By Ryan Ferguson
The last time Tranmere Rovers won a league title, Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister, a loaf of bread cost 2p, and the average house could be bought for £600. The year was 1938, and twenty-two league goals from Pongo Waring helped Rovers sneak past Doncaster to win Division Three North. In subsequent decades, success has come mainly in the form of playoff victories and cup triumphs. But rarely has the need to win a league championship been so profound as it is right now.
Tranmere Rovers should not be in the fifth division. The infrastructure, history and fanbase makes this a third division entity at worst. Yet, as we’ve discovered in recent years, no points are awarded for having a stand three times bigger than the opponents entire ground. Many years of myopia led to our demise, and we must now focus on securing a most imperative promotion.
Last year, we demanded an immediate return to League Two. As passionate fans with a sense of the club’s magnitude, we had every right to do so. But ultimately, that ambition didn’t mesh perfectly with where the club actually was, in terms of preparedness for the challenge ahead. Mark and Nicola Palios were still busy reversing a decade of neglect in all facets of the club, and we almost went in blind to our first non-league season since 1921. We weren’t ready for the poor pitches and horrific refereeing. We weren’t accustomed to visiting teams parking the bus at Prenton Park. We didn’t have a fully assembled squad until perhaps ten or fifteen games in.
In the end, it just didn’t work out how we dreamed. As fans, we were busy furnishing a mansion before the foundations were complete. That’s totally understandable, and I’m the biggest proponent of demanding high standards at Prenton Park. The grand name of Tranmere Rovers doesn’t belong in the fifth division, but until the new owners arrived, the philosophy guiding it most certainly did. That hurts, and missing out on promotion last season could be categorised as embarrassing, but we’re now in a much stronger position than we were twelve months ago. The squad is better. The commercial footprint is bigger. And the plan for future prosperity is far clearer, as projects such as Solar Campus approach completion.
Now, the desire of loyal supporters is underscored by a solid bedrock. Our hope is based in reality, rather than emotional habit. Automatic promotion is now not only a passionate demand from the terraces, but also very tangible possibility due to the hard work of many people behind the scenes. We’re ready to challenge again, so here are some key themes to consider as the season approaches.
It may not be sexy in the modern game, but Rovers should benefit from a new sense of stability. Under previous regimes, short-termism practically doomed the club. During one frantic period, managers came and went almost as frequently as the inept loanees they signed. Although Gary Brabin didn’t deliver on his main objective last season, it was beneficial to have a summer without totally rebuilding from scratch. With a year of experience under his belt, the manager now has a baseline from which to work, and he did so during the close season by addressing some weaknesses. No Tranmere manager has been afforded the privilege of two successive pre-seasons since Ronnie Moore in 2013. Allowing Brabin to learn from his mistakes and rectify them can only help our attempts at promotion. For the first time in three years, we’re not starting with a totally clean slate, and while certain standards must be met, that continuity is refreshing.
Rather than recruiting a whole new squad at short notice, Rovers had the benefit of simply making quality additions this summer. While finishing sixth was very disappointing last season, it at least provided a guideline that helped inform our business in the transfer market. We kept the nucleus of a playoff-chasing squad and made four really good signings aimed at addressing specific needs. That’s a far more prudent way of doing business, rather than bringing in a dozen new faces every summer and losing a sense of where that squad should rightfully place us in the league.
The arrival of Andy Cook and Connor Jennings should improve Tranmere massively. Last season, Rovers ranked twelfth in goals scored among the twenty-four National League teams. That simply wasn’t good enough, so the club addressed the problem by signing two proven goalscorers of impressive renown. Cook scored 24 league goals for Barrow last season, while Jennings notched 14 for Wrexham. That’s a huge injection of goalscoring ability.
They’re joined by Jeff Hughes and Darren Stephenson, a pacey forward who scored 62 goals in 157 games for Chorley. Rovers gave the Magpies more money for Stephenson than they’ve ever received for a player, and the Jamaican chose to join Tranmere ahead of rumoured interest from Football League clubs.
The incoming trident scored 56 league goals last season, which should make Tranmere a formidable attacking team. They also have an average age of 24, so Rovers will finally enjoy the prime years of some very accomplished players rather than the painful end of once glorious careers.
The Dynamic Duo
For all the new arrivals, Tranmere still expect great things from James Norwood and Adam Mekki, who were the heart and soul of the team last season. Norwood scored 19 league goals and ran himself into the ground every week, making Player of the Season voting very easy. Mekki was an exciting throwback to the days of lively wing play at Prenton Park, and defenders simply couldn’t live with his direct running, deceptive pace and balletic trickery. Together, they were the Dynamic Duo, and we now yearn for even more, because they possess the ability to haul us out of this league.
While the title of Tranmere’s best player is largely up for grabs, the most important player draws a far more exclusive shortlist. In all likelihood, it’s probably either Norwood or Steve McNulty, the defensive colossus who helped turn last season around.
Steve is corpulent, to say the least, but his positional sense and leadership qualities are without equal outside the Football League. The way he marshals the backline is very impressive, and his experience is invaluable. At 32, McNulty has seen everything in the game, and he knows what it takes to gain promotion out of the fifth tier, having done so with Luton and Fleetwood. Other teams may target him for a lack of pace, but McNulty is rarely beaten. In fact, he’s the cornerstone around which our team is built.
Tranmere now have multiple options at almost every position, which hasn’t been the case without considering loan players for a very long time. In goal, Scott Davies is one of the best at this level, while Iain Turner and Luke Pilling should provide adequate cover if needed. The midfield is still slightly over-reliant on Jay Harris and Steve Jennings, but Lois Maynard and Jeff Hughes can be plugged in to a variety of positions, as can Jake Kirby.
We’ve already discussed the depth up front, which may be needed as Cook and Norwood work their way to full fitness. Youth graduates Tolani Omotola and Sam Ilesanmi are real wildcards in this regard, and I like their chances of making a serious impact if given the opportunity.
At present, Rovers appear a bit light in defensive areas, with Ritchie Sutton the only experienced central defensive backup should McNulty or Michael Ihiekwe miss games. Evan Gumbs will likely help out across the back, but a specialist right-back is needed to cover for Lee Vaughan. Given Liam Ridehalgh’s history with injuries, a left-back may also be required at some point. However, there is still time for those pieces to be added, and I’m just thankful that Tranmere only require depth as the season approaches, rather than starting players.
Out of the Blocks
As we discovered last season, there is no margin for error in the National League. Over the past ten years, the champions have averaged 98 points. Burton managed to hoist the title with 88 points in 2009, but the average since then is almost 100 points. That means Rovers can afford perhaps five or six defeats all season, which will require a big improvement from the twelve losses incurred in 2015/16. Therefore, it’s important that we’re fit and raring to go from Saturday, away to Bromley. The title push begins right away, and a strong start would send a warning signal across the league.
Home Sweet Home
Nine of those twelve defeats came at home last season, which was a major disappointment for everybody concerned. While Tranmere enjoyed a record run of away form, it wasn’t enough to counteract poor home showings against some of the worst teams ever to visit Prenton Park. If we’re to challenge for the title, taking maximum points at home must become a regular occurrence. That’s our bread and butter. Hopefully a new mood of optimism amongst the fanbase can translate to the players, who should feel inspired playing at Prenton Park. It needs to be a fortress again, otherwise plans for automatic promotion become very problematic.
This season, we could see a real disparity between the rich and poor clubs at this level. York and Dagenham will benefit from a new parachute payment scheme that doubles the initial bounty and adds a new one should they fail to secure promotion at the first attempt. Whereas Tranmere received a one-off payment of £237,000 – or half of what every Football League club gets as part of the Basic Award – those clubs recently relegated from League Two will receive upward of £400,000, plus another £200,000+ if they’re still in the National League next season.
While Rovers operate a playing budget exceeding £1 million, those new parachute payments dwarf the revenue of smaller clubs that have lingered in the National League for too long. Accordingly, a bottleneck may soon form at the top of this division, with the richer clubs having multiple attempts at promotion and the poorer teams fighting an uphill battle. Tranmere won’t receive any parachute payments from now on, so clubs coming down in future years will have an advantage even over us. That’s another reason why Rovers need to secure promotion as soon as possible.
So who will challenge us for the title this season? Well, the aforementioned clubs should have a decent chance, especially Dagenham with manager John Still. Elsewhere, the bookies seem to favour Forest Green, who added prolific goalscorer Matt Tubbs this summer, while Eastleigh are also expected to perform well. Wrexham may have budgetary constraints after reacquiring the lease to their stadium, but they may still challenge for promotion. As will Lincoln, Dover and perhaps a few surprise teams that many have overlooked.
It won’t be easy, and we’ll suffer a few setbacks along the way, but Tranmere captain Steve Jennings will lift the National League trophy on the hallowed turf of Maidstone United next April.
How’s that for optimism?