JEAN-LOUIS AKPA AKPRO might be regarded as the talisman of Tranmere’s audacious promotion challenge – if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s established himself as one of the most potent front players in League One this season.
It is more than mere coincidence that Tranmere’s results when Akpa Akpro is in the side are significantly more impressive than when the Frenchman has been unavailable.
His electric pace, strength and ability to hold the ball up under pressure, bringing supporting players into advanced areas, adds an extra dimension to the attack.
Rovers have found it more difficult to break down opposing defences and dig out victories without him.
Akpa Akpro’s absences for around half of the programme so far were mostly the consequence of a broken metatarsal sustained in a 1-0 win at Notts County in early October.
Up to that point, Akpa Akpro’s 11 League One appearances yielded eight wins and three draws, results that carried Tranmere to the top of the table. He contributed seven goals along the way and justified manager Ronnie Moore’s confidence that the 28-year-old who signed from relegated Rochdale last summer could take his game to a new level in a Rovers shirt.
Akpa Akpro ended his three-month layoff with a substitute appearance against Crawley Town - and another victory.
He was on the losing side for the first time in a League One game when Tranmere were beaten 1-0 at Coventry City on January 16, then suffered bruised ribs in a heavy fall during a 2-1 win at Brentford three days later.
More damaging was a three match suspension after he was sent off for aiming a retaliatory kick at an opponent in a home game against Carlisle.
Akpa Akpro did not make contact with the Cumbrians’ full-back, Frank Simek, but the petulant gesture was a straight red card offence.
Moore did not hide his annoyance. “We all paid for one stupid moment and a lack of professionalism,” he complained. Tranmere subsequently lost those next three matches and struggled to create scoring opportunities in each of them.
Akpa Akpro’s return to action in the 5-1 win at Colchester United last Saturday prompted Moore to enthuse: “You can see the difference when he plays. He chased a lost cause for the second goal and that was the turning point. It was great to have him back.”
His abilities were used less effectively in the 1-1 draw with Notts County at Prenton Park on Tuesday, with Moore complaining that his team played too many long high balls up to the striker, who had few opportunities to use his pace. Even so, the point was enough to keep Tranmere in third place in the table.
Akpa Akpro did not attempt to duck responsibility or regret for his costly suspension. He said: “It was a reflex when he (Simek) kicked me in the Carlisle game, I retaliated and I regret it.
“It was frustrating to watch us lose the game 1-0. Just after the sending-off we conceded the goal. Maybe if I was on the pitch and we had 11 men, we would not have lost that game. I don’t know. The only thing I know is I wasn’t on the pitch and let down my team. Afterwards I felt bad.”
The evidence of the season’s results so far suggest that as long as Akpa Akpro stays fit and available Tranmere’s prospects of sustaining their promotion challenge to the finishing line should be enhanced (see panel). Writing them off as a spent force, as some pundits were doing during a run of five defeats in six games, looks like a premature judgement.
Tranmere may have surrendered the pole position they occupied through most of the first half of the campaign but they are keeping pace with the leading pack of clubs chasing the top six positions in an exceptionally competitive division.
Akpa Akpro said: “We dropped down but we are not so far from the top. Everyone was a bit frustrated when we lost a few games but in football, sometimes what is important is the way you react.
“Every team has a bad patch. I hope the bad period for us finished with the defeat to Swindon.”
Akpa Akpro argues loss of confidence, as well as the loss of influential players, had an impact on Tranmere struggles through January and the early part of February.
He said: “When you are winning everyone is confident. When you lose it is different. I was watching games from the stands and I could see that difference.
“It’s like no-one wants to make a mistake because you think if you make a mistake and lose the ball, the team will lose a goal. So players are trying their best but don’t give their best because the thinking is different.
“Now I think we should try to play the way we did when the season started, with freedom, without thinking too much.”