The Long War for Triumph

By Ryan Ferguson

On the surface, it was just a marginal two-goal victory against the semi-professional minnows of Solihull Moors. A gathering of 1,312 witnessed it, and nary a whisper registered on the global footballing radar.

Even in the Tranmere Rovers almanac, so impressive and voluminous, this game will be easily overlooked. It was a victory against the smallest fish in the minutest pond, in the rudimentary enclaves of Damson Park. No significant drama. Nothing to ponder anew.

But it mattered. It mattered more than we’d care to admit.

In a more nuanced context, it was a win to stave off the hounds of turmoil, the fleshy jaws of crisis. When a new nadir beckoned, when the depths of hell clawed at our heels, those entrusted with that shirt needed to show something. And they did. Regardless of the opposition.

It was a Bank Holiday. It was August. This match could have been lost in the scramble, obscured by the noise. Lord knows we’ve faced mightier foes in more glamorous locales. But this became one of the most vital fixtures in Micky Mellon’s colourful regime.

Consider our circumstances prior to kick-off. We languished 19th in the fifth tier. One hundred and ten clubs sat above us in the ancient pyramid of English football. In 133 years of participation under the moniker of Tranmere Rovers and Belmont FC, that had never happened before. It was time to fret.

Yes, just six games had been played, but Rovers lost two and drew three of those. They had just six points on the board in this division of unforgiving margins, in this season of make or break import. Chester were above us in the table, an alarming truth at any time. Torquay took a point from us, a cause for concern in modernity. The race had begun, but we were stuck in the stalls.

We looked dull, empty, ponderous. Our shape was all wrong. We found square pegs in round holes, a system out of kilter. There were flashes of agility and inspiration befitting a club of this magnitude, but defeats to Sutton United and Eastleigh tested our resolve. When Boreham Wood claimed a two-goal lead at Prenton Park, assisted by horrific refereeing, a sense of bland deja vu enveloped us. Rovers spluttered painfully, a Wembley hangover incarnate, as another campaign seemed tinged with poetic failure.

Yet to their credit, Tranmere fought back to snatch a crucial point. Andy Cook scored in the 83rd minute, before Andy Mangan equalised soon thereafter. We could have won it in stoppage time, but a free header was squandered, to the chagrin of all. The spoils were shared, leaving us dissatisfied still. Despite the faint comeback, this wasn’t the start we envisaged, nor the start we demanded. Fatigue set it among the fans.

In truth, we didn’t know how to react. Not this time. Not again. Some of us just fell quiet, introverted in the frustration. Others vented online, rambling incoherently about strikers on the wing and transfers turned sour. We thrashed about helplessly, unable to summon the magic and momentum of a 95-point season for the ages.

A spark was needed.

So it was vital, in its own subtle way, that unwelcoming trip to Solihull. For the first time, people were beginning to question Micky Mellon, as that quintessential disquiet crept in. Last season, we beat Solihull by an aggregate scoreline of 12-0 over two fixtures. Thus, defeat was unthinkable in its own right, let alone with reference to our wider predicament.

Early this term, Rovers have started matches strongly only to miss chances and allow uncertainty to fester. The opposition stifle and smother, then rob a goal on the break. We’re left chasing the game, reckless and animated, far removed from the gameplan of cool, detached autonomy to which we should aspire at this level.

Therefore, it was a tremendous relief when Ollie Norburn struck first against Solihull, firing Tranmere ahead after 19 minutes. It afforded us some breathing room, some time to take stock and play our own game. A quick second and third goal would have been ideal, but, while far from vintage, Rovers were always in command. Cook finally settled proceedings eight minutes from time, hauling Tranmere up the table.

After the final whistle, Mellon strode quietly across the pitch, a stern thumbs-up and sagacious wrinkle of the lips the only sign of outward emotion. Micky knows. Micky understands. He gets Tranmere Rovers. It’s in his heart. He’s aware that, for us, nothing at this level will ever suffice. We will always expect more, pursuing with relentless endeavour the glory that made us great.

Mellon wore that famous crest on 206 occasions as a player. He wore the captain’s armband with great frequency, too. He experienced Tranmere Rovers in happier times, when we stood toe-to-toe with the likes of Nottingham Forest and Sunderland, Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers on a weekly basis in the second tier. His first Rovers goal came in a 3-0 victory away to Stoke City in 1998. He doesn’t need me or you to tell him that our start to the season has been far below the required standard. Mellon knows that, because he feels it just like us.

“I never saw it as dropping down,” he said after departing third tier Shrewsbury to become Tranmere manager eleven months ago. “I know what it can be like here, so that’s the exciting part for me: winning games of football for Tranmere Rovers, a club I have so much affection for.”

You can see it in his body language. A rather reticent man, Mellon yearns to bring success to this oft-addled Tranmere, so lovable and addictive. It’s the one club he always wanted to manage. But, of course, having a deep emotional connection is only half of the battle. Mellon actually excels by detaching himself somewhat to focus on the finer details of management. And in that regard, he’s a resoundingly balanced icon in whom we can invest as loyal supporters.

To lead this large, seething and often preposterous football club requires a big heart, fearless passion and immeasurable guts. A week is a long time at Prenton Park, that crucible of expectation, and the demands inherent in that jersey have chewed up many a pretender. But Micky Mellon is here to stay. I have no doubt about that. He has the character, acumen and personality to lead this club, his club, back to where it should rightfully reside. He has the vision.

Micky Mellon is the figurehead we’ve craved for a generation, the cult hero of broad shoulders and ample fire to soak up our dreams, listen to our worries and channel them into some kind of footballing symphony. He’s the man to rekindle the misplaced majesty of Tranmere Rovers, a latter day Johnny King in so far as his potential to define an era at Prenton Park.

Now, I’m not here to defend every decision Micky Mellon has ever made. Nor do I wish to anoint him as some kind of messiah. He’s a human being, just like the rest of us. I’ve been left frustrated and perplexed at times this season, just like you. Errors have been made. Nerves have been frayed. We’ve lost to clubs with a fraction of our budget, an iota of our prestige. But I’ll stand by this assertion: if anybody is going to lead Tranmere Rovers out of the sludgy cesspit of non-league incongruity, it’s Micky Mellon. I believe wholeheartedly in his hunger, drive and skill.

It’s easy to sing his name in sunnier times, when the net is bulging and opponents are strewn about the wayside. It’s easy to wax lyrical in moods of jubilant exultation, when Rovers are ploughing through the division like the juggernaut of yore. Yet true substance is found when adversity shades proceedings, when doubt begins to encroach on everything that once ran smooth.

The real measure of a fanbase is in how it responds to agony and despair. If, while losing to nondescript rivals, we maintain our principles of decency and decorum, that’s what matters most. When times are tough, stand up and cheer louder, no matter how much it may hurt. Let’s set an example. Let’s be unique. Let’s be Tranmere.

This club is bigger than you or I. It was here long before us, and it will be here long after we’ve gone. We’re temporary stewards, shepherding this sacred thing through to safety. Why would we make life harder for ourselves, harder for this beloved asset? Why wouldn’t we do everything in our power to support, encourage and foster an environment most conducive to winning?

Imagine empowering every single player who crosses that white line to represent us, regardless of talent or form. Imagine providing a boost wherever it is needed, obstinate in unwavering support. Imagine becoming a totally united force of energy and positive will, the like of which simply cannot be matched at this level.

To declare that we have a role to play as fans is a hackneyed phrase that wears a little thin. We know more than most that the life of a football supporter is infuriatingly ambiguous. We invest huge swathes of our existence into something we cannot ultimately control. Yet, on some level at least, we really can make a difference, chiefly in the atmosphere we create inside the Prentonian bubble.

Right here, right now, let’s choose to be a force for good.

At times this season, our football hasn’t been slick and free-flowing, but that is perhaps a symptom of our surroundings. Micky Mellon has spearheaded three promotions as a manager. That includes a fifth division championship with Fleetwood. And while no club official is ever above reproach, I trust his expertise and intuition more than that of any one supporter.

Again, maybe I’m overly romantic, biased or indulgent. Yet I see Mellon as the kind of generational leader who could build a dynasty at Prenton Park if given a sustained opportunity, dragging us back through the leagues with the kind of understated arrogance that was once our trademark. Tell me I’m crazy. I’m sure some of you will. However, just dare to briefly ponder what could be achieved if we support this man with everything we have.

You needn’t look far. Think back to last season, when Mellon orchestrated a most exhilarating revival. He inherited a squad slumbering in mid-table, and eventually became just the third man in history to lead Tranmere Rovers out at Wembley. Together, we won with a regularity never before encountered. Yes, the ending was doused in familiar anguish, and Mellon apportioned himself a large chunk of the blame, but only a fool could forget the pride that swelled inside us.

It may sound absurd, but in a certain light, even our subsequent poor start to this campaign can be used as a positive. After the whirlwind rush of Wembley, perhaps this brought us back down to earth, if Forest Green didn’t do that themselves. Perhaps this start enabled us to bottom out, humbled and freshly vigilant. It creates an us against the world illusion, a sense of starting from scratch, one step at a time, striving towards that tantalising grail, always mindful of the dangers at every turn.

We now sit in 15th place. Three points from the playoff spots. Six points off the top. This season, anybody can beat anybody. It’s going to be wild. It’s going to be disconcerting. We’re going to lose again. We may even lose tomorrow. Yet we must take one game at a time and fight for every inch. Our history will always preserve, and our culture will always abound, but we must prove ourselves every single week. We must grind every step of the way, and leave no regrets.

In these parts, we seem to have averaged a fresh start or new dawn once every three months, or so it feels. I understand that some people have simply just had enough. They’re tired of the story. They’ve surrendered to the numbing farce of non-league football. However, what we face right now isn’t so much a fresh start as a thorough decoding, once and for all, of what Tranmere Rovers actually means to each and every one of us.

Ultimately, when Tranmere fail, we look stupid. To people in work, school and beyond, we’re the public face of Tranmere Rovers. Whenever the club is mentioned, on the radio or television, it will trigger in the mind of normal folk a propulsion to think of us. As you know, we’re regularly the brunt of jokes, the target of criticism due to the plight of our ill-fated Rovers. Why would we willingly contribute to that by also chastising our own representatives?

Of course, everybody is entitled to their own opinion. If you pay for a ticket, feel free to shout what you like, within reason. But first, just think what this means to you. Really. Truly. It may be difficult to admit in some instances, but we’re all hopelessly hooked on this child’s game, this ludicrous pastime of balls and grass and pies. There’s something there that makes you clank through those turnstiles time and time again, even after swearing you never would again. Deep down, we all want the same thing. Let’s work together to achieve it.

To a certain extent, I view Tranmere Rovers as a relative, an extension of my family. When things go wrong for a sibling or loved one, we wouldn’t scold and admonish. We would acknowledge where mistakes have been made and try our very best to help rectify those issues. We would create an environment compatible with success. The same is needed for Tranmere.

In all fairness, our support has been good this season. But we all know it can be better. In terms of numbers. In terms of volume. In terms of meaning. Right now, we face the greatest challenge ever to befall Tranmere Rovers: reclaiming our place in the Football League. It sounds simple enough, but as we’ve come to learn, it’s a ghoulish gauntlet of multi-layered complexity. The club needs us. And we need the club.

These are fertile times in the history of Tranmere Rovers. We’ve arrived at a daunting crossroads, the clock ticking and the goal becoming more difficult to attain. At the conclusion of this season, our squad may be totally ravaged. We have so many expiring contracts to so many key players, a herculean effort will be required to rebuild to anywhere near a similar strength without promotion. All the while, budgets may be trimmed still further, and the prospect of becoming Wrexham, just another non-league club in another non-league town, becomes ever more realistic.

At the moment, everything is magnified at Tranmere Rovers. The pressure to succeed. The torment of defeat. Even the significance of victories against teams we had barely heard of three years ago. So let our enthusiasm and commitment be amplified, too. Let our desire pour forth and our faith be rewarded.

Sometimes, this seems like such a different club to that of times gone by. In more morose frames of mind, it’s tempting to sit and wonder why all the heroes disappeared, just like WIRRAL on the shirt and that three-span Cowshed roof. Nevertheless, if you look close enough, you can still see it writhe beneath the surface. Pride. Independence. Honour. And if you listen close enough, listen really hard, rattling in the furthest dusty reaches of that enchanted burial ground, you’ll hear the guttural roars of yesteryear, the shrieks of sweet defiance. Oh my word, Barlow. They’ve got a fourth!

I don’t have all the answers. Neither do you. But I know that we can too easily become they when plans go awry. Such disunity solves nothing. We win together. We lose together. That’s the bottom line. There’s ground to be made up. We’ve dug ourselves a hole. Yet we are Tranmere Rovers, the club of stiff upper lips and unimaginable forbearance. We never give up. Not without a fight.


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