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Opinion

The 12 goal Tranmere v Newcastle TV debut / The 22 goal Toon Tranmere trilogy

2 years ago
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One night, looking through my video cupboard, a mate paused quizzically then brandished a cassette confusedly “what was the score in this?” – The SKC180 sticker on the front showed the number ’44’ and read ‘Tranmere v Newcastle’. “6-6” I responded.

There was a look on his face of not really having time for such childishness, yet not wanting to seem rude, as he was the one looking for a tape to borrow.

He insisted “No seriously”…“Seriously 6-6”. With a wry, suspicious expression and despite the risk of ruining his evening’s viewing plans, intrigue got the better of him and he loaned the tape.

It felt like archive, illicitly filmed proof of a game that otherwise, as shown, was lost in time, to obscurity and forgotten.

Taking place under the radar (and satellite) in the ZDS Cup on pre Premier League era Sky, the then home of The Simpsons, the World Wrestling Federation, Serie A and little else. What more could you want anyway?

The ZDS, nee Simod, formerly the Full Members Cup was a voluntarily entered cup competition involving a number of teams from the top two divisions, divided into Northern and Southern sections until the final. Crystal Palace were the then current holders, so it offered the only realistic unrealistic chance we had of success.

Opinion was canvassed for their preview show on the Friday by the Milburn statue, then located as with their number 9 legacies, just outside McDonalds.

Miles from that now, we went into the game in our lowest ever position in the relegation zone of the second tier. Whilst Tranmere were newly promoted and in their highest ever position of 8th in the second tier.

Conditions on the Wirral on 1 October 1991 were dark, drizzly and breezy. Shirts and netting ruffled and players bristled noticeably, uninsulated by the crowd, between plays.

We took an early lead through Clark in what was described in commentary, in a sign of the times, as “a shock lead”. This could be fun. Minutes later though, the non-Gulf War McNab veteran equalised and so set the pattern of the night.

Fielding a young side as we did every game now, this had a generational battle feel between the traditional club on the decline represented by boys Neilson, Scott, Elliott, Clark, Hunt (catching the eye of Big Ron on commentary), Roche, Peacock and Pav, against grizzled vets of a small club on the rise by the aforementioned McNab plus Aldridge, Steel, Higgins, Nixon and the other, and even older looking, Mark Hughes (Tranmere veteran, not the Man Utd one).

It was drearily predictable when Aldridge put them ahead via a customary defensive lapse but surprisingly pleasant and a little confusing, to come back and equalise through Quinn, making this game feel anybody’s. With 25 minutes gone and randomness abounding, I could imagine my mate now believing I might have been on the level.

However, deep in the second half with the goal glut stymied, apparent seriousness restored and confirmation that I was just messing about with the “6-6” stuff, the first good goal of the tie put us ahead and smelled like a potential winner. O’Brien (a future Rovers player) stormed through the midfield to set Peacock away to finish well.

There was great symmetry and fairness about this. In the league less than a month prior they’d beaten us 3-2 here. What’s fairness and symmetry though when it comes to NUFC in these times? They equalised fifteen minutes from the end and again things felt uncharted. Full-Time 3-3.

Spared the inevitable ignominy of a late winner against, as with the league game, we made it to extra time. Lulled. Two defensively shambolic goals were conceded to the hosts, completing a hat-trick of them on the night. That was surely game over now but crucially, on the stroke of the second half-time, Clark finishing to keep the near farce ticking over, 5-4 at HT of ET.

Peacock equalised from close range, then came an award of a penalty. Almost instantly I doubted whether we’d convert it. Emphasised by being effectively a kick to win the tie and ironically avoid penalties with just two minutes to go. Us prevail? Again with the ball dead, the conditions became more apparent. Wind ruffled the netting, noise carried in the night amidst all manner of other possible distractions and signs. Quinn converted and we were only going to win this daft game. What a story out of absolutely nothing.

Until then, the inability to avoid parity seemed natural. Now the referee was classically and probably literally levelling things up with a scandalous decision to thwart us. Played by Aldridge who uncannily (in both senses) with seconds to go, found it impossible not to stumble unconvincingly to the ground.

Justice could yet be done if Pav could pull off a penalty save, just as he had in the league game (another disgraceful award), but of course not. Deploying his customary cheating run up, the con converted and in doing so managed the near impossible of cheating immediately either side of the whistle.

I knew there was something suspicious when they hadn’t scored in the 89th or 90th minute. FT ET 6-6.

So penalties. In a way, the previous 120 minutes had been like a penalty shoot out. Their turn, our turn. Of course we lost (3-2 on penalties).

Just over three weeks earlier (7 September 1991), in the away league match at Prenton Park, Newcastle had led 2-1 at half-time  before a full house on a gorgeous late summer’s afternoon, that could scarcely have been more different to that later 6-6 ZDS match.

Tranmere player Tony Thomas then equalised and North-Eastener Steve Vickers with a late winner amidst suspect NUFC keeping.

We were still deep in relegation trouble by the time of the return fixture on 4 April 1992. Though at least it felt like we were trying to get out of it by then. The comically bad first half of the season had given way to existential serious concern and pressure.

Kevin Brock had recovered from the headache that saw him exit the ZDS game at half-time to bravely put us ahead but as so often in previous meetings things soon swung the other way. Two quick goals and a third deep into the second-half killed it. Though Brock fired in a good late second for limited false hope, it again finished 2-3 to Tranmere.

So 10 goals in three games that season against them and we’d lost every Tranmere v Newcastle game.

We’ve won all five since though.

David Kelly scoring the only goal at St James’ Park to give us a tenth straight win at the start of the 92/93 season. Then February 1993 an excellent 3-0 away win (Rob Lee(2) and David Kelly with the goals) in the league at Prenton Park.

The ’98 FA Cup run masked a major decline under Dalglish, Alan Shearer scoring the only goal of the game at SJP against Tranmere in February 1998 on the way to the final.

Kenny had then gone by the time his son Paul scored the winner in the League Cup at Prenton Park the following season (October 1998).

In 2000, again Newcastle were Wembley bound, this time under the management of Sir Bobby. Things felt like they were coming full circle. The day of that ZDS cup game I wore a PSV Eindhoven shirt, a birthday present, inspired by Bobby then coaching them, now he was getting us back to basics with another 3-2, this time in our favour – Speed, Domi and Ferguson getting the goals. Sadly, Newcastle picking out Chelsea rather than Bolton or Aston Villa in the semi-final draw, helping to deny NUFC a third FA Cup final in a row.

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