I think it's fair to say that every club has had/still has one or more ‘bogey’ sides. And we are no exception.
Over the years, the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, and not least our dear rivals from Tyneside, among one or two other clubs, have proved to have been ‘a thorn in our side’ at one time.
But jinxes do surely have to end sometime, and thankfully that has proved to be the case with the aforementioned clubs – indeed, when we chalked up six in a row, this seemed a rather apt and convincing way with which to end the mags’ apparent domination of Tyne/Wear & Wear/Tyne derby clashes!
But one other club that proved to be a bit of a stumbling block for us during one period of time, was Tranmere Rovers, certainly on their own patch.
And I can’t quite put my finger on why (the Merseyside air maybe?), but nine visits to Birkenhead during the 90s/early 00s, produced just one win. For we suffered five successive league defeats, starting on our initial visit to Prenton Park in 1991-92 through to 1995-96, a sequence only broken by a 2-0 win near the end of season 1997-98. However, we then went down 0-1 on Boxing Day 1998 (thankfully, just the second of only three league defeats in the whole of our record-breaking season of 1998-99), while 0-1 was also the outcome in both our FA Cup Fourth Round ties at the same venue, in 1998 and 2000.
And the latter in fact was to provoke a fair amount of controversy, due to an apparent mix-up on the part of the officials. Or was it?
Tranmere had started the game encouragingly, and their enterprising play was rewarded in the 25th minute when a free-kick from Dave Challinor caused confusion in our defence, and skipper Wayne Allison took full advantage, beating Thomas Sorensen with a well-placed volley.
But we nearly drew level shortly afterwards, when Nicky Summerbee put over a perfectly-flighted cross to find Kevin Phillips, whose point-blank header was somehow cleared by Clint Hill. Rather ironic maybe, as Hill was to be at the centre of the controversy that was to follow in the second-half.
But the home side continued to call the tune, and both Wayne Allison and Jason Koumas both went close to extending their side’s advantage, though we were not without our chances. For Kevin Phillips twice headed narrowly wide of the target, while Nicky Summerbee and Alex Rae also had good chances – the former slicing an effort over the bar from a good position, while Rae’s fine header forced a great save from Rovers keeper John Achterberg.
One down then at the break, and after the interval we proceeded to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at Tranmere in our bid for an equaliser.
Chris Makin was denied twice, first by another great save by Achterberg, then by a despairing Tranmere leg after a goalmouth scramble. But Tranmere were not without further chances to increase their lead, and our former striker David Kelly was denied by Thomas Sorensen, while our frustration seemed to tell, when Paul Butler was booked, following an altercation with Rovers Gareth Roberts.
So as the game edged towards its conclusion, and our hopes of FA Cup success for yet another season vanishing rapidly, came the flashpoint in the game. And it all started when Clint Hill was sent off after receiving a second yellow card, this time for dissent after being penalised for a foul on Alex Rae, which seemed quite fair/straightforward enough.
However, just as Hill was leaving the field, so Tranmere sent on their substitute Stephen Frail, a defender, who was intended to replace Andy Parkinson. But rather oddly, Parkinson remained ON the pitch, and Frail instead took the place of the dismissed Hill. Thus Tranmere, in spite of having a man sent off, were still left with ELEVEN men on the pitch. A bit of a contradiction in mathematical terms, for I always thought that eleven minus one equalled ten, not eleven!
It was a few moments before this oversight became apparent, but when it did, there was not surprisingly a rather heated stand-up row on the touchline, involving the coaching staff and officials. Stephen Frail was eventually hauled back off, though this had no effect on the outcome of the game, as Rovers, who’d already accounted for our Premiership counterparts Coventry, Middlesbrough and West Ham earlier in the season in The FA/Worthington Cups, held out for another piece of cup giant-killing, albeit in a rather controversial manner.
Perhaps it could be argued that the incident occurred too late in the match to have had a direct bearing on the result. Then again, and before he was taken back off, Stephen Frail had made a clearing header from inside the home penalty area, near the end of the game, as we strove for an equaliser, to try and keep our FA Cup hopes for 1999-00 alive.
But when all was said and done, the bottom line was that intentional or not, Tranmere appeared at the time to have breached a rule of the game. An investigation into the matter was carried out by The FA, however, and disappointing/unjust as it may have appeared at the time, Tranmere were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, the result stood, with the incident apparently attributed to a mistake on the part of the officials, whom I gather were subsequently suspended.
Thus our involvement in the FA Cup once more ended rather prematurely, though it has to be said, in rather disappointing/controversial circumstances, as our Prenton Park hoodoo struck once again.
So now that we were out of both cup competitions in 1999-00, we were left to concentrate 100 per cent on bettering our Premiership form, which had taken a bit of a wobble in recent times, though the events at Prenton Park, on 8 January 2000, would surely leave a bitter taste in our mouth’s for a while yet. And even now this rather forgettable game is now consigned to the SAFC history books, it was nice to come out on top in our latest cup meeting with Tranmere, when we also of course finally ended our Wembley drought.
What goes around, comes around, I guess ….