By Ryan Ferguson
There it was, suspended like the moon above a new oasis. A football, soaring through the clouds, begging for greatness.
Beneath its mesmerising arc, James Norwood shuffled free, propelled by the will of untold thousands. With the score level at 1-1, and promotion at stake for the victor of this throbbing war, our fairytale striker leapt high to glance a header goalward.
Time stood still on the verdant slopes of Wembley Stadium. Eighty minutes and four seconds. A world of bug-eyed anticipation.
Down beneath us, the Boreham Wood goalkeeper got a hand to the ball, but he could not quell the tide of our desperate ambition. It bobbled and veered in slow motion. Sucked in by our quaking hope, that fateful ball crept over the goaline and into the net.
A scene of sheer euphoria unfurled around us. A scene that has happened millions of times before, yet only in the childhood gardens of Wirral. Norwood wheeled away and slid on his knees, showering in the most heartfelt roar ever authored by a Tranmere Rovers crowd. Many had never seen anything like it.
Bodies cascaded down the steps. Limbs were trapped in seats, flipped upside down and thrown towards the sky. Hugs were exchanged between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, siblings and strangers. Nothing else in the world mattered.
Within our souls, a volcanic excitement. Within our hearts, an exhilarating pride. Within our minds, a stunning disbelief. We shook. We punched the air. We cried.
There was still a match to be won, a lead to defend. With ten men against eleven. Backed by rolling waves of vociferous noise, our beloved gladiators cleared every cross, blocked every shot and hacked the ball clear. They ran, and ran, and ran some more. Ran until there was nothing more to give. They retreated into a compact shape, gritted their teeth, and dug to sickening depths of determination and hunger.
In that dark and sinister place, at the very extremes of physical exertion, sporting glory resides. After twenty-seven years of hurt, we did not know that Tranmere Rovers were capable of taking us to such a place. But this time was different. This time they did.
After one final free-kick was successfully defended, the referee put the whistle to his lips and blew hard, confirming our return to the Football League after three years in the abyss. Just like that, it was all over: the hex, the curse, the drought, the narrative, the pain, heartbreak, humiliation and despair. All washed away in a sea of happy tears and sweet champagne.
The bridesmaid finally got married. The timid finally found their voice. The underdogs finally had their moment of domination. So often drenched in sadness, we wrote a different ending. For one rain-splattered afternoon, one absurd and wondrous day, we lived a different life. And if your heart beats for Tranmere like mine, I don’t have to explain how strange that truly is.
To be truthful, we never knew how this moment would actually play out, when eventually it arrived. Dreaming of Tranmere winning a trophy has been the one constant in all our lives, right from the cradle. It’s all we’ve ever wanted, and that desire has only grown more intense with each passing year, each painful failure. But, quite frankly, to those of my generation, it always seemed so far out of reach, so damn implausible, as to defy accurate foretelling. We didn’t know what that moment would look or feel like. Until now.
As it transpired, Micky Mellon flying across the hallowed Wembley turf – racing towards us in the throes of delirium – was the catalyst for a celebration unlike any other. A man of the people, Prentonian to the core, Mellon is just the second manager ever to win at Wembley with Tranmere Rovers. More pertinently, right before our eyes, he spearheaded the most courageous and cathartic performance ever conjured by a team from these parts. Our love for that man is boundless and eternal.
Watching Tranmere Rovers celebrating in the national stadium, ambling up the steps and lifting a trophy, was the most amazing and surreal experience of my life. From a state of shivering shock, it was difficult to take it all in. Steve McNulty bringing the silverware towards our end. Mark Palios waving a scarf above his head, a picture of relief, joy and vindication. Jeff Hughes being serenaded amid his beautiful swansong.
The players danced and fist-pumped before us. They lined up, slid on their knees and enjoyed the applause of our travelling horde. For a quarter of a century, that heavy white jersey has almost forbade such scenes. We’re usually forced to watch the opposition celebrate. But not this time. Not any longer. The sainted sons went to Wembley as men and left as immortals. Tranmere Rovers went to Wembley as romantic dreamers and left as clinical champions. Now watch us soar.
In the wider picture of modern day civilisation, a football team from Birkenhead winning the fifth division playoff final scarcely matters. The vast majority of people on this planet do not even know that it happened. Let’s not apportion this triumph a wider general significance than it merits. But to us, the devoted diehards who blindly follow this club around the country, it was significant enough to spark memories of departed loved ones; significant enough to bring tears from even the most hardened cynics; significant enough to make a whole new generation fall in love with the capricious drug of Tranmere Rovers.
To us, this is quite possibly the most significant thing that has ever happened.
This, right here, right now, is all I’ve ever wanted. For as long as I can remember, witnessing Tranmere Rovers lifting a trophy or earning a promotion has been the single ambition that has defined me. I didn’t care what trophy or what league. All I cared about was seeing it, feeling it, living it. It’s a quest rooted in childhood, with hallucinations of Hume and Koumas. It’s a quest that has been ubiquitous, right through to this moment, where finally I can celebrate at the age of 23. A weight has been lifted from my shoulders.
Along the way, heartache has been a frequent companion, but faith has never truly been tested because when you love something as much as this, there is no option to switch it off. Deep down, I didn’t know if Tranmere were capable of this, if Birkenhead and Wirral could hold its nerve long enough to accomplish something so magical. I’ve watched my team and my town fall from the second division into the fifth, with a sprinkling of valorous cup runs and fine awaydays the only reward for ceaseless belief in unseen possibilities.
That changed on Saturday 12th May 2018, exactly 9,834 days since last we won a trophy. Right now, we have the shortest trophy drought in English football. And after an age with the longest drought, I’m going to savour every second of it.
They never make it easy. Even in ultimate victory, Rovers found the most excruciating ways to tease and tantalise. Liam Ridehalgh was sent off after 48 seconds, and that old familiar dread set in. Yet five minutes later, in a display of exceptional bravery, Andy Cook thundered home a header to spark paroxysms of utopia among the Tranmere fans.
From that point on, we had a monumental fight on our hands. Every man. Every challenge. Every excruciating second. When Bruno Andrade slipped free and side-footed an equaliser in the eighth minute of stoppage time, after a minimum of six was allocated, half-time was a nervy mess.
We couldn’t sit still. Anxious and unsettled, nobody knew what to expect. Boreham Wood hadn’t threatened greatly, but the prospect of playing for over ninety minutes with one less player, a week after enduring extra-time in the semi-final, didn’t inspire much confidence. Especially when you consider the prevailing themes of disappointment and underachievement that have plagued us in recent decades.
But that was then. This is now. Our current group of players, coaches, executives and fans was not going to allow history to be repeated. No more sarcastic comments. No more piss-taking. No more caveats or justifications, if only’s and what might have been’s.
Our time is now.
Micky Mellon delivered the teamtalk of his life at half-time. Under his guidance, a colossal amount of effort, belief and character conspired to set Connor Jennings free down the right wing at Wembley with seventy-nine minutes elapsed and a chance at glory still within reach. This is a guy who was in hospital last week fighting a serious illness, only to summon from within herculean reserves of determination. From out of nowhere, when genuine hope was in short supply, Connor delivered a sumptuous cross. Norwood did the rest.
It all flashed before my eyes. The kits at Christmas as a kid. The goals scored in our street, a Prenton Park of the mind. The awaydays with my dad, brother and friends. All those days, weeks, months and years fighting an uphill battle in the endless love of our hometown club. It was all worth it for a moment like this.
On the day, we faced true adversity. A man sent off instantly. Three substitutes in the first half, as injuries and tactical reshuffles took their toll. In our most crucial match for a generation, we faced most of the game with a makeshift back four that had never played together as one unit: Clark, Monthe, McNulty, Harris. Now forever entwined in the prestigious annals of Tranmere Rovers royalty.
In many ways, our victory beneath the famous arch, against mounting odds, was a microcosm of the stupendous revival under Mark and Nicola Palios. In 134 years of existence, it’s doubtful that Tranmere Rovers has ever been in more capable ownership. They are fine stewards of this precious institution, with the vision, passion, guts and drive to plot a path to fulfilled potential. The way they have replenished the soul of this football club, malfunctioning and rotten when they took over, is a marvel of management. Mellon and his staff, plus the fans, create a triumvirate of power that could take us to places we’ve never been.
When Tranmere last won promotion, in 1991, the news was transferred by newspapers, basic television and radio. The last time Rovers entered the Football League from a lower level, in 1921, telegram and word-of-mouth likely carried the story through the cobbled streets and dimly lit taverns of Birkenhead. Now, in 2018, news of the Superwhites’ first modern success shall be beamed around the world via tweets and snapchats, vlogs and memes, from England to Eindhoven, Bergen, Dublin, Chicago and any other place where fans reside.
This is for each and every one of you. This is for every person who ever harboured a pleasant thought about Tranmere Rovers, no matter how fleeting – the teachers and taxi drivers, mechanics and decorators whose bond with you was bound in blue and white.
This is for every player who wore that iconic kit and failed to deliver. This is for every hero who toiled so hard to build the initial legacy of Tranmere Rovers. This is for every time we’ve cried and dreamed and gathered to fantasise about distant glories.
This is for every Tuesday night away game in the arse-end of nowhere. This is for every Rovers fan amongst the crowd of 215 that saw us lose at Solihull Moors in the FA Trophy. This is for every man, woman and child who choked on searing dejection when we were relegated from the Football League 1,115 days ago.
This is for Birkenhead, her finest achievement in a generation.
This is for my dad, who always promised the day would come.
This is for Bert Cooke and Dave Russell, John Aldridge and Ronnie Moore. This is for Chris Malkin, who has fresh company in our exclusive club of Wembley match-winners. And this is for Jim Steel, the last man to score a header for Tranmere in a final.
This is for Steve Mungall and Harold Bell, Ian Goodison and John Achterberg, the ultimate lions of Prenton Park. This is for Pat Nevin and Johnny Morrissey, Ian Muir and Dale Jennings, among the most precocious talents we’ve ever seen.
This is for every player who suffered unbearable heartache playing for us; for Ian Sharps and Liam O’Brien, Scott Taylor and Max Power.
This is for Gary Williams, who scored that legendary goal to keep Tranmere in the Football League so many years ago, and who will now see them back where they belong.
This is for Warwick Rimmer, Les Parry and oh so many unsung heroes who grafted behind the scenes for so many years to make this club so special.
This is for Johnny King, our first promotion without him as a player or manager since 1938.
And this is for Doris Roberts, Mrs Tranmere, who passed away at the age of 85 in March. Your boys did you proud.
But most of all, this is for the current squad, the current staff, and the fans who stuck by them through thick and thin.
In short, this is no ordinary football club. It’s a nucleus around which the frustrated and forgotten can gather to unleash their fury in support of something that actually represents them in the otherwise disenfranchised vortex of contemporary life.
As supporters, we’ve rarely been so together, from the rambunctious fringe to the mellow mainstream. As a club, we’ve rarely been on such a positive track, from the technical staff to the commercial department. As one, we’ve regathered ourselves in the face of ultimate humiliation, after tumbling from the Football League, to create a critical mass of desire.
It just needed verification. It just needed that first push to catalyse a dynasty. James Norwood provided it, with one nod of the head at Wembley. Now watch us leave a trail of dust through the Football League.
Some may brand that fanciful and dispel me as a hopeless romantic with biased views. But that’s how much Mellon and the Palioses makes us believe. That’s how much the players inspire us. Why not have faith? It took twenty-seven years, but we learned that it pays off in the end.
I love the fresh arrogance, the newfound swagger, the irrepressible pride spilling forth like a geyser. The true power of Tranmere Rovers, sequestered and obscured, has been released, once and for all. I’m certain some of the players, our own flesh and blood in this timeless crusade, never knew the half of it when they signed that contract. Well now they know. Now you know. You’ve seen our magnitude, our aims and our cravings. And your place in the monumental tapestry of Tranmere Rovers is secured, forever and a day.
So thank you. Thank you for bringing joy to every child and pensioner who believed. Thank you for saving us from yet more relentless heartache. Thank you for the most purgative achievement in the history of Tranmere Rovers. And thank you for restoring lustre to that old white shirt.
To anyone who struck a harsh blow to our pride or laughed at our demise, just know that you didn’t kill us. You simply made us stronger, bigger, bolder. You made this party even greater.
Tranmere Rovers isn’t a football team, a business, or even a crest, kit or stadium. Tranmere Rovers is a feeling. It’s buried deep within us, and it can never be extinguished.
What we’ve created, amid the hellacious cesspit of non-league football, is quite incredible. This is now a club of distinct counterculture, with a beating heart and a throbbing pulse of glory through rebellion.
The fanbase keeps growing. Youngsters are drawn to Prenton Park like moths to light. Old boys are returning, Gamma Ray in hand. What we possess is organic, natural and original. It may not seem like much in the grand scheme of world football, but the way Tranmere Rovers has become an axis of communal passion is simply sensational. The way we’ve achieved success, without betraying our core philosophy, makes it even sweeter.
Prior to this victory, this saccharine exorcism, there was a majestic concept of Tranmere Rovers, but it existed independently of the actual team and its present day reality. There was a miasma of prestige, a grand tradition floating in the ether. But real substance, in the form of big wins and tangible trophies, was needed to affirm those illusions in the modern world.
We had the enchanted corridors and the Kop of a latent giant. We had the special heritage and the tales of Aldo and Dixie. We had the stirring traditions, the mesmeric ghosts, the sacred turf bestrode by legends.
We had the ancient burial ground of broken hearts and the lingering roars of yesteryear raising hairs on the neck, sending goosebumps down the spine, and propelling you to stand and cheer for tomorrow.
But still, there was a hollow yearning. Still, we lacked success.
That jersey was smeared with the hopes, splattered with the dreams and woven with the desperate passion of thousands. From the earliest days of Bert Cooke, wheeling and dealing to stay afloat, through to the strained regime of Gary Brabin, thrashing about in endless frustration, Tranmere Rovers was characterised by its fight to fulfil that potential vision, that gargantuan footprint.
In the main, it has been a futile endeavour. We saw occasional sparks of delight, when Rovers slayed first division titans and King spawned an empire. However, gnawing indignation was subsumed into our collective psyche. We met with sadness and hurt routinely, as discontent made us weary.
The jigsaw was never completed. The vision was never secured. There was always a major loss when it mattered most, a timely capitulation thwarting our progress and leaving us bitter with regret.
Yet within that juxtaposition between concept and reality, you’ll found the mysterious wonder of this enchanted thing; this roaring, thundering, seething Tranmere. The worse things got, the more we cared. The further we fell, the more determined we were to return. The greater our need, the louder our noise.
So let the whole world know that, when it mattered most, this time we didn’t throw it away. This time we won. We won it all.
Our insecurities have been assuaged. Our paranoia has been diffused. Let car horns blur from Hoylake to Heswall. Let church bells ring from Birkenhead to Bromborough.
They did it. They actually did it.
The Whites are going up.