By Ryan Ferguson
A glance at the league table reveals a strong start by Tranmere. Played eight, won six, drew one, lost one. In terms of wining points, this is our most successful start to any season, and only Forest Green have managed to keep pace. We’ve lost one away game in ten months, and began this campaign with five successive victories as Gary Brabin was voted Manager of the Month. Everything appears rosy.
Yet, beneath the surface, suspicion still lingers. As fans, we still don’t quite know what to believe. We’ve enjoyed winning games again. It feels good to be out in front, rather than jostling for position amid the chasing pack. But performances haven’t always been convincing, and the style of play is still often poor, leading many to question whether the wheels are destined to fall off eventually.
Perhaps it’s just us. Or just me. As Tranmere fans, we’re almost programmed to expect the worst, even when there’s genuine cause for optimism. It’s thrilling to see how much the club has grown off the field lately, with upgraded facilities and a discernible philosophy at last. But, on the field, I feel there’s still a lack of certainty. Even as the wins mount up, there’s little reliability in how the team will perform from one week to the next, especially at home. The league table shows a dominant team picking up points consistently, but our eyes see games that are usually too close to call. It’s still all a little too desperate for my liking.
By nature, this is a league of attrition. You have to win the fight before playing football, and in that sense it’s pleasing to see Rovers grinding out victories without setting the world alight. But we seem to make hard work of every single game. Four of our wins have been by just one goal. The others were all by two goals. At risk of sounding like one of those unhinged cynics who lurk around the Internet just to criticise Tranmere at any given opportunity, we should beat certain teams in more convincing fashion. Our title rivals always seem to, anyway.
Obviously, you don’t get extra points for margin of victory, but goal difference is a strong barometer of team quality and ruthlessness. Rovers are joint-top of the table, but only fifth in goal difference, thanks mainly to a strong defence. This suggests a disparity between results and performances, and that’s when a team becomes over-reliant on luck. Tranmere have certainly done well so far, and that should be applauded, but some worrying signs are definitely creeping in again. It would be stupid to ignore them.
Perhaps we care too much. Perhaps so many years of hurt have made us unconsciously pessimistic. I don’t want to be like that. This is my club, and I yearn to see it back in the Football League, where it belongs. Winning games gives us all a buzz, and there’s been a renewed togetherness between fans and players early in this campaign. It’s hard, but we’re slowly moving on from the past to find new faith. By the same token, this is now Gary Brabin’s team. He’s been here for twelve months, and can no longer blame the losing culture that crept in during the previous decade of neglect. It’s time for him to deliver.
Again, the numbers would suggest he is doing so. Right now, Brabin has the highest winning percentage of any manager in Tranmere history, albeit in a small sample size outside the Football League. Moreover, in basic terms, you can’t do much more than win six of every eight games, especially at a club yearning for promotion. It’s still really early, but if Rovers can replicate that ratio throughout the season, all objectives will be met.
However, that’s where the doubts arise. Is this pace sustainable when our margin for error is so small in games? And do actual performances inspire confidence that we’re capable of staying the course?
My basic instinct, a lot like yours, is one of native uncertainty. That, in itself, speaks volumes. Tranmere still don’t obliterate opponents. They seem to create plenty of goalscoring chances, and poor finishing remains an issue, but underlining problems include disjointed team selection and cautious tactics from Brabin.
This season, many players have appeared out of position, with James Norwood and Connor Jennings out wide; Lois Maynard at right-back; and Jeff Hughes at left-back. Injuries to other players have forced those changes in certain instances, but the manager has willingly forced square pegs into round holes on other occasions. This often results in a lack of cohesion, unnatural movement and basic uncertainty that stifles momentum from our attacks.
This problem is confounded by a lack of clarity regarding our style of play. I’ve hammered this drum for years, but it’s still difficult to decode what we’re trying to accomplish at times in a tactical sense. Of course, there have been positive glimmers and vignettes of fine play, mostly involving the front three, yet we’re still too reactionary for my liking. There needs to be a Tranmere Way of playing. We need to harness some positive arrogance and channel it into assertiveness. Stretch the play. Force the issue. Take the bull by its horns. Don’t be overly conservative against certain teams that don’t warrant such worry.
The last three games have illustrated these problems well. In the 1-1 draw at Southport, there was no discernible plan for controlling that game and breaking down the hosts. I’m sure there was a strategy, but it obviously didn’t translate to the field, as a massive away following was left disappointed.
Just two days later, at home to Guiseley, Rovers lacked fluidity against a team without a single point in the league. At times, it was difficult to watch, as Tranmere played in a cagey manner against one of the most incompetent teams yet to visit Prenton Park. Rovers secured three points thanks to the individual brilliance of James Norwood, but there was growing reason for concern.
That sense of gathering disappointment culminated in defeat away to Aldershot last Saturday. By most accounts, Tranmere played fairly well in the first half, but the hosts were concise in executing a clear plan. They ran out 3-1 victors, as Rovers slumped to their first defeat in ten league games stretching back to last season.
At this point, it’s worth taking stock again of where Tranmere lie and what they’ve accomplished. There has certainly been a lot of good sprinkled in with the mildly irritating. Every manager has his own approach, and it would appear that Gary Brabin thinks the road to promotion is paved with clean sheets. That’s a very pragmatic and sensible viewpoint, and one founded in fact. I’m also sure he wouldn’t mind his strikers taking a few more chances, for the sake of lowering everybody’s blood pressure. If this is what it takes to get out of the National League, winning narrowly but regularly, I’ll take it.
But, overall, there’s still a sense that we’re not getting the best out of a squad more than capable of winning this division. Such things are difficult to quantify, but it doesn’t look good when Adam Mekki and Darren Stephenson are sitting on the bench as we huff and puff and scrape past lowly dwellers of the relegation zone. In all fairness, Brabin brought them to the club, so they must feature in his wider plan, but it would be nice to see such exciting players unleashed. We want to be entertained en route to victory. We want our cake, and we want to eat it.
For once, our disappointment doesn’t stem from not having the resources to compete. This squad is brimming with quality. We’re already seeing great things from Andy Cook, and Norwood has continued to perform well despite playing out of position. Other players have improved from last season, namely Maynard and Hughes, while Steve McNulty remains a bulwark at the back. Also, Gary Brabin should be praised for providing stability and finding these players. There’s just so much more untapped potential in a number of players that can make a huge difference in the title race. As fans, we’re desperate to see it flourish.
Some say that our expectations are unrealistic. I understand that opinion, but I don’t share it. For me, the relative magnitude of our club should be used as motivation, not deterrence. The players should have a swagger when they walk onto that pitch wearing the white of Tranmere Rovers. At Prenton Park, we should play in a far more expansive manner. What is there to fear?
Brabin needs to make some tough decisions. Perhaps certain players need to be dropped to accommodate a more flamboyant formation and style of attack. I understand that he doesn’t want to jeopardise our strong defensive foundation by going gung-ho, but the best teams, those that win championships, are equally formidable at both ends of the pitch. Right now, Tranmere are getting the right results, but are doing so in a manner that may not be repeatable for a full season.