QPR, starting without a recognised left-back.
Alex Baptiste filled in for Marc Tierney – who, like Craig Davies was conspicuous by his absence on the bench – while Tyrone Mears was reinstated on the right.
Youngsters Josh Vela and Tom Eaves came in for their first start of the season, while the heroes of the last round, Rob Hall and Sanmi Odelusi were restored to the attack.
Freedman was forced into yet another last minute change when David Wheater picked up what appeared to be a knee injury in the warm up and was replaced by Zat Knight.
Little wonder, then, that Wanderers were all over the place for 60 minutes. And that was putting it mildly.
Tranmere had themselves been decimated by injuries and fielded just four substitutes. But it was the League One side who looked dangerous early on.
Wanderers sparked briefly into life 20 minutes in when Darren Pratley, back from suspension, worked the ball nicely to Mears on the right and his cross was volleyed just wide from Eaves via a deflection.
Hall went even closer a few moments later sending a snap shot dribbling inches wide of Owain Fon Williams’s right-hand post.
But the defensive frailties that have blighted the start of the campaign for Freedman’s side soon reared their ugly head again as James Rowe danced past the challenges of Mears and Baptiste to square a cross for Akpa-Akpro. Thankfully, his stabbed effort at goal found Andy Lonergan in fine form to tip the ball around the post.
Wanderers improved briefly in possession before the break but too often worked the ball into a good position out wide, only to waste the cross.
And as referee Stephen Martin pondered blowing for the half-time break, Stockton got the breakthrough that Tranmere fully deserved.
Knight got caught out of position leaving the Huyton-born striker to curl a composed shot around Lonergan to send the small Prenton Park crowd into ecstasy.
Just behind the cheers, the boos of some 1,000 travelling Wanderers fans could just about be made out as the half time whistle finally arrived.
You could hardly blame them. This was a much-changed side, yes, but one that should have been infinitely more creative in possession than was witnessed for the first hour.
There had to be a response, and one as dazzling as the bright new away shirts being sported for the first time.
Surprisingly, it was Matt Mills who signalled a sea change with a magnificent block on the edge of his own box to deny Stockton a second.
Moments later, Wanderers were cursing their luck as Tranmere keeper Fon Williams pulled off a magnificent double save from Pratley and Eaves to maintain the advantage.
Freedman threw on Beckford for Vela and Moritz for Odelusi – effectively his entire attacking arsenal – in an effort to get back into the tie.
And within seven minutes of entering the fray, Beckford snatched his first Bolton goal with a piece of superb opportunism.
Hall’s clever ball split the Tranmere defence and with Fon Williams bearing down, Beckford produced a clever flick to send the ball past the Welshman and inside the post.
The striker who had looked so browbeaten against QPR suddenly had his tail up – exchanging back-heeled passes with Moritz before lashing another effort narrowly wide with 15 minutes to go.
Wanderers poured forward in an effort to prevent extra time and Tranmere full-back Horwood was forced into an acrobatic clearance to hook an effort from Eaves off the line.
Pratley then thought he had won it by turning Hall’s cross home at the far post – only to be denied by the linesman’s flag.
Academy graduate Tom Youngs came on for his debut in extra time, looking lively against tiring legs.
But the extra 30 minutes was notable only for another goal chalked out by the linesman’s flag, this time for Tom Eaves.
Power made it 1-0 on penalties before Moritz saw his effort saved. Akpa-Akpro made it 2-0, Beckford 2-1 before Horwood crashed home to make it 3-1.
Matt Mills made it 3-2 before James Rowe piled the pressure on Alex Baptiste making it 4-2.
The defender saw his effort saved by Fon Williams and it was game, set and match.
Tranmere (4-4-2): Fon Williams 7; Holmes 5, Goodison 6, Taylor 6, Horwood 5; Power 6, Koumas 6 (Kirby 76), Atkinson 7 (Baggie 111), Rowe 7; Akpa-Akpro 7, Stockton 7. Not used: Maher, Mooney.
Wanderers (4-2-3-1): Lonergan 6; Mears 6, Mills 6, Knight 5, Baptiste 6; Vela 6 (Beckford 7, 59), Medo 7; Odelusi 5 (Moritz 6, 63), Pratley 6, Hall 6 (Youngs 95); Eaves 5.
Not used: Bogdan, Bolger, Spearing.
Referee: Stephen Martin (Staffs) Attendance: 3,379 (918).