BY RICHARD KNIGHTWELL
There's something about the cyclical nature of football. When I was 11, my Dad took me to the old Wembley stadium to see Tranmere Rovers win promotion in the play-off finals. Nearly thirty years later I took my Dad, now well into his seventies, to the new Wembley to see Tranmere battling once again.
But in the grand cycle of football, the biggest Wembley victory is merely a transition to a new season. And so this Saturday, Tranmere have a slightly less glamorous trip down south to Cambridge United's Abbey Stadium, the twenty-sixth time the two teams have faced each other in football's ever-unspooling tapestry. It isn't a significant fixture to most. But as an expectant father with a kid on the way, I can't help think of the last time I stood in the same ground, exactly 26 years ago almost to the day, with my Dad.
On that day Tranmere scored a strange goal that for some reason sticks in my head to this day. It wasn't the greatest goal ever scored. My Dad's still a Tranmere season ticket holder, and if you asked him or the other life-long Prenton Park faithful they might wax lyrical about screamers scored by contemporary heroes James Norwood and Andy Cook, or before them a host of legends in Tranmere's white and blue. John Aldridge. Pat Nevin. Ian Moore, Muir or Hume. Some fans might even recall the Roy of the Rovers-style last-ditch goal by Gary Williams that saved the club from non-league devastation in the dying breath of the 1986-87 season.
But for some reason, of the goals I personally have seen, I keep thinking of the one scored by Neil McNab for Tranmere away at Cambridge United on 6 February 1993.
John Aldridge was leading the early-90s team that took Tranmere on giant-killing promotion and cup campaigns. Things were going well for Aldo's Rovers: we were second in Division One and looking over our shoulder. I was 12 years old.
I went to a lot of grounds like Cambridge when I was a kid, or Watford, or Swindon - having been born on the Wirral, my Dad's job took our family to the south-east for a decade of my young life, and although he'd taken me to Tranmere's own Prenton Park a couple of times we saw most of our football at away games. As a child, these southern away days were a link to a northern home that felt unknowable and distant.
The cycle repeats even now: living in London, I've continued the slightly thankless travelling tradition at Stevenage, Dagenham, Ebbsfleet and Boreham Wood. These games are still a link to my Merseyside roots, and more than ever to my Dad. Having spent time there, I've come to know my home. Strangely, it's my father who remains unknowable and distant.
That afternoon at the Abbey Stadium in 1993, Chris Malkin's blistering pace and Pat Nevin's cunning on the wing were stymied again and again by Cambridge's notorious offside trap. Every time we went forward, Cambridge's back four sharply pushed out, leaving our strikers marooned. The flag went up every time. Cambridge were smart and disciplined, but to my young eyes it was hellishly frustrating. Unfair, even.
What happened next is almost lost to history. There isn't even grainy YouTube footage, even though 1993 was just yesterday, wasn't it? But by all accounts, it wasn't a great goal. Certainly not a thirty-yard screamer or a cup final clincher. In fact, the almost comically bitter match report in the Cambridge Weekly News described Neil McNab's 88th-minute winner as "cartoon capers", "straight out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon". Even the Birkenhead News admitted "Lady Luck Shines on Rovers" when describing the "fortuitous bounce" that carried Ian Nolan's free kick over the keeper's head for McNab to tap in.
I don't remember it as a fluke. What I remember is this:
In the game's dying moment, the two teams lined up once again for Tranmere's free kick. The cunning defenders were poised to spring forward and leave Aldo and his comrades stranded in no-man's land. And as the free kick was lofted forward, Cambridge once again zoomed out from goal.
Except this time, Tranmere's forward line zoomed out with them.
And as Cambridge rapidly exited the danger zone, they could only watch Tranmere's midfield zoom past the other way. This time, instead of leaving Tranmere dead in the water, Cambridge's chicanery parted the waves.
And lo, up stepped Neil McNab, tenacious 35-year-old Scottish midfielder, waltzing into the box unencumbered by defenders. Neil McNab, scoring one of only six goals from over a hundred outings in a Tranmere shirt. A goal that's stayed etched in my mind ever since.
Maybe Lady Luck did have a hand in putting the ball at McNab's feet. But for me, as an impressionable kid, the devastating simplicity and ingenuity of Tranmere's manoeuvre blew my mind. Lucky or not, McNab's tap-in was the cap to a perfectly executed piece of practiced teamwork.
The selflessness of the goal-hungry strikers in selling the feint. The craftiness of the ploy. The shrewdness to deploy it at the exact right moment.
We'd faced what seemed like an impossible obstacle, battering our heads repeatedly and frustratingly against an insurmountable barrier. And then, with a moment of clear-sighted and obviously well-drilled calculation, we outfoxed the enemy. Goals are often stand alone vignettes - a few deft passes teeing up a final strike - but this felt like the culmination of a narrative that unfolded over the whole match.
88 minutes of frustration was the set-up. This was the pay-off.
It felt like deliverance.
Thrillingly, cathartically, we had unlocked the door.
This microcosm of persistence and reward will be familiar to Tranmere fans today. In 2015, 94 years of proud tradition came to an end as Tranmere ignominiously spiralled out of the Football League. During the next three years in non-league exile it sometimes felt like we were battering our heads against an insurmountable challenge. But under owners Nicola and Mark Palios, the club consistently pressed to return. After relegation, Tranmere finished one place below the play-offs. The second year ended with a near-miss at Wembley. And the third year? Another trip to Wembley - and deliverance. Thrillingly, cathartically, we unlocked the door.
But this is football. That glorious day was just the beginning of a new cycle.
Which brings us to Saturday, as Tranmere once again face an opponent they've faced many times before. I'm making the same journey I did 26 years ago. My Dad won't be there this time, but in a few months I become a father. Maybe one day I'll take my daughter to Wembley, or at least Prenton Park, which is better anyway. From my Dad to me to the kid I can't wait to meet, the cycle continues.
Having taken a coaching position in the US team with Atlanta's Chiefs Futbol Club, Neil McNab sadly suffered a stroke in 2017. His family have set up a GoFundMe page where contributions are welcome.
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