The Mike Jackson era at Tranmere Rovers has been awful so far
On Tuesday night, Tranmere Rovers lost a fourth division match by a four-goal margin for the first time in 33 years. Sadly, far from being a dismissible anomaly, there is a dull inevitability about results like that sustained at Crawley, as the lustre of yesteryear gives way to the monotony of another downward spiral.
Mike Jackson has been Tranmere manager for less than fourth months, but his reign is already shrouded in dissatisfaction. Excluding the ludicrous Football League Trophy, Jackson has managed 10 competitive matches, winning two and losing five. His team has failed to score on six occasions, while only three players not named Vaughan have found the scoresheet all season.
The campaign is barely eight weeks old, but Rovers already find themselves 17th in League Two, closer to the relegation zone than to the playoffs. Excited pre-season chatter of an immediate return to the third tier has fizzled into familiar anguish. If it was not for the ubiquitous facemasks and hand sanitiser, one could be forgiven for thinking this was 2014 all over again.
Are Tranmere Rovers back to square one?
Of course, back then, Tranmere finished bottom of League Two and fell out of the Football League for the first time in 94 years. A remarkable rejuvenation project unfurled in the interim, transforming the club, but for all its admirable growth, the actual football team is pretty much back where it was when the Palioses took over: dull, inept and dangerously close to the non-league abyss.
Jackson was hired as the continuity candidate. When legendary boss Micky Mellon left for Dundee United, his dutiful assistant got a chance to occupy the Prenton Park hot seat. Yet, for all that Jackson and Mellon are ideologically inseparable, they differ in a few key ways. Most pertinently, Mellon’s entire blueprint was based on winning the battle before winning the match, whereas Jackson’s approach seems to hinge on not getting beat before ultimately getting beat anyway.
Mellon’s mastery of this thankless job centred on his acute understanding of lower league football. In League Two, as in the National League, you have to earn the right to play football. The scrappy tackles and rough second balls are credit with which to buy possession, which breeds opportunity and, ultimately, success. You have to do the dirty work and match minimum thresholds of effort, guts and guile to even be competitive down here. So far, Jackson’s team seems incapable of reaching those levels.
What is Mike Jackson trying to achieve at Tranmere?
In the absence of a coherent strategy or undergirding philosophy, I can only describe Jackson as an adherent of percentage football – namely, helping the ball into particular areas of the pitch and hoping to catch a lucky break, be it a throw-in or free-kick. Some would call it Route One. Others would call it hoofball. I call it aimless, hopeless dross – surely the most efficient way of losing football matches.
Under Jackson so far, Tranmere players get the ball and then think about what they are going to do with, rather than having a preconceived plan in their minds and merely bothering about execution. Within this inadequate reverse-engineering of football dogma, we see the true extent of Jackson’s naivety. Rovers play reactive football devoid of premeditation, yet even their reactions are unshakeably lacklustre.
As fans, we understand this is a project. More than most, we appreciate that managers need time in which to implement their ideas and hone their vision. However, the grim frequency of defeats under Jackson is trumped only by the infuriating style of those losses. We have no style, quite frankly, and that is beyond worrying at this stage.
It is acceptable to lose while trying to play an attractive brand of football with a cogent ethos, but that is not the case for Tranmere Rovers right now. On the contrary, we are losing while looking disjointed, fragmented and entirely unprepared – physically, mentally and strategically – for the game at hand. For a professional football club, that is unacceptable.
Winless Southend get hammered every week, but they are trying to instil a trademark philosophy. You can see what they are attempting to do. Yes, Tranmere beat them 2-0 last week, but the Shrimpers had 53% of possession at Prenton Park. They also had more shots than Rovers, and they looked decent creating attacks from the back. We are not asking to sacrifice stubborn pragmatism at the altar of beautiful failure, but there has to be a balance here. There has to be a clear roadmap for what we want to achieve.
Is Mike Jackson out of his depth as Tranmere Rovers manager?
Ostensibly, Jackson was hired to continue a winning culture at Tranmere, but that winning culture is now but a distant memory. In truth, Rovers last won four straight games – the definitive hallmark of a winning culture – 19 months ago. Far from becoming prolific winners, we are now defined once again by the sheer inevitability of defeat. Whenever I log-in to iFollow, that old familiar dread of forthcoming frustration is hard to ignore. There is little genuine faith that we can ever dominate under this regime, and each goal conceded feels like a foregone conclusion.
Aside from the glaring absence of a cohesive playing style, Tranmere also suffer from a baffling paucity of tactical acumen at the moment. Jackson seems to be caught between systems, unable to name his best team and reluctant to put it in a shape conducive with success. Sure, outbreaks of COVID-19 do not help, and frequent suspensions derail momentum, but why are certain players even under contract with Rovers if they are incapable of plugging gaps when needed? What is the point of signing players who are fundamentally not good enough to wear the shirt?
Moreover, the frequency with which Jackson gets his gameplan wrong from the start is truly alarming. In those 10 meaningful matches this season, the manager has made eight first half substitutions. Admittedly, a few of them were enforced through injury, but many of them were not. That speaks to a manager who is out of his depth and struggling to identify a reliable way of accruing vital points. That speaks to organised chaos, in other words, and the inherent message of confusion leaves little room for logical belief in a turnaround.
Managerial flexibility can be effective in small doses. Certainly, one of the classic tropes levied against Mellon was his unwillingness to deviate from a predetermined course. He rarely admitted mistakes in selection or formula, but those mistakes were few and far between in the first place. With Jackson, on the other hand, there is a selflessness to be admired in his quick decisions, but action should not be mistaken for authority and subs should not be mistaken for shrewdness. He is getting things wrong far too often to be successful, and that is a grave concern for Tranmere fans.
All too often this season, Rovers have set up in narrow, negative formations of passive, pessimistic outlook. We alternate between five defenders and four, between attacking wing-backs and two up front, but still there is isolation in the final third. Still, there is too much distance between players. Still, there is a woeful lack of width and a huge midfield chasm ripe for exploitation. We are slow to regain possession and quick to give it away. There are never enough options for excitement and way too many options for disappointment. It is turgid, ultimately, and somebody needs to speak up.
This faltering Tranmere squad has a lot to answer for
At one point this season, Tranmere played for over three hours without registering a single shot on target. Indeed, we have had just 17 shots on goal all season, joint-worst in the entire division, tied with Scunthorpe and the aforementioned Southend. In terms of shots on target per 90 minutes, Rovers are second-worst in League Two, while their assists per 90 minute rate is third-worst, suggesting a deficiency of ideas. Inarguably, then, we are creating chances at a rate compatible with relegation, and that has to be addressed before it is too late.
Already, the players are exhibiting that memorable body language of ingrained failure – sloped shoulders, hunched backs, hands on hips, eyes down. They have stopped playing for Jackson, whose frequent first half overhauls do little to inspire faith. At times against Crawley, Rovers’ output was plainly unwatchable, their gross lack of professionalism usurped only by their rudderless reluctance to fight. They looked unfit, disinterested and inferior to the opposition. For a club that played in League One last season, that is a sad polemic.
In this regard, the players also have a lot to answer for. Yes, Jackson signs them, picks them and attempts to motivate them, but the lack of application shown so far this season - by veteran players with bags of experience - is nothing short of embarrassing. It is a privilege to play for Tranmere Rovers – an honour. Yet once again, too many of the players entrusted with that sacred shirt are unaware of its import and insouciant towards its meaning. They need to be moved on at the earliest opportunity.
Crawley played through and around Tranmere as if it were a training match last night. Their players barely celebrated when they scored, so easy was the task. Our defending was statuesque; our midfield was amateurish; and our attack was non-existent. The hosts were given free reign of the pitch, and they walked through the heart of our lineup with comical regularity. At no point did Rovers stand up and defend our wounded pride. In asking them to do so, perhaps we are requesting a skill these players are incapable of providing.
Will Mike Jackson survive the sack at Tranmere Rovers?
When Tranmere sacked Rob Edwards in October 2014, he was the author of just two wins in 14 matches, producing a 57% loss rate. When Micky Adams was fired in April 2015, his loss rate was 45%. Six years earlier, John Barnes lost 71% of his 14 contests in the dugout. How does Mike Jackson compare? Well, right now, his loss rate is at 50%, granting Jacko a place between Adams and Edwards in the last chance saloon.
As a fanbase, we are a very forgiving bunch. Lord knows we have been through tougher times, and we are more inclined than most clubs to give our representatives a fair opportunity. After all, the modern managerial merry-go-round is insane. Nevertheless, the opening salvo of Jackson’s reign has been nothing short of disastrous, and there are few redeeming features to which we can cling while searching for hope.
There are far more serious things to worry about in the world right now, such as the incessant spread of coronavirus and the impending possibility of Donald Trump winning a second term in the White House. Ice caps are melting and kids are going hungry. Winter is upon us and the dark nights are drawing in. The neurotic spluttering of a fourth division football team from Birkenhead is of limited relative consequence, but it would be nice to see them compete. Life would be ever so slightly less shite if they could somehow stay in the League.
Every strata of society is hurting at the moment, stifled by the weight of chronic uncertainty. We do not know what the future holds from one minute to the next – in football, as in work, health and happiness. But while tomorrow remains a mystery, yesterday is an indelible reminder of past mistakes. We cannot go through this again, Tranmere. We cannot allow history to repeat itself. Act before stasis sets in, and let us experience some relief from the persistent gloom of contemporary humdrum.