Tranmere had a better squad in the National League than they do in League One
Sitting in the Stadium of Light, high above the pitch, that old familiar disappointment set in. On a cold, dank Tuesday night 170 miles from home, Tranmere Rovers were outclassed by a Sunderland team that never got out of second gear, losing 5-0.
It was men against boys. It was rich against poor. It was haves against have nots. But more than anything else, it was a demoralising throwback to the sorry era that almost strangled the life from our beloved football club.
This is the highest division Tranmere have played in since 2013-14, and this is the worst squad Tranmere have assembled since Micky Adams was in charge four years ago. The more success we have had, the worse our squad has become, placing unfair pressure on Micky Mellon to cajole extraordinary results from decidedly ordinary footballers.
Many will disagree, but there is a new breed of Tranmere fan that fails to see what is actually happening before their eyes. Blinded by successive promotions, they believe everything is absolutely wonderful at Prenton Park, and they jump down the throat of anybody who dares to question the club’s strategic direction.
These people haven’t been around very long, and they are simply delighted just to be in League One. Intoxicated by Wembley triumphs, they swallow the club’s propaganda and like to look backwards with myopic imbecility. We were playing Solihull Moors three years ago, they explain, so we should fall to our knees and worship indefinitely at the altar of Mark Palios.
I say that is bullshit.
For a moment, just stop and actually think about the woeful squad Mellon has been forced to fashion on a shoestring budget that was predetermined for some inexplicable reason.
Which current Tranmere players would get into another League One starting eleven beside that of shambolic Bolton? Sure, Manny Monthe and Morgan Ferrier, but who else? Possibly Scott Davies on a good day. Maybe Mark Ellis when he is fit. Perhaps Jake Caprice or Oli Banks or Paul Mullin, but I’m not entirely convinced. Kieron Morris? The guy has only got one foot.
In truth, without sufficient rationale, we have chosen to tackle League One with a squad of average League Two players. The giddy new breed doesn’t care, though, because they see Tranmere as a non-league club on the rise rather than a Championship club attempting to restore equilibrium to Prentonia. This segment of the fanbase holds so much power that the rest of us are forced to shut up and wince at George Ray attempting to be a professional footballer.
I’m here to tell it straight, and I have been consistent in my belief that Tranmere had a better squad in the National League than they currently do in League One. I said it in a radio interview last month, and I have said it at every single match this season. We have now played 14 games, more than a quarter of the schedule, and my conviction grows stronger by the day.
Mellon’s men are in 20th position, one point above the relegation zone. This is not a small sample size problem anymore, nor is it an injury problem or a suspension problem. This is an ambition problem and a trust problem, because Tranmere Rovers are not doing everything they can to compete.
Of course, replacing James Norwood in attack was always going to be difficult. Filling a 30-goal void is a thankless task, but our attempts at doing so have been pitiful. Tranmere have tried to recreate Norwood in the aggregate, signing several mediocre strikers, none of whom could lace his boots. Yet while Norwood’s ghost looms large over Prenton Park, plunging the club into a philosophical crisis, the chronic failure to replace just about anybody is perhaps even more stunning.
Tranmere lost Andy Cook, another talisman, and never replaced him. Tranmere lost Jeff Hughes, the battery in our watch, and never replaced him. Tranmere lost Lois Maynard and Michael Ihiekwe, Oli Norburn and Adam Mekki. And guess what? They never replaced them, either.
Rovers released Steve McNulty, their inspirational captain, and never replaced him. Rovers released Jay Harris, their engine room personified, and never replaced him. Rovers released Ritchie Sutton, a timeless Wembley hero, and oh yeah, they never replaced him.
Then we have Eddie Clarke and Ben Tollitt, Andy Mangan and Larnell Cole. Fringe players, yes, but infinitely better than the lukewarm dross that is currently served up on a weekly basis.
When are Tranmere fans going to wake up and actually question why the club repeatedly loses assets and never bothers to replenish them? When will the shimmer of success wear off, revealing a club that is exactly where it was five years ago? When will we get real?
Okay, injuries have hurt us this season. Sure, we are playing better opposition in bigger stadiums. And yes, we are no longer the big fish in a small pond. I get that. But why do we accept such thinly veiled insults as that which is presently being passed off as a Tranmere Rovers starting eleven?
We are not stupid. This is shite.
You are probably screaming about budgets and pointing to bar charts that illustrate the gulf in resources between us and other clubs. In a certain light, those arguments hold some weight. However, you should never be fooled into believing that this embarrassing squad is the product of anything other than wilful parsimony on the part of club ownership. We chose this path and we elected austerity. For what reason, and to what end? Well, your guess is as good as mine.
Before crying poverty, actually use your brain and think independently for a second. The club has taken more than 10,000 fans to Wembley in three consecutive seasons. Attendances have soared at home games. We have won back-to-back promotions, pocketing prize money and growing as a commercial enterprise.
The club returned to profit when filing its accounts last year. Tottenham visited Birkenhead for a money-spinning FA Cup tie in January. Santini Group, one of the richest organisations in Indonesia, has supposedly injected £2.5 million by purchasing shares. And still, the on-field product, that section of the club which actually matters, is starved of funding to a point of spluttering humiliation.
It seems that, from the very outset of this season, the aim has been to merely survive in the third division, spending as little money as possible along the way. Every club in League One receives £677,000 per season from the Football League merely for participating. A further payment of £645,000 comes from the guilty Premier League cartel. In League Two, those figures are reduced to £472,000 and £430,000, respectively.
Accordingly, we see how simply staying in League One can net Tranmere an extra £420,000 per year at minimum. Apparently, that is good enough. Seemingly, that is the plan: to merely exist in a kind of modern football purgatory. To what end, and to whose benefit? I guess that’s where the lack of transparency leads to chronic frustration.
Look, don’t misunderstand my point here. I respect the revitalisation project undertaken by Mark and Nicola Palios, while Micky Mellon has done a miraculous job transforming the culture at Prenton Park. We have experienced a halcyon period in the club’s history, undoubtedly the most enjoyable in my time supporting Tranmere.
Yet looking out at that pitch every week, those glory days seem but a distant memory. Indeed, they are relics of a different age, because this football club decided to halt its own momentum through conscious choice. The summer recruitment speaks for itself.
Go ahead, scream about Bury and the ills of cavalier management. Of course, reference Bolton as a dystopian case of chaos. That is not my point. I would simply like to know why, despite making more money than at any time in recent memory, Tranmere Rovers see fit to field such a dismal team that is patently unqualified to play at this level.
Mr Palios likes to appear on the radio and television analysing Bury and Bolton, positioning himself as the model Football League owner from some strange moral high ground. Well, perhaps he should focus internally first, because the team fashioned with his restrictive budget is barely worthy of wearing the white shirt.
For some people, a history lesson is needed, because this is the same brand of miserliness that doomed our club in the first place. Those back-to-back relegations were the by-product of decrepit veterans, incapable loanees and disinterested management set against a backdrop of short-term panic. Don’t look now, but that is a painfully accurate description of Tranmere Rovers in 2019-20.
Improvement is needed before the same nightmare repeats itself.