Tranmere Rovers 1 Bradford City 2
The challenge was thrown down to the City dressing room in the wake of losing at Wolves.
Phil Parkinson’s troops were on the slide at the time – a bleak mid-season slump that saw only one win in four long months.
With 18 games to go, the spectre of being dragged towards the wrong end of League One was growing.
But the team meeting that followed did not discuss that gloomy prospect. The goal was set to finish in the top half.
City were just under the bar at the time in 13th and it was another 17 days before that pivotal home win over Port Vale released the pressure valve.
On Saturday, two goals in the final nine minutes secured the objective.
While the main focus naturally centred on Tranmere’s relegation, the victorious visitors could head for the beach basking in the glow of an 11th-place send off.
And pretty much everyone connected with the club would have taken that before a ball was kicked in their first year back in the third tier.
Fourteenth looked on the cards for so long after Tranmere’s ridiculously soft fifth-minute opener but those late strikes from Jon Stead and Aaron Mclean – one deflected, the other rocket-fuelled – ensured a late jump of three positions. Mission accomplished.
For Tranmere, the afternoon panned out as the nightmare scenario. They began the day in the fourth relegation slot and ended the same – only this time the trapdoor had slammed shut.
Infuriatingly for the locals, there were passages of hope and periods that suggested they would clamber free at the last moment.
Half the fun on these sort of occasions – as long as you’re not the ones locked in the battle – is watching the mood swings in the crowd.
The roars and groans go up as news filters through of goals from elsewhere. And there was plenty of that as every Tranmere ear was trained on the goings-on involving Crewe and Notts County, the two sides they could overhaul.
In the days of the transistor, it was common for the “phantom” cheer to go up to acknowledge something that hadn’t actually happened.
We even had a few seconds like that when the home support jumped for joy at news of another goal at Crewe – only to learn that it had been a second for their rivals. So instantly the tables turned with the 2,000-strong travelling City army taunting their response.
Ultimately, this result meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. Crewe’s win and a point for Notts County made any Tranmere reward academic.
But that only became apparent in the closing stages when City’s domination of possession finally broke through the white wall of resistance.
There had been no sense of hopelessness earlier as the teams emerged to banners proclaiming “One more battle”, “Make it count” and, simply, “Believe”.
And after a frisky opening from the Bantams, that Birkenhead belief went into overdrive when they were gifted a fifth-minute lead.
Handed is probably the more appropriate description after Jon McLaughlin’s attempt to palm Matthew Pennington’s loopy effort over the bar went horribly wrong.
Parkinson labelled it an “absolute shocker” and it was hardly the greatest advert for the ever-present keeper when his future, like so many others, comes under discussion in the next few days.
McLaughlin’s confidence certainly took a hit and he looked wobbly for much of the first half. He at least regained some composure as the game wore on, redeeming himself with one late tip-over from the same defender.
“We are staying up” boomed three sides of Prenton Park’s biggest audience of the season by far and they had good reason to think that Tranmere would do their side of the bargain.
Despite a wretched campaign, Rovers had the best record of any side in the division after scoring first. They had gone on to win 11 and draw twice on the 13 previous occasions.
But the adrenaline bubbled over into aggression and Tranmere paid the price.
Ryan Lowe was fortunate to get away with treading on Rory McArdle right in front of the City dug-out, who sprung to their feet to protest.
Goalkeeping coach Lee Butler squared up to Shaun Garnett from Tranmere’s backroom staff and he was slightly fortunate that referee Graham Scott only opted for a word with Parkinson to get his man to calm down.
But the official had no doubts about the punishment when Junior Brown recklessly slid into Nathan Doyle minutes later, reaching straight for his red.
It was a brainless act from the winger given his team’s position and yet some supporters still clapped him from the field. Doyle, who had done nothing wrong, was then booed solidly.
The red card predictably changed the dynamic of the game. Tranmere retreated into two solid banks of four behind Lowe with a “hold your ground” mentality.
Carlisle away was a similar scenario as another side at the bottom threw everyone behind the ball to protect their precious one-goal lead. Now Tranmere tried to do the same.
Parkinson preached patience to his players at the break. He was confident there would be plenty of the ball and urged them not to force the issue.
The wingers were encouraged to stretch the play, the full backs told to push further forward and take advantage of playing down a deceptively sharp slope.
Garry Thompson, probably appearing for the final time as a Bantam, made way for Kyel Bennett on the hour. Adam Drury, the steady loan arrival who could well be in Parkinson’s summer thoughts, was replaced by James Meredith.
Both substitutes had a part in the goals that subsequently turned this contest.
With scorelines going wrong for them everywhere else, Tranmere’s own finally imploded in the 81st minute.
Meredith’s low cross was blocked by Ash Taylor, diverting it into the path of Stead. His shot then struck the grounded centre half and the deflection took it beyond keeper Jason Mooney.
A fortunate break for Stead, maybe, but the only City goal on his short stay from Huddersfield was the icing on the cake after a week that also saw him become a dad to baby girl Sophia.
Tranmere were gone and City’s jubilation was complete five minutes later with a rapier effort from Mclean.
Bennett fed him the ball on the edge of the box and the striker let it run across him before rifling an effort into the far bottom corner. Mooney barely blinked as it flew past him.
A satisfying way for City to close the season; their goal had been achieved.