Otis Khan brushed his way past one defender before nutmegging another. As the congregation held its breath the supposedly injured right back pulled the trigger.

His shot was powerful but close enough to Lee Burge to allow the Sunderland goalkeeper to make a save – and that’s as close as Tranmere came to clawing their way back into the Papa John’s Trophy Final.

But a limited number of shots on goal from Rovers – who are adapting to the injury loss of talismanic striker James Vaughan – only tells half the tale.

Keith Hill had demanded that his players work themselves into the ground as a minimum requirement. That they did that whilst still executing the eye-catching style of play that keen observers have been enjoying for the past few months is credit their commitment.

That they eventually ran out of steam in the closing stages of the match as a consequence only demonstrates what a task it was to go toe-to-toe with the team that currently sits fourth in League One.

Hill knew that he’d got out of his team all that he’d asked. Apart from a defeat, not that he was prepared to call it that.

Wirral Globe: Otis Khan came closest to getting Tranmere back into the match. Photo: Phil Bryan, Pro Sports ImagesOtis Khan came closest to getting Tranmere back into the match. Photo: Phil Bryan, Pro Sports Images

Speaking after the match, he said: "The only disappointment is the scoreboard. I'm so proud of the football club, the players.

"Not just today, I don't want to just talk about this game in isolation. The tournament has been on of great success. We forget that very easily.

"We played against one of the elite teams in League One and we've come up just short. One moment has changed the course of the game.

"The players have given me everything since I walked into the building.

"The only disappointment is the emotional value to the scoreboard. Performance-wise exceptional."

Both teams looked edgy in the opening ten minutes, but it was Rovers who nearly took the lead on the quarter of an hour mark.

The Whites were increasingly starting to knock the ball around well and when Jay Spearing picked out Danny Lloyd in the box, the energetic midfielder saw the ball flicked out of his path but on a trajectory that was seemingly heading over Burge into the Black Cat’s net.

The Sunderland stopper needed to show the suppleness of a furry feline in order to backtrack onto his goal line and prevent the ball from rolling into the net.

It was Tranmere that were making most of the running. Consistently winning loose balls in the middle of the park and starting attacks, always on the front foot.

They had a bit of luck on the half hour mark when Chris Maguire saw a drive cannon off Spearing and bobble just wide of the post.

But that was as close as the League One side came in the first half with George Ray continuing his excellent form with a series of commanding headers and solid clearances keeping Lee Johnson’s side at bay.

Wirral Globe: George Ray was outstanding for Rovers in the first half. Photo: Phil Bryan, Pro Sports ImagesGeorge Ray was outstanding for Rovers in the first half. Photo: Phil Bryan, Pro Sports Images

Tranmere had edged the first half on points but it was a goal that they needed and one that would prove to be elusive.

Khan’s big chance came and went. What a goal that could have been from a player who wasn’t event expected to be involved, as Hill explained.

He said: "We had a training ground incident where Lee O'Connor was injured. 

"We didn't really want to be in a situation where we rushed Otis back because we need him for the remainder of the league campaign.

"He was due to start as a substitute, but the fortune for Otis was that because of Lee's absence, he had to start. I thought he was magnificent defensively and going forward.

"But I can say that about every single one of the players."

The game was on a knife edge, but as the clock moved ever closer to the hour mark, Sunderland made the breakthrough.

A momentary lapse in concentration allowed Aiden McGeady to thread an inch perfect pass through the heart of the Rovers defence, sending Lynden Gooch on his way.

The American held his nerve and lifted it past Davies, raising loud cheers from Sunderland’s press box representatives.

That Tranmere didn’t fold at this point says more about the team’s mentality than anything else.

Hill introduce Corey Blackett-Taylor and former FA Cup winner David Nuget and it was the former who used his pace to cause havoc down Sunderland’s left-hand side.

But try as they might, Rovers just couldn’t churn out a goal. Nugent had one sniff of a chance when Burge dropped a cross in the box, but the lose ball was hooked away before he could pounce. You wonder if Vaughan could have reacted a fraction quicker, not that what ifs can help Tranmere now.

Ultimately the huge Papa John’s trophy was destined to return to Sunderland and only the die-hards of St James’ Park could deny them a bit of long overdue success.

Wirral Globe: Corey Blackett-Taylor caused big problems for Sunderland when he came on in the second half. Photo: Phil Bryan, Pro Sports ImagesCorey Blackett-Taylor caused big problems for Sunderland when he came on in the second half. Photo: Phil Bryan, Pro Sports Images

But Hill isn’t about to start feeling sorry for himself and his job is to ensure that his players don’t either, with the real carrot of automatic promotion back to League One in clear sight.

He added: "We have to carry that performance level and a little bit of hurt, from today into the remaining 13 league games, because our priority has been the league.

"We want to play League One football next season. We want to prove that the performance levels against Sunderland, Oxford and Peterborough weren't single games in isolation three times.

"Everybody's different in how they're going to respond to this scoreboard failure, but we need everybody collectively working together to aspire to be a League One team next season."

Every great team plays in the image of its manager and with Tranmere producing the type of rock n roll football that makes watching the game fun, Hill has no intention of changing the record until the prize of promotion is won.

Rovers didn’t win this cup final but the next 13 can return them to their rightful place in the third tier of English football after they were swindled out of it by a calculator not 12 months ago.