By Ryan Ferguson
Last season, scoring goals was a serious problem for Tranmere. In the National League, Rovers had the fourth-best defensive record, but ranked twelfth in goals scored. The Superwhites only won two league games by three goals or more, which spoke to profligacy in the final third. In a defensive sense, Tranmere installed a strong foundation, with Michael Ihiekwe learning a lot from the immovable Steve McNulty, but upgrades were sorely needed in attack. So far, that’s exactly what the club has focused on this summer, with two quality signings fuelling optimism for the campaign ahead.
The arrival of Andy Cook from Barrow and Connor Jennings from Wrexham gives Tranmere a pair of proven goalscorers at this level. Last term, Cook notched twenty-four league goals, while Jennings managed fourteen. In the top scorer charts, they ranked third and seventeenth respectively. Meanwhile, Rovers already have a quality striker in James Norwood, who scored nineteen league goals last season, good for tenth-best in the division.
On the surface, those numbers are terrific. In simplistic terms, Tranmere have added thirty-eight goals to the team, and now have a trident that combined to score fifty-seven last term. However, a probe beneath the surface reveals even more cause for excitement, as an argument can be made that Rovers now have three of the top ten most prolific strikers in this league. Only Padraig Amond and Dan Holman scored more goals than Cook last season, and both are no longer playing at this level. Other successful strikers, such as Danny Wright and Kristian Dennis, will also be plying their trade in higher divisions next season, which affirms Rovers’ case for having the most potent attack in the National League.
If we discount those players who are no longer active in this division, Tranmere now have the players who finished first, fifth and ninth in the goalscoring charts last season. Obviously, other clubs will sign strikers, and those dropping down from the Football League will settle into the upper echelon, but, on paper, Rovers have a squad that will be the envy of most National League clubs. Unheralded players can emerge, and form is often capricious, but I wouldn’t swap our attacking trio for that of any other non-league club at this stage, and that feels good.
Cook has a strong physical presence, but is also nimble and a clinical finisher, as his record illustrates. Norwood personifies heart, effort and commitment, and he outperformed his teammates so much last season that a vote for Player of the Season was barely needed. It has since been revealed that he played almost half of the campaign with a fractured knee cap, so the greedy fans amongst us can expect even more from Rovers’ main talisman moving forward. As for Jennings? Well, he’s the new jewel in our crown.
Intelligent, agile and hungry, Connor is just the kind of player I love watching. He reminds me of Jose Baxter, but with greater mobility, fight and finishing ability. Jennings is a fox in the box, but also a versatile leader who will selflessly play in a number of positions, perhaps wide or in an attacking midfield berth. It will be brilliant to see him in a Tranmere shirt, not least because he was the captain, top scorer and Player of the Year for Wrexham last term. That will add a little more spice to the local derbies, as if it were needed.
For me, the most exciting aspect of this early transfer business is the age of our new strike force. Jennings is 24, while Cook and Norwood are both 25. That gives them a tremendous opportunity to stick together for multiple seasons, and hopefully grow as a unit capable of performing in the Football League for Tranmere. I would also include Adam Mekki in this group, as the mercurial winger is also 24 and has just signed a new contract at Prenton Park. Accordingly, we finally look set to benefit from the prime years of talented players rather than enduring the awkward tale end or anxious beginning of journeymen careers.
Of course, plenty can still go wrong. We’ve seen other heralded signings flop like dead fish after pulling on that white shirt. These players are yet to play a single minute together, so our expectations should be tempered. However, it’s just great to have capable players viewing Tranmere as an attractive option, and to see Rovers wielding their power to sign the best available talent at this level. With such a vision, dropping into the non-league need not have a totally disastrous impact on the club’s future. Perhaps we’ve taken a step back to now go forward with a replenished squad.
In that regard, the key thing will be letting these players gel in a certain formation, whether that means Jennings plays in midfield or behind a lethal strike partnership. It’s important that we get all of them involved in a regular lineup and style, preferably a more adventurous one than last season. Some fans have raised questions about how all these forwards can be accommodated, but that is a good problem to have. At least we now have quality in depth, which hasn’t always been the case in recent times.
In fact, I would argue that, right now, our squad is stronger at this point of the offseason that it has been for many years. That is partly due to the players we’re targeting as the most powerful non-league club, but it’s refreshing to see a strong squad coming together weeks before pre-season training even begins. We could still use a midfield playmaker, perhaps another winger, and a few squad players at various positions, but the main starting lineup is very close to being assembled, ready to go from game one. That simply wasn’t the case last season, so Rovers are definitely learning from their mistakes.
Here, it’s also worth noting that we’re benefiting from stability for the first time in many seasons. Gary Brabin is the first Tranmere manager to oversee two consecutive pre-seasons since Ronnie Moore in 2013. We should never accept mediocrity simply for the sake of continuity, but there’s inherent value in letting a manager build something without having the foundations ripped out prematurely. Once a manager has developed a baseline performance, no matter how bad, it’s easier to identify and address areas for improvement. For the first time in years, Tranmere are now building something on solid foundations with a clear route to improvement presenting itself, rather than building something on sand with no reference point as to what changes need to be made. Constant instability hasn’t delivered any success, so let’s try this different path.
Right now, that path looks very enticing. We won’t know a great deal until this team starts playing games, but there are genuine reasons to be optimistic at long last. Scott Davies, McNulty and Ihiekwe form a dependable base, while Mekki, Harris, Ridehalgh and Vaughan are very good players for this level. Finally, Rovers now seem to have forwards who can punish the opposition, namely Cook, Norwood and Jennings. That is a trident positively brimming with potential, and I for one cannot wait to see it bloom to fruition.