A Game for the Ages

By Ryan Ferguson

One hundred and thirty-four years passed between James Hannay McGaul gifting goalposts and footballs to a bunch of kids at the Wesleyan Chapel on Whitfield Street, Birkenhead, and Micky Mellon spearheading a modern revival for the team that was spawned as a result.

Over that timeframe, Tranmere Rovers, the name eventually ascribed to that team, has played close to 5,000 competitive football matches. Not one of those contests carried the one-off prize of a Wembley final for the victor.

Sure, the sainted sons have faced many two-legged affairs with that bounty on the line. But never have they had to negotiate one standalone match to earn a shot at silverware in the national stadium.

That will change on Saturday, when Prenton Park hosts the first one-legged promotion playoff semi-final in the history of English football’s top five divisions.

We are just ninety minutes, perhaps one-hundred and twenty, and maybe a few penalty kicks, away from returning to the scene of last year’s ultimate heartbreak. We are just one victory away from booking buses, flying flags and decamping to London in pursuit of glory. We are just that close.

This sudden death scenario is a unique experience in the annals of Tranmere Rovers tradition, a new episode of dread and passion and hope and excitement. There is no previous point of reference quite the same, no predetermined code instructing us, the devoted fans, how to behave. Through generations on Wirral, held together by the glue of football, nothing exactly like this has ever been encountered.

It’s a game for the ages, a game for all time.

It’s a game for immortals, bold of heart and conscious of dreams.

It’s a game unlike any other.

In twenty or thirty years’ time, the average non-league footballer will be employed in some other, less glamorous field. A property developer, perhaps, or a personal trainer. Maybe even a shop owner, postman or teacher. When the crowds drift away and the floodlights dim one final time, when obscurity beckons with retirement’s dull embrace, the majority will not be remembered. They will live normal, workaday lives, where even the next-door neighbour may be unaware that they once played professional sport for a living.

Only with a handful of clubs outside the Football League does there exist an opportunity to defy those laws of time, fame and aging. Succeeding with Tranmere Rovers is the magic elixir for a non-league footballer. Indeed, it remains one of the most sequestered grails in British sport. By scoring the important winner, making the heroic tackle, or producing the decisive save in that famous white shirt, a player can be remembered for eternity in these parts. Lauded, even. Worshipped. That’s what you’re playing for. That is the fate in your own hands.

Twelve months ago, things were different. Rovers won with a regularity never seen before, creating a whirlwind of momentum approaching the playoffs. Aldershot wandered straight into the eye of that storm and were blown away in the semi-finals. By contrast, at Wembley, we were found wanting against Forest Green.

Without delving into the pop psychology of that fateful day, an argument can be made that we didn’t know what to expect. It was all very new: the tiring exhilaration, the monstrous stadium, the mammoth pitch. Suits, national anthems, unparalleled pressure. Perhaps it was all too much for the uninitiated, too much for those who hadn’t experienced an occasion like it for almost twenty years.

This season, we accrued less points, scored fewer goals and finished further behind the champions. But we’re arguably better conditioned to achieve promotion in the coming days than we were last May. Even in defeat back then, we accumulated a bank of wisdom, feeling and ideas that can assist in launching a successful bid this time around.

Eleven members of the Wembley squad from last term are still with Rovers. Though neither is likely to feature in the playoffs, Manny Monthe and Drissa Traoré also formed an essential part of the Forest Green spine that day before joining Tranmere this season.

Accordingly, there is a wealth of playoff experience within this group. Some of the lessons dispensed last year are fresh, raw and uncomfortable, but you often learn more in defeat than in victory, and there’s a serious hunger for redemption amongst us.

A new system awaits us this time, as the National League tweaked its playoff format last summer. Out went two-legged ties. In came sudden-death matches. Four qualifiers became six, with the supposed advantage of a home semi-final granted to those finishing second and third.

Ebbsfleet United defeated Aldershot on penalties last night, earning a winner-takes-all showdown at Prenton Park. The Kent club has never played in the Football League, and is bidding to become the first team to achieve successive promotions into the fourth tier.

From an objective standpoint, this is David versus Goliath. The odds are heavily stacked in our favour. Ebbsfleet finished sixth in the regular season, eight points adrift of Rovers. They then endured more than 120 minutes of gruelling football away from home, plus a mentally draining penalty shootout.

When the semi-final begins at noon on Saturday, barely 62 hours will have elapsed since Ebbsfleet’s qualification. In that time, they will be tasked with recovering from one exhausting match; travelling almost 70 miles home; preparing tactically to face a well-rested Tranmere team; journeying a further 240 miles up to Birkenhead; and readying themselves to face a crowd of more than 10,000 baying spectators.

All of this should inspire confidence. But we’re Tranmere fans. We’re hard-wired to expect the worst in any given situation. All of those permutations merely add to the tension. We still have to respect our opponents. They showed remarkable character to come from behind late in extra-time against Aldershot, then again when all seemed lost in the shootout, so they’ll fight until the death. They have earned their opportunity, and they too are just one victory away from a Wembley final.

Rovers beat Ebbsfleet 3-0 at Prenton Park in February, while the reverse fixture ended goalless last September. I’m not going to spin it any other way: this is the best opportunity we will ever have to win the National League playoffs. Finishing second has given us an overwhelming advantage, and every club vying for that golden ticket is more scared of us than we are of them.

Of course, you never know what might happen. Especially to Tranmere Rovers. Especially in this league of such inept officiating. Complacency can be a major killer in the coming days. We have to guard against that. Ebbsfleet now know what it is like to partake in these one-off death matches, while our name and history alone does not guarantee success. We’re going to need guts. We’re going to need nerve. We’re going to need omens.

I’ve got one for you:

In 2015, Grimsby Town lost the fifth tier playoff final to Bristol Rovers, but recovered to beat Forest Green at Wembley the following year. In turn, Forest Green recuperated to defeat Tranmere a year later. If the trend continues, we’ll all be drinking champagne in nine days’ time.

Perhaps there’s a determination inspired by heartache. Perhaps there’s a shrewdness born of squandered anticipation. Perhaps there’s a conveyor belt of karma. Whatever the rationale, there is certainly a trend to believe in.

At one point this season, thoughts of another playoff final were almost redundant. Tranmere endured a Wembley hangover, plummeting to 19th place, their lowest league position in over a century. To haul themselves back from that grim nadir, to within touching distance of promotion, is a considerable achievement. An achievement largely attributable to a strikeforce of extraordinary power.

Andy Cook and James Norwood combined to score 48 goals this season. Cook got 27, Norwood 21. They are the first two Tranmere teammates to score twenty league goals or more in the same campaign since John Clayton and Colin Clarke in 1984/85. Throw in nine goals from Connor Jennings, and that potent triumvirate has struck 57 times. Wrexham’s entire squad scored eight fewer goals.

Uncouth and hungry, Cook now has 50 goals as a Tranmere Rovers player, tied with Ian Thomas-Moore for 25th place on the club’s all-time goalscoring chart. This season alone, he passed the likes of Dixie Dean, Eugene Dadi, Wayne Allison, Simon Howarth, Iain Hume, Jason Koumas and Jim Steel on that list. Only one man has ever required fewer games to score 50 goals in the white shirt: John Aldridge.

With a breath-taking effort against Gateshead in April, Andy became the first Tranmere player to score four goals in a game since Aldo twenty-four years ago. He also became Rovers’ first Golden Boot winner since Aldridge in 1995/96. In the past two seasons, excluding penalties, no player in the top five divisions has scored more league goals than Cook, who is destined to play at a higher level after four consecutive twenty-goal National League campaigns.

Dazzling and irrepressible, Norwood has also earned his opportunity to play in the Football League. The exemplary embodiment of our desire to get out of this division, James has found the net on 57 occasions for Rovers across three seasons. Only twenty men have ever scored more, putting him in rarefied territory.

Together, Cook and Norwood have transformed this incarnation of Tranmere Rovers from standard to sublime. But it will become just another footnote in an unfurling ballad of failure if we don’t win two further matches before summer arrives. Don’t let this slip now. We’ve come too far, and there’s so much more to achieve.

Just look around the team. There are so many players who deserve their moment of satisfaction having represented Tranmere Rovers with class. There’s Steve McNulty, the defensive colossus who has coaxed a phenomenal improvement from a once-leaky backline. There’s Jeff Hughes, the battery in our midfield watch who will depart for Northern Ireland whenever this season concludes. There’s Jay Harris, the irrepressible terrier; Ritchie Sutton, the earnest professional; and Oli Norburn, a mercurial talent capable of greatness on his day.

As we gather ourselves for another monumental effort, it’s not worth contemplating points dropped to Sutton, Eastleigh, Chester and Gateshead that cost us the championship. That type of behaviour has the potential to kill. No, it’s time to look forward. It’s time to reclaim what is rightfully ours.

This is our eighth trip to the end-of-season promotion playoffs, across three decades and various divisions. We’ve failed six times, including the past five attempts. Thirteen years have passed since Tranmere last won a playoff game at Prenton Park. Nevertheless, records are meant to be broken, and faith is the ultimate fuel of enthusiasm.

That’s why we’ll cram into the defiant old ground once more. That’s why televisions will glow and radios will crackle from Glenrothes, Scotland to Auckland, New Zealand, beaming across land and sea this showcase semi-final to the expats of Prentonia who still believe. You may be alone, peering at a distant pub screen or crouching over an Internet café computer, but spiritually, you are here, along for the ride. You are one of us, invested until the end.

In a few hours, the fate of this fantastical, absurd football team will affect the mood and immediate future of thousands. On arguably their biggest ever day, Ebbsfleet United form a roadblock between Tranmere Rovers and Wembley. We’re without Jennings, who has battled illness in hospital all week, while influential right-back Adam Buxton is a doubt. It’s sure to be a nervy occasion, and now is probably not the ideal time to remind you that Tranmere have only won eight of their last 65 matches played before a crowd of 7,000 or more.

Nevertheless, I’m confident. Famous last words, certainly, but I personally feel like more effort is required this time to concoct a dystopian scenario that has Tranmere losing. A ball hasn’t even been kicked, so a lot of this is expendable chatter, and if anyone can find a way to spoil such an immaculate hand, it is definitely us. But let’s be brave for once. Let’s believe in the power that comes with our stature. Let’s embrace our position in the driver’s seat, rather than trying to explain it away.

From an aesthetic perspective, it is vital that Tranmere Rovers return to the Football League. They just belong there. Moreover, the financial aspect of such an achievement would be profound. In March, we learned that the vaunted Tranmere academy would close, due in large part to the economic constraints placed upon former Football League clubs that linger in the National League for more than two seasons. And while Rovers returned to profit in the last financial year, winning the next two games could be worth more than £1 million in additional revenue.

The Palios’ plan to make Tranmere a force again, a Championship club banging on the Premier League door, is ready to be activated. For the past two years, the main clamp on that project has been the National League’s frustrating promotion system and our chronic inability to conquer it. League Two offers twice as many promotion places. Clubs like Luton and Lincoln have shown that a serious bid for successive promotions can be sustained, while ownership is committed to operating a top-third budget no matter what division Rovers find themselves in.

We just need to get out of this godforsaken league. We just need to win. Twice.

This, right here, right now, is the end of a cycle. Twenty-three players are out of contract this summer, including Cook, Jennings and McNulty, whose skills and professionalism have simply outgrown the non-league jungle. Essentially, if we lose at any point in the next nine days, we could wake up to an entirely new team in August; a team whose capabilities and likelihood of achieving promotion will almost certainly be diluted in comparison to what we have in our grasp right now.

The impending National League arrival of yo-yo kings Chesterfield and moneybags Salford underscores the need for us to depart. Tranmere Rovers should never be fazed by any opponent at this level, but the longer we languish in this division, the more accustomed we become to it. Like our Welsh friends, we could become part of the non-league furniture. That can simply never be accepted at a club of such extreme expectation.

Alas, it’s not too dramatic to say the foreseeable future of Tranmere Rovers rests on success in the coming days. More so even than last season, the desire to win is exceeded by the absolute need to win. The alternative doesn’t bare thinking about.

“We all know what the atmosphere is like here at Tranmere,” said Micky Mellon in a recent press conference. “When the games are big, everybody turns up, fans and players included. The demands on Tranmere never change. It doesn’t matter where we might be, the expectation from everybody around us will, quite rightly, still be high. We’re used to this.”

And so, it will prepare itself again, that beautiful Prenton Park, for its finest moment in a generation. It will beckon us once more, weary of anguish and daring to dream, cast in the national spotlight yet again. Come on in. Come on home. Let’s give it another go.

The well-worn paths. The popular bus routes and train stops. The cars left in familiar side streets.

The floodlights, standing tall, looming proud, dominating the sky for miles, beckoning the populace, reaching for the stars.

The monumental Kop, an edifice of infinite ambition. Our axis of power, our pristine citadel. Fit to seat 5,696, more than Ebbsfleet’s entire ground. Hulking. Imposing. Casting an enormous shadow, through which heroes and villains shall twinkle.

The grand Main Stand, gothic almost, hearkening back to the 1960s, a motif of vintage Birkenhead.

The green blades of grass, weathered yet resplendent, mundane to many but beguiling to The Few.

The yellow hued steps, journeyed by thousands. The ocean of blue seats, each a story to tell.

Prenton Park doesn’t have a digital scoreboard, electronic advertising boards, leather armrests, monochrome polished facades or undersoil heating. It hasn’t sold its name to an airline headquartered in another continent. Prenton Park is asymmetrical. It has warts and rust and broken plastic seats. It has bricks and grime and dirt. It has corrugated roofing and antiquated corridors. But it smells of football. It tastes of football. It is football.

This stadium is nestled in the heart of a neighbourhood, surrounded by a labyrinth of pavements and houses. It’s ours. A place to be lived in. A place of worship. A cherished place, capable of hosting immense drama, fine poetry and unbearable grief.

The most fitting venue for a playoff game of this magnitude anywhere outside League One.

And what of its noises? What of its signature sounds? Let’s hear it all again.

The Rockford Files crackling through those weary speakers, warbling with anticipation, making the heart race. A fitting accompaniment to those final moments of frenzied contemplation as the players emerge from the tunnel, line up, shake hands, then burst towards us at the outset of another conquest.

The clang of seats as a player races clean through on goal. The guttural roars of encouragement, then the pauses, the opportune silences, the studious awaiting.

The proud yelp that greets a last-ditch tackle, a well-timed clearance or the gutsy tracking back of an honest professional.

The joyful shriek when Rovers win a corner. The cascading din, rolling in off the rafters, echoing through the stands, seeping into every pore.

The reverberating cry when that ball hits the net.

The susurrus of working class hallucination.

From amid the raucous carnage, settling like fine mist across the heavenly scene: And it’s Tranmere Rovers. Tranmere Rovers FC! We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen.

On Saturday, we’ll see it all again. Feel it all again. Let the hairs stand on end and the goose bumps tingle, because we’re ready for battle once more, in contrivance of any doubt.

This is our turf, our home, our shrine. Concrete and steel, sure. But more than that. Just look around. Get in early and drink it all in. If you listen close enough, you’ll hear it. The mystique. The aura. The ghosts of memories past. Of Iain Hume against Swansea, Gary Williams against Exeter, Kenny Beamish against Stoke. Of Oh my word, Barlow! They’ve got a fourth, and Oh what a goal, Nick Henry!

Of you. Of me. Of those who believe and those who follow.

A lot has changed, but the coordinates haven’t. The hub of our attention, that blessed pitch on Borough Road, remains unchanged. Over decades, that tradition, heritage and prestige has congealed into expectation, communicated with force by the most loyal fans in English football.

Somewhere along the line, Prenton Park changed all our lives forever. It gave people friends, linked families together, maybe even saved relationships. It gave structure, hope and meaning. It was there when nothing else made us smile.

On Saturday, along with the team that calls it home, this lyrical place will experience another day in the limelight. All too often a burial ground of childhood fantasies, a tomb of adult despair, Prenton Park has another shot at glory within its midst.

So bring a different attitude. Write a different ending. Rock the foundations, play with love for the crest, and give Tranmere Rovers another date with destiny, another chance to lift a trophy for the first time in twenty-seven years.

It’s time.

Let’s get to work.


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