By Ryan Ferguson
When Tranmere fell into the fifth tier twelve months ago, extremes of emotion characterised the fanbase. There was heartache and humiliation, bitterness and disbelief. But the overwhelming sentiment amid that debacle was a desperation to secure immediate promotion back into the Football League. From the ruins of despair, that was a common goal among fans, executives, players and coaches.
Unfortunately, Rovers endured an inconsistent season, and even a relatively strong finish could not secure a playoff place at the first time of asking. Even the largest points tally by a Tranmere team since 2004/05 represented scant consolation, as fans were left to deal with yet more disappointment at Prenton Park.
Some may paint a positive picture, arguing that Rovers stopped the rot of repeated relegation and changed a losing culture, but I can only tell the truth: failing to secure promotion from the National League, inhabited by many teams with far less resources, is simply unacceptable for a club of this magnitude. That’s a fact. From a historical viewpoint, I still find it deeply embarrassing that Tranmere Rovers are languishing at such a poor level, but we have to move on. However, the unsuccessful first attempt at regaining our Football League status is perhaps even harder to swallow than the initial relegation.
The league table doesn’t lie. Yes, our fight went down to the final game. And yes, our away form was very encouraging. But nobody should ever be content with Tranmere Rovers finishing sixth in the fifth tier of English football. Nobody. The fact that Rovers finished twenty-three points adrift of champions Cheltenham, with whom they were relegated last May, speaks further to a systematic failure in trying to launch a serious promotion charge.
Off the field, massive strides have been made to improve the commercial side of Tranmere, and that is essential considering the club is about to lose another £500,000. Mark and Nicola Palios have done wonderful work modernising facilities and reversing years of neglect at Prenton Park. The club was in a desperate state when they took over, and the last two years has been about teaching Tranmere to walk again. Therefore, we’re still playing catch-up to clubs that were more progressive in the previous decade, so perhaps our expectations are a little too overbearing. Nonetheless, we believe strongly that our club should not be in this division, which makes for a difficult balancing act of emotions.
So, in the good faith of diehard fandom, here are ten mistakes we cannot afford to make next season.
1. The Manager
I would never publicly advocate anybody losing his or her job. That’s not what I’m about. But when a football manager fails on his sole objective in a given season, despite tremendous backing from fans and ownership, an honest review is definitely needed. Gary Brabin was tasked with achieving a playoff place, and that simply didn’t happen. All too frequently, he was outmanoeuvred by more experienced managers, while the style of play was never exciting. However, over the final twenty games of this season, only one team accumulated more points than Rovers, which perhaps shows improvement from a young manager learning his craft. There is definitely something to be said for stability and continuity in the dugout, and it may be time for a Tranmere manager to mould his own vision over an extended period rather than being dismissed prematurely. Nevertheless, there is no sense in advocating stability just for the sake of it. A quality manager is needed to win the National League title, and people with more power than me must make that judgement.
2. Home Form
Out of twenty-three home games, Tranmere compiled twelve wins, two draws and nine defeats this season. Only seven National League teams lost more home fixtures than Rovers. That, in and of itself, is blatantly unacceptable. Yet when the opposing teams are frequently semi-professional, there is an added humiliation to such woeful home form. Seeing Tranmere lose at Prenton Park to clubs like Boreham Wood, Eastleigh and Welling United was deeply saddening. Even backed by a typical home crowd of over 5,200, more than triple the league average, Rovers rarely produced convincing performances this season. That must change if we have any hope of lifting the title next May.
Ahead of the new season, it’s imperative that Tranmere assemble their squad in July. Not October. Not January. This season, the club actually made some very astute signings, but several important players arrived with the season already underway. Adam Dawson, a mercurial winger, joined Rovers in September; Steve McNulty, a defensive colossus, came aboard in October; and Lee Vaughan, a solid right back, arrived in November. All made major contributions, but it was perhaps too late. As we’ve seen, every single game is hugely important in this league, with such fine margins deciding promotion places. To launch a serious assault next season, the full squad has to be fit and raring to go from game one.
Some say we’ve no divine right to beat any team, but I believe that is only partially true. For instance, if you leave the political politeness aside, Tranmere Rovers Football Club should beat Boreham Wood ten times out of ten. By all measures, our club is more illustrious and powerful than practically every rival in this division. That should be used for motivation, not to fuel doubt. That should instil confidence, not act as a hindrance. We need to embrace our history more and replace complacency with positive arrogance. Certain players need to know what a privileged it is to play for this club, and proudly go into battle for that famous white shirt.
5. Central Midfield
Jay Harris and Steve Jennings are both competent midfielders at this level. They’re solid, consistent and professional. As fans, we can even expect occasional splashes of excellence from both. However, I believe they’re just too similar to play as a pairing, and that cost Tranmere last season. In many games, Rovers’ midfield duo sat so deep that opposing teams dominated the ball around halfway. There has to be more energy and dynamism in there. I would certainly play one of the two, but complimented by a genuine playmaker who is capable of smoothly transitioning defence into attack. That would also help the team’s goal output, which was poor in general.
Again, it may not be my place to lament the fitness of others, but the physique of certain players has been a hot topic among fans. Without doubt, some members of the squad find themselves on the corpulent side, which as a rule isn’t conducive with winning football matches. It works for some players who know their own bodies and use size to their advantage, but others have looked unfit at various points throughout the season. I’m no expert in the correlation between Body Mass Index and league championships, but it might be something worth looking at for those making decisions.
On numerous occasions this season, Rovers scored an important goal only to concede at the other end within a matter of minutes. Anecdotally, I feel like this has been a problem for a number of years, and the cause is not easy to pinpoint. Perhaps it’s the fitness element mentioned above, or perhaps it’s just a simply lack of focus. Whatever it is, we have to be more intelligent managing games and scorelines. The art of winning football matches is notoriously capricious, and improvement has definitely been made when compared with our season in League Two, but further progress would be a massive help.
After watching dozens of games this season, I still don’t really know what the distinct Tranmere identity or philosophy is. In fact, I would have a hard time even telling you what formation we deployed in certain matches. While free-flowing football is not imperative at this level, I feel it would be productive to at least have a settled lineup and strategy from week to week. Gary Brabin tinkered with a winning formula far too often this season, with new signings being shoehorned in at inopportune moments. It would be productive to set out our stall from the very start of a season, playing with a particular system and ethos that will lead to success.
9. One Man Band
This season, James Norwood scored twenty-one goals in all competitions. The next best total came from Andy Mangan, who scored seven before departing in early January. He wasn’t even here for four months of the season! Quite simply, Rovers must find a way of being less reliant on Norwood, who accounted for 33.8% of the club’s goals this term. If it wasn’t for him, we would have finished in the bottom half. Help him out. Compliment him with a strike partner. Give him a playmaker from midfield. Just do anything to share the workload. Please.
10. Give Youth a Chance
This is one of the only seasons in recent memory in which no youth graduate made a senior appearance for Tranmere. Moreover, Sam Ramsbottom, Liam Davies and Ben Jago were released this week without ever receiving a genuine first team opportunity at Prenton Park, which is disappointing. I understand that the National League is typically won by teams with an older average age, but there is definitely an argument to be made for more youth in the squad. Football is now a young man’s game, and the additional energy and enthusiasm provided by homegrown players could be advantageous to Rovers. It is also a far cheaper recruitment option. Daren Askew, Sam Ilesanmi and Tolani Omotola were offered professional contracts this week, while Mitch Duggan, Evan Gumbs and Luke Pilling should re-sign. Therefore, Tranmere should have a fine stable of young players to choose from next season, and they may receive more of an opportunity because I know this is a subject that Mark Palios cares deeply about.
Ultimately, these suggestions are made from the heart. Tranmere Rovers is in my blood, and I will always defend the club against criticism that lacks factual foundation. However, it’s also important to critique the things you love so that it can grow and improve. Obviously, I don’t have all the answers, and these are just the thoughts of a passionate fan who wants the best for his club. But hopefully we can identify the mistakes made in our first National League season and rectify them when the new campaign rolls around.