The Luke of Love: The timely return of Luke McCullough

Source: Twitter @TranmereRovers

Although this season was always going to be a challenge after back-to-back promotions, the solid foundation that had helped propel Rovers from the fifth to the third tier has been conspicuous by its absence this season. There are numerous reasons for this collapse of the rear guard which has meant that Rovers have conceded almost as many goals at this stage of the season than they did for the whole of last season.

There’s the frailty at set pieces, especially when it comes to winning the first header, which shows how much Rovers have missed the physical presence of Mark Ellis. Although Sid Nelson is technically as good in the air as Ellis, he does not possess the same physical presence. But even Nelson is more commanding in the air than George Ray, who has been especially weak at defending set pieces yet, strangely enough, has been rather good at attacking set pieces (he gave Coventry a particularly torrid time during the spell where Rovers could have levelled the game on New Year’s Day).

In the defensive wide areas, Rovers have been undone either by a lack of pace or physical presence. Jake Caprice has the pace but not the physicality, as Lucas Akins demonstrated time and time again in the Burton game, and Liam Ridehalgh has the physicality but not the pace and has only looked most assured when playing on the left hand side of a back three. Only Callum Woods and Kane Wilson look like redressing this balance, though their extended time out through injury and/or suspension hasn’t helped Rovers’ cause this season.

Another player who has struggled for form is Scott Davies in goal. By the time he tore his groin against Accrington, there was a sense in which his confidence had all but gone. Davies was rooted to his line when Accrington took the lead, and a constant theme was the Rovers defence withdrawing into deeper areas to compensate for Davies’ lack of presence in the six yard area. Plus Davies’ long kicks for the most part failed to find a white shirt, thus inviting pressure from Accrington all over again.

In stark contrast, Luke Pilling had come on and had immediately shown how proficient he was in his handling (another worry where Davies is concerned), commanding the six-yard box and finding a white shirt with his long kicks. Added to this, the back line seemed a whole lot more assured with Pilling than they were with Davies, which you would not expect given the unforeseen circumstances in which Pilling was introduced. Unfortunately, instead of giving Pilling a chance to stake a claim for first choice goalkeeper, Micky Mellon decided to bring in Aaron Chapman on emergency loan from Posh ensuring that, when Davies is fit once again, he will return straight back to the first team.

But for all of these issues, the fact is that throughout this campaign Rovers’ defence has been subjected to the footballing equivalent of carpet bombing due to the lack of a key layer of protection in the middle of the park. You can have the best defence in the world but if they are under constant attack and pressure then they will concede regularly. Too often Rovers’ back line has simply been sitting ducks this season.

This is where Luke McCullough could make all the difference. I say could as there are question marks over his fitness after two long term spells out with injury in recent years. Added to this, there is no doubt that League One has been an unforgiving environment for Rovers and a significant step up from League Two where McCullough was so effective last season.

However, it would be easy to forget McCullough’s impact for Rovers following his injury against Carlisle at the end of a magical March in which Rovers had won every game they played in. McCullough’s absence was especially felt after Rovers lost 2–0 to Oldham through goals by the man who could and perhaps should have replaced James Norwood in Callum Lang. But that’s another story.

McCullough isn’t that quick. He isn’t especially strong. He doesn’t cover every blade of grass. He’s not the best passer. He isn’t even that good a tackler. But what he does have is something rare and, given Rovers’ position, crucial, which is the ability to anticipate danger and make his presence felt to snuff out that danger and protect the back line. He’s also the most composed player I have seen in a Rovers shirt since Ian Goodison.

As good as Ellis and Manny Monthé were at the back last season, McCullough was so key in ensuring that the opposition did not get time or space in that corridor of uncertainty between the backline and the midfield. It wasn’t just the concession of just 13 goals at Prenton Park that provided the foundation for Rovers’ success last season, but the lack of clear-cut opportunities afforded to their opponents. That was what McCullough brought to the table.

After lasting an hour in the Checkatrade last night, I just hope and pray that McCullough at the very least makes the bench for this weekend’s six pointer against Southend. But with Nelson a doubt after coming off injured during Rovers’ loss to Leicester Under 21s and the uncertainty over Manny’s immediate future, there’s a strong case to start McCullough on Saturday and show what it is Rovers have missed so far this season.

No pressure Luke.

Footy Anorak & Terrible Photographer.