By Ryan Ferguson
As Tranmere prepare to host South Park in the FA Trophy second round, supporters are once again left to grapple with mixed emotions about the competition. In one respect, there’s a morbid intrigue about playing a club from the eighth tier. With all due respect, Rovers should win in style. Yet on the other hand, it’s difficult to gauge the true worth of the FA Trophy, and assessing the effects of advancing in it can be a minefield.
In the first instance, many Tranmere fans still don’t know how to feel about our mere inclusion in the Trophy. Last season was our first ever experience of it after 94 unbroken years in the Football League, and seeing a grand name like Tranmere Rovers lumped in with Stocksbrigde Park Steels and Matlock Town is always rather embarrassing. However, by the same token, we have a very good chance of winning the competition, and such opportunities are relatively rare in football.
Ultimately, what is the point of this sport and our infatuation with it? For me, the main motivating factor is to spend time with family and quality friends, indulging in a shared passion, and hopefully creating memories that will last forever. In the end, we all yearn for that moment when our team parades a trophy around the hallowed turf of Wembley. Tranmere haven’t had such a moment since 1991. Does it really matter what trophy is at stake? And are we really in a position to pick and choose our glory?
I appreciate the FA Trophy is far from glamorous. There’s little prize money at stake, and it’s mainly contested by clubs that have no desire to be in it. But if Tranmere went all the way and won the trophy, that would surely be something worth celebrating, especially for a whole generation of supporters that has never witnessed success. Seeing Wembley packed with Rovers followers is always special, and a lot of newer fans have never had the opportunity to experience that.
Of course, there is a counter argument that raises some very valid points. Firstly, if our players are sitting on the beach in June with FA Trophy winners’ medals but are still mired in the fifth division, this season will have been a monumental failure. Winning promotion is our one and only aim. It’s of paramount importance. Accordingly, there is a popular worry that additional games in the FA Trophy could drain the players of energy and zap their focus for the title chase. While it’s difficult to quantify such concerns, they are nevertheless worthy of consideration.
Only three clubs have ever completed the non-league double of FA Trophy and fifth division title in the same season. Wealdstone managed it in 1985; Colchester did it in ’92; and Wycombe pulled it off in ’93. No team has managed to succeed on both fronts for 24 years and counting. Decoding reasons for that can be challenging, but one would imagine that there is at least something to the theory of FA Trophy progress distracting from league form.
How does that apply to Tranmere and their current context? Well, Micky Mellon has a large squad at his disposal. Strong players like Adam Mekki, Adam Dawson, Steve Jennings and Michael Ihiekwe have struggled for first team action recently, so the FA Trophy may provide an outlet to keep them fresh. Similarly, both Forest Green and Lincoln, our chief rivals for automatic promotion, are still in the competition. Lincoln even have FA Cup commitments to worry about. Dagenham and Dover can concentrate solely on the league, but who really knows how much that will help them?
This brings us to another strand of the debate: the notion that winning breeds winning, regardless of the competition. Obviously, preparing to play South Park is different to readying for, say, Lincoln. No matter what anybody says, our players will be naturally more relaxed this week. Some may even say complacent. Yet there’s nothing better than winning football matches to boost morale and reaffirm positive habits within the group. If Mellon sticks to the same routine, and focuses intently on winning each match individually, good things will happen. Success will take care of itself.
Obviously, if the FA Trophy does derail our promotion push, we will never forgive ourselves. If we keep advancing and end up playing rearranged games against Barrow, Boreham Wood, Dover and Torquay on Tuesday nights, concern will certainly grow. But right now, in the moment, there’s little way to calculate those potential consequences beyond a mere hunch. I, like you, want Tranmere Rovers to win every single game at every single level. Perhaps we should do that and worry about the consequences later.
At this point, 32 teams remain in the FA Trophy. Including the South Park tie, Tranmere are three wins and a two-legged semi-final away from Wembley. Most bookmakers have us tabbed as favourites to win the competition, and in a vacuum, I would be disappointed to be knocked out by almost every other club left in play. Of course, if defeat to South Park guaranteed automatic promotion for Rovers, I would accept it instantly. The correlation just doesn’t work like that, unfortunately.
Personally, I think winning the FA Trophy would be excellent, for poetic symmetry if nothing else. Tranmere shouldn’t be in the FA Trophy, but they are, so we might as well win the damn thing. We shouldn’t be down here, but we are, so let’s take everything with us when we return to normality. I suppose it’s like robbing a few items from a shoddy hotel.
The FA Trophy final is scheduled for 21st May. The regular league campaign ends on 29th April, with the playoff final taking place on 15th May. While Rovers are still going all out for the league title, the thought of two trips to Wembley in less than a week will conjure fond memories for supporters of a certain age.
There is so much to be determined between now and then, in the Trophy and the league, that even attempting to think about it can prove troublesome. Many Rovers fans will remain highly sceptical of this alien competition, and I share some of that sentiment. But I like to believe that, if we’re strong enough, these things will work themselves out. Que sera, sera and all that. Whatever will be, will be.
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