Aldershot Town made it back-to-back wins over the Bank Holiday weekend, with Monday’s 2-1 win at Dover Athletic following the 2-0 home win over North Ferriby United 48 hours earlier. However, Gary Waddock’s side faces arguably their toughest test of the season so far on Saturday, with league leaders Tranmere Rovers visiting the EBB Stadium. BBC Surrey’s Gavin Denison previews the action.
I would argue that the National League game at Crabble on Monday was the best I’ve seen at this level for quite some time. Both sides went hell-for-leather for all three points, with Aldershot Town eventually hanging on for the win. The visitors took the lead through Shamir Fenelon after 21 minutes, who capitalised on a defensive error, with Liam Bellamy heading in from an elaborate corner routine 21 minutes later. Will Evans and Jake Gallagher both had shots saved by Steve Arnold before ex-Shots loanee Ross Lafayette scored a superb free kick in stoppage time. The second period saw Matt McClure hitting the crossbar just after the hour mark, whilst Jake Cole made a trio of excellent saves from half-time substitute Ricky Miller. The joy and relief at the final whistle amongst the away fans was palpable.
The win gave Gary Waddock’s side a total of thirteen points from their first seven games, which leaves them 5th in the embryonic National League table. Remarkably, it’s the latest in a season that the Shots have been in a Play-Off place in any division since the end of the 2009-10 campaign in League Two. Their points total is also their highest in any month since they notched fourteen points in eight games in March 2012. The club’s good early season form has, of course, been based on their home record, where they have nine points from nine with no goals conceded. It’s the first time in Aldershot Town’s history that they’ve won their opening three home fixtures without conceding a goal.
Tranmere Rovers were formed in 1884 and were founder members of Division 3 North in 1921. That started an unbroken 94-year spell in the Football League that had some incredible highs along the way. A Division Three North title in 1937-38 led to one year in the second tier of English football, a level they returned to in 1991. Their decade in the Championship saw three Play-Off appearances and a League Cup Final defeat in 2000 to Leicester City. The Wirral side dropped into the bottom tier with a defeat on the last day of the 2013-14 campaign, before finishing dead last in League Two twelve months later. Their first National League campaign ended with a 6th-place finish, two points from the play-offs.
Rovers have started this season in fine form, topping the table after seven rounds of fixtures with six wins and one draw. Seven of their nineteen points have come on their travels (wins at Boreham Wood and Bromley, plus a draw at Southport in their last away fixture), which is the best record in the National League. In fact, Tranmere Rovers’ are currently on a club record fifteen-game unbeaten stretch on the road (nine wins and six draws), which dates back to a 4-1 defeat at Woking on 24 November 2015. Their total of just three goals conceded also tops the division’s defensive standings. This continues their form of the 2015-16 campaign, where only three teams conceded more than their 44 goals.
Gary Brabin, who took charge in May 2015, was pleased with his side’s return to winning ways on Monday thanks to a 1-0 win against Guiseley. Speaking to the Liverpool Echo, he said: “They put up a bank of four and a five in front of that and came here to frustrate us. We started really bright and created a couple of good chances… at half-time we decided we weren’t going to start chasing the game, we were going to be patient and believe in what we were doing and the chances would come. I wouldn’t say it was a classic, but it was a really good professional, solid performance and the pleasing thing for me was that there are times when it’s easy to charge out of position, but we kept the ball really well and were patient.”
For the third game in a row, Gary Waddock made four changes to his starting personnel, plus a shift in the team’s formation. Jake Cole replaced Mark Smith in goal after missing four games with a back problem, whilst Nick Arnold came in for Anthony Straker at left-back. Jim Kellermann was preferred to Josh Wakefield in a three-man central midfield, which also included Jake Gallagher, who was left out of the win over North Ferriby United because of a back problem. That meant that Scott Rendell was named amongst the substitutes (as were Smith, Arnold and Wakefield) and Matt McClure started as the sole central striker. The Shots boss did add to his squad during the week with the arrival of Chelsea Under-21 defender Dion Conroy. The 20-year-old, who can also play in midfield, will remain at the club until January 2017.
Jack Saville has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury and is aiming to be back for this weekend’s fixture, whilst Kellermann will be assessed this week after going off on Monday with an ankle problem. The only definite absentee will be last season’s top scorer Charlie Walker. Whilst he hasn’t needed surgery after damaging his ankle ligaments in pre-season, he will be unable to take part in any footballing activity for at least a month, meaning it’s looking unlikely that he’ll feature for the first team until the start of October at the earliest.
Gary Brabin has been able to keep a relatively settled squad over the summer, with four players coming into the club and ten others moving on from Prenton Park. The Rovers manager has certainly strengthened his attacking options since the end of last season, with the top scorers from Barrow (Andy Cook, thirty goals in 2015-16) and Wrexham (Connor Jennings, fourteen goals last season) moving to Prenton Park. Fellow striker Darren Stephenson has arrived from National League North side Chorley, whilst left-sided midfielder Jeff Hughes joined from Cambridge United. Amongst the players who have remained with Rovers are goalkeeper Scott Davies; defenders Steve McNulty, Michael Ihiekwe, Lee Vaughan, Liam Ridehalgh and Ritchie Sutton; midfielders Steve Jennings, Lois Maynard, Jay Harris and Jake Kirby, former Shots winger Adam Mekki (scored six goals in 100 Aldershot Town appearances between 2009 and 2014) and last season’s 21-goal top scorer James Norwood, who’s already scored five times in the current campaign, including the winner at Guiseley on Monday.
A number of last season’s fringe squad members have moved on from the Wirral, mainly in the defensive areas. Martin Riley (Wrexham), Liam Hogan (Gateshead), Matt Hill (Bradford Park Avenue) and Marcus Holness have all left Tranmere Rovers, whilst some have departed at the other end of the pitch as well. Young striker Cole Stockton has moved to League Two club Morecambe on a six-month loan deal, whilst Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Johnny Margetts (Lincoln City, now Scunthorpe United) and Michael Higdon have also left the club, as has midfielder Jack Mackreth, who’s signed for Macclesfield Town.
As things stand, Brabin will have a fully-fit squad from which to choose for the trip to Aldershot on Saturday.
Aldershot Town and Tranmere Rovers have only met twice in the league, with the first game taking place last September at Prenton Park. Sam Hatton gave the visitors a fifth-minute lead, before Rovers replied with goals from Norwood, Mekki and Andy Mangan to secure all three points. At the EBB Stadium in February, the two sides played out a goalless draw. They also met in two Second Round FA Cup matches in late 2009. The first game on the Wirral also finished goalless, with both sides entering the replay knowing a home tie against Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers awaited the victors. However, that seemed to inhibit the home team who defended poorly to give up a 2-0 lead. Oliver Bozanic got a goal back in the 90th minute, but it was definitely a missed opportunity for a cup upset.
Tranmere Rovers did play 32 league games against Aldershot FC between 1961 and 1987, with all but four taking place in the old Fourth Division. Overall, the Shots won thirteen, lost twelve and drew seven of those fixtures. Of the sixteen encounters in North-East Hampshire, Aldershot managed nine victories, three defeats and four further draws. The Shots most recent win was a 3-1 victory on 15 April 1986 in a Fourth Division game.
Saturday afternoon’s referee is Carl Brook from Sussex, who is in his first season on the National Referees list. This season he’s officiated in two National League fixtures, showing nine yellow cards and no red cards.
BBC Surrey’s Mitch Mansfield and Rob Worrall of the Aldershot Town media team will be covering the game on Saturday afternoon. Tune in to 104.0 & 104.6 FM or DAB from 2.10pm for team news and pre-match interviews, followed by full match commentary via the BBC Surrey website and BBC Sport app from 2.50pm.
You can also contact us throughout the afternoon via Twitter. Tweet your predictions and thoughts on the game to @bbcsurreysport