Notes from a Covid cup final with Tranmere Rovers

Perhaps Wembley was one step too far this time. Perhaps playing against a big club from a higher division eventually took its toll. Perhaps the absence of a lethal top goalscorer through injury created an uphill battle. Perhaps. Yet despite losing 1-0 to Sunderland in the EFL Trophy final, Tranmere Rovers have a lot to be proud of right now. Playing at the home of football for a fourth time in five years added another footnote to the club’s illustrious history, even if the result was hard to swallow.

Keith Hill’s side gave a great account of themselves at the national stadium, and such a gallant display should stimulate – rather than truncate – momentum from here until the season’s end. But for a lucky bounce or a surge of concentration, the outcome may have been different. Still, we remain grateful for the effort and proud of the dignity shown by our faltering humdrum heroes, who continue to offer pleasing distractions at times of utmost distress.

Of course, besmirched by a harrowing pandemic, the past 12 months have taught us a lot about context and perspective, to a point where a cup final in the lower leagues of English football is comparatively unimportant. Sure, it would have been nice to win another trophy, and I believe Rovers deserved such an honour, but we must be content with an afternoon of pleasant preoccupation, because the chosen sons represented us with class once again, despite the disappointing outcome.

How the coronavirus pandemic hurt lower league football

We are all wounded right now, and for once, it is not entirely the fault of football. The coronavirus pandemic has tested our resolve to warlike proportions, and the relative bliss of Wembley cup finals is a rare elixir. So often a fulcrum of hurt, the beautiful game is experiencing hurt itself right now, as so poignantly depicted by the forlorn faces and empty stadiums of despair.

Indeed, while Europe’s six wealthiest leagues lost £4.5 billion in revenues during 2020, the seismic impact of Covid-19 has been felt even more acutely further down England’s league pyramid, where clubs live hand-to-mouth existences beholden to luck. In the Football League’s bottom two divisions, clubs are hugely reliant on turnstiles continuing to churn, a concept thwarted by various shades of state-mandated lockdown in the past 12 months. Without fans in the stands, many clubs have embraced austerity as a means of survival, battening down the hatches and hoping for sport’s bleak midwinter to pass. Uncertainty has become the new normal, with each day, week, month and year presenting unique challenges that some cannot meet.

Tranmere have not been immune to the suffering, of course. Rovers averaged crowds of almost 7,000 during the 2019-20 season, providing a strong base from which to work. Moreover, in recent years, the sainted sons of Birkenhead have played before increasingly large one-off crowds, boosting the coffers significantly. A congregation of 13,779 welcomed Manchester United to town. Tottenham Hotspur were greeted by 12,553. Then we had the Wembley entourage, with an aggregate attendance of more than 60,000 witnessing the grand trilogy of 2017-2019.

These bumper gates – and their attendant receipts – helped secure the future of Tranmere Rovers for extended periods. We did not budget for such events, per se, but they were always very useful in plugging gaps and providing sustenance. Those big occasions contributed to fiscal independence, which allowed the club to pursue its myriad ambitions both on and off the pitch. It is remarkable how we continue to pursue that mission even in the face of grim adversity.

‘The best revenge is living well’ – How Mark Palios steered Tranmere Rovers through the Covid-19 pandemic

In this regard, I have often been critical of Mark and Nicola Palios, whose ownership of Tranmere has leant on myth and bluster at times, but their prudence has allowed us to weather this storm and emerge from the other side comparatively unharmed. Back when the EFL suspended play in March 2020, Mark implemented a radical strategy – codenamed Project Malthus – to strengthen Rovers’ cash reserves and increase the club’s financial resilience from two to 12 months. Few clubs benefited from such accomplished acumen, and for that we must be thankful.

Tranmere made use of the government’s furlough scheme out of necessity, while also deferring swathes of credit to free up much-needed liquidity. Therefore, exactly 366 days after the EFL paused its season, sparking bedlam that ended with Tranmere’s demotion, Rovers not only remain alive and kicking, but they have also just played on the hallowed Wembley turf once again, telling the world they will never back down. It will take more than baseless bureaucracy and unimaginative officialdom to thwart this latent juggernaut, and soon our native stoicism will rise to the top again.

Of course, Mark Palios is particularly well-suited for the job of steering a lower league football club – especially one based in Birkenhead – through such uncharted waters. Mark grew up in the local area, and he played more than 200 games for Tranmere as a player in the 1970s and 1980s. Palios also pursued qualifications as a chartered accountant and, after hanging up his books, became a senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the world’s preeminent accounting houses. Mark specialised in business turnarounds, winning awards for numerous reclamation projects that salvaged prosperity from despair.

Sadly, Tranmere matched that criteria by 2014, when Mark and Nicola gained ownership of the club from fatigued entrepreneur Peter Johnson. Mark always remained passionate about football, briefly serving as chief executive of the FA, and the opportunity to resuscitate his beloved Rovers was suitably tantalising. Things got worse before they got better, as Tranmere lost their Football League status, but successive promotions in 2018 and 2019 restored the club as a third tier entity, matching huge strides made in its commercial portfolio.

Therefore, when Rovers were demoted back to the fourth division in 2020 courtesy of an ill-conceived points-per-game paradigm, the sense of injustice was palpable. Palios fought long and hard to cajole EFL powerbrokers for a more equitable outcome, but his efforts were submerged by managerial incompetence and self-serving hypocrisy throughout the football fiefdom. Tranmere were punished for being prudent, essentially, as the national game lost its moral compass.

After seeking legal advice with regard to potential lawsuits and formal complaints, Palios settled on a more empirical ethos of repost. “The best revenge is living well,” the chairman often says, and Tranmere have abided by that mantra ever since the EFL’s flawed calculator produced its scandalous judgement. We do things differently, here in Birkenhead, and we will never cower to inferior motives. Our conscience is clear, and we will triumph in the long run.

Indeed, in Palios’ cluttered office at Solar Campus, Tranmere’s modern training hub, a solitary poem lurks in a nondescript frame: If, by Rudyard Kipling, which has been etched into the club’s soul as a de facto mission statement:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Acting in this spirit, Tranmere’s first team squad agreed to significant wage deferrals – reportedly up to 25% - throughout the summer, while also accepting furlough leave. Some players still trained voluntarily and casually at Solar Campus, including captain Scott Davies, the beating heart of this club during its incredible renaissance. Rovers also recruited an army of volunteers, who cleaned seats and tackled weeds at Prenton Park optimistically, maintaining pride while awaiting the blissful return of normality.

Rather than shrinking amid difficulty, Tranmere Rovers refused to feel sorry for itself. With funding from Santini Group, minority investors in the club, Palios proceeded with plans to rip up the defective pitch at Prenton Park, ordering foundational work before a new state-of-the-art surface was laid. Meanwhile, despite the unforeseen departure of legendary manager Micky Mellon to Dundee United, Tranmere also recruited well, signing and retaining quality players like James Vaughan, Jay Spearing, Kaiyne Woolery, Otis Khan, Peter Clarke and Liam Feeney.

The appointment of Mike Jackson as manager did not go according to plan, but Andy Parkinson and Ian Dawes helped Tranmere reacquaint with League Two as caretaker managers. Keith Hill was then appointed to much consternation, thanks in no small part to his Bolton roots, and slowly converted agnostic fans with entertaining football lined with hardened pragmatism. That philosophy defines the club just now, and it was on full show against Sunderland at Wembley – albeit with a blunt edge where typically Vaughan resides.

Indeed, for many football clubs, large and small, the coronavirus pandemic has been a disaster. However, aside from the cosmetic setback of immoral demotion, this period of precariousness has actually been developmental for Tranmere Rovers. It has punctuated the unity that helped Birkenhead return from its non-league nadir. The symbiosis between this football club and the community it serves, so severely damaged in times of yore, has never been stronger, and a fantastic run in the pizza cup – though much derided – has boosted that camaraderie, as well.

How Tranmere Rovers’ community work soothed Birkenhead during the coronavirus crisis

In this manner, Tranmere Rovers has long prided itself on helping the needy of Birkenhead and Wirral, but the club’s heroic community work in recent times has been unprecedented. Some of Britain’s most deprived neighbourhoods can be found within walking distance of Prenton Park, yet Tranmere offer lifelines that are otherwise overlooked by defective local leadership and preoccupied central government. Though shamelessly pinched from Barcelona, Rovers’ More Than a Football Club motto certainly rings true, as evidenced by their incredible outreach during the pandemic.

Through the toil and fundraising of volunteers, Tranmere have supplied more than 40,000 meals to vulnerable locals over the past year. The club has coordinated over 1,200 care package drop-offs; arranged more than 1,000 welfare phone calls; and donated around £3,000-worth of sanitary items to local organisations. Mark and Nicola Palios even got involved themselves, club owners grafting hard on the streets of Birkenhead, mingling with the people whose family heirloom they currently possess. You will struggle to find a similar scenario at any other football club, and that is a credit to all involved.

Indeed, Birkenhead itself played a pioneering – if understated – role in the early fight against Covid-19 and its various impacts. In January 2020, for example, when hospitals were sought to repatriate British nationals from Wuhan, China, at the centre of the initial virus outbreak, Arrowe Park stood up and offered vital support. That stands in stark contrast to our friends across the water, of course, as Liverpool FC furloughed staff despite making a pre-tax profit of £42 million, and despite being owned by Fenway Sports Group, which has a net worth of $2.8 billion.

Aside from the health emergency, Rovers continue to be model neighbours, as well, building links and offering hope for those left behind by mainstream support services. For instance, despite extraneous circumstances, the club pressed ahead with plans to open a community hub in Beechwood, among the most deprived areas in our entire country. Likewise, throughout 2020, Tranmere helped more than 70 people into employment through bespoke training. Rovers also facilitated more than 200 people involved in walking football; around 1,500 subscribed to dance classes; and dozens of families suffering through dementia diagnoses. These are the things that often go unreported.

The club is also a paragon of equality, diversity and inclusion, tackling discrimination without virtue signalling or yearning for praise. Rovers are pioneers in disabled football, for example, with almost 100 people playing sport regularly at the club. Tranmere is also a champion of LGBTQ+ rights, with a dedicated supporters group growing in stature. The club provides meals and parties for the lonely at Christmas, while also linking up with the Deen Centre, a mosque on Borough Road, to assist with local Ramadan efforts. Rovers will help anybody who needs it, and that makes my heart swell with pride. 

Coffee, FaceTime and slippers – The Super White Army in lockdown

As fans, we have never been more distant from our beloved football club, yet – paradoxically – those bonds continue to strengthen. For example, I have not attended a Tranmere league match for 384 days, since the beautiful tumult of Shrewsbury away in February 2020. The last time such a gap existed between attended league matches, I was five years old. However, it is often said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that has certainly been the case for me, as my love for Tranmere Rovers has morphed into new dimensions. Without the background susurrus of terrace tumult, I even find myself pondering tactics and statistics, areas I have traditionally overlooked in favour of Bovril and aggro.

Indeed, as a species, football fans have experienced unprecedented change in the past 12 months. Slippers have replaced Adidas trainers. Coffee in porcelain mugs has replaced lager from plastic beaker. Our vapid world of concrete and barbed wire, plastic and gravel has been subsumed by fabric and velvet, pillows and linen, blankets and cashmere. The life-affirming discomfort of football fandom has been usurped by the tedium of middle class amenity. Where once we sprang from broken seats to call inadequate loanees ‘imposter shithouses,’ we now sit in mute fascination, stroking our beards, pondering expected goals algorithms and the gegenpress, then proceeding to dump trite soliloquys about Manny Monthe in the family WhatsApp chat. 

My typical matchday in lockdown begins with James Martin’s Saturday Morning, a classic culinary delight featuring inane chatter and simplistic recipes. Most weeks while watching, I mention to Patrycja, my fiancée, that – tangentially – Simon Rimmer, another celebrity chef, once appeared on Celebrity Mastermind with the history of Tranmere Rovers as his specialist subject. Patrycja never seems to care, of course, leaving me to sip orange juice, eat bagels and worry about the day’s forthcoming duel against Crawley, Stevenage or some other nondescript southern bogey team alone.

From there, I progress to blurring my hastily assembled matchday playlist, which is a masterpiece in its own right. Attempting to recreate the vibe of kinetic Saturday excitement, I rely on songs from The Libertines, Babyshambles, Gerry Cinnamon, The Courteeners and Oasis. Naturally, there is a local thread to the playlist, with contributions from Half Man Half Biscuit, The Coral, She Drew the Gun, The La’s and Bill Ryder-Jones. The Rockford Files theme tune is included, as per the lifetime contract of Tranmere Rovers fandom, in addition to Going Home, the melodramatic soundtrack to our disconsolate trudges out of Prenton Park at full-time following inevitable stoppage time defeats.

As kick-off rounds into view, The Great Scramble occurs in households from Wallasey to Willaston, from Thurstaston to Eastham Ferry, and from Birkenhead to Bromborough. Where is the laptop? Where is the bank card? How do you find a dodgy stream? What are the login details for iFollow again? How are they still charging £10 to watch a video? Why are we stuck with the Exeter City commentators? Does anybody know how to AirPlay this shit to the big telly? Did we really throw out that HDMI cable? Oh, what is the point?

By the time you finally settle down, bowl of salt and vinegar crisps by your side on the couch, 17 minutes have already elapsed and there has already been a red card and a missed penalty. Still, your feet are up on the pouffe – I did say middle class! – and the fire is on. You are actually warm watching Tranmere Rovers, instead of freezing morbidly in the hellish microclimate of Prentonia. Moreover, the fridge is just yards away, and you can use the toilet without washing your hands in cold water and having them drip-dry throughout the second half. Cowsheds Catering is still yet to figure out Uber Eats, but perhaps that is for the best. 

Of course, watching football without fans and with fake crowd noise will never cease being strange. For all its unpolished inconvenience, iFollow has been a godsend during this period of isolation, allowing supporters to maintain some form of bond with their beloved clubs. Indeed, Phil Wilkinson and pals on TRFC Radio receive plenty of criticism, but they have done a sterling job incubating the flame and providing much-needed escapism for Superwhites around the world. Lockdown would have been a whole lot harder without Dave Higgins’ verbal diarrhoea. Incidentally, that would be a great name for a Birkenhead indie band. Announce them headlining Future Yard when its vaunted doors reopen.

Many Rovers fans have found a synthetic sense of community on social media during their prolonged absence from stadia. I personally refrain from scrolling endlessly these days, having deleted the apps from my phone, but it can be entertaining and informative to log-in after a Tranmere win. Ian Reynolds’ morning poetry has been a highlight of matchdays in lockdown, while Iddrisu Ismael, Rovers’ Ghanaian superfan, has gained a cult following for his passionate analysis from afar.

In the absence of rueful half-time analysis in Aldo’s bar, I have used FaceTime to stay connected with my dad and brother. Our short, sharp bitch-fests – before, during and after each game – have been somewhat cathartic, allowing us to lament attacking profligacy and defensive ineptitude like old times. Some things never change, apparently.

In short, we have all done our best to engineer new routines, schticks, habits and coping mechanisms during the pandemic – in life, just as in hopeless devotion to fourth division football teams. Some people eschew iFollow for Twitter, or simply follow the scores on Gillette Soccer Saturday. Others obsess over heat maps and granular pass completion data. Whatever floats your boat, I guess. This is a broad church and all approaches are welcome. The Super White Army has done itself proud in recent times, and that should always be remembered.

Up and down this wonky old peninsula, thousands of people rely on the exploits of their local football club for sustenance – for stoic representation and vicarious accomplishment. It is sad to wonder how many of those familiar awaydays faces – the journeymen and the nearly men, the urchins and the drifters, the lonely and the troubled – will never return, lost to a global sickness of ghastly proportions. We dedicate this final appearance to them, timeless remnants of our quirky tapestry, and raise a glass to their toil, never to be forgotten.

Welcome to Prenton Park South – Chasing the pizza cup from CH42 to Wembley

In many ways, then, this season’s iteration of the EFL Trophy seemed more incongruous than any other, a special accomplishment for the most incongruous football competition devised this side of the Mercantile Credit Football Festival. Like many observers, I expected the tournament to be scrapped amid a chaotic fixture list this term. After all, last year’s final was delayed by 12 months, so what hope did this year’s version have of surviving?

Of course, it is trendy to deride the EFL Trophy in this manner. The cup has had more names than Ron Artest, from the Associate Members’ Cup, the Freight Rover Trophy, the Leyland DAF Cup and the Sherpa Vans Trophy to the Autoglass Trophy, the Auto Windscreens Shield, and the LDV Vans Trophy. It was known as the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy for a halcyon spell, before morphing into the Checkatrade Trophy, the Trophy and – finally – the Papa John’s Trophy, named after an American pizza franchise.

Aside from such discordant associations with freight hauliers, car manufacturers, van producers, paint sellers, vehicle rental agencies and pizza parlours, the EFL Trophy has also been admonished for its introduction of elite youth teams. Once the preserve of 48 teams in the Football League’s basement, the competition welcomed under-21 sides from Premier League and Championship clubs in 2016, presaging the slow decay of our vaunted pyramid. We are no strangers to defeat in these parts, but the prospect of losing to teenage apprentices from Reading or Stoke opened new levels of ignominy in our frequent brushes with hell. Half Man Half Biscuit even wrote a song about it.

As a result, many people have boycotted the competition in recent years, with typical attendances plummeting below 1,000. Nevertheless, significant prize money is tethered to the competition - hush money from a pact with the devil, I suppose. During times of economic turmoil, however, working class clubs such as Tranmere must pinch their noses and attempt to fill the coffers, and that is exactly what Rovers have done this season, earning £230,000 in prize money alone from this unconventional cup run.

For context, that probably pays James Vaughan’s wages for the entire season at a time when cash is hard to come by. Meanwhile, Tranmere will also receive a large share of the competition’s television and merchandising income, earning more from this EFL Trophy campaign than a traditional run to the FA Cup fifth round.

Accordingly, for all the valid concerns raised about waning prestige and convoluted formats, this competition continues to be a force for good in the history of our humble football club. Tranmere lifted the trophy – their first piece of national domestic silverware excluding playoffs and promotions – in 1990 after beating Bristol Rovers at Wembley. They also fought bravely against Birmingham City in an iconic 1991 final, eventually losing 3-2. Johnny King had great respect for the tournament, which added lustre to his dynasty, and that makes it good enough for me.

This season, Rovers emerged from a preliminary group with Port Vale, Wigan Athletic and Liverpool U21. They then beat Manchester City U21 in the second round and Leicester City U21 in the third round before navigating far tougher challenges en route to Wembley. Peterborough United, eternal Tranmere kryptonite, were despatched in the quarter-finals, before Oxford United were toppled in a surreal semi-final at the Kassam Stadium. Both Peterborough and Oxford play in the upper echelons of League One, lending a veneer of underdog brilliance to Tranmere’s progression.

Why Tranmere Rovers came up short against Sunderland at Wembley in the 2021 Papa John’s Trophy final

Indeed, Rovers were certainly second-favourites at Wembley, where Sunderland awaited in ebullient mood following a recent takeover and a subsequent uptick in form. Traditionally occupants of higher divisions, the Mackem’s have only entered the EFL Trophy four times in their entire history, so they naturally expected to beat lower league opposition in the final. However, Sunderland had lost on their previous seven visits to Wembley, where they last won in 1973. Accordingly, a tight game was always guaranteed, but many pundits were still surprised by Rovers’ display.

Tranmere set out their stall really well, keeping a compact shape and remaining disciplined. Hill’s ethos relies on high-octane industry in and out of possession, and Rovers worked incredibly hard off the ball, hunting in packs and pressing Sunderland into uncomfortable positions. Tranmere were also neat and tidy in possession, attempting to play their way out of trouble rather than thumping hopeless balls into the final third. Sunderland knew they were in a game, and a goalless first half gave Rovers belief entering the second period.

Alas, one monetary lapse in focus cost Tranmere on the day. Just before the hour mark, Rovers’ midfield graft relented briefly, with a lack of pressure on the ball freeing Aiden McGeady into a crescent of space. Though he is now 34 years old and long forgotten by football’s elite, McGeady has played at the highest level for Celtic, Spartak Moscow and Everton, among others, and that instinctive quality was clear to see as he dissected the Tranmere backline with a deftly-weighted through ball. As four Rovers players scrambled to recover from the devastating pass, the unfortunately named Lynden Gooch lofted a calm finish over the onrushing Scott Davies and into the net, as Tranmere’s helium balloon turned to lead.

Still, even a goal down, Rovers stuck to their philosophy and tired to find a route back into the contest. David Nugent provided a focal point atop the attack, but even he failed to capitalise on a string of exquisite deliveries from Feeney and Khan. All afternoon, Tranmere lacked clinical instinct in the Sunderland box, and that was eventually the difference.

Introduced alongside Nugent, the enigmatic Corey Blackett-Taylor had one of his better days, running beyond Max Power – the former Rovers midfielder now operating as an auxiliary right-back for Sunderland – with free abandon. The final ball would just not fall for Tranmere, however, creating a sense of injustice following a bold performance lacking punctuation.

To that end, Rovers more than matched Sunderland. Possession was split 51% to 48%, in favour of the Black Cats, but Tranmere registered five shots on target compared to Sunderland’s two. The corner count was also even, while Rovers defended with particular hunger, blocking shots courageously and stifling the opposition throughout. Khan almost scored a wonder goal late in the second half, but it was just not meant to be.

Ultimately, then, McGeady’s piece of fleeting brilliance was the deciding factor in an absorbing game. However, even in defeat, Tranmere left the pitch with their heads held high. They have certainly come a long way since a despicable 5-0 thrashing at the Stadium of Light in October 2019, and that is a fitting testament to Hill’s impact.

Tranmere Rovers go all-in for League Two promotion

Perhaps understandably, yet no less annoyingly, Sky Sports would not stop mentioning the league being our top priority during their coverage of the EFL Trophy final, almost inviting viewers to switch off. I mean, what is the point of watching when the commentators are just banging on about something else? Unlike some, I really wanted to win the cup, and watching the seconds ebb away into dull defeat was agonising, regardless of the competition.

You see, in professional English football, comprising the top five divisions, there just are four Wembley cup finals per year. Not playoff deciders. Not charity exhibitions. Real cup finals at the world’s most famous football stadium. The FA Cup and League Cup are distant dreams, while the FA Trophy was a fleeting nightmare. Thus, for all the breathless gesticulating, the EFL Trophy is often our most realistic chance of reaching a showcase cup final, and a certain sacredness is implied in such opportunities. Tranmere respected that opportunity throughout the season, and that is all we can ask for as fans.

Admittedly, following the defeat, Rovers’ attention will switch back to League Two, where they currently sit in fifth position, four points adrift of the automatic promotion places and five points off top spot. Hill’s men have games in hand on all of the teams around them, with a back-to-reality clash away to Grimsby on the schedule for Wednesday. Victory is imperative, just as it always is for Birkenhead’s finest.

Thirteen games remain – an unlucky number for some – and Tranmere are once again bidding to win their first league title of any description since 1938. They never make it easy, those mere mortals in immortal kit, and the run-in of 2021 will be no different. So fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen, because palpitation season is upon us. Oh, and by the way, if the season ended now, Bolton would await in the playoffs. I’m off to click and collect some emergency underwear.


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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Planet Prentonia: The Real Story of Tranmere Rovers, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!

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