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Nationwide Division One, 11/11/00
Tranmere Rovers
Brazil 1970, Tranmere 2000
By Matt Rowson

One thing that I really find difficult to take is cruelty to animals. I just don't get it, don't understand the motivation and depths of cowardice that taking life's frustrations out on animals must require.

This was one of the many tough aspects of the trip to Ethiopia...horses, donkeys and cattle are prevalently used as pack-animals, and more than once we passed a horse in evident distress, rocking its head backwards and forwards in discomfort. The people have precious few rights and resources in East Africa, however, so making waves about the state of the animals was never really an option.

Even there, though, such tremendous depths weren't plumbed. I've never witnessed anything so horrific, so depraved. Hollywood never came up with anything as comic book evil as this. On Merseyside, for the past four-and-a-half years, John Aldridge has been trying to coax animals to play football.

Or at least one assumes that this is the general idea, but evidence to the contrary was provided in the summer. The second most tired commentator's note during Rovers' cup exploits last season (after the one about Dave Challinor's throw-inszzz) was the suggestion that Rovers weren't just long-ball merchants - they played football too. In apparent defiance of this claim, the ball-playing Irishman Alan Mahon left for Portugal and Sporting Lisbon, to be replaced by pit-bull Sean Flynn. With Paul Rideout amongst the other new arrivals, Aldridge's intentions were clear. Forget the football; let's just maul the buggers.

We shouldn't, perhaps, be too harsh in judgement over Aldridge and Rovers, however. After all, if it wasn't for their excesses of Easter Saturday last year (yup, only last year), our recent history could have been so different. But as it turned out, Aldridge whipped his menagerie up into a frenzy that propelled us from the stupor of 0-0 draws against Bury and Oxford and into the run of form that carried us into the Premiership.

Chief amongst the protagonists in that game was Dutch gorilla John Achterberg, who engaged in a comic pummelling of Allan Smart in the chaos that led to the Scotsman's dismissal. Achterberg has since lost his place to former Irish U18 keeper Joe Murphy, reputed to be interesting Liverpool.

Right-back Reuben Hazell, once of Aston Villa, will presumably have taken lessons off his Uncle Bob, who used to demolish forward lines for Wolves and QPR. On the left, Welsh international Gareth Roberts did the fashionable thing a few years back by leaving Anfield for south-eastern Europe, although Ronnie Whelan's Panionios rather than Graeme Sounness' Galatasaray was his destination. He's described as a bit hasty in the tackle, and for someone in this team to merit that sort of comment is saying something.

Centre-backs are Dave Challinor and Clint Hill. Challinor may be a surprise name to many, who could be forgiven for thinking that he's a specialist player, much like a kicker in Gridiron, introduced whenever Rovers win a throw in their opponents' half. No, he defends as well.

Hill, meanwhile, is the dirtiest player in the entire world, ever. He has allegedly calmed his game down a lot this season but has still managed to rack up seven yellow cards, a feat only matched in Division One by Tony Vaughan of Forest. It comes to something when your picture adorns the "Suspensions" page of the Official Site, irrespective of whether you're banned or not.

Other options at the back include versatile Welshman Alan Morgan and former Everton full-back Graham Allen whose confidence has taken a dip since he lost his place last season. Former QPR centre-back Steve Yates should return from a strained fetlock, whilst youngster Richard Hinds is also an option, although he has also been used in midfield. Ian Sharps is another young option in the centre.

In midfield, Jason Koumas has been on form in the last few games and appears to be a "playmaker", a situation that presumably won't be allowed to continue. Twenty-one year old Koumas has been approached by Welsh manager Mark Hughes to join the national squad, but he is also eligible to play for England and Cyprus, the latter of whom probably constitutes his best chance of making the next World Cup.

Alongside Flynn, winger Andy Parkinson is adding consistency to his occasional flashes of usefulness which have generally coincided with cup ties and TV audiences thus far. Wayne Gill is another wide option, recruited from Blackburn in the summer, and the boss's son Paul is also waiting in the wings. Winger Michael Black, sibling of Palace's Tommy, and Nick Henry, the second dirtiest player in the world ever, are both unavailable and loanee Des Hamilton has returned with injury to Newcastle. Expect to see him on loan to at least twelve of our opponents later in the season.

Up front is where Rovers have the biggest problems, with lack of goals hindering their progress thus far. Wayne Allison, "The Chief", is generally the target of long punts and throws, but following the departure of the delightful David Kelly it's not clear who plays alongside him. One-time Watford target Scott Taylor is one willing but impotent option, whilst Stuart "Jigsaw" Barlow is currently consigned to the bench having failed to impress since his summer arrival from Wigan. Paul Rideout is currently out with a hamstring strain, leaving Rovers most promising attacker as seventeen year old Ian Hume.

Rovers' cup triumph over Leeds will have given them a much needed boost, but without a win in nine league games the whites are sliding towards the foot of the table - face it, when you're below Wolves you know you're in trouble. Aldridge is reported by Teamtalk to be looking for a striker on loan before the weekend, which means he's probably decided to make do with what he's got. Those of you with delicate stomachs be warned. This one ain't gonna be pretty....