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Nationwide Division One, 28/4/01
Tranmere Rovers
Three hundred and thirty-six
By Matt Rowson

"Have you got it here?" he asked in a whisper. "I can't help feeling curious, you know, after all I've heard. I should very much like to just peep at it again."

"Yes, I've got it," answered Frodo, feeling a strange reluctance. "It looks much the same as it ever did".

"Well, I should just like to see it for a moment," said Bilbo.

While he had dressed, Frodo found that while he slept the Ring had been hung about his neck on a new chain, light but strong. Slowly he drew it out. Bilbo put out his hand. But Frodo quickly drew back the Ring. To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him.

"For Christ's sake John," he said, "Give it up and go and play some golf".

Saturday will be the three hundred and thirty-sixth and final league match played at Vicarage Road under the management of Graham Taylor. The season before he first took over, Watford had finished eighth in the old Fourth Division, some eight points and four places below Tranmere Rovers. The scale of his achievement cannot be done justice by mere words, although the best attempts of Watford's fanzine writers have been making a reasonable stab at it (for further details, click here).

Whither next for Mr.Taylor perhaps even he doesn't know. Every emotional bone in my body pleads with the fates to keep him at Vicarage Road in some capacity. Most of the logical bones as well. But... it's not difficult to understand GT's reservations. The spectre of Brian Clough, looming ghoulishly over the City Ground, is something Graham has mentioned more than once.

At least his successor will not have to tolerate the childish self-indulgence currently being suffered by Ray Mathias and Kevin Sheedy, stand-in custodians at Prenton Park. John Aldridge's repeated "attempts" to resign (what's the difficulty, John?) smacked badly of attention-seeking; now he appears on every second chat show and on local radio on Merseyside giving his view on Rovers ("our") predicament. Calls on Rovers message boards have been for a new boss with a new broom...the first use of which will presumably be to clout Aldridge around the head to give the new incumbent a fair stab at replacing the intemperate former manager.

Saturday's draw with Crystal Palace confirmed Rovers' first relegation in twenty-two years (whilst helpfully nudging the Eagles further into the mire also). Much misplaced romanticism on the part of the national media (with special guest, John Aldridge) has been imploring in astonishment how Rovers' league position can be so poor given their excellent cup achievements. A more fitting question may be how on earth such a limited side conjured up the cup performances in the first place. In some ways, Tranmere's relegation is inevitable: when a footballing side stops winning, they have the option of digging their heels in and scrapping. When a side's game plan is built on scrapping, they really have nowhere to turn when the chips are down....

In goal for Rovers will be Joe Murphy, steadfastly preferred by the caretaker team to Dutchman John Achterberg, a key antagonist in the battle of Vicarage Road two years ago. Achterberg seems to feel hard done by to be on the bench, perhaps with justification.

At the back, Sheedy and Mathias have at times fielded five, at times four defenders. The brutish Clint Hill is the most accomplished of the centre-halves, and one of the players tipped for a move in the summer. Alongside him, the experienced Steve Yates, veteran of previous relegations with QPR and Bristol Rovers. Alternatively 37-years-young Richard Jobson, whose final game for the Hornets was in our shocking capitulation at Prenton Park in November, or Dave Challinor, he of the very long throw. Further options in an unusually strong area for Rovers are the right-sided Reuben Hazell and youngster Ian Sharps.

Regular right-back Graham Allen is out with a groin injury suffered in the defeat at Loftus Road recently; out-of-contract in the summer, it appears that he has played his last game for Rovers. On-loan Blackburn Rovers defender Jeff Kenna fills in in his stead. On the left, Welshman Gareth Roberts makes up for in aggression what he lacks in pace, whilst the emerging James Olsen (not the photgrapher from the Daily Planet, one assumes) provides cover.

In midfield, Jason Koumas is attracting plenty of attention with Celtic, Fulham and Blackburn rumoured to be among the interested parties. Unless, of course, O'Neill and the rest have been watching the objectionable Sean Flynn, a gritty chopper in the middle of the park. Micky Mellon, in his second spell at Prenton Park, has so far been thoroughly ineffectual, whilst another loan signing, Wolves' Simon Osborn, seems to want more time than Division One midfields are allowing him. The versatile Richard Hinds and gritty Alan Morgan are further options, but the destructive Nick Henry has a shin problem.

The occasionally brilliant Andy Parkinson is a wide option, but Wayne Gill is out with an ankle problem, and is reputedly on the verge of joining Blackpool, for whom he had a good loan spell last season.

Up front, exciting but unpredictable Senegalese striker Seyni N'Diaye returns from a three match ban on Saturday. Veteran Paul Rideout, star of Rovers' dramatic cup victory over Southampton, and 32-year-old Stuart Barlow are also options. Wayne "the Chief" Allison has not weighed in with his regular goal tally this time round, although the energetic but profligate Scott Taylor has done.

This is Rovers last away trip as a Division One side, at least for the moment. Their performance on Saturday earned them an ovation, but the record states that they've only won one of the last fourteen. As for the support, outlook is split between those optimistically looking forward to derbies with Wrexham and Bury (yeah, right) and those who are already planning next season's title celebrations. Just like we did, the year before we finished thirteenth in the Second Division.

Saturday, however, is all about one man. And it isn't John Aldridge. The Taylor-made army is defending its turf for possibly the final time....