By Ryan Ferguson
The ball fell to Chris Malkin, twelve yards from goal. Wembley held its collective breath, as he read its devilish spin, controlled calmly, and plundered into the net beyond Bolton keeper David Felgate. Pandemonium ensued, as Tranmere Rovers grasped a 1-0 lead in the Third Division playoff final of 1991. Johnny King then cajoled one last effort from his men, who closed out a famous victory that made Birkenhead a Second Division town for the first time in fifty-two years. A dynasty looked set to emerge.
That glorious moment was 9,239 days ago, and Tranmere fans are still waiting to see their club lift another trophy or achieve a subsequent promotion. In those twenty-five years, Rovers have experienced a lot, from restructuring a stadium, banging on the Premier League door and slaying giants in the cup to seeing attendances dwindle, watching scandal become a common friend, and experiencing three relegations out of the Football League. All the while, success – as defined by silverware or positive progress up the pyramid – has proved elusive, to the frustration of all involved.
Sure, we reached the League Cup final in 2000. And yes, beating Everton 3-0 at Goodison Park may be worth a dozen promotions to some. But the fact remains that loyal Rovers fans have waited an abnormally long time for any success. So long, in fact, that perhaps it’s time to begin asking for answers, or at least accountability.
Out of curiosity, I recently studied the honours of every club in the top five divisions of English football, noting how many years had passed since their last achievement. In this case, achievement is defined as any league title, promotion or top-level cup triumph. After processing all 116 teams, here’s the condensed list of clubs that have waited longest between tastes of glory.
Longest Wait for Success, Top 5 Divisions of England
1. Coventry City – 29 years
2. Oldham Athletic – 25 years
Tranmere Rovers – 25 years
3. Everton – 21 years
4. Aston Villa – 20 years
5. Forest Green Rovers – 18 years
Lincoln City – 18 years
Macclesfield Town – 18 years
6. Ipswich Town – 16 years
7. Bolton Wanderers – 15 years
Fulham – 15 years
8. Blackburn Rovers – 14 years
9. Plymouth Argyle – 12 years
10. Accrington Stanley – 10 years
My study revealed that, on average, a club in the top five divisions achieves something once every five seasons. That Tranmere fans have waited five times that long suggests something has been deeply amiss at the club for decades.
We all know about the years of underinvestment and neglect from on high. Similarly, the failure of coaching and management is an all too familiar tale. But surely there must be other underlining causes contributing to this drought. Other clubs with far less resources have achieved a lot more in the same timespan, comparatively. Likewise, it would appear that certain clubs have won things almost by accident, or at least with double helpings of luck, while Rovers simply haven’t. Whether it’s a fundamental failure of club culture or a simple lack of intellectual foresight, something was obviously missing for a very long time. You could argue that it’s still missing, for there’s very little evidence that we’ll storm to an open top bus parade next spring.
It’s time the loyalty of Tranmere fans was rewarded. Even through all the dark days and gloomy eras, we’ve still flocked to Prenton Park in optimistic mood. Average attendances have slipped from a decade ago, but they’re still very respectable for this level. Meanwhile, we continue to travel around the country in impressive numbers, often having more fans at away games than the hosts. The fanbase continues to grow, with more young kids coming through the gates each week thanks to a variety of schemes. That’s wonderful. That makes the heart swell with pride. And in every face, each week, you see hope springing eternal, against all logic. We yearn for this to be the week it all changes; for this to be the week when our faith is finally rewarded. It rarely happens.
Now, I don’t want to sound like a spoiled brat. Football is an art, not a science. Only a few clubs, backed by oil dollars, can expect to win every contest, for this game is more about heartache than euphoria. We know that better than anyone. In a certain respect, football isn’t even about football. It’s about spending time with family and friends, sharing a hobby and having a laugh. Yet, at some point, it would be nice to experience some glory with the club to which you give so much. It would be nice to know that your loyalty isn’t taken for granted. Our effort never wavers, but more soul-searching is required than ever before as we lurk in non-league squalor. More belief in unseen dreams is needed, and some are struggling to muster the energy anymore.
Tranmere Rovers is a remarkable football club. The history is intoxicating. The tradition is phenomenal. The potential is enormous. But, for the past quarter of a century, only two of 116 English league clubs have been equally or more unsuccessful on the field. Even Coventry, the leaders in this dubious race, won the FA Cup and enjoyed many years in the top tier. Similarly, Oldham spent time in the nascent Premier League. Therefore, you could argue that, since 1991, few fanbases in English football have been tortured more than that of Tranmere Rovers. A few clubs beset by money troubles or woeful ownership may contend, but they’ve likely had more good days than us, too, so forgive me if I’m not overly sympathetic.
Nobody likes self-pity, and that’s not the point I’m trying to make here. On the contrary, experiencing heartbreak so frequently toughens you up and provides a realistic outlook on life. Valuable lessons can be extracted from defeat. Anyhow, I would rather support Tranmere, with all the peaks and troughs that entails, than have my matchday experience consist of singing You’ll Never Walk Alone at a television screen in some nondescript St Helens boozer. Additionally, I’d much rather be Tranmere Rovers, with the proud heritage and meaning that inspires, than Crawley Town or Morecambe, Football League clubs with little upside.
Tranmere is in our blood. We have no choice in the matter. Supporting and dreaming without justification is part of the deal. It’s like a virus that cannot be cured. We’ll be there no matter how far the club falls, because what else are you going to do on a Saturday? Still, we’d appreciate a sense of urgency towards achieving something soon. After all, that’s the point of this endeavour. Perhaps we’d also like somebody to take responsibility for our chronic underperformance down the years, and put into action a tangible, exciting plan for future prosperity. We’ve heard all the promises. It’s now time to deliver.
Forgive us for feeling impatient and demanding so much in often distressed tones. This means a lot to us. Many people just want to see Tranmere lift a trophy or get back to where they rightfully belong. Is that too much to ask? If not, then please use our passion as motivation. A little of our desperation, our desire, could certainly be used on the field. When the players want it as much as us, perhaps that’s when this extraordinary drought will end.