By Ryan Ferguson
In the end, it was one lacklustre performance and dismal result too many. Following a woeful defeat to Sutton United, Tranmere parted company with manager Gary Brabin on Sunday, ending his disappointing stay at Prenton Park.
“I would like to thank Gary for his hard work and contribution over the past sixteen months in building a strong squad of players, getting us back fighting for promotion places and setting some club records in the process,” read a statement from Rovers Chairman Mark Palios. “However, we have agreed that it is best now to allow someone else to take the Club to the next stage.”
Brabin was named National League Manager of the Month for August, but problems bubbled beneath the surface even as Tranmere rode high in the table. A subsequent run of one win from six games, coupled with uninspiring performances, was enough to cost Brabin his job. He leaves with the highest winning percentage of any manager in Tranmere history, 46.6%. However, that was achieved in the fifth division, often against semi-professional teams. Moreover, the average winning percentage of National League champions over the past five years is 64.4%, which demonstrates just how far short Brabin fell in meeting the demands of such a big club at this level.
When he arrived in May 2015, Tranmere Rovers faced the biggest challenge in its considerable history: returning to the Football League, from which it was relegated that summer after a 94-year stay. While history will likely judge him as a failure, Brabin did provide much-needed stability at this time. It may not seem like much, but he did stop the rot of consecutive relegations and returned Tranmere to winning ways. Of course, we demanded domination of non-league football, and Brabin could not deliver the promotion for which the club yearned, but he signed some very good players and began our transition back towards a winning mentality. It wasn’t to the degree anyone wanted, but there was definitely value in his work there.
Ultimately, Rovers finished sixth last season, two points adrift of a playoff place. Twelve league defeats, including nine at home, killed any chances of promotion, as frustration grew. Tranmere did enjoy some bright moments, such as the incredible comeback at Barrow and the start of a record run away from home, but performances never inspired confidence, especially at home, and one felt that Brabin was never comfortable in his role. The sale of Andy Mangan didn’t help, but Rovers were undone by a lack of managerial nous rather than deficiencies of personnel. The writing was on the wall.
I did see initial value in allowing Brabin to continue for a second campaign. He was the first Tranmere manager since Ronnie Moore in 2013 to maintain control for successive pre-seasons. Constantly changing managers didn’t deliver success, as the club lurched from one crisis to the next, so it was refreshing to experience some stability for a change. Brabin had a baseline from which to work, improve and progress. He made some more decent signings, headlined by Connor Jennings, and enjoyed a strong start, with five straight wins sending a warning signal to the league. Yet many of those victories came despite underwhelming performances, and the wheels soon fell off as Brabin failed to learn from his mistakes. That inability to adapt ultimately truncated his tenure.
Gary Brabin is a passionate football man, and his heart is in the right place. He didn’t deserve the offensive graffiti that besmirched Prenton Park overnight, calling for his removal as boss. Fundamentally, he wanted to achieve success. But, in the end, he just didn’t know how. A lack of tactical acumen led to star players being shoehorned into wrong positions, as square pegs in round holes became the norm. Tranmere were routinely outwitted by the opposition, whoever they were, and Brabin’s side often looked underprepared and incredibly naïve. Almost every other team seemed to have a clear gameplan, playing to their strengths and punishing our weaknesses. Meanwhile, Rovers once again played football of a spluttering, reactionary nature, untethered to any specific strategy or style. Aimless balls in the general direction of James Norwood comprised our philosophy for prolonged periods, as a lack of excitement became palpable.
Under Brabin, Tranmere became a team of caution and conservatism. Some will call him pragmatic, sensibly pursuing clean sheets as a solid foundation. Others will call him scared, totally unwilling to release the shackles from players of undisputed quality and incapable of changing a game once Rovers fell behind. Whatever you call him, it didn’t work, for Tranmere once again find themselves chasing other clubs, and they’ll do so with a new man in command.
To outsiders, it may seem strange that Rovers sacked their manager just weeks after he steered them to the top of this division. However, those outsiders haven’t endured the dreary football he produced for sixteen months. They haven’t walked out of Prenton Park on the verge of tears, feeling like the club can slip no further into the abyss. They haven’t felt the pain of defeats to non-league minnows who were more organised and committed than we could ever be.
Even when results were going well, it was a constant struggle. No game was easy. Few wins were by more than two goals. Scoring was a chronic struggle. By being so defensive, Brabin narrowed his own margins for success, which were already slim to begin with. At times, such as in victory over Eastleigh, Guiseley and many others, it felt like Rovers won despite him, rather than because of him. And that’s never compatible with sustained success.
Ultimately, this is Tranmere Rovers Football Club. We can’t always hearken back to brighter days, but there are massive expectations in Birkenhead, especially with the club playing in such a poor division. As fans, we demand far greater things than Gary Brabin ever came close to delivering. This isn’t personal, but in a footballing sense, he constantly fell below our expectations. Indeed, the abiding image of his reign will be a massive army of travelling Rovers fans outnumbering the hosts at an away ground just to watch an abject draw or numbing defeat. This club requires a more experienced hand to guide it. This club requires a man who can match the off-field progress with on-field aptitude.
Gary Brabin leaves a strong squad full of good players he recruited. For that, we thank him, and wish the guy well in whatever he chooses to do next. But it’s time for a more adept manager to inherit that squad and get the best out of it, once and for all. It’s time this club appointed the right man. A man capable of embracing the pressure and unleashing the enormous potential of a sleeping giant.