Falling in, out and back in love with Tranmere Rovers
Something changed on a cold, dark night in Shrewsbury. With a 95th minute winner from the boot of Corey Blackett-Taylor, months of frustration exploded out of the Tranmere Rovers soul. A meandering season suddenly found its focus, and a glimmer of hope presented itself. There was still life in the old dog yet. This still meant something.
I have vocalised my displeasure with Rovers this season, often piquing the ire of more positive fans. The summer budget was poor, while our spending thereof was equally disastrous. Defeats mounted and pain accumulated. Daydreaming about yesterday, we forgot about today. Successive promotions melted into a relegation fight, and Tranmere looked ill-equipped to compete in League One.
In an often-bewildering campaign, I have lost my way on numerous occasions. At times, I have felt like an outsider at Prenton Park. I just did not understand why everybody was so content with losing. I saw the terraces changing – new faces, new chants, new perspectives – and I conflated that with the loss of my own passion. The Tranmere Rovers I loved seemed to have changed indefinitely.
How our relationships with football change through time
We all experience periods of such generational indignation. With advancing age, our relationships with football change. They mould to the texture of a working life. They cede to the importance of family balance. They blend with the chaotic maelstrom of adult responsibilities, tangled between the weekly Lidl shop and banal summer holidays in our hierarchy of pointless distractions.
I have done a lot of growing up in the past two years. Relationships. Apartments. Engagements. Once a raw and unbridled obsession, the very compass of my contentment, football has become contextualised. Attending Tranmere matches has become an opportunity to spend time with loved ones rather than a catalyst for mood-altering agitation. There is more to life than third division meltdowns, apparently, although I’m still not entirely sure how it all fits together.
My battles with mental ill health have continued, ebbing and flowing with the hectic undulation of modern life. At times, I have fallen out of love with football, resenting the anxiety it creates. The turbocharged machismo is tiring, and for the first time in a life of Tranmere Rovers affliction, I have voluntarily missed matches as a form of self-care.
Sometimes, the thought of standing in a large crowd, screaming and chanting, barking and pleading, is just about the worst thing imaginable for me. There is a juvenile tinge to the tribalism of football, and one can only stomach so many mindless songs about Manchester being full of shit and Yorkshire endorsing incest before it all seems rather redundant.
At other times, though, a good old awayday is the antidote to pervasive melancholy. When life gets you down, all bills and obligations and paperwork, sweet release can occasionally be found in the timeless yearning and cascading limbs of a hometown goal.
When antidepressants dull the mind and mundane tribulations weary the soul, football – only football – offers salvation. It is the cathartic outlet, the un-pressing of pause, the exhalation of melodrama and the outpouring of angst. It is football. There is no explanation, but it works.
There is a streak of rebellion in every football fan, and it needs to be expressed from time to time so the exponent does not go crazy. Deep down, we all have a hint of hooligan etched into our makeup. Or at least, we are united by the random urge to encroach onto the pitch after a last-gasp winner in blissful, inexplicable idiocy.
Football is a means to letting out your daft. The mainstream does not understand. The posh and privileged do not condone. And we do not care. Get into these horrible bastards, Rovers. Come on!
Corey Blackett-Taylor and the reawakening of Tranmere Rovers hope
We have not had much to shout about this season. Tranmere beat Watford in the FA Cup, slaying a Premier League opponent with miraculous determination. However, our league form has been woeful. Entering the Shrewsbury contest in late February, Rovers were without a league win in eleven matches. Hell, they never managed to score in six of those games. Relegation became a gathering inevitability.
When all looked lost, Tranmere took a 2-0 lead against the Shrews. They then proceeded to throw it away in quintessential style, conceding twice in the second half to reinforce our ineptitude. My head fell off as Rovers scuffed one corner after another into the front post. It all seemed so impossible.
Then, in a break from the norm, Scott Davies decided not to take weeks before releasing the football. Our beleaguered goalkeeper unleashed a wicked kick upfield, where Blackett-Taylor galloped free. Entering the penalty area amid rolling waves of incredulity, Corey took one touch to steady himself before driving a left-footed shot across the goalkeeper and into far corner.
A classic Tranmere melee spilled from the otherwise civil away end. Seats were trampled. Barriers were hurled. Lunatics hurdled the advertising boards, incredulity personified. I hobbled away with smashed glasses, a cut eye and blood pouring from my shin. You would not have it any other way.
Tranmere hung on to clinch just their third away win of the campaign. It was just the fifth time I had seen Rovers win anywhere – home or away - all season. Something clicked inside, however, and that old familiar glow was back. That warm, giddy, beautiful vindication returned. That is why we follow them, if you are ever in doubt. That is why we persevere through the down times and the unending annoyance. That is why.
Tranmere win back-to-back games for the first time in a year
I did not travel to Accrington Stanley yesterday. I’m at a stage where I need to pick and choose my away games, and impending trips to Blackpool, Rochdale and Wimbledon are appealing. Nevertheless, I followed the game closely in a Liverpool coffee shop, scanning social media and watching the scores roll in.
When Mark Ellis put Rovers 2-0 up against Accrington, I punched the air like a mad man, eliciting suspicious looks from the prim and proper folks who nearly choked on their lattes.
Sorry if I ruined your contrived attempts at vainglory or interrupted your Instagram photoshoots of coffee that later went to waste, but Tranmere won two league games in a row for the first time in twelve months. Damn right I will enjoy it.
The unspoken struggles of mental health among football fans
A classic connotation of depression is that you no longer enjoy things you once loved. In recent years, my tryst with Tranmere Rovers has fallen victim to that curse, and spells of numb indifference have left me disorientated as a football fan. The nomadic exasperation has thawed over the last few weeks, however, and I’m feeling things again. I’m loving my football club once more, even if that dedication looks a little different than it did back when I was drinking cans and singing One Night in Gay Paris on trains.
I still struggle with certain aspects of the club, but I’m learning to tune them out and enjoy Tranmere on my own terms, in my own way, and for my own satisfaction. The day-trippers at big games still annoy me. The financial disparities still perplex me. And the chronic failures to run a simple ticket website or operate a basic carpark are tragic.
Yet no matter what, when March, April and May roll around, and when the hometown heroes are fighting for promotion or survival, instinct kicks in and we will still end up in Peterborough against all logic, eating dreadful pies and hoping for the best. There is no point fighting it. We are hooked for life. Even when we try to break away, we are still infected with the heartbreaking virus of Tranmere Rovers loyalty.
Can Tranmere Rovers avoid relegation from League One?
There are 11 games remaining in this bittersweet season. Our boys are six points adrift of safety with two games in hand. They still have to play Rochdale, Wimbledon and MK Dons, the three teams immediately above them in the table. Relegation remains probable, but there is a flash of possibility for rebirth, and there is plenty for which to fight.
My trademark rallying calls are consigned to history, back when I was full of youthful delusion and hormonal ambition. I will not rattle on about being the twelfth man and other similar nonsense. As Tranmere fans, we have heard it all before, and we are sick of the marketing bollocks.
However, I will encourage you all to sit and ponder your own bond with this haplessly brilliant football club. We are living in a different era, far beyond the National League juggernaut. After years of relentless winning, of heart-pounding otherness, it has been difficult to redefine our purpose in the face of League One mediocrity.
Finally, in the dying embers of another Tranmere campaign, that purpose has become clear. We must fight for all that once was great and which may be great again.
I would ask if you have what it takes to muster a final effort, but I know you have, and I know you will. Together, we just might pull this off. Together, we just might live to see another day. Together, we might just fall back in love with that hypnotising team from Birkenhead.
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- Hope and heartbreak: Life with English football's most tortured club