The pain and the resurrection
And just like that, another season died in our arms.
With a wrenching 3-1 defeat to Forest Green on the verdant slopes of Wembley Stadium, a new stanza was added to the melancholy ballad of Tranmere Rovers.
For a 26th consecutive summer, there will be no champagne in Birkenhead. English football’s most painful drought continues, leaving loyal supporters to collect those broken shards of hope scattered across the floor.
This one really hurts. There’s an unbearable pain attached to this defeat, a thorough emptiness I’ve rarely encountered. Somehow, it all felt so different this time. Until it wasn’t.
The way Rovers stormed into and through the playoffs was inspirational. We had the manager. We had the squad. We had the massive crowds, spine-tingling atmospheres and togetherness beyond comprehension. The momentum was palpable, the expectation immense. Even for a fanbase so hardwired to expect failure in violent and unforgiving shades, there was a sense of impending destiny.
There was magic in the air. It touched the soul of even the prickliest cynics. This time, it was going to be different. This time, it was going to be ours. This time, we would write a different ending.
On a personal note, I dug deeper than ever before, finding in the furthest reaches of my being the words and creative spirit to conjure an article that went viral and a video that hit home with so many. Everything I’ve ever felt and thought about Tranmere Rovers is contained in those works. I emptied the tank. I gave it all I could muster. And the response from you, my loyal readers, was beyond humbling.
When people tell you they cried reading an article, that’s something. When strangers hug you at matches, ask to shake your hand or buy you a beer, that’s extraordinary. And when the most senior personnel at Tranmere Rovers read and share your work for inspiration in the final moments before era-defining games? Well, it doesn’t get much better than that.
From the moment I published A Time for Glory, the sense of emotion has been stunning. Without sounding ridiculous or arrogant, I somehow felt my words in the air at Aldershot during our playoff semi-final. Whether it was the article or not, something was awakened deep inside us all. We wanted it. We needed it. For weeks, the immediate fate of Tranmere Rovers was the only thing we could think about. Extremes of excitement, worry, doubt, hope, suspicion and yearning were evoked. Prentonia frothed with feeling.
In the first leg of that semi-final, it seemed like our message of unfiltered desire had finally been embraced. The sainted sons delivered an outstanding performance of raw hunger and impressive tactical acumen. On the terraces, we generated a white hot atmosphere, swaying to the delight of a deeply atypical 3-0 win.
The subsequent home leg was a little nervier as Aldershot threw caution to the wind, but when James Norwood slotted home a 94th minute goal, making it 5-2 to Rovers on aggregate, the delirium was ineffable.
Seeing Prenton Park crammed with 10,241 people (after tax), rocking to a ferocious noise, poured fuel on our fire. Seeing jubilant fans flooding across the pitch, free at last, illustrated our irrepressible impetus. For the first time in 17 years, Tranmere Rovers qualified for a Wembley final. And what a day we had, when finally it came around.
For a moment, just put the result to one side. On that day, some amazing memories were made. They will last a lifetime, and it’s worth reflecting upon them here.
It was surreal to witness the old Tranmere Rovers, so pleasingly uncouth, infiltrate the pristine confines of planet earth’s fifth-largest football stadium. I’m sure some of us felt a bit out of place, almost as if we were one sneeze away from being arrested in the hypersensitive capital, but it was a sight to behold and a feeling to cherish.
I’ll never forget singing in the streets with random pockets of Superwhites scattered about. I’ll never forget the sight of people hanging out of minibuses in a drunken state or igniting smoke bombs in nearby beer gardens. I’ll never forget people travelling from Vietnam and Australia, Turkey and Ireland just to watch this ancient ruin of a football club on its biggest day for a generation.
Yes, we could have sold more tickets given extra time and fairer pricing, but for a fifth tier club to take so many fans on any awayday, Wembley or not, is brilliant. It warms the heart.
Before the game, we danced and sang on the concourse, growing louder with each passing minute as if the sheer force of our hunger could summon glory alone. We hung a splendid array of banners, waved a slew of different flags, and roared into the mammoth void of football’s most hallowed amphitheatre.
There was balloons and scarves, confetti and inflatables. There was face paint and stupid hats. There was desperation, sweet desperation, for the curse to be reversed. Then it all went wrong. So stomach-churningly wrong.
On the day, Forest Green were the better team. They were calm and assured. They knew what they had to do, and they executed a specific game plan really well. The same blueprint they’ve followed all season came to bear before our very eyes: snatch a lead, anaesthetise the game, celebrate a victory.
By contrast, we were flat and apparently fazed by the daunting occasion. Once again, we froze when it mattered most. No matter how much we love them - and boy do we ever - that is the sad truth that we just have to accept.
When Kaiyne Woolery flashed a twenty-five yard shot beyond Scott Davies and into the large Wembley netting after just eleven minutes, firing Forest Green ahead, that familiar sinking feeling came to visit once more. It was happening again.
We still felt queasy around ten minutes later, when Liam Ridehalgh fizzed a pass into Lois Maynard midway through the Forest Green half. Before he was cynically fouled, Maynard shifted possession to Connor Jennings, that fizzing ball of ingenuity. Connor took one touch, let the ball sit up beautifully from the sacrosanct turf, and unleashed a thunderous drive into the roof of the net. Into immortality.
I’ll never forget that feeling. It will linger in the annals of Tranmere Rovers history. When that ball appeared out of nowhere, crashing viciously towards us only to slam with an emphatic thud into the gaping net, pandemonium ensued.
The roar was immense, a guttural shriek of disbelieving ecstasy. The scenes were biblical, a mass of bug-eyed humanity cascading deliriously. The moment was timeless, a sea of dreams frozen in time.
Dale Vince can buy a football team. He can change its crest, colours and kit. He can build a new stadium and craft a new menu. He can even purchase a promotion. But he will never buy the emotion that poured forth from the stands when that ball kissed the net, propelled by a superstar in white.
No, that takes decades of love. That takes tradition, heritage and the passing down of fandom like a precious family heirloom. That takes a proper football club, from a proper football town, with proper football fans, struggling, dreaming and ultimately exulting together, through times of feast and famine. That takes Tranmere Rovers, because few do it better.
Of course, things went rapidly downhill from that incredible high, as they always seem to do. James Norwood missed a huge one-on-one as fortune beckoned. Andy Mangan was a stud away from glory, à la Paul Gascoigne at Euro '96. Cole Stockton squandered a semi-open goal, to the agony of all, and then came the onslaught. Then came two Forest Green goals in the space of four minutes to shatter our souls anew.
It hurt. It hurt like never before. In the final ten minutes, as our heroes huffed and puffed helplessly, fruitlessly, painfully, it was all too much. I sat down and the tears started to flow. After swallowing the bitter heartache of three relegations in my lifetime, and after facing the humiliation of non-league football, I dared to dream in full once again. More than that, I dared to stoke that same fire in all of you. By now, we should know better, but football fans of a certain ilk just never seem to learn.
To fall so agonisingly short, after working so hard for ten months and 57 games, was intolerable. To accumulate 95 points, a fantastic club record, and still fail to gain promotion, was astounding.
Why always us?
Why never us?
To what other club in the land do these ghoulish things occur?
The sense of futility was overwhelming. We built so much momentum, through the relentless hard work and boundless dedication of thousands, only to blow it. At first, after brushing so close to that sacred promotion only to lose when it mattered most, it almost felt like we had been relegated again, back into this abyss of part-timers and annoying minnows.
It hurts not only for us, as fans, but also for them, as players, coaches and directors. It all seemed so perfectly romantic. Poetic, even. What more could we do?
The manager is so likeable and inspirational. The squad is so good for this level, brimming with talent and passion. The owners have such a clear vision for progress. So, aside from a rash of key injuries, this feels like the most inexplicable of all Tranmere failures.
When your team wins with a regularity never before seen in its history, but still yields no ultimate reward, it makes you feel ever so slightly useless. Like you, I’ve had a hard time moving on and contemplating what comes next.
When you invest so heavily in something, and strive for it with every fibre of your being, only to come within touching distance and watch it slip away, that ache will never subside.
When your primary dream turns sour once again, for the umpteenth time since childhood, finding the energy to respond is incredibly difficult.
The thought of opposing National League fans sniggering in their tiny villages, celebrating the demise of this spluttering giant once more, eats at me. But losing like this, time and time again, teaches us something about life. Even when you do everything right, there are no guarantees of success. Bad things happen to good people. It stings, and indignation pervades, but we have to deal with it. We have to accept it. And by doing so, our wounds will slowly heal and we’ll come back tougher for these ghastly experiences.
Right now, we’re tired and drained. We’re down and beaten. But we’re not out, and we never will be. The flame may flicker in prevailing winds of angst, but it will never be extinguished. It may take some time, and it will certainly require immeasurable guts, but we’ll shake ourselves down and somehow pull ourselves together for that first game in August. We’ll be ready to go, ready to fight. Just as we always are around here.
Regardless of how it ended, this was my most enjoyable season following Tranmere. I met so many great people, new friends for life and loyal supporters of Planet Prentonia who passed on so many kind thoughts in pubs, stadiums and service stations up and down the land. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
Once Micky Mellon replaced Gary Brabin in October, Rovers grew in confidence and aptitude. A clear playing ethos became apparent, drilled into the players through sagacious coaching. A discernible fight was restored, conveyed by the powerful boss and inspired by his genuine affection for our club. He coaxed the best from a very talented squad, massaging enigmatic ability into fluid excellence. And when all was said and done, Tranmere Rovers won with a regularity unseen in their existence.
We won games we typically lose, such as the 4-1 thrashing of Dover. We won games it looked impossible to win, such as the 3-2 miracle over poor little Chester. We even won games by eye-watering margins, such as the 9-0 dismantling of Solihull Moors. Oh and yes, we also completed the double over Wrexham, lest anyone forget.
It was a team effort, but Mellon cajoled fine productivity from certain individuals in particular. Andy Cook was unstoppable, scoring 23 goals. Norwood was sensational, finding a new dynamic to his game seemingly every week. Jennings became an icon, mixing the flamboyance of a young Koumas with a truly sensational work ethic.
Ben Tollitt was the most mercurial talent in this league until injury upended his journey of stunning goals and immaculate dribbles. Jeff Hughes found his perfect role as the battery in our midfield watch. Stockton finally unleashed his potential, scoring goals of critical importance. Then there was Scott Davies, Steve McNulty and Jay Harris, the shrewd engine of this well-oiled machine.
Along the way, they’ve treated us to some extreme highs. The final fifteen minutes at Chester provided the greatest surge of delirium I’ve ever experienced in a lifetime following Tranmere. Likewise, Aldershot away was an unbelievable experience, as were our barmy trips to Wales and further afield.
It may sound stupid, but I somehow feel personally sorry that, after this most wonderful journey, I couldn’t write that ultimate story of success for you.
I’m sorry we couldn’t deliver that final taste of glory for every kid who walked up Wembley Way waving a blue and white flag.
I’m sorry we couldn’t bring joy to every pensioner who dusted off an old shirt and journeyed south full of hope.
I’m sorry that this season, so different to all the rest, so magical and enjoyable in parts, was ravaged by that familiar conclusion of torment.
I’m just sorry.
Some will be tempted to walk away after this latest setback. Some of the more casual fans may give up. But at times like this, I urge you to remember that the concept of Tranmere Rovers is totally independent from the reality of the actual football team.
Within the concept, there is a miasma of prestige, a grand tradition floating in the ether. We have the enchanted corridors and the Kop of a latent juggernaut. We have the special heritage and the tales of Aldo and Dixie. We have the stirring traditions, the mesmeric ghosts and the sacred turf bestrode by immortals.
We have 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 is a hollow craving. Still, we lack success. Still, the reality doesn’t quite meet those exacting demands.
The reality tells of a vaunted white shirt 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 Brabin, thrashing about in endless frustration, Tranmere Rovers has been characterised by its futile fight to enact that potential vision, fill that gargantuan footprint, and animate that rousing concept.
Yet within that juxtaposition between concept and reality, you’ll find the mysterious wonder of this beguiling thing - this roaring, thundering, seething Tranmere. The worse things get, the more we care. The further we fall, the more determined we are to return. The greater our need, the louder our noise.
And so, I say this to every person who was touched even faintly by the remarkable season that vanished in the drop of a tear: come back, come again, and bring even more people with you.
Look what you created. Look what we created. Together, we came just ninety minutes away from our first promotion since 1991. That, in and of itself, is something to be proud of, once the initial distress fades away.
Amid a tidal wave of optimism, this has become a club of profound counterculture, a hub for the frustrated and forgotten. There’s something for everyone at Tranmere Rovers, that messy splattering of unrefined emotion. Come and be a part of it. Come and be a part of us. Buy a season ticket. Buy a shirt. Meet the grimmest heartache with redoubled effort to succeed, no matter how hard that is, and let this be the start of something great, not then end of something vacuous.
It’s easy to sit here and say our day will come, but after this season, that conviction has sustained another attack. Right now, the thought of pre-season unnerves me, as does the fear of becoming Wrexham, condemned to a sorry life of eternal non-league purgatory. Yet we have no choice but to face those demons in the coming weeks. This is Tranmere. There’s no option but to rest, recover and dig even deeper into the reservoir of faith, that most neurotic of footballing elixirs.
We’ll have to suck it up, grit our teeth and put ourselves through it all again, through a further twelve months of paranoia, worry and self-doubt for the cause we hold so dear.
It’s who we are. It’s what we do. And from this weary, fragile state, we beg you once again: just do it next year. Please. It’s all we ask.
In isolation, Forest Green got the better of us on Sunday. Fair enough. Congratulations. But the evocative doctrine of Tranmere Rovers says that we’d rather fail with our values of class, rebellion and originality intact than succeed in a contrived façade of flat-pack pretence.
So go on, have your moment. And all around the country, laugh away if you want. Perhaps you’ll never know. Perhaps you’ll never understand. Yes, we may have lost. But we are Tranmere Rovers. And you, quite sadly, are not.