Micky Mellon returns for a second spell as Tranmere Rovers manager
Can we just pretend the last two years never happened? No – seriously – if there was a global referendum on voiding the last 24 months, would anybody really complain? Amazon czar Jeff Bezos, perhaps, and maybe Eric Yuan, the creator of Zoom, but that is probably it.
As Tranmere Rovers fans, we would certainly vote in favour of a return to 2019. Our preferred date would be 25th May 2019, to be exact. That is when our beloved club beat Newport County at Wembley, securing a return to the third division after five years away. That is when life was simpler – when fans were allowed in football stadiums, and when you did not need an N95 mask to buy grapes in Lidl. That was the last point at which we backed-up normality, saving it on a dusty old pen drive for future reference. It would be good to go back.
Well, here in Birkenhead, we are turning back the clock to that sugar sweet age. On Monday, you see, Tranmere announced the reappointment of Micky Mellon as manager – a year after he left for Dundee United, two years after he guided Rovers to League One, and three years after he ended our non-league nightmare. We are getting the band back together again, it seems, and alarms have been raised across the Football League.
How Tranmere Rovers clinched a fourth reunion with Micky Mellon
As ever, this episode developed quickly and dramatically in Birkenhead, where Keith Hill held court as manager just three weeks ago. Hill was sacked unceremoniously on 11th May, just days before Rovers’ League Two playoff campaign. Tranmere then lost to Morecambe, the eventual playoff winners, on 23rd May, just two days before Mellon announced his departure from Tannadice. Once again, the stars soon aligned, bringing a Tranmere talisman back to his spiritual home.
In all honesty, Micky was content to kick back in St Andrews and wait for another job to present itself. He was heavily linked with the Doncaster post a few weeks ago, but tangible talks never really developed. Still, Mellon has never been able to reject the wonky allure of Tranmere Rovers, and when Mark Palios called for initial discussions about a potential return last week, that big Scottish heart pounded for Prentonia once again.
A rendezvous was swiftly agreed, and the two great architects of Tranmere’s recent renaissance met to hatch a plan. Over a few bottles of vintage wine, Mellon and Palios discussed where to take this ancient ruin of a football club next – and how. While Championship clubs showed interest in his services, and while League One mainstays would have formed a queue to liaise with Micky, he was keen to reignite Project Tranmere – finishing what we started together in the autumn of 2016.
On that occasion, Mellon dropped two divisions to take his dream job as Rovers manager. He left Shrewsbury Town – then a League One club facing the likes of Sheffield United, Millwall and Bolton – and rolled up his sleeves in the National League, which pitted Rovers against Braintree, North Ferriby and Solihull Moors. Where others saw a lost cause, Micky saw the potential of this grand, spluttering juggernaut, and he was determined to make it spring to life. That he actually did, and with such stunning rapidity, sends goosebumps down the spine.
Of course, all told, that was his third homecoming at Prenton Park, making this – here in 2021 – his fourth return overall. Mellon had two spells as a Tranmere player, from 1997 until 1999, and then between 2001 and 2004. Micky captained the club on numerous occasions, witnessing its halcyon days with second tier triumphs over distinguished clubs such as Norwich, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, West Brom and Birmingham. A fine midfielder, Mellon scored for Tranmere against Stoke, Portsmouth, Nottingham Forest and Preston, among others. That is the Tranmere Rovers Micky knew. That is when the club entered his bloodstream. And that is when he first yearned for legendary status on Merseyside.
After retiring in 2006 and cutting his managerial teeth with successful stints at Fleetwood and Shrewsbury, Mellon oversaw 199 Rovers matches between 2016 and 2020, etching his name deeper into the club’s folklore. Tranmere qualified for three consecutive playoff finals under Mellon, beating Boreham Wood and Newport to clinch successive promotions. The curse was finally lifted, and the former playmaker with a funny name went down as lead author.
Rovers struggled upon returning to League One, but they were just rounding into form under Mellon in February 2020, when all hell broke loose. Tranmere had a penchant for late-season uprisings under Mellon, and history looked set to repeat itself in 2020, as Rovers won three straight games to broaden their chances of avoiding relegation. Then, the season was curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, with farcical avoidance tactics from the Football League resulting in a flawed points-per-game model determining the final standings. Tranmere were demoted by the width of a cigarette paper, to the chagrin of all concerned.
Mellon spoke of his heartbreak in the wake of such a heinous decision, especially when Cheltenham, Exeter, Colchester and Northampton were allowed to play on for our place in League One via the fourth tier playoffs. “We were relegated by a calculator,” Mellon said at the time. Duly disillusioned with English football, and seeking a new challenge elsewhere, Micky soon agreed to manage Dundee United, compounding a devastating period for Tranmere fans. Some of us never recovered.
Nevertheless, that sense of unfinished business gnawed at Mellon throughout his time in Scotland, just as it gnawed at every Tranmere diehard. Therefore, when the opportunity arose to clinch another reunion and resuscitate the proven blueprint, Micky knew he had to pursue it. And so, just 330 days after departing the peninsula of half-baked dreams, he returned – a prodigal son – determined to pick up where he left off.
How did Micky Mellon do with Dundee United?
By the same token, Tranmere are getting a different version of Micky this time around. Mellon admitted as much in his introductory interview, explaining how exposure to the Scottish Premier League made him an even better manager than the one who cajoled extraordinary performances from ordinary Rovers teams not so long ago. That is a scary proposition for our lower leagues adversaries – a guy with five promotions as a manager, and two more as a player, finding ways to continuously improve his craft. Look out, it says – Tranmere Rovers are coming.
From the outside, one might be tempted to brand Mellon’s Dundee United sojourn a lukewarm stalemate. There was no silverware to parade, and Micky orchestrated few memorable results against the big boys. Nevertheless, cast against the tumultuous pandemic backdrop, and while working on a 20% pay cut, Micky helped the Tangerines consolidate in their first season back in the Scottish top flight. A decent cup run saw the club return to Hampden Park, as well, furthering Mellon’s legacy. Realistically, what more can you do with Dundee United? Not a lot, I would venture.
“What I can tell you for sure, though, is, if Mellon leaves United, he leaves it in a far better place than he found it,” wrote Calum Woodger for the Dundee Evening Telegraph as speculation of Micky’s departure peaked. “Don’t get me wrong, the Tangerines weren’t in a bad state. Far from it, they’d just cantered to the Championship title under Robbie Neilson and were looking forward to their first season back in the top flight since 2016. However, Mellon’s work – which has been particularly evident in their recent four-game Premiership unbeaten run – has allowed the Terrors to quickly establish themselves back at the top table.
“He’s not a young, fashionable, cardigan-clad, laptop boss, and certainly hasn’t won many fans over with his style of play, but Mellon is nothing if not effective. His teams win by staying in games. And those wins have United staying in the top flight for another season. Whether he stays or goes, Mellon has given the Tangerines a platform to build on for the new campaign. He’s bought into the club, its culture and aims, and always leads from the front with a smile – or occasionally a bark.”
Tranmere will undoubtedly benefit from this experience, too. Micky’s newfound knowledge of a different transfer market, alongside the bread and butter of lower league trade, will add to Rovers' recruitment weaponry. Historically, Tranmere have maintained strong links to Scottish football, embodied by greats like Pat Nevin, Steve Mungall, Neil McNab, Dave Russell, Ron Yeats and George Yardley. Even Seyni N’Diaye once played for Dunfermline; Theo Whitmore randomly signed for Livingston; and Ivano Bonetti managed Dundee in a beige designer trench coat. It would be great to see Mellon recalibrate – and improve – those synergies, opening a broad pipeline of untapped potential.
Why Tranmere Rovers fans are delighted with Micky Mellon’s return as manager
Remarkably, there are small pockets of dissent among the Tranmere fanbase regarding Mellon’s return, but they are overwhelmed by a tidal wave of positivity, optimism and mawkish adrenaline. Some Rovers supporters remain angry at Micky’s exit, but he scratched a lifelong itch by working in his homeland, and he did so with the club’s blessing. We should remember that. Furthermore, among the viable candidates mentioned in dispatches, there was only one man who could be trusted entirely with the Prenton Park reins, and that was Mellon. His return was basically a no-brainer.
Indeed, in a recent column, I denounced the outgoing Hill by highlighting his fundamental departure from the battle-hardened Tranmere philosophy. “To win here, to sustain here and to thrive here,” I wrote. “A coach must embrace the club’s ineffable culture. They must embed themselves in the dark, daft and demanding DNA of Birkenhead’s flagship sports club. They must live and breathe those timeless peninsula values of hard work and fierce independence. Oh, and they must want to be here, first and foremost. Keith Hill never seemed convinced.”
Of course, Mellon was – and is – anathema to Hill in just about every conceivable way. Here is a pertinent section from my book, Planet Prentonia: The Real Story of Tranmere Rovers, on his first spell as Superwhites boss:
“For the first time in a generation, Tranmere had a figurehead in whom to believe. Moreover, they had a distinct ideology, an underpinning methodology guiding their every move. Mellon played under some incredible managers during his career, including Joe Jordan, Sam Allardyce, Gary Megson, Nigel Worthington, Stan Ternent and Aldridge. His managerial doctrine was duly influenced, creating an infectious motivational style with Jackson mastering the strategic minutiae. This became The Tranmere Way, a template laid down for generations to come. It was everything we had banged on about for years. We should enjoy every second of its prominence.
To lead this club requires a personality. We’re partisan people up here. We’re tough. So many managers have failed at Prenton Park because they had no connection with the fans, from Rob Edwards and Micky Adams through to Dave Watson and Ron Yates. If you make an effort to understand us, and if you represent us with pride and dignity, we will back you to the hilt – win, lose or draw. Micky Mellon mastered that art, becoming an extension of our ardour. He’s one of us, a fan who happens to occupy the dugout. You can’t really ask for more.”
That remains true now, just as it was true then. And as we contemplated the future following that lowly defeat to Morecambe just over a week ago, it became abundantly clear that one man held the answer to our conundrum: Michael Joseph Mellon, the adopted saint of Birkenhead. It is just nice to have a manager who represents us again, and that is what Micky guarantees.
What are Micky Mellon’s objectives in his second spell as Tranmere Rovers manager?
Of course, now that the ink has dried on his new contract, and with the announcement festivities concluded, attention turns swiftly to the task at hand: rebuilding Tranmere Rovers and restoring equilibrium to its damaged culture. In that quest, there are some similarities to Mellon’s first reign, but fresh objectives have emerged, too, adding fresh dynamism to his project.
First and foremost, Micky must get Tranmere promoted from League Two. As anybody who fell asleep during a recent iFollow broadcast will attest, this is a dire division devoid of consistent quality. And while Rovers did not deserve to be demoted in 2020, they also did not deserve to be promoted in 2021. That must be quickly addressed, allowing us to enter the next phase of our growth as a club.
Only one man has ever guided Tranmere to three promotions, and he has a statue outside Prenton Park. Johnny King also had numerous spells in the Rovers dugout, and Mellon should be aiming to replicate those successes as a minimum benchmark. That is easier said than done, of course, especially when you only have four professional players under contract for the forthcoming season. But Micky has the Midas touch, and his targets should be set suitably high.
In the long-term, Mellon will want to avenge the wrongs of League One and find closure on that entire debacle. Tranmere’s demotion is one aspect of that, but there is also a school of thought that Mellon is a lower league specialist. Aside from a brief episode in caretaker charge of Barnsley – mopping up for Hill, ironically – Micky has never taken an English club beyond mid-table in the third division. He will want to exterminate those critiques with Rovers.
In global terms, meanwhile, Micky should aim to get Tranmere back to where it was when he played in Birkenhead: firmly ensconced in the second division, playing in front of 10,000 fans every week, and occasionally glancing up at the Premier League hinterland. Again, that may seem fanciful and overly romantic to some, but I guarantee Mellon and Palios discussed that very vision over the weekend – even if it was the vino talking. We have to dream big, after all, because there is no point in limiting our own ambition.
Ultimately, Micky must make Tranmere a sustainable force in his fourth tour of duty. Though it may seem somewhat oxymoronic, he must make the club capable of living – and succeeding – without him. After all, he is the only man in the past 30 years to get the club promoted. He has to share the secret sauce with other people, otherwise we will be right back here in a few years’ time, pondering the same timeless quandaries.
Personally, I would like to see Mellon retire at Tranmere Rovers. Yes, there are bound to be other opportunities, some of which he will not be able to turn down. If Celtic come calling, say, or if the Scottish national team shows an interest. Aside from those once-in-a-lifetime pipe dreams, though, where better for Micky to lay down roots and write an insurmountable eulogy than Prenton Park?
Right now, Mellon is 49, and the merry-go-round of modern football precludes thoughts of retirement at such an age. Still, succession planning is the hallmark of successful organisations, and Tranmere would benefit from such a philosophical approach. If all goes according to plan, Micky could eventually transition to a director of football role one day, overseeing the Tranmere DNA from on high before fading into the sunset. A conveyor belt of modern, eager coaches – Ian Dawes, Andy Parkinson, Clint Hill, Steve McNulty, Jeff Hughes, Peter Clark – could learn underneath him, creating a real, lasting legacy that could revolutionise the club for generations to come. One vision. One philosophy. Many heirs to the throne.
How will Micky Mellon approach his Birkenhead comeback?
Firstly, though, Mellon knows the importance of this summer, in which an entirely new squad must be assembled ready for another shot at League Two come August. Tranmere must construct a nucleus of prime-age players capable of growing with the club over the next three or four years – just as they did with James Norwood, Connor Jennings, Andy Cook, et al, in the non-league days. The era of part-time mercenaries has been and gone, leaving us crying out for a team in which to believe again.
“The recruitment questions will be: ‘Can he and does he want to play for Tranmere?’,” said Mellon when asked about transfers on Monday. “Can they fit into the demands that will be put on them by myself, the coaching staff and the fanbase? That’s what Tranmere players have to deal with, and that will never change.”
We are routinely given to believe that, relative to other fourth division clubs, Rovers are in a solid financial position. Now, though, we must see those advantages come to fruition. We must leverage our ability to offer multi-year contracts as a real difference maker in an uncertain market, making Tranmere an attractive proposition for impactful players.
Mellon likes to have a slew of attacking options, and the recent retirement of leading marksman James Vaughan makes Tranmere light in this department. Expect Rovers to prioritise a 20-goal striker early in the transfer window, then, with central midfielders and wingers following soon thereafter. Admittedly, Tranmere probably need to recruit upwards of a dozen players this summer, so they cannot wait too long before pouncing on their chosen targets. All new recruits have to be the right fit, though, otherwise we will be back at square one soon enough.
Are there any risks to Micky Mellon’s Rovers return?
To that end, Mellon’s Tranmere reunion is not entirely without risk. Certainly, whenever such a deified figure returns to any football club, one worries about great memories being tarnished by new struggles. Some people say clubs, managers and players should never go back, and there is undoubtedly an element of danger in this regard. Think Howard Kendall returning to Everton. Think Kenny Dalglish reappearing at Liverpool. Think Alan Shearer managing Newcastle. It is impossible not to worry.
Fortunately, though, for every disastrous managerial resurrection, there is a success story to inspire confidence. Darren Ferguson just won his fourth promotion as Peterborough United manager, spread across three different spells. José Mourinho returned to Chelsea and won a further Premier League title at Stamford Bridge. Even here at Tranmere, managers like King and Ronnie Moore have enjoyed comparative success on multiple occasions, so a lot of the scaremongering is unsubstantiated.
However, Micky is cognisant of those pitfalls, and he sought reassurances before recommitting to Rovers for the long haul. “I wouldn’t come back and let people down,” said Mellon. “It was important to me that I came back believing I would get the necessary things that would give me the chance to be a success again here.” By necessary things, Micky means financial flexibility and autonomy over transfers – things that, according to sources, became slightly frayed towards the end of his first term as Tranmere boss.
Indeed, for the vast majority of that League One season, Rovers were pretty poor under Mellon. More pertinently, the club’s recruitment in preparation for that campaign was categorically awful. Norwood, Cook and Jay Harris were allowed to leave, replaced by Stefan Payne, Morgan Ferrier and Neil Danns. Cole Stockton and Paul Mullin were frozen out, before combining to score 45 league goals elsewhere in 2020-21. The extent to which Micky had control of those moves is open to debate, but he certainly wanted to bring in greater strength in depth, and that never happened – whether due to financial constraints or ideological impasse.
And so, even Micky Mellon – the two-time promotion winner involved in more than 400 matches as a Tranmere player and manager – has a point to prove going into the new season. Given the criteria laid down by a vociferous diaspora, he was by far the best candidate available to manage this football club. Yet in the Prentonian pressure cooker, past success only buys minimal respite when things go wrong, so Mellon will need to hit the ground running.
Preparing for another Prentonian rocket ride
Somewhere in the internet ether, there exists a moody, atmospheric photograph of Micky Mellon standing alone – hands in tracky bottoms, trainers kissing chalk – in the dead of night at Dover Athletic’s flatpack Crabble Ground. The gaffer looks on morosely, watching his bedraggled Rovers win, 1-0, in the semi-professional abyss – closer to France than to home, closer to oblivion than to salvation. It is the ultimate depiction of his titanic achievements at Tranmere.
Above all else, I love this photo because it shows the true spirit of the man. It shows the grim, magical martyrdom demanded by Tranmere Rovers, and it shows the depths to which we all routinely plunge while protecting its sanctity.
From that sparse, rudimentary terrain, in which everybody had forgotten about Birkenhead and its football team, Micky Mellon sparked a revolution that rekindled bygone glory. There was champagne in the future, along with visits from Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. There was Wembley in the future, and tears of unbridled joy. There was pride in the future, because we got our team back, and that contribution will never be surpassed.
“I can’t promise anyone success, but I can promise them a trip to the moon,” the great King once said. Well, it is time to wheel out the rocket, patch up the launching dock and refuel the cylinders, because the Tranmere Rovers renaissance just got another shot in the arm. Only one native Scot has ever been to space, according to The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Micky Mellon aims to be the second – and the first to lift off from Borough Road, Wirral.