A year ago Forest Green were vowing to come back stronger after losing last season’s promotion final to Grimsby Town. They were as good as their word and, while the Gloucestershire club may be hard to pinpoint on a map, their name will become considerably more familiar when they make their Football League debut in August.
This was a deserved victory over a frustrated Tranmere side that made crucial errors at both ends and the damage was done in a thrilling first half that swung both ways before opening up decisively. Kaiyne Woolery, a right-winger of considerable promise, was the hero with two of their goals, the first of which was among three that fitted their stage perfectly.
If the best of these shoot-outs are frayed affairs that blend quality and calamity in equal measure, for long periods this ticked every possible box. The floodgates opened when Woolery, who had already wriggled to the byline once, made a contribution of greater substance from infield. Perhaps Tranmere were confused by his drift into a deep pocket of space just inside their half; either way Woolery should not have been allowed to turn and drive forwards, his run culminating in a true left-footed shot from 25 yards that thudded low to Scott Davies’ right.
The Forest Green supporters who had migrated to a vacant block behind the goal from their allocated positions in Wembley’s north-east corner could not have been rewarded with a better view. They were comfortably outnumbered by their Tranmere counterparts and the roar was accordingly far louder when, with the Birkenhead team struggling to respond, Connor Jennings produced his own bolt from the blue in the 22nd minute. His first touch from Lois Maynard’s lay-off sat the ball up perfectly; the second was an old-fashioned thump into the roof of the net from a similar distance to the opener and the momentum appeared to have shifted.
It might have done so definitively had the Tranmere forward James Norwood, running on to a loose defensive header, not been denied by the legs of Sam Russell. Jennings then centred inches in front of Andrew Mangan after a fine piece of control, and between those two chances Davies had shown noteworthy athleticism to palm a Keanu Marsh-Brown lob from under his crossbar.
Davies could do little when he was beaten from range again four minutes before the interval. A Tranmere attack faltered and, amid vain appeals for a foul, they were stretched by a diagonal ball from Liam Noble. Christian Doidge had pulled out to the left, isolating the substantial figure of Stephen McNulty, and with the defender backing off he cut inside before cracking in the game’s third exceptional goal.
A more conventional finish followed quickly and turned a conundrum into a nightmare for Tranmere. Their captain, Liam Ridehalgh, will lose the most sleep; it was he who, dithering when given ample chance to clear a Doidge flick-on, was pickpocketed by Woolery. The loanee from Wigan Athletic, so sharp throughout, was sent clear and never looked remotely like missing.
An more outrageous piece of slapstick should have given Tranmere a route back nine minutes into the second half but their centre-forward Cole Stockton, having halted Russell’s attempt to dribble the ball out of his box, could only shoot above the vacant posts.
Stockton also went close with two headers in a riposte that was the least Tranmere required. Their opponents still carried a sporadic threat but were happy to stall the game to their liking. A yellow card to Dale Bennett for delaying a throw-in was one consequence of the tactics they employed, but the more significant upshot was an expertly-managed slow burn to the final whistle. When it arrived, that pocket of Forest Green fans were ignited into rapture.
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