Notts County 3 Tranmere Rovers 2

TRANMERE dropped back out of the play-off positions after they were disappointingly beaten 3-2 by struggling Notts County at Meadow Lane.

Rovers twice drew level thanks to Johnny Smith and Connor Jennings cancelling out goals from Jon Stead and Kane Hemmings respectively, but a Stead penalty quarter of an hour from time proved decisive.

At 2-2 the visitors looked the more likely team to go on and win it, but they paid the price for some slack defending.

With an eye on tonight's vital FA Cup replay against Southport, Micky Mellon made five changes to the side that beat Cambridge United last time out.

The Scot swapped out his entire back four, bringing in Jake Caprice, Ritchie Sutton, Mark Ellis and Zoumana Bakayogo, while Cole Stockton was also included, in place of Cole Stockton.

Amid conditions more suited to Emperor penguins, Jay Harris tried an ambitious 20-yard effort eight minutes in, but it sailed high and wide.

A fast break started by Scott Davies ended when James Norwood crossed for Connor Jennings, who saw his tame shot put behind for a corner that came to nothing.

But straight away at the other end Nathan Thomas took a high ball down on his chest before pulling it just past Davies’ post, with the Rovers’ stopper apparently beaten.

Penalty area action was in short supply, but when Caprice delivered a beautiful cross from the right-side by-line shortly before the half hour mark, neither Norwood or Jennings could get any purchase on it, with the goal gaping.

But on 34 minutes, County took the lead.

A slick one-two between Kane Hemmings and Dan Jones circumvented Caprice and the latter crossed low for veteran Stead to tap home at the far post.

The hosts’ lead only lasted six minutes however.

On-loan winger Smith collected the ball on the touchline before drifting inside past his marker and executing curling shot into the bottom corner.

But Rovers new-look rear guard were not dealing well with balls from wide areas, and when Stead was allowed to cross from Tranmere's left wing, this time it was Hemmings who had the simplest of tap ins, handing a half time lead to the Magpies.

Despite the miserable conditions, Tranmere started the second half with more purpose and a header from Norwood was only just about dealt with by County stopper Ross Fitzsimmons.

Rovers were riding their luck at the back but just before the hour mark they drew level again when tormentor-in-chief Smith bent a left foot cross onto the head of Jennings six yards out.

Desperate for the points, the Magpies started to play with a higher defensive line and that suited Rovers.

A cross from Bakayogo was met by the swinging boot of Smith at the far post, but Fitzsimmons managed to get something on it to keep it out.

Tranmere were provided the far greater attacking fortitude, but with quarter of the hour to play it was the hosts who went back in front when Ellis was adjudged to have brought down Thomas in the box.

Stead made not mistake from 12 yards, sending Davies the wrong way.

Mellon sent on Paul Mullin for Jay Harris, in search of a third equaliser.

But Davies had to show lightening reflexes to deny substitute Kristian Dennis from close range.

Rovers pushed late on, but they simply couldn't salvage anything out of the match and will have plenty to comb over before facing Southport in the FA Cup tonight.

Micky Mellon said afterwards: "Obviously we're disappointed without a shadow of a doubt. We came out for the second half and I thought we were the better team.

"We looked like the team in the ascendancy – definitely going to get the next goal. No one could argue with me about that.

"Then we gave away a crazy penalty from nothing. Again, we lose three goals away from home.

"We've got to find out the reasoning behind that.

"The game doesn’t lie does it? It will always give you the answers. But there isn't a lot of use in me standing here telling you what the games told you.

"The disappointing thing is when we get ourselves back to 2-2, we find ourselves 3-2 from nothing against a team that was hanging on.

"The game tells you that we shot ourselves in the foot."

Match stats

Notts County 3 (Stead 34, 76 (p) Hemmings 45)

Tranmere Rovers 2 (Smith 40, Jennings 57)

HT: 2-1

Referee: Robert Lewis

Attendance: 6,535

Match rating: 4/5

Star man: Johnny Smith (Tranmere midfielder)

Notts County: Fitzsimmons, Hewitt, Vaughan (Evina 76), Thomas, Hemmings (Dennis 81), Ward, Davies, Jones, Milsom, Turley, Stead Subs not used: Pindroch, Brisley, Husin, Crawford, Etete.

Tranmere: Davies, Caprice, Ellis, Sutton, Bakayogo, Harris (Mullin 79), McCullough, Smith, Cole (Gilmour 75), Jennings, Norwood Subs not used: George, Buxton, Ridehalgh, Monthe, Stockton.