Where do Tranmere Rovers go from here?
That old familiar feeling came back to haunt Tranmere Rovers fans on Sunday. The gut-wrenching emptiness of a season slipping away. The hollow agony of a team slowly dying. The dawning confirmation that we were never good enough to escape this godforsaken league. That much was abundantly clear in two dismal playoff games against Morecambe, who now head to Wembley full of dreams while we face another summer full of turmoil.
No matter how old you are, and regardless of how cynical modern football makes you, the pain is always the same – hot, sickly and governed by tears. It hurts when you are a boy, and it hurts when you are a man. It hurts when you are naïve, and it hurts when you are wizened. It hurts – full stop. And if you are afflicted with the football bug, there is no way to fight it.
My relationship with football has changed considerably in recent years. My priorities have changed, spurred by engagements, bills and mortgages. I have become somewhat detached from the daily machinations of sporting fandom. And yet, here I am again, 20 years down the line with this oxymoronic football club, wounded once more by its penchant for self-destruction. Here I am again, swallowing that gassy ball of football trauma lodged at the back of my throat. Here I am again, heartbroken by Tranmere Rovers.
Overall, we were just not good enough this time. Not on Sunday in Morecambe. Not on Thursday in Birkenhead. Not on many days throughout this tumultuous campaign. In truth, the playoffs were one step too far for this formless Tranmere team, which huffed and puffed at times, but which never seemed capable of breaking through. And so, another era drifts harmlessly away, leaving us right back where we started in the quest for identity.
What went wrong for Tranmere Rovers against Morecambe?
Yes, Rovers started well in the first leg at Prenton Park. Unleashed by caretaker manager Ian Dawes, they were bold in possession, moving the ball with energy and peppering the opposition’s box with crosses. In the end, though, Tranmere lacked the ingenuity to make 75% of possession count. Morecambe grabbed a fortuitous goal, to which Rovers quickly responded, but the long season caught up with our elderly squad, and a bright start fizzled under the weight of moribund sameness. Morecambe snatched another goal before half-time, and Tranmere were never able to recover, losing 2-1.
We played into Morecambe’s hands in that flat second half, giving away silly fouls and allowing them to fragment the game. Morecambe used every trick in the gamesmanship playbook, eating chunks of time with niggly throw-ins and feigned injuries, but we allowed that to happen. More worryingly, we seemed unable to break down a resolute Morecambe defence, which shuffled from side to side without answering any real questions. Tranmere were static and stale as the game wore on, while many players simply hid. They did not want the ball when it mattered most, creating an uphill challenge going into the second leg.
Still, with Tranmere, you just never know what is going to happen, so there were feint – if delusional – murmurings of resurrection before Sunday’s dénouement. If we could just score early, some fans reasoned, equilibrium would be quickly restored. If we could just play higher up the pitch, others argued, we had enough to beat Morecambe, who possess the Football League’s smallest budget. If we could just move the ball quicker, many said, there was hope.
If we could just…
Alas, it was not meant to be. Tranmere did not score early; Morecambe did. Tranmere did not play higher up the pitch; Morecambe did. And Tranmere did not move the ball quicker; Morecambe did. Sure, James Vaughan hit the crossbar after nine minutes, and things may have been different if he found the net, but Rovers’ leaky defence was exposed 30 seconds later when Aaron Wildig doubled Morecambe’s lead. We had all seen this movie before, and the ending is never pretty.
Dawes made a few positive changes at half-time, introducing Otis Khan and David Nugent. The latter was involved in a goalmouth scramble after 53 minutes, nudging the ball to Vaughan, who prodded home a vital goal. Tranmere had almost a full half to level the scores, and Dawes threw on even more attackers in grim pursuit, but it was all too desperate, and the season petered out amid a dreary Morecambe morn.
As the clock slowly ticked through six minutes of additional time, you could see the project crumbling, the ship sinking. There were too many disinterested passengers wearing the hallowed Rovers crest; too many mercenary journeymen who have no intention of being here this time next week. That noxious attitude – that scandalous lack of effort, care, commitment and urgency – is what kills us as fans. We can always tolerate defeat, but the lack of application shown by Tranmere this season is unforgivable.
What doomed Tranmere in 2021? Inside a failed campaign
If truth be told, I struggled to associate with many of these Tranmere players. Once again, the pandemic does not help in this regard, with limited opportunities to develop synergies, but there is something deeply amiss within the club’s culture. In fairness, Keith Hill alluded to it in his final press briefing, as did Dawes on Sunday. More pertinently, we have seen it with our own eyes all season long. These players failed to represent us in a manner befitting the club’s heritage, and that must be addressed moving forward.
“We spoke about starting the game with desire, hunger and aggression,” said Dawes following the terminal defeat. “Too many players didn’t start in that frame of mind. They wanted it more than us, especially in the first 25 minutes. The minimum required to be a Tranmere Rovers player is to represent the fans in the right way. They want to see the players represent the badge and the shirt with hunger and desire, and I would be angry if I was a fan today because that didn’t happen.”
Indeed, this season, Tranmere had too many players who were too similar – dull, one-paced and average. This squad resembled mediocrity in depth rather than quality at a premium, so we should not be shocked that it authored one of the most uninspired Rovers seasons for a long while, punctuated by a dismal playoff whimper.
I mean, just look at the squad. Kieron Morris and Liam Feeney are pretty much interchangeable, and not in a good way. They are capable of occasional brilliance, but they more routinely deliver pedestrian, one-dimensional walking football devoid of inspiration. Meanwhile, Danny Lloyd, Paul Lewis and Khan are all fairly similar – neat, tidy and busy but lacking a clinical edge. Then we have Corey Blackett-Taylor and Kaiyne Woolery – startling supernovas one minute, absent without leave the next.
“Building a football team is like baking a cake,” the great Johnny King once said. “If you get the ingredients right, it rises perfectly in the oven and tastes perfect. But if you get the ingredients wrong, it will go flat and stodgy and be inedible.” Tranmere thought they were a beautiful, fresh carrot cake this season, but they were actually one of those mouldy jam donuts you find on the evening sales rack at Asda.
Of course, we can lament the loss of Vaughan, our top goalscorer, for vast portions of the run-in. That certainly did not help. And yes, we can heap blame onto Hill, whose questionable methods zapped the club of energy. But there are bigger problems at Tranmere Rovers than mere individuals. We have taken a big step backwards, in terms of philosophy, meaning and momentum. To some extent, we are back where we started before Mellon’s renaissance – torn asunder by infighting and arrogance, inconsistency and carelessness.
That lack of cohesion is reflected in the club’s recruitment ethos, which is once again lopsided, welcoming too many fossils while discouraging dynamism. Undoubtedly, building a large squad capable of rotating can be beneficial, but we saw the other side of that coin this season. On Sunday, in Game 60 of the season, we still did not know our best starting lineup. Rather than having four or five proven match-winners operating at 100%, we had seven or eight potential match-winners coasting at 60%. The maths did not add up. The formula did not work. Now we must go back to the drawing board, with just a handful of professional players under contract.
Who are Tranmere Rovers, and who do they want to become?
Admittedly, the last eight seasons have been an exhausting gauntlet for our beloved football club, which has dealt with adversity of all stripes. In that timeframe, we have experienced two promotions, two relegations, two failed playoff campaigns, one demotion and one cup final defeat. We have played in three different divisions and enjoyed four trips to Wembley. From losing to Welling to entertaining Manchester United, we have come a long way – but who exactly are we, and who do we want to become?
You could argue that Tranmere have not played a meaningless game since 2013. As a collective, we have either been fighting for promotion or scrapping against relegation since then. Such is life on the breadline of English football. However, amid all the ups and downs, the club has seemingly lurched from one identity crisis to another. When the final whistle sounded at Morecambe, it felt like the end of an era, but defining that era is almost impossible.
Sadly, Tranmere Rovers is a faceless football club right now. There is no iconic fulcrum, no passionate messiah in whom to believe. It is nice to have Vaughan, but even he does not fit the bill. Not really. I’m talking about a Norwood-type figurehead. A real transformative force who can shoulder the hefty burden and drag us forward. Someone like Koumas or Hume in times of yore, and like Aldridge and Muir before them. Where are the leaders who want to be here, and who want to achieve Prentonian sainthood? The list probably starts with Scott Davies and ends with Liam Ridehalgh. Jay Spearing may warrant a mention, too, alongside Vaughan and Peter Clarke, but everybody else is just passing through, on the road to something else in the ceaseless commodification of modern football.
We cannot let Tranmere Rovers become just another boring lower league outpost in this manner. You know the type – clubs with journeymen managers, revolving casts of insouciant players, and cookie-cutter stadiums built to sustain blissful nonchalance while frowning at rustic individualism. We cannot become Rotherham, MK Dons or Wigan, in other words. We can only be Tranmere – for better or worse.
You see, this club is better than that. It is better than this. There has to be a clear-out in the coming weeks, but there also has to be a reconsideration of our underlying purpose. Much like Birkenhead, our hard-bitten home, Tranmere Rovers thrives when it has a defining mission or something to prove. Reclaiming our non-league status was grist for immense passion, just as defeating Premier League giants was once our motivational credo. What is our driving objective right now, and what will it be in the foreseeable future? To tread water in League Two? Surely not. We have to think bigger and bolder.
Since time immemorial, Tranmere fans have grappled with this question in pubs and bars, at barbecues and on internet forums: where does the club naturally belong? Citing the gigantic Kop and the beguiling history, some say it is a Championship club waiting to rise from its slumber. Eyeing finite finances and a recent stint in the non-league, others are just happy to be playing clubs we have heard of again. That dichotomy makes our club interesting, but it also poisons the well and feeds the same tired cycle of disgruntlement. That bifurcation keeps us bickering, which is just what the opposition wants.
This is largely a generational conundrum, of course. Those who began supporting the club as it played Guiseley and North Ferriby in league games will see little tragedy in an early exit from the League Two playoffs. However, for those – like me – who grew up with Tranmere firmly ensconced in the third division, the fact that we needed to rely on the playoffs at all is disheartening. Delving further back still, to the denizens of King’s empire, there are even loftier expectations among the old guard, although they are unlikely to ever be realised now due to football’s ransacked economy.
In other words, it is all relative, this football fandom lark. Certainly, we must be grateful for the manner in which Mark and Nicola Palios have steered Tranmere through the commercial atrophy caused by Covid-19. Few clubs have been so fortunate. Yet, at the same time, we must also remember that they are not above reproach, and that they have questions to answer, as well. Ultimately, they will decide our short and long-term fate, so we can only hope they finally get things right.
Where do Tranmere Rovers go from here?
Indeed, the owners are now looking to appoint their sixth permanent manager in seven years at the helm. Aside from Micky Mellon, their appointments have generally been disastrous – from Micky Adams and Gary Brabin to Mike Jackson and Hill. As such, based on pure historical data, there is little reason to be optimistic that Tranmere will find the right manager to lead them forward. All we can do is wish for the best while expecting the worst, because that is the quandary we have created for ourselves.
To that end, I’m sick and tired of seeing the same bland, unimaginative candidates linked with the managerial post at Prenton Park. Seriously – if I see another thread about Robbie Fowler, Jim Gannon, Sol Campbell or Kevin Nolan being parked outside the chippy on Borough Road, I will flip. Before it can take the next step and hire a logical candidate, rather than lunging into a kneejerk recruitment drive, this club needs to pause, reflect and recalibrate. This club needs to rediscover exactly what it wants to be, before market forces make that decision for us.
As the world emerges from its pandemic-fuelled stupor – tentative, drained and nervy – Tranmere Rover must redefine its ethos. What do we really want to stand for, beyond the marketing spiel? What do we really want to build and achieve, aside from the advertising narrative? Where do we really want to go, and how do we really want to get there, when all bluster is removed from this debate?
Do we want to be a sharp, sophisticated, sustainable club primed for long-term growth? Do we want to play an expansive, energetic and entertaining brand of football that keeps fans engaged? And do we want to climb the leagues towards some kind of crowning glory? Or do we want to burn through three managers every season? Do we want to plod along in mild-mannered short-termism? And do we want to merely survive, because look where we were five years ago?
The answers to these questions will inform the next managerial appointment. In one scenario, we could end up with an exciting manager befitting the club’s stature. Somebody who views managing Tranmere Rovers as the pinnacle of their career. Yet, in another scenario, we may settle for another cheap stopgap emblematic of the club’s stagnation. Somebody who views managing Tranmere Rovers as another small chapter in their banal biography.
I do not have the answers, but I’m not paid to have the answers. Many people are paid to have the answers, though, and some fans seem to forget that. It is time for those people to earn their money, because the status quo is not good enough. It is time to break things up, shift things around and reform a believable foundation. It is time to figure out where we are going, rather than fantasising about where we have been. Where there is faith, there is light and strength, according to Rovers’ motto. Yet blind faith without vision is asinine and exploitative. We would do well to remember that in the weeks and months ahead.