Road To The Title
Junction 33 — Leyton Orient Away
On Saturday 10th February 2018, Tranmere's Road to the Title makes a further stop, this time at Junction 33 and Leyton Orient away. Three years, nine months and sixteen days after Rovers' last trip to Brisbane Road, a 2-0 defeat to the O's on 26th April 2014, it is safe to say that both clubs have a had a spectacular, indeed somewhat similar, fall from grace.
That fixture in April 2014 was a League One showdown, Tranmere's last League One awayday and penultimate third-tier fixture before successive relegations saw the Super Whites slip from the top of League One in January 2013 to the National League by August 2015.
Fast-forward a matter of months and Leyton Orient were themselves beginning a slide of similar proportions, from 3rd-place and losing League One play-off finalists in May 2014 to National League competitors by August 2017.
Whilst Tranmere didn't suffer the same off-field issues that have plagued Saturday's opposition, they have had their share of drama since they last made the journey to the capital. If you combine the two clubs' recent history since that April 2014 meeting, it's a record that is enough to make even the most hardcore fan wince, including 4 combined relegations (2 each) and 19 combined managers (Tranmere 7, Leyton Orient 12).
Thankfully, Tranmere have started to put that slide into reverse, coming close to a 2016-17 promotion that would have seen them swap places with the O's, losing-out to both Lincoln City and Forest Green Rovers. This term, they sit just 2 points and 3 places from the automatic promotion position and take their quest to go one better than last season into Saturday's match.
Although both Tranmere and Leyton Orient have extensive Football League tenures written into their respective history books, they have not crossed paths as often as one may think over that time. Partly due to the regional nature of the old Third Division, and partly due to differing fortunes on the pitch, the two sides have played just 39 times, with Tranmere holding a slight advantage with 19 wins to Orient's 17 victories.
The most recent game between the two sides came back on 4th October 2017, Rovers coming from a goal down to win the game 2-1 thanks to Cook and Norwood goals. Over the past 5 matches, Orient have been slightly in the ascendancy with 3 wins to Rovers' 2 wins.
Away from Prenton Park, you have to go back to 13th August 2011 to find Tranmere's most recent win at Leyton Orient, a 0-1 result secured thanks to a 60th-minute David Buchanan goal.
When the two clubs met back in October, Leyton Orient came to Prenton Park above Tranmere in the National League table, Rovers' awful start to the season seeing them rise to just 14th in the table after their victory over the O's.
Since that day, the two sides have endured vastly differing fortunes, with Tranmere climbing to 4th in the table, just 2 points from the summit, whilst Leyton Orient have floundered in the lower-reaches of the division, coming into the game in 17th position — exactly the same place they found themselves after their loss at Prenton Park.
That should not fool anyone into thinking they are the same team, however, with new manager Justin Edinburgh transforming a side that had slipped perilously-close to relegation and instilling some newfound, upwards momentum.
In the 6-game form guide, Orient sit 13th with a record of P6 W2 D2 L2 PTS8. In the 10-game form guide (9 of which were under Justin Edinburgh), they are in the top-half of the table in 12th, their record reading P10 W4 D2 L4 PTS14. In comparison, Rovers are 8th in the 6-game guide, with a record of P6 W3 D2 L1 PTS11, whilst their recent improvements are highlighted in the 10-game form guide, where they sit in 1st-place with a record of P10 W7 D2 L1 PTS23.
With Orient currently on a 3-match winless run at home and Tranmere enjoying a 3-game unbeaten sequence on their travels, title-chasing Rovers enter the game with the superior form and momentum.
Keys To Victory
Keeping Macauley Bonne quiet will help Tranmere enormously, although they are not simply a one-threat team, with the likes of Mooney and Holman also waiting to pounce on any mistakes. Whilst Tranmere have both Andy Cook (14 goals) and James Norwood (13 goals), alongside Connor Jennings (7 goals), to help fire them to success, Orient do appear to rely upon Bonne to secure victories, with the forward scoring 15 of their 39 goals so far. He is 11 goals ahead of their second-top-scorer, Craig Clay, who has just 4 goals.
Considering both sides' respective 3-match streaks, an early goal for Rovers could impact confidence enough to secure a psychological advantage early in the match. If Tranmere do score early, it's hard to see how Leyton Orient could score twice against one of the National League's best defences, which would be the minimum needed to win the game thereafter.
Given Rovers' current scoring form, especially the dual threat of Andy Cook and James Norwood, you'd struggle to back against them scoring at least twice, meaning they should have enough to take at least a point from this fixture, although a victory is obviously the desired, and required, result. The result appears to depend upon which Tranmere turns-up on the day, as they have been found wanting on several occasions on their travels this season.
As the aforementioned 19-combined managerial changes between the clubs highlights, there has been a (quickly) revolving door of personnel at both sides in recent seasons. Somewhat curiously, none of those who have left Prenton Park have made their way into the opposition squad for the upcoming fixture, a rarity in modern times and at this level in particular.
Notwithstanding the lack of Rovers connections in the Leyton Orient ranks, there are a number of recognisable faces vying for a starting berth on Saturday. Players such as George Elokobi (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Jobi McAnuff (Cardiff, Watford and Reading) and David Mooney (Orient) have a wealth of experience in the Football League and Premier League and will prove dangerous players to deal with on the day.
Whilst they are playing in the fifth-tier for the first time, Orient's squad possesses experience of this level, with Alex Lawless winning the National League Title with Luton Town in 2013-14 (alongside Rovers' captain Stephen McNulty) and Dan Holman securing the title with Cheltenham Town in 2015-16, as well as finishing the 2015-16 season as the National League's joint-top-scorer with 30 goals.
In Macauley Bonne, they also have the second-top-scorer in the 2017-18 National League to date.
Two clubs fallen on harder times. Two clubs with ambitions to return to their rightful home as quickly as possible. Two managers who have achieved success, both at National League and Football League level.
With Rovers travelling to Leyton Orient, a venue where they have not won for six-and-a-half-years, the momentum appears to be in Tranmere's corner. It is important to note that both sides have been hindered by their respective starts to the 2017-18 campaign and without such early woes, this match would probably be being contested between 2 promotion rivals as opposed to 17th vs 4th.
Leyton Orient under Justin Edinburgh have seen a significant improvement, with notable successes over promotion candidates Sutton United (4-1), Dagenham and Redbridge (2-0) and Dover Athletic (FA Trophy 3-4) in recent weeks. They should not be underestimated, with experienced management and players able to hurt Tranmere should they be anything less than thoroughly professional.
There is no doubt that, on form, Tranmere have the advantage and if they play to their maximum potential, the result should be positive for the SWA. As is always the case with Tranmere away from home this season, that remains a massive 'if'.
The current unbeaten away run of 3 matches is a positive step, as was the very commendable draw at league-leaders Wrexham on their last away trip. It will be a hard-fought match, but Rovers should have enough to beat Leyton Orient on the day.
Prediction: Leyton Orient 1 – 2 Tranmere Rovers.