By Ryan Ferguson
Welcome to the abyss. Take a good look around and familiarise yourself, because the long road back to respectability is quickly disappearing from view.
On my seventh birthday, October 4th 2001, Tranmere beat Blackpool 4-0 at Prenton Park. Steve Yates scored a trademark header, and a wonderful time was had by a buoyant crowd of 10,354. In retrospect, it was a down moment for Rovers, who were adjusting to life back in the third tier after a decade playing higher. Still, there was a buzz among the crowd, and I could only see success in our future, despite Dave Watson occupying the dugout.
Fast forward to yesterday, when I turned twenty-two, and things could hardly be worse for this grand old club. Last night, Tranmere lost 1-0 at home to Gateshead before 4,048, including just 16 fans from the North East. It was our sixth game without victory in the last seven, and a result that leaves Rovers ninth in the fifth tier. There’s no manager. The squad has been ravaged by injuries and suspensions. And people are finally running out of patience with a club that never seems to get it right.
A lot has happened in the fifteen years between those two games on my birthday. But this, right now, must be the lowest Tranmere Rovers has ever fallen. Watching the ineptitude of teams coached by John Barnes and Rob Edwards was bad; witnessing relegation from League One was horrendous; and falling out of the Football League after 94 years was plain humiliating. Yet the systematic failure to regroup and dominate non-league football stings just as much, if not more. At the moment, even our fanbase, loyal beyond belief, is struggling to find that one thing everybody needs: hope. There’s no telling when our nightmare will end.
Yes, Prenton Park looks fantastic these days. And yes, the club is generating more off-field revenue than perhaps ever before. Solar Campus will be great. The club’s community efforts are to be praised. We even have a decent kit for once. But judging a football club by those attributes alone would be like judging a car by its colour. It’s nice, and some will say it’s even important. But if the engine doesn’t run, what’s the point? The same is true of Tranmere right now. We have an exterior to be proud of, but the core nucleus, the actual football team on that field, is simply not good enough. It’s about time that changed.
Of course, football is an art form, not a science. Still, a whole heap of clubs have painted a better picture than us over the past decade. Of the 116 teams comprising the top five divisions in England, only two have waited longer for success than Tranmere. We experienced three relegations in the space of fourteen years. After reaching three FA Cup quarter-finals in five seasons, we now have to qualify for the first round proper. After reaching the League Cup final in 2000, we now don’t even participate in the competition. Though stupendous for this level, average attendances are down 51% from 2004-05, while an adult ticket on the Kop is now £5 more expensive. That may not seem like a lot, but in a working class area like ours, every penny counts. The price is also totally incongruous with the product being placed on that field.
We love this club. Planet Prentonia is a website dedicated to extolling the virtues of Tranmere Rovers and telling the true story of its remarkable history, so often overlooked by the mainstream media. We’ll support Rovers no matter what. But please don’t take us for granted. At this point, a lot of fans have had enough of the empty platitudes. Don’t make a huge promotional campaign about coming back stronger, then lose to Welling United at Prenton Park. Don’t tell us we embody the soul of this club, then sign loan players that are often an insult to our efforts. Just don’t. Either drop the prices and pretence, or find people capable of delivering on the promises. People worthy of the shirt. People who can restore Tranmere Rovers to actual, not imagined, greatness.
In this regard, the list of attributes required by our new manager grows longer with each passing second. At this point, we’re looking for some kind of Biblical octopus who can oversee the many different elements of this complex, expanding club and channel them towards what’s most important: achieving promotion from this godforsaken league. Besides the great history of Rovers, the job becomes less appealing with each defeat, because in crude terms this is now a team languishing near mid-table in the Vanarama National League. We’ve got our work cut out.
I loathe negativity relating to Tranmere. It’s a thing we all love, and too often in recent years the atmosphere surrounding it has been incompatible with success. But what other option do we have right now? All the facts are there. All the trends point to a major crossroads for this football club, unlike any it has faced in 132 years of existence. We either get a manager with the ethos, skills and experience to galvanise a squad possessing considerable raw talent. Or we panic and botch one more appointment, allowing another novice to learn on the job at the expense of Tranmere Rovers. We either turn it around sharpish, or risk becoming accustomed to non-league mediocrity. With each year that passes, getting out of this league will be more difficult, as our funding shrinks and that of relegated League clubs grows. It’s a path well worn, by clubs like Wrexham and Lincoln. It would be tragic to see that happen at Tranmere, a club of such tradition and potential.
We don’t hunt glory in Birkenhead. That’s why the Mersey Tunnel was built. All we want is to regain some respectability and pride. We just want to be back where we belong, in the third or fourth tier, occasionally flirting with promotion to the Championship. We can tolerate football that is less than beautiful. It’s just the perceived lack of urgency that kills us. Is the club content to see 11,000 empty seats at every game, or do we need to create a more exciting product? Are we happy to merely compete for promotion, rather than yearning and hungering for it like nothing else? Are the players content to jog and pass the responsibility, or can they do more?
Sooner or later, somebody needs to answer these questions.
Sometimes, I really wonder how we consistently find ourselves in such messes. That can be traced back to whenever you like, be it 2001 or 2014 or just three weeks ago. There always seems to be a crisis lurking around the corner. We never quite get it right. At the moment, it looks like dozens of ideas were thrown at the wall, hoping a few would stick. Some things just don’t add up. For instance, what good is Futsal if the first team manager relies on long balls and our youth products playing it are given only sparing opportunities? What use is networking in China if we can’t even beat a team backed by 16 men and a dog?
These are wonderful, admirable initiatives that I’m glad Tranmere are leading, because they help enrich the club as a force for communal good and a vehicle for innovation. But right now, it all seems a bit unwieldy, without any philosophical thread binding these projects together. Tranmere is becoming a whizzing vortex of excess stuff that seems to obfuscate the one cardinal aim of every club: winning first team football matches. These schemes may all be interconnected, but recent performances and results suggest that every drop of focus and every resource we can muster needs to be geared towards resurrecting a season on life support. Let’s walk before we try to run.
Ultimately, we’re now 26 months into new ownership at Prenton Park. Off the field, remarkable progress has been made. But it would be inaccurate to say that our on-field performance has been anything other than poor over that span. Some would even brand it disastrous. There’s obviously still something buried deep in the club’s culture that prevents progress, a noxious residue from 25 years of falling short. It’s time to exorcise that problem, whatever and wherever it is. It’s time for some accountability. It’s time to get it right, once and for all, or this fresh nadir may become the new normal.