By Ryan Ferguson
In the high stakes game of National League poker, Mark and Nicola Palios are done waiting. With a ruthless managerial change and quality additions to the squad, they moved a stack of chips into the centre of the table. Tranmere Rovers are all-in.
The arrival of Andy Mangan and Adam Dawson, two shining lights from last season, only strengthens a formidable lineup in Birkenhead. The former was signed from Shrewsbury Town just ten months after leaving Prenton Park, while the latter returns following a stint with Eastleigh. Together, they send another warning signal to this division: we’re not playing around any more.
For a moment, just consider the attacking options at our disposal. James Norwood is still the talisman, by far our best player last season, during which he scored 21 goals. Then there’s Andy Cook, who has already reached double figures this term while setting a tireless tone of work rate. On the wings, we have Ben Tollitt, a mercurial dynamo with boundless confidence and a magic touch; Darren Stephenson, a pacey forward beginning to find his feet; Jake Kirby, the homegrown product experiencing a revival; and Adam Mekki, a player of considerable skill who embodied the Tranmere tradition of fine wing play last season.
Oh, there’s more. Don’t you worry. Connor Jennings is still working his way back from injury. He was Wrexham’s captain, Player of the Year and top goalscorer. Micky Mellon is excited to get the best out of him. We also have Cole Stockton scoring regularly on loan at Morecambe; Tolani Omotola tearing it up at Witton Albion; and Sam Ilesanmi waiting patiently for his opportunity. Don’t forget Louis Almond, who by all accounts saved Southport last term and who still deserves a chance at Prenton Park.
That stable of talent would make some Football League managers drool. It has almost every attribute covered, from pace and power to vision and subtlety. It has the potential to create and score goals. It has youthful potential and seasoned experience. If worked into a conducive formation, there’s little doubt it would strike fear into most lower league defences. There’s so much to be excited about.
Now throw Mangan into that mix. Here’s a guy who scored 7 goals in 22 appearances for Tranmere last season before joining Shrewsbury in a move that frustrated many fans. Mangan earned the affection of Rovers supporters with hard-working performances, a shrewd football brain and impressive poise in front of goal. Many felt that letting him leave raised concerns about the club’s ambition. Yet now, there are no such worries, as the 30-year old reunites with Micky Mellon, who has signed him on four different occasions.
Yet another fine addition to this supercharged group is Dawson, a tricky winger of speed, guile and bravery. Adam first caught our eye playing for Kidderminster Harriers at Prenton Park last season, as he nutmegged and jinked his way down the wing in brash fashion. That was horrible to watch as an opposition fan, but delightful to enjoy once he joined Tranmere on loan. Dawson made just ten appearances before injury upended his Wirral stay, but he left a lasting impression. After brief spells with Nuneaton and Eastleigh, Adam returned north to be near his fiancée as they expect a baby. Hopefully he stays fit and flourishes anew at a club that really suits him.
In total, Tranmere now have 11 attacking players to choose from, excluding those currently out on loan. That’s incredibly exciting. It puts a spring in your step, knowing that opposing teams will be petrified of visiting Prenton Park, where Rovers have the fourth-best home record in this league. But it’s even more fun knowing that we now have a manager capable of utilising and maximising those weapons. Mellon is yet to drop a single league point as Tranmere manager, as he awakens the latent force of a sleeping giant. The recent reinforcements make his job easier. Perhaps they’ll also smooth the path to achieving his main objective: promotion at all costs.
Moving forward, opposing managers will have great difficulty preparing to face Tranmere. Mellon could rotate his forward options, and there’s little way of knowing who will play from game to game. That makes us less predictable, which stiffens the task of coaches trying to plot against us. Rovers will also have tremendous firepower on the bench for any given fixture, affording Mellon the ability to totally change strategy and hopefully alter results as needed.
Can such a packed forward line be sustainable? Only time will tell. Without doubt, more than a few players are going to be left disappointed each week, and that presents new challenges. Mekki has the talent to be starting regularly. Stephenson is on his way to proving that, too. Norwood will be banging on the manager’s door once his suspension is complete. On and on it goes.
I choose to view this as a good thing. You can never have too many quality players. Injuries and suspensions are inevitable, and competition for places is fantastic because it raises standards across the board, in training and matches alike. We could certainly see some of these players leave Prenton Park, but it would be great to have them all here, fighting for a place in the team each week. That can only help our quest for promotion.
At this stage, the owners cannot do much more. Sure, we’d all love one more playmaking central midfielder, and perhaps some depth at both full-back spots, but that’s being pedantic. Mitch Duggan may have a big role to fill in this regard. But right now, the management team is doing everything it can to create a critical mass of talent – on the field and in the dugout – that it hopes will spill over into the promotion we all crave.
Coaches are being head-hunted. Money is being spent. Quality is being acquired. The plan is coming together, and it’s now time to do our bit. We must give our all in support of this talented squad, this unfolding vision, and roar it to the success that seems more inevitable with each passing day.