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Result: Forest Green 3-1 Tranmere Rovers
Date: Sunday May 14 2017
Competition: National League Promotional Final
Venue: Wembley Stadium, London
Forest Green secured promotion to The Football League, but Tranmere Rovers hearts were broken after a compelling Vanarama National League Promotion Final.
With a crowd of 18,801 looking on, many of them Tranmere fans, it was anybody's guess as to who would come out on top: Tranmere were unlucky to have missed out on the title (which Lincoln City scooped), but Forest Green had defeated Rovers in their previous meeting at Prenton Park, the last match that the whites had lost prior to this Wembley showdown.
Tranmere started the brighter of the two sides, but it was Forest Green who took the lead in impressive fashion: creating a chance seemingly from nothing, Kaiyne Woolery drove a fine low effort into the bottom corner, beyond the reach of Scott Davies, putting Forest Green in front on 11 minutes.
From there, Tranmere looked to slow things down in order to regain control, though The Green still looked dangerous on the attack. It was a relief for the Super White Army, then, when Connor Jennings grabbed an equaliser with the goal of the game, a superb shot which fired into the roof of the net to a rapturous response from the large number of Tranmere fans on hand at the capital. At 22 minutes, the game was very much on now.
Each side had their chances to snatch what would have been a crucial goal to take into the rest period, with the best chance coming to James Norwood following a mix-up at the back for Forest Green, but Sam Russell blocked the close-range effort with his knees in a vital recovery. Similarly, Davies pulled off a superb save of his own, just tipping away an attempted chip by Keanu Marsh-Brown and, at the same time, stopping Christian Doidge from putting in the rebound, which he almost certainly would have done.
Just when it looked like it would be honours even going into half-time, though, Forest Green hit a one-two sucker punch. Firstly, Doidge took a chance on the edge of the Tranmere area, and his shot headed straight into the corner of the net on 41 minutes. That being said, this goal was shrouded by controversy, as a foul by Mark Ellis on Jennings in the Forest Green half wasn't given, and the move which led to the goal stemmed from this incident.
However, it was a lapse in concentration which created the decisive goal on 43 minutes: Liam Ridehalgh, who has been consistent all season, took too much time in considering his options and he lost the ball to Woolery, who coolly put the ball underneath Davies to give Forest Green a 3-1 lead going into the break.
Tranmere's cause had quickly evolved from confidence to optimism to hope, but it was clear when the two sides kicked off for the second half that the wind had been well and truly taken out of Tranmere's sails.
Getting a second goal within the subsequent 10-15 minutes was crucial if Tranmere were to mount a comeback, but whilst they came close on numerous occasions (Andy Mangan missed an incredible chance to find the net from mere centimetres out from a goalmouth scramble created by a corner, and after Russell dawdled on the ball thus losing possession to Jennings, Cole Stockton's effort was too high, thus missing a glorious chance to get his side back into the game), they just couldn't find the break-through and, despite top scorer Andy Cook being sent on to try and salvage the game (why he wasn't starting in the first place, and hasn't done in weeks, remains a mystery), it was clear as the final 15-20 minutes approached that it wasn't going to happen.
Forest Green, for their part, still looked to catch Tranmere on the break and they still looked dangerous whenever they were going forward, knowing that a fourth goal would have well and truly sealed the game. As the second half wore on, Forest Green chose to implement some of their more familiar (and some would say "unprofessional") tactics to help wind the clock down a little more, frustrate Tranmere that little bit more, and generally end any hopes of a fightback by the whites.
Nevertheless, whilst the closing stages weren't without their moments, a comeback didn't look like it was on the cards, and so it proved as Forest Green won the game 3-1, leading to wild celebrations from players and fans, and their promotion to the Football League, where they will join champions Lincoln City in League Two. A big goal can go a long way in a game like this, and whilst the first three goals were all pearlers, the fourth goal proved most crucial, emphasising that it doesn't matter how you get the goals on a stage like this, so long as you get them.
It was hard to deny that Forest Green deserved the win, as they took clear control of the game once they established a two-goal margin, and their play for the first 60 minutes was eye-catching and the sign of a confident, organised team. However, you couldn't help but feel for Tranmere, who had worked tirelessly to achieve promotion in some form or fashion, only for their opportunity to slip. In particular, the error by Ridehalgh was cruel considering how well he has played this season. Had Tranmere gone into the break only one goal down, I feel that they would have been able to pull it back to 2-2 at the very least; the third goal was a killer, and they simply couldn't break down Forest Green during the second half.
It's easy to wonder how things may have been different if not for Lee Vaughan's broken leg which prevented the popular defender from playing here, or if the aforementioned Cook (with 23 goals to his name this season) had been given the chance to start, or even if Lincoln had been unable to ride their luck in the final few weeks of the season which netted them the title. But Tranmere should take confidence from a season which has been mostly positive and progressive and, since the Super White Army won't have to worry about facing their two toughest challengers next season, it is hoped that they will be able to take that final step towards returning to the Football League come the end of 2017/8. As for Forest Green, they've now achieved that dream, and they will get a chance to prove their worth in League Two next season. Getting into the Football League is one thing; in 2017/8, they'll get the opportunity to prove that they can stay there. Right now, though, things are looking good for The Greens, and they will enjoy this Wembley triumph for some time.
Man Of The Match: Kaiyne Woolery. Getting a big goal in a huge Wembley match is some achievement; getting two is even better. And that's what Woolery did, whose first goal brought Forest Green to life, and whose second goal effectively sealed the win.
Tranmere Star Man: Connor Jennings. Arguably Tranmere's most popular player amongst fans, Jennings delivered a fantastic equaliser at a crucial time. Whilst it's a shame that they weren't able to take the lead after that, Jennings' moment brought the Super White Army at Wembley to life, and re-ignited their hopes of a famous victory.