Nigel Adkins is revolutionising Tranmere Rovers

There are bright days ahead at Prenton Park. There are bright days right now, in fact, as Tranmere Rovers enjoy a remarkable revival under the esteemed tutelage of Nigel Adkins. For the first time in their 140-year history, Rovers won all four of their condensed fixtures over the festive period, capping a phenomenal transformation few saw coming. Adkins is quietly revolutionising his hometown club, stuck in the doldrums for too long, and jaded Rovers fans finally have cause for genuine optimism once more.

A former Tranmere goalkeeper born and raised in Birkenhead, Adkins served briefly as technical director at Prenton Park, only to assume interim coaching duties in September when the turgid reign of Ian Dawes ended in predictable disaster. Rovers languished third-bottom of League Two when Adkins took over, having gathered just three points from seven league games under Dawes. In the ensuing 19 matches, Rovers have earned 30 points and risen seven places in the table.

Once undoubted relegation candidates, Tranmere have put a chasm between themselves and the trapdoor, while the playoff places now lurk just six points on the horizon. Oh, and Rovers are top of the 10-game form table; backed by a rejuvenated fanbase; and playing some of their best football in years. The turnaround has been quite miraculous, and Adkins deserves all the plaudits coming his way.

First and foremost, Adkins has overhauled the entire mentality of Tranmere Rovers. The atmosphere surrounding our club has morphed from stale apathy and a subdued acceptance of ingrained mediocrity to fiery passion and a voracious hunger for shared success. Of course, Adkins is relentlessly positive, but even he must be shocked at the rapidity with which this team has adopted his trademark optimism.

Even in the darkest days of his transition, Nigel remained incredibly upbeat – incongruously so, in fact. At first, Adkins’ alacrity was sickly sweet to tired Tranmere fans, a hodgepodge of cheesy acronyms – ‘Together Everyone Achieves More’ – and poetic metaphors – boulders pushed uphill and boats rowed to shore. But gradually, and delightfully, Nigel’s worldview has become our own. Now, the most fatalistic fans in the land are daring to dream.

In just three months, Adkins has resurrected entire careers with textbook man-management. See: Regan Hendry, Brad Walker, Reece McAlear, Connor Wood and Harvey Saunders. Adkins has also replenished careers, like those of Kieron Morris, Tom Davies, Charlie Jolley and Connor Jennings. Meanwhile, the gaffer has flat-out launched careers, too, as Rob Apter, James Norris and Sam Taylor will attest. That is the sign of a great manager: the ability to make better everyone in the building, regardless of their baseline talent. Players want to play for Nigel Adkins, who wants to maximise their potential. It is a recipe for continuous success, and a new culture is emerging from that synergy.

Cuddly feel-good factor aside, Adkins is also revolutionising the way Tranmere play, perhaps most importantly. Nigel has imbued the club with its greatest dose of football intellect – of winning sporting wisdom – since the days of Johnny King. Sure, Aldo delivered outrageous highs, mostly in cup competitions. And yes, Micky Mellon gave us some of the greatest days of our lives by sheer dint of belligerence. But not since King have Tranmere had a manager of such vision, in my opinion. Not since King have Tranmere had such a discernible ethos – tactical mastery spliced with searing skill to produce an explosive reaction. That is the most pleasing aspect of Adkins’ impact.

For as long as I have watched Tranmere, they have played without a decipherable gameplan. Yes, we have achieved sporadic success and risen to enormous occasions – Boreham Wood at Wembley springs to mind – but our footballing identity has typically been reactive. For decades, Tranmere have been synonymous with heart, fight and aggression, but cogent strategy – the currency of success in modern football – has rarely materialised. In archetype, Rovers players got the ball then decided what to do with it, rather than playing to an overarching blueprint. Nigel Adkins has changed all that.

In two decades of football management, including a 22-match spell in the Premier League, Adkins has developed a profound understanding of the game. More pertinently, he has remained relevant, learning at the cutting-edge of prevailing dogma. That infectious intellect feeds a meticulous attention to detail, and the depth of Adkins’ pre-game preparations are revealed in the varied nature of his gameplans. More than any Tranmere manager I can recall, perhaps with the exception of Brian Little, Adkins studies the opposition tirelessly then devises a bespoke strategy – intricate and all-encompassing – to give his players the best possible chance of succeeding in a match. When those players buy-in and believe in that vision, as Rovers’ current crop are, wonderful things can happen.

One of the fundamental differentiators between lower league teams and those higher up the pyramid is the ability and willingness to execute managerial orders. Sure, fitness and skill play an enormous role in determining the fortunes of a team or an individual player, but believing in a worthy figurehead, buying into their schtick, and concentrating enough to consistently implement their ideas, is critical. Tranmere are currently outstripping typical League Two levels of tactical execution, and that malleability – that willingness to hear Adkins, trust his knowledge, and prioritise his holistic vision over personal agendas  – is powering their success. These players are grafting for Nigel Adkins, who is giving them the tools they need to succeed.

In recent weeks, that transformative mix of ingenuity and resolve has seen Tranmere play some devastating counter-attacking football. In many games, Adkins has conceded possession in the opponent’s half, with Rovers maintaining a solid defensive shape. However, when play crosses the halfway line, Tranmere press assuredly and battle to win back possession. When they do so, Rovers pounce and go for the jugular with neat, intricate passing and exhilarating, direct dribbling. Their approach is very direct, but also incredibly skilful and energetic. It has worked a treat.

A few standout players have made such a defined approach possible. Tom Davies has been a rock in central defence; Hendry has been a lyrical conduit in midfield; and Jennings has stitched it all together with colossal work rate, astute linking of the lines, and a well-trained eye for goal. Overwhelmingly, though, the difference-making ingredient has been pace and trickery from the wings. The 20-year-old Apter was often unplayable during his loan spell from Blackpool, petrifying defenders with fearless instincts, astonishing speed and the crucial ability to beat full-backs inside and out. Saunders, Taylor and Josh Hawkes have also contributed impressive pace, while Morris’ quick feet and honed vision have brought the concept to life.

Over Christmas, Tranmere beat Swindon, their old bogey team, 2-1, before thumping Salford, 5-1, for their first away win in 10 months. In fact, that was just Rovers’ third away victory in 33 attempts. Naturally, they followed it up three days later with another road triumph, 2-0 over Harrogate. Then came the crowning jewel, a 4-2 pasting of high-flying Notts County at Prenton Park. That is when we knew Rovers were back.

Indeed, the Notts County game always figured to be a measuring stick of just how far Tranmere had come under Adkins. The Magpies play some brilliant football, pressing hard and retaining possession under Luke Williams, their sophisticated young coach. Notts probably have the best squad in League Two – John Bostock, Jodi Jones and David McGoldrick complementing the goals of Macaulay Langstaff – and they are serious contenders for automatic promotion. Therefore, to see Tranmere come from 2-1 down to beat their fancied visitors in emphatic style, amid a ferocious atmosphere at Fortress Prenton, was brilliant. As fans, it was probably the most we have enjoyed a Rovers game in years. The din of restored pride and rekindled aspiration rattled the old ground to its core.

Scouring the statistics, Adkins’ fingerprints were all over that match. Rovers had just 33% of possession, but registered more shots (15-13), tackles (14-9) and dribbles (8-7) than County. In other words, Tranmere bided their time, sensed their moment, and converted their opportunities. Once again, it was everything we have been crying out for as supporters. Finally, we are the ones with a clear modus operandi. We are the ones with a sustainable roadmap. We are the ones pondering long-term success.

Adkins has authored similar transformations at other clubs, of course. Nigel won two promotions with Scunthorpe and took Southampton from League One to mid-table in the Premier League. If given a real chance, and serious backing, Adkins is a one-man momentum machine, and we are seeing that to full effect right now.

The open nature of League Two means promotion cannot be ruled out, either. One team always seems to appear out of nowhere, late in the season, to snatch a playoff place and ride that momentum to glory. Maybe it can be Tranmere this time. Since Adkins became permanent manager, in early November, Rovers have played ten, won seven, drew two and lost just once in the league, for an average of 2.3 points-per-game. If they maintain that rate through season’s end – admittedly an enormous ask – they will finish with 79 points, surely enough to secure a playoff spot. 

Yes, it remains unlikely that Tranmere will achieve promotion this term, and we should not get too carried away with the recent uptick in form. As we saw earlier in the season, this can be a frustrating division, and lower league fortunes are notoriously capricious. Mere weeks ago, we were looking over our shoulders, pondering relegation. The team looked forlorn and bereft of confidence. We know, better than anyone, that such downturns can happen again. However, things are changing at a foundational level at Prenton Park. This is not just a superficial bounce orchestrated by a new manager. Nigel Adkins is revolutionising the club, and success will come if he is granted full autonomy. We just need to trust the process.

The loss of Apter, whose loan has now expired, will undoubtedly be felt, but Tranmere have in-house options – namely Hawkes and Taylor – to fill the breech. Rovers may even be able to work out a permanent deal for Apter before the transfer window closes, so all is not lost in that domain just yet. In terms of other potential upgrades, an influential centre forward may lend even more definition to the attack, while defensive depth and another central midfielder would not go amiss. Generally, though, Tranmere now have impactful options across the pitch. Adkins has turned dead wood into exciting abundance, and it is astonishing how an injection of confidence has changed the entire complexion of a once-derided squad.

Rovers have several tough games ahead – against Barrow, MK Dons and Swindon – but we, as fans, are enjoying our football again. We are looking forward to watching these lads play, fully unleashed, believing they can win, rather than dreading another tepid capitulation. We are excited to see how far this team can go, with a clear scheme and a proven method. Ultimately, though, we are just happy to have our club back, playing in true Tranmere style, no matter what they achieve this season. It has been a long road back to relevance.

To that end, since the Covid-19 pandemic, and the unfair demotion foisted on Rovers by the EFL and its self-serving members, times have been tough in the one-eyed city. A black cloud has hung over Prenton Park, and Tranmere have struggled to recover – financially, culturally and on the pitch. Yet now, the gloom has been pierced by Nigel Adkins, and the sun is shining up ahead. Ubi fides ibi lux et robur, indeed. Where there is faith, there is light and strength.

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