TRANMERE'S last-day escape from the jaws of relegation under the leadership of sponge man-turned-manager Les Parry demonstrated the enduring power of football in the lower divisions to pull at the heartstrings.
Rovers did more than just secure their place in Coca-Cola League One next season with an emphatic win at Stockport County; they wrote a happy ending to a campaign of struggle that also developed into a love story in which the club and its supporters lost some mutual faith and then embraced each other again in a way which we have not seen since the halcyon days of Johnny King and John Aldridge.
More than 3,000 people – the largest contingent of fans to travel to a Tranmere away match since 2001 – sang and cheered their way through an afternoon that turned out to be a good deal less tense than it could have been.
Their exuberance in invading the pitch at the end prevented any kind of gesture of thanks from the players, although Parry broke off a pitch-side media interview to clamber onto a wall to make a joyful wave.
Rovers are liable to get a bill from Stockport for a new crossbar to replace the one split into two by the fans.
Many supporters did not want to leave the Edgeley Park ground until they witnessed that salute from the man who rekindled the fire of their emotional commitment to the club and guided the team to a place of safety – by just a single point.
The long-serving physio proved a success in both roles over the last seven months by remaining true to himself.
Parry worked closely alongside enough good managers over the last two decades to understand the job and the need to delegate in the technical areas to coaches Shaun Garnett and Wayne Allison. He also brought a lifetime's experience of being a fan to a situation that required some PR work.
Taken on its own, the achievement of guiding Tranmere to a 19th place finish and 51 points, after inheriting a team that had taken seven points in the first 11 games of the campaign, earns Parry a nomination for the Prenton Park Hall of Fame.
But he did more than revive a struggling team – Parry pulled the Wirral public in behind the club and created the climate for a surge in proactive backing from the local supporters trust that has begun to open up exciting possibilities for the future. The prospect of that brighter future could have been compromised by relegation. As much as team performances and results steadily improved under Parry's regime, the threat of dropping into League Two persisted to the extent that Rovers went into the final round of matches occupying a bottom four place.
Staying up required Tranmere to follow an all-important 2-0 home win over promotion-chasing Millwall by completing back-to-back wins for the first time this season at the expense of bottom club Stockport County.
There was much that could have gone wrong on the day. But in the event, very little did.
The team fulfilled their part with an assertive and ultimately composed performance. The visitors did not look to be in any danger of losing their grip on the contest from the moment centre-back Ian Goodison smashed them into the lead seven minutes before half-time.
Second-half goals from skipper Ian Thomas-Moore and Joss Labadie secured the widest margin of victory Rovers have enjoyed in any game in their entire 2009-10 campaign.
from matches elsewhere simply added to the party atmosphere on two sides of the ground. Gillingham conceded the first goal of their fateful defeat at Wycombe Wanderers soon after Goodison notched Tranmere's opener. As Rovers stretched their lead, Gillingham went further behind at Adams Park. Ultimately the Kent club paid the price of failing to win an away game all season.
The greatest threat to Tranmere securing the three points was the Edgeley Park pitch. Worn out from dual use by Sale
Sharks rugby team as well as football, it was bare in patches and bumpy everywhere. Control was desperately difficult, passing a fraught exercise.
There were times in the first-half when the spectacle was more like pinball than football. Stockport's predominantly young line-up, the best manager Gary Ablett can put together under the tight constraints of administration, showed why they finished 18 points adrift.
There was heart and effort in County's performance but not enough quality to seriously test the visitors. Jabo Ibehre, strong, determined and resourceful, might have caused Tranmere some problems if only he had more support. But County's tactical plan required a five-man midfield to frustrate Tranmere and Ibehre was usually left to forage alone.
Rovers, comfortable in containing the home side's attack, created little going forward until Goodison netted his seventh career goal in 275 appearances.
The danger was created by a long throw into the box from Zoumana Bakayogo, controlled under pressure by Bas Savage and nudged into the path of the Jamaican, who generated venomous power with a right foot shot that hurtled into the roof of the net from a tight angle.
The second goal, eight minutes after the restart, also featured a contribution from Bakayogo, who swung in a cross from the left that was hooked home with a well-controlled outstretched foot by skipper Thomas-Moore.
County created their first clear chance just before the hour when James Vincent, turning away from Marlon Broomes's challenge inside the box, shanked his shot wide of the right hand post.
A third goal, forced home at close range by midfielder Labadie on 76 minutes after young goalkeeper Lloyd Rigby fumbled a tamely-hit shot from Savage, prompted the joyful Rovers’ fans to burst into choruses of a song they have sung on a number of occasions this season – but never with as much delight: “Who needs Mourinho? We've got our physio!”
STOCKPORT COUNTY: Rigby, Halls, Swailes, Huntington, Sadler, Pilkington, Perkins, Turnbull, Vincent, Griffin (Johnson 71), Ibehre. Subs: Fon-Williams, Rowe, Fisher, Disney, Murty.
BOOKINGS: Halls, Ibehre.
TRANMERE ROVERS: Gulacsi, Logan, Goodison, Broomes, Bakayogo, Edds, Taylor, Labadie, Thomas-Moore, Robinson (Curran 90), Savage. Subs: Coughlin, McCready, Cresswell, Barnett, Shuker, Mahon.
GOALS: Goodison 38, Thomas-Moore 53, Labadie 76
REFEREE: Trevor Kettle (Berkshire)
ATTENDANCE: 7,208 THE WIRRAL NEWS