By Ryan Ferguson
In Birkenhead, summer has adhered to the same pattern for 26 barren years.
It begins with a cataclysmic defeat for the hometown eleven. To those most invested, pain shreds and tears at the core. Then comes the emptiness, the murky void, the paranoia.
We worry. We mope. We search for salvation.
Then it happens.
Even when you swear it won’t. Even when you’ve become hardened by decades of heartache. Even when you’re bitter and resentful.
Even when you promise to give it up. Even when you affect a stoney façade of middle-aged insouciance. Even when it’s easier to detach than become entangled in gloomy webs of emotion.
If it’s in your blood, it happens.
Something obscure and innocuous may trigger it. You may see the sacred crest on a t-shirt, wafting gently in the summer breeze on a washing line. You may have a conversation with your dad or brother about that favourite away day, or that first time Tranmere Rovers tugged at your soul. You may even recognise a certain scent or sound and associate it with a specific memory.
But something will cut through the numbing drone of everyday life. It will grab you, save you, pull you through the chaotic waves of mundane summer tedium and call you back to where you belong. From nowhere, or perhaps even from the darkest reaches of dissatisfaction, there will be a sudden surge.
The heart will thump. The pulse will race. The fist will clench.
You’ll stand up, put on a new outfit, and float to CH42 9PY. You’ll drink to old memories and new ones unborn. You’ll pace the iconic streets, winding through Prentonia. You’ll clank through the old rusty turnstiles; hear the Rockford Files moaning into the expectant air; and amble up those yellow steps into the verdant oasis of green, our holy tabernacle of sport.
You’ll be free again. Free at last.
In the end, football isn’t about transfer rumours and bickering over the Internet. It certainly isn’t about executives, nor is it even about individuals per se. Sure, it lends itself poetically to iconography, as we worship those players who excel. But football is a spirit, a collective feeling, a giddy miasma that settles over the attendant horde.
The details don’t matter. Not really. When you sit down and look back in fifty years, sharing stories with the grandchildren, you’ll remember moments and feelings, not people and particulars.
Yes, some memories will be attached to individuals, but you’ll remember the emotion more than anything. Who you were with. What was happening in your life. That’s the true beauty of football, found in the raucous, uncouth, reckless splattering of sentiment that it spawns.
This silly little game teaches us about our existence. Life isn’t all swanky deals and easy riches plucked from a vacuum. Life is struggle, disappointment, injustice and dashed hopes; squandered plans, broken hearts, pain and frustration. Life is more Tranmere than Forest Green. Bad things happen to good people. But it’s all about character and resurrection. It’s all about preserving through the darkness, when faith and vague hope are the only options.
Deep down, there’s a gripping tragedy to the soul of Tranmere Rovers. It draws you in, intrigues the mind, grabs the heart. It compels you to believe that, somehow, some way, you can play a role in bringing about that ultimate halcyon day that has eluded us for so long.
It eats at you. It becomes you.
Tranmere lose. Tranmere suffer down times. Tranmere encounter ridicule, self-doubt and humiliation. Together, we’re humbled routinely. Yet somehow, each downturn stokes our affection anew.
In May, the most enjoyable of seasons imploded cruelly before our eyes. When it mattered most, our Rovers froze. On the emerald canvas of Wembley Stadium, those entrusted with our dreams lacked invention, energy and fight.
Gone was the style and fortitude that dragged us to the playoff final. Missing was the cohesion and momentum that inspired us to believe. Lost was the sense of destiny, the chord of pertinence and the aura of control that illuminated our path.
On that fateful day, Forest Green Rovers were the better team. Months of hope flashed before our eyes. Years of yearning slipped through our grasp.
It was there. It was ours.
Then it wasn’t. Then it was gone.
I ached for weeks. The sense of emptiness was resounding. As fans, we saw our own giddy belief return to torment us. The more we invest, the worse we feel when the fantasy fades from view. But soon the tears dried. Soon, the wound was stitched with hugs and words from comrades and loved ones. Soon, our values shone through, giving structure to our pain.
We’re tough around here. Whatever happens, we’ll face it and carry on. We’re accustomed to hurt, struggle and injustice. So with each passing year that our Rovers fail spectacularly, the sting will resound and the horror of dulled prestige will bewilder. Yet no matter what, we’re still Tranmere Rovers, with all the importance that entails.
The squad could be bankrupt of talent. Individuals may leave us for dead. Promotion may never be achieved. But the pulse will beat on, regardless of leagues and opponents and enemies.
You see, Tranmere Rovers is merely just the name given to a feeling, a belonging. We could lose every game and still have pride. We could hemorrhage money and still have a beguiling history. We could lose every player and every staff member, every director and every coach. There could be no squad, perhaps even no ground, and still Tranmere Rovers would exist, in all its timeless prestige. Because it exists inside those who believe, and those who understand.
We could be desolate, ruined, adrift in the abyss. Sure, it would hurt, but our niche in the fabric of football is indelible. Our distinct subculture is inextinguishable. Remember that. Use it as a source of confidence and honour. We are Tranmere. Nothing, and nobody, will ever change that.
Have fun. Have a laugh. Have hope.
We are worthy.
So all those who laughed at our Wembley trauma, in the nondescript outposts of National League obscurity, let’s be having you. Come on then. Show us your best. Chester? Wrexham? Dagenham? We’ve beaten you, dismantled you, wiped the floor with your tears. I suppose we’ll just have to do it again.
There’s a bittersweet lustre to our struggle, a density to the failure. Like the dad who finds a way to put food on the table, or the mum who somehow makes ends meet, we encounter real life. We live it. We breathe it. Nothing comes easy. We don’t buy success or assemble it with minimal fuss. Tranmere isn’t the plaything of a vain millionaire, nor a bland manifestation of some contrived, self-centred ideology. No, Tranmere is a craggy representation of everyday desire – untrammelled, crude and achingly desperate.
We hurt because this club matters. Often, we pretend that we’re past the point of caring about football. That’s a defence mechanism, purely and simply. We try to defend ourselves from suffering agony one more time, and it’s okay to feel that way. In some cases, it’s even positive. It builds resilience and will make the ultimate glory even sweeter.
Remember the pain. Use it to motivate you. Summon the anger, the humiliation. Call upon the disappointment. Let the resentment and envy surface. Stoke those emotions and channel them into a renewed effort. Every season is sacred, and every opportunity to reverse the curse must be treated with utmost sincerity.
So let hope reign through this footballing hub of ours. Let it echo through the streets and reverberate in the corridors. Let it pour through the valleys and tumble down the hills. Let it sweep you up, splash your soul, inspire you to get carried away like that kid who first fell in love with that pristine white kit.
Yes, we say it every year. And to some, the sentiment will be thoroughly diluted. We may seem utterly ridiculous, falling for the same trick annually. Well, so be it. What else can we do?
There’s no point pretending. You and I both know that, regardless of our stature and heritage, this club is accursed with the most ardent misfortune. To some extent, the propensity to fail makes this club unique and somehow purposeful. There’s a narrative to Tranmere Rovers. A backstory. A thread. An evocative quest. There’s something beneath the surface here. Something beyond what meets the eye. It wriggles and writhes under our skin. It pulses and throbs through our veins. There’s a yearning, a restless urge for salvation.
At this point, the endless wait is subsumed into the DNA of this proud fanbase. What can go wrong usually will, sooner or later. Often in the most gut-wrenching and astounding ways possible. Rather than fighting that fact, or working ourselves into a lather about it, just accept it and use it as a positive. Think of the biblical catharsis when everything finally clicks.
For thousands of people, Tranmere Rovers, this wondrously daft football team, is the one constant in life. The one thing we can rely on, even if that reliance typically ends in frustration. We know it’s always going to be there; that hope will spring eternal in the human breast and, one way or another, the same old faces will return each August.
It’s been that way since 1884, back when a gaggle of bearded brutes in flat caps and baggy trousers assembled under the moniker of Belmont FC. That team, which soon morphed into the grand Tranmere Rovers, ties generations together. It gives voice to the speechless. It provides meaning for the lost. Some of us meander in and out, as life circumstances change, but the flame is never dampened.
Tranmere Rovers will always be there for you, no matter where you end up in the world.
This season, stepping in the footsteps of so many immortals, treading that same pitch on the corner of Borough Road and Prenton Road West, we have a squad of understated excellence.
In Ben Tollitt and Connor Jennings, we have the two best players in this division, I firmly believe.
In Andy Cook, James Norwood, James Alabi, Andy Mangan and George Waring, we have a strikeforce capable of causing serious damage in a variety of styles.
In Jeff Hughes, James Wallace, Jay Harris and Ollie Norburn, we have a midfield axis to rival any at this level.
In Steve McNulty and Jay McEveley, we have a central defensive partnership of remarkable balance, pedigree and expertise.
In Micky Mellon, we have a leader of sufficient personality, resilience, vision and character to guide Tranmere Rovers.
On paper, we’re resounding favourites to win the National League title. Yet as we know more than most, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. However, I call upon you once more to give those unlucky Rovers another chance.
Don’t bicker and moan about summer music concerts that turned sour. Don’t revert back to the negativity of bygone times and toppled regimes. Those who aren’t here don’t matter. Those who don’t understand have little meaning. Those who give up don’t belong.
Most of us are in this until the end. We’re in this for our entire lives. Regardless of momentary peaks and troughs, transient downturns and traumas, we’re Tranmere ’til we die.
Try not to get lost in any one moment. Yes, the need to win now, right now, is pressing, but don’t let that cloud your view of the bigger picture, which is still beautiful to the trained eye. When you step back from the canvas, there is still plenty to love about football in its purest sense. Our investment in it, in this deadly submarine of potential, is timeless.
In the wider world, these are times of mass uncertainty and grave inequity. That’s why Tranmere Rovers may be the club of bygone times, of Dixie Dean and Pongo Waring. But it’s also why Tranmere Rovers is the club of now, of unending ambition in the murkiest of depths.
When we’re cradling another season killed in cold blood, flopping about mournfully in pursuit of flickering dreams, it seems so unlikely that we’ll muster the enthusiasm to rebound. Yet here we are, and here we go. We’ll always find a team around here. We’ll always be ready to fight. We’ve done so for 133 years, through wars and crisis and turmoil. And we’ll do so again. Right here, right now.
Even when it seems impossible, when the forces of adversity conspire against us in the harshest tones, August will round into view and eleven men will line up on the inviolable turf of Prenton Park: chests out, chins up, fourteen sacred letters stitched in blue over their hearts.
The whistle will blow. The crowd will roar. Together, we’ll unleash more hunger, passion and determination than most measly opponents can comprehend. We’ll live on. We’ll punch again. Regardless of what’s gone before. Because of what’s gone before.
Will it happen? Will the stars finally align? Will the bridesmaid finally get married? I don’t know. You don’t know. Not really. Not truly. Dagenham could challenge. Wrexham seem to think highly of themselves. Hartlepool strike me as that annoying team that could scupper our challenge. What shall we make of Eastleigh, Leyton Orient and AFC Fylde?
Time will tell. We’ll gather again. We’ll sing again. We’ll commandeer trains and rock on through the gloom. New layers will be added to Tranmere Rovers lore. Stronger through struggle. Broader through adversity.
Be wilder. Have more fun. Laugh louder. The further we fall, the more expressive and boisterous we should become. Bewitch people with our nonchalance, our blind devotion, our nonsensical passion.
Expect the worst. Yearn for the unthinkable, unquenchable, unconscionable best. And by the time Hartlepool arrive on the paradise peninsula in April, for the final game of this season, 80 years will have passed since a Tranmere Rovers captain lifted a league title of any description.
It’s time for that to change.