Crawley Town fell to a narrow defeat on Saturday afternoon despite a dominating performance that simply lacked the decisive touch.
Tranmere took the lead through Callum McManaman, who latched on to Lee O’Connor’s cross and forced a great save from Glenn Morris before tapping home the rebound just before halftime.
Crawley were reduced to little more than a few crosses throughout the game as the Tranmere showed why they have the tightest defence in League Two. The Reds’ best chance fell at the feet of Kwesi Appiah, who swept the ball goalward from a corner kick, forcing a smart save from the visiting goalkeeper, Ross Doohan.
Crawley Town boss John Yems made five changes to the side that lost at home to Port Vale last week, replacing George Francomb, Joel Lynch, Will Ferry, Nick Tsaroulla and Tyler Frost with Archie Davies, Tom Dallison, Ludwig Francillette, Ashley Nadesan and Jack Payne. This allowed for a formation change as the Reds reverted to the 4-3-1-2 that they lined up in against Scunthorpe.
The ground fell silent prior to kick-off, as we held a moment of respect in light of Remembrance Day. Wreaths were placed behind each goal by the two captains before the sides lined up around the centre circle – Crawley’s shirts adorned with a commemorative poppy – and The Last Post played out around the stadium.
On the referee’s whistle, the players dispersed, and The People’s Pension Stadium was filled with its usual concoction of chants and clapping as anticipation for the FA Cup fixture reached its peak.
The anticipation was clear to see amongst the players too as the referee’s next whistle started the game and the battle began. It took just two minutes for the first disciplinary to be dished out as Elliott Nevitt elbowed Tony Craig and picked up a yellow card for his troubles.
This set the tone for the opening 15 minutes as battles began to rage all over the pitch; Tom Nichols was tasked with causing Josh Dacres-Cogley trouble and Appiah and Nadesan took one Tranmere centre back each. Nevitt continued his pursuit of Craig and Francillette.
The competitive and fast-paced start saw Appiah go close with a header from Jake Hessenthaler’s cross and Liam Feeney almost gave the visitors the lead with his own cross-cum-shot that bounced inside Morris’ six-yard box and just wide of the post.
Nadesan then went on a fantastic run, knocking the ball in between two men and gliding through the same gap before delivering a low cross that snuck agonisingly through Nichols' legs without contact.
Hessenthaler then delivered another inviting cross but, again, there was no one there to take advantage. However, it was clear that Crawley were edging the fixture after the first 20 minutes.
The Reds remained in the ascendancy but struggled to create many more dangerous chances as Tranmere’s defence stayed stubborn.
Despite all this early pressure, the visitors claimed the advantage in the 38th minute when O’Connor put in a perfect cross that picked out the unmarked McManaman. His point-blank header was saved spectacularly by Morris, but, with the Crawley ‘keeper now in no man’s land, the midfielder simply tapped home the rebound after reacting quickest.
The tempo and competitiveness of the game all but disappeared in the second half as Tranmere employed the best tactic in cup football: posting nine men behind the ball to protect a slender lead.
It worked for the Super White Army, who reduced Crawley to a Jack Powell shot from outside the box and a Davies cross that was cleared over the next half hour of play.
Crawley swapped to a three-at-the-back formation as Frost and Ferry entered the fray to inject some life into what had been a somewhat uninspiring half of football so far.
It had the desired effect as the wider formation overloaded Tranmere’s full-backs and the Reds began to enjoy some luck down the right flank, winning a corner that created their best chance of the half so far. Frost swung it in, low, and Appiah swept the ball goalward, forcing a great save from Doohan in the Rovers net.
The Reds pushed and pushed for an equaliser they so greatly deserved but couldn’t muster up that decisive chance to take the game to a replay. Attention now turns to Tuesday night’s Papa John’s Trophy fixture against Southampton U21s.
REDS XI: Morris, Davies (Ferry 71’), Craig (C), Dallison, Powell (Frost 71’), Nichols, Nadesan (Bansal-McNulty 83’), Francillette, Payne, Hessenthaler, Appiah
UNUSED SUBS: Noukeu, Ashford, Kowalczyk, Marshall
Attendance: 1765 (278 away)