The Force Awakens

By Ryan Ferguson

When Tranmere Rovers were relegated from the Football League in 2015, a tsunami of emotion was unleashed. Pain. Anger. Resentment. We felt them all. A dry eye couldn’t be found in Prentonia. Yet after a while, the inexorable forces of hope sprang anew, pushing aside the angst and forging a new horizon. As loyal fans, we dug deeper than ever, finding new reserves of energy. We clung to small crumbs of comfort, and dealt with the embarrassment in our own personal ways.

For me, the agony of successive relegations gave way to frail positivity about a fresh start for our beloved club. At least we’ll win some games now, I thought, contemplating the non-league opposition. Two steps back, three steps forward, I murmured vaguely, trying to trick a mind weary from years of football heartache. This league will be a cakewalk, I predicted as that unstoppable passion for Tranmere surged through my veins once more.

We found stats about our Kop being bigger than a dozen National League grounds, and heard tales of pot-bellied postmen masquerading as centre-halves for teams that even Google had barely heard of. Pretty soon, a grand vision revealed itself in vibrant colours and hallucinogenic clarity: Tranmere rattling in goals for fun, leaving a trail of destruction through the small villages of England, and hoisting a league title amid a sweet renaissance.

Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out like that.

Gary Brabin was selected as the man to oversee our first non-league season since 1921. Early victories over Gateshead and Bromley satisfied our idea of what Tranmere Rovers in the National League should look like. Rovers scored four on each occasion, and the opposition was overwhelmed by football and thought of a superior quality. However, those results were outliers in a prevailing theme of struggle and failure. Boreham Wood won 2-0 at Prenton Park. Altrincham beat us despite Rovers having 61% of the crowd at an away game. In one stretch from October to December, Tranmere won just twice in thirteen games. The nightmare continued.

Rovers finished the season strongly, in terms of results, but performances were still a major issue. Far from my utopian fantasy, Brabin’s men had great trouble finding the net, as Tranmere won just two games by more than a one-goal margin after November. It was a teeth-gnashing grind, and one that ended dismally when Rovers failed to even secure a playoff place.

We will never relinquish a rightful sense of pride in our remarkable history, but it became painfully apparent that money or heritage doesn’t win non-league football matches. Tactical acumen does. Quality players help, too. Welling United weren’t about to roll out a red carpet because we reached the League Cup final fifteen years ago. Braintree Town weren’t going to have their bellies tickled because we found Dixie Dean, Pongo Waring, Jason Koumas and a host of other superstars. Other teams couldn’t care less. In fact, they relish the opportunity to stifle and frustrate us at Prenton Park, the best stadium many of these players will ever visit. They rose to the occasion, while we collapsed under the weight of history.

Discontent grew.

This summer, Rovers replenished the squad with elite talent for this level. Many of the new arrivals won awards and topped the scoring charts at their previous clubs. This went a long way to filling the talent void that saw us fail so routinely in 2015-16. Tranmere won their first five league games this season, and were undefeated in their first seven. Finally, the results we demand were being supplied. Still, beneath the surface, uncertainty festered, as performances were still far from convincing.

Eventually, Brabin’s strategic ineptitude was found out, as the wheels came off. Four games without a win, including a horrific defeat to Sutton United, truncated his reign, as the Palioses showed refreshing ruthlessness in pursuit of glory. When your expectations are so lofty, the margins of success and failure are very thin. Tranmere Rovers couldn’t suffer such repeated underachievement any longer. It was time for a new voice and a fresh leader with the experience and ability to get the best out of this squad. It was time for Micky.

Mr Mellon arrived with a strong CV, a natural rapport with the fans, and an obvious hunger to rebuild a club he loves. His long-term task, to take Tranmere from eighth in the National League to as far up the pyramid as possible, was daunting. But right from Day One, Micky has shown that he has the patience, desire and vision to complete the project. He also has the ability, in a motivational and tactical sense, which has been missing at Prenton Park for perhaps a generation.

To be brutally honest, the early returns on his tenure show just how poor Brabin was, while underscoring the fact that Tranmere wasted so many years by tolerating inadequacy in the dugout. Mellon has got Rovers scoring goals again. He has relieved some of the pressure on these players and started to unleash their potential. He is winning the games he should win.

Mellon’s first game was a tense local derby with Wrexham. Tranmere played with renewed freedom, symbolised by Ben Tollitt roaming with confidence. There was a desire to entertain, and while plenty was left to work on, a 2-0 victory was most welcome. Defeat in the FA Cup qualifier at Barrow followed, but that felt like an aberration when Rovers got straight back to winning ways thereafter.

The last three games, all in the league, have illustrated just how much Tranmere have improved under Mellon. The prospect of facing Solihull Moors away and North Ferriby United at home within the space of four days should never scare Tranmere Rovers. Yet with Brabin at the helm, such fixtures had a habit of deteriorating into pantomime failure. Four points out of the possible six would have been deemed acceptable, to the chagrin of fans. There was an obvious disconnect between the club’s stature and present day standards. Mellon recalibrated that in style.

With renewed optimism, 1,047 Tranmere fans made the journey to Solihull, comprising 52% of a record attendance at Damson Park, according to official records. Rovers enjoyed a spot of good fortune when Jake Kirby opened the scoring, but they dominated proceedings with ease. Kirby added another after half-time, before James Norwood nodded home in a comfortable 3-0 win. This is exactly what we had in mind when first confronted with a non-league voyage: ramshackle ground, semi-professional opponents, comprehensive victory.

North Ferriby provided a sterner test, thanks mainly to spoiling tactics deployed from the first minute. However, Rovers were incredibly patient, and there was a discernible gameplan for once. Mellon wanted his players to bombard the penalty area with crosses, and that’s just what they did. At times, it was frustrating, as aerial duels were lost and the woodwork was rattled. But it paid off at the death, when Andy Cook leapt highest to win the game in dramatic fashion.

Again, this was a game we needed to win. North Ferriby languished in the relegation zone with a woeful goals record. The village has a population of around 4,000. While Rovers were playing in the aforementioned League Cup final, North Ferriby were toiling in the Northern Counties East Football League. In a historical sense, there should only be one winner in such games. Finally, that sense of superiority is being embraced and reflected on the field, where Tranmere have a manager capable of meshing the two aspects together into something beautiful.

People say we have no divine right to win games at this level, and I certainly understand that sentiment. But I also think it’s important to take a big picture view. Sometimes you need to zoom out. Whenever those players take the field, they’re entrusted with protecting a remarkable tradition. They’re Tranmere Rovers. In a global sense, they should be beating Solihull Moors ten times out of ten. Moving forward, that sense of pride and confidence will exist not in a vacuum or simply in our minds, but also on the pitch, because Micky Mellon is using the power of our identity to motivate rather than frighten.

That was on full display against Dover, as Rovers secured a brilliant victory. There’s usually a sense of dread whenever Tranmere play south of Northampton. For days in advance, I tend to have nightmares of Derek Jones narrating another 86th minute winner for the hosts. A lot of fans would have taken a point on the south coast, because the Crabble Ground really is a difficult place to visit. When Rovers went a goal down, a familiar sense of doom gathered, but then came a most uncharacteristic revival. Urged on by Mellon, Tranmere produced a scintillating display, scoring four goals to cap an emphatic win. The fanbase rejoiced.

Of course, it’s still early in this process. Things can go wrong. It’s a small sample size. Yet Micky Mellon has faced many different tests in his first month at Prenton Park, and passed almost all of them convincingly. Rovers have played stubborn teams in the relegation zone, fierce local enemies, and rivals in the promotion race. All the while, Mellon is yet to drop a single point in the league, while a healthier goal difference affirms the view that performances have also improved.

Tranmere are dominating games again, and that bodes well for the future.

Regardless of stats and numbers, don’t you just feel more confident with this manager at the helm? Don’t you feel like a Tranmere fan again? That we can beat any team we face? I certainly do. Mellon is in the process of unifying the club’s history with its present and future. He’s satisfying the demands of supporters and delivering what the owners want to see. That’s a very powerful concoction which should excite anyone associated with the club.

We may be in the fifth tier right now, but there’s a clear path to prosperity that was simply lost under Brabin. And so, it’s time to close the book on that era and look towards a bright future. The past is the past. We will never forget about those painful relegations, but that period of the club’s history is over. With great work in a short span, Micky Mellon has provided closure on that debacle. He’s soothed our discontent and reset the objectives. Under his guidance, this fine football club is walking again. Soon, it will be able to run.

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