Hope and Heartbreak: Life with English Football's Most Tortured Club
This article is dedicated to my dad on his 60th birthday. Nobody loves Tranmere more.
There we sat, peering at the floodlit nirvana of Prenton Park. A chill in the air, a dew-sprinkled pitch. That familiar nervous tension, sizzling through the big game fire.
A throng of 7,385 swayed and chattered through the buzzing unrest. Each mind tricked anew, each heart believing again. All the wounds forgiven. All the fantasy rekindled.
Macclesfield Town, the unlikely league leaders, were in town. They were four points ahead of those surging Tranmere Rovers, with the finish line in sight. First versus second. An opportunity for all.
There we sat, hoping for glory, awaiting typical pain.
Then it happened. Like it always bloody does.
One down at the break. A short, sharp revival. Andy Cook leaping like a salmon, sparking paroxysms of joy on the Kop. Parity restored. Then three unanswered goals for the rampant opposition; mediocre everymen, starlets for a night.
There we sat, wincing at the scoreboard, consumed by knowing disbelief.
Whenever it happens, a wry understanding wrinkles across the lips, emerging from the latest wave of indignant bitterness. It happened again, just like you knew it would, just like it so frequently does.
It cuts at your soul, but there’s something so familiar about it all, that stinging disappointment. It’s the periodic resurrection of an ailment that has plagued us for an age; a dull ache strangely redolent of football-obsessed childhood.
The Endless Wait
We now belong to a league whereby success is only guaranteed by finishing in first place. Unfortunately, Tranmere last won a league title in 1938. Of 116 clubs in the top five tiers of English football, only five have waited longer to lift a championship of any description. All such clubs have experienced more elation than Rovers in that same timeframe, making ours the most tortured fanbase in the land.
Longest wait for a league title in English football
- Crewe Alexandra – 141 years
- Hartlepool United – 110 years
- Rochdale – 106 years
- Torquay United – 91 years
- Blackpool – 88 years
- Tranmere Rovers – 80 years
- Barnsley – 63 years
- Sheffield Wednesday – 59 years
Crewe Alexandra have never won a league in their 141-year existence. The sheer abnormality of their wait is staggering, and they currently find themselves embroiled in scandal, but they were Wembley winners in 2012 and 2013. They’re also a Football League club, and have never lost at home to Welling United to blow a likely playoff place.
Hartlepool United have also never won a league title, in 110 years of operation. Financial chaos has engulfed the club in recent times, and it frequently walks the liquidation tightrope while freshly buried in non-league obscurity. Yet they beat us on penalties in the 2004/05 third tier playoff semi-final. And they stayed in the Football League at our expense a decade later. They’ve also had two promotions this millennium. So, to be honest, I couldn’t care less.
Rochdale haven’t hoisted a league championship for 106 years. They were stuck in the fourth division for an eternity, but have never experienced the ignominy of relegation to non-league. Moreover, they have been promoted twice in the past eight years, and last month drew with Tottenham to earn a lucrative replay at Wembley. Spare me the drama.
Now, you could probably make a good case that Torquay United rival Tranmere for inflicting torment and heartbreak upon their supporters. The Gulls lurks from one financial crisis to another, and are currently gazing into the abyss of sixth tier football. They haven’t delivered a league title for 91 years, and the Plainmoor trophy cabinet is considerably bare. But even Torquay have never suffered the sickening nightmare of successive relegations out of the Football League. And they won at Wembley in the Conference playoff final just nine years ago, a privilege yet to be accorded to our Rovers.
Finally, Blackpool have waited 88 years for a league title. The Oyston family has systematically destroyed the club, but since Tranmere last won promotion, Blackpool have experienced that feeling five times, including last season, two weeks after we choked on tears of anguish following the grand debacle of Forest Green. Blackpool also enjoyed a season in the Premier League, which has always proved one step too far for the Superwhites. Meanwhile, one look at the pyramid reveals that Blackpool are currently in League One. In short, their fans don’t know the half of it.
Longest wait for a trophy or promotion in English football
- Oldham Athletic – 27 years
- Tranmere Rovers – 27 years
- Everton – 23 years
- Aston Villa – 22 years
- Macclesfield Town – 20 years
- Ipswich Town – 18 years
Delving deeper into our agony-besmirched psyche, in the same top five divisions, only nine clubs have waited longer than Tranmere for a promotion of any kind: Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa, Coventry City and Oldham Athletic, who won the second division title 21 days before we earned promotion into the second tier in 1991.
Obviously, the vast majority of those clubs are huge, and their need for promotion is almost non-existent. To be fair, Coventry have suffered financial Armageddon and even lost their home stadium amid a relentless demise, but they also won the FA Cup in 1987 and spent a large portion of their existence in the top tier. They also lifted the Football League Trophy at Wembley last season before 74,434, easing the misery somewhat.
Oldham may have technically waited longer for a promotion, and their fans could claim to be more tortured than because they have to sit in the ramshackle confines of Boundary Park. But Oldham have spent time in the top flight since we last won anything. They’re comfortably mired in unending mediocrity, far adrift from any kind of genuine hardship. Get real.
And that, quite sadly, leaves us, the devoted acolytes of Prentonia.
Tranmere Rovers is the most success-starved football club in England. Those born into this parish are therefore the hungriest, without parallel in depth of yearning.
That desire grows more fervent with each setback, every failed campaign. At this point, it’s a roaring inferno of hope.
In Rovers’ last Football League season, an average of 5,192 attended home games at Prenton Park. This season, our third in the murky void of National League morbidity, that figure has risen to 5,239.
Our average home crowd is larger than that of one Championship club; eight League One clubs; nineteen League Two clubs; and four Scottish Premiership clubs. That correlation between attendance and the division in which we presently find ourselves informs of a sleeping giant striving for a brighter stage.
On average, English clubs ordinarily taste success, in the form of promotion or trophy, every six years. Tranmere have waited five times longer.
Customarily, clubs earn promotion every nine years. Tranmere have waited three times longer.
Typically, clubs win automatic promotion every 13 years. Tranmere have waited more than double that duration.
The average wait for a league title of any description, anywhere in the professional pyramid, is 21 years. Tranmere have waited almost four times longer.
In 134 years of existence, Rovers have finished above third in the league – regardless of level – on just five occasions.
Since our last promotion, there has been 17 changes of manager, including caretakers. Since our last league title, that figure rises to 32.
Three times as many men have walked on the moon (12) as have won a professional trophy as manager of Tranmere Rovers (4).
Since we last won a league title, America has elected 13 Presidents, Britain has had 16 changes of Prime Minister, and 7 new Popes have been selected.
The sheer longevity of our failure is remarkable. However, it often pales in comparison to the methods by which it has been maintained.
Tranmere have qualified for the end-of-season promotion playoffs on seven occasions. We have failed six times, including the last five attempts. Between 1993-95, Rovers lost three consecutive second tier playoff semi-finals, falling short in an endless quest for the Premier League.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we’re also no strangers to penalty shootout heartache. As mentioned previously, Rovers lost the 2004/05 playoff semi-final on penalties, just as they did the 1993/94 League Cup semi-final.
Between 1985-2010, Tranmere lost seven shootouts in a row, costing us everything from a Wembley date with Manchester United and subsequent UEFA Cup trip to the San Siro, to a playoff final appearance at the Millennium Stadium. We lost more shootouts than England in that span.
As fans, this is the reality we must deal with every single day. As a club, this is the trend we simply must disrupt. As a people, this is the deeply-entrenched culture we must exorcise.
When it matters most, our heroes rarely deliver. That’s a sad fact. Failure is a relentless companion. That’s why those rare occasions of incongruous euphoria linger in the very fabric of our heritage. Wrexham ’58. Arsenal ’73. Bolton ’00. Everton ’01. Southampton ’01. Stockport ’10. Aldershot ’17. These games rest in an exclusive pantheon of club folklore for one overarching reason: they were huge, they were important, and the sainted sons did not fail.
In a sea of swirling frustration, these games shine forth as beacons of unbridled satisfaction, so far adrift of the status quo as to be totally abnormal.
Even this ardent Tranmere diehard, admittedly prone to hyperbole and bias, admits that, as a club, we lack the killer instinct, sustainable power and proven durability to win titles with ease. When the big game arrives, we typically shrink. Hope springs eternal but is the ultimate fuel of distress. Such is the vicious cycle of extreme football fandom.
Rovers last won before a crowd of 7,000 or more on Boxing Day 2016. Since the start of season 2009/10, in games attended by 7,000 or more, our record is as follows: P65 W8 D13 L44 F46 A121. We’ve won 12% of such fixtures. That means we’re dissatisfied 88% of the time in ‘big games.’
Similarly, in the same timeframe, we have suffered 32 defeats whereby the deciding killer goal was conceded in the 80th minute or later. Therefore, during any given season, every three months, a sickening sucker punch brings us back down to earth. It’s like clockwork. A fact of life.
Clearly, there is something embedded within the genetic makeup of our club that has prevented genuine success for a period that far outstrips the norm experienced throughout the nation.
Quite what? I do not know. One can make irrational and fanciful suggestions, or rant explicitly for hours, but that only inflicts more pain, for this is something very dear to our hearts. It’s something within us all, and self-excoriation is never a pleasurable pursuit. Rather, we must acknowledge the facts, assess the situation, and conjure coping mechanisms.
This is our club. An immense belief, far beyond conventional proportion, thrives within us all, preached from the cradle. The five aforementioned clubs that have waited longer for a league title have an average attendance of 3,211. That Tranmere far exceed such a figure, sharing a league with semi-professional minnows, illustrates why ours are the most loyal fans in English football. I don’t care what arguments are put forth to the contrary.
No fanbase has suffered the grief that we have, in such repetitive and varied fashion, and continued to follow its club around the country in such immense numbers. That is a simple truth. One I’m incredibly proud of. A truth that describes why Tranmere Rovers is a special treasure. There’s just something different that clings to your heart. Perhaps it’s a peninsula mentality, us against the world, awaiting that day when our beloved underdogs rip a hole in the failure-time continuum.
In the world of North American sports, the concept of a ‘curse’ stifling the success of certain teams has become increasingly popular. Between 1918 and 2004, the Boston Red Sox failed to win a single World Series championship, finding ever more outlandish ways to lose whenever they got close.
Journalist Dan Shaughnessy authored The Curse of the Bambino, a famous book that traced the bad luck and improbable suffering back to the 1919 sale of transformative superstar Babe Ruth from Boston to the New York Yankees. Legend has it that Red Sox owner and theatre impresario Harry Frazee was running short of cash due to a number of Broadway flops. Alas, he sold Ruth to balance the books, only to watch him morph into the greatest player who ever lived and power the nemesis Yankees to 26 titles before Boston won again.
Of course, to believe in such a mythical force of bad karma is likely absurd. Yet the Curse of the Bambino was a convenient metonymy for the cronyism, nepotism and chronic lack of progressive vision that strangled the Red Sox’ likelihood of glory for over eight decades.
To make a full comparison to our humble Tranmere may be too indulgent, but certain parallels exist. In 1925, Rovers manager Bert Cooke sold Dixie Dean, a prodigious striker they nurtured from the rough cobbles of Birkenhead, to rivals Everton. He later became one of the most prolific goalscorers ever to grace the English game, and still holds the record for most goals in a top-flight season.
While Tranmere’s place in the footballing ecosystem was pretty much predetermined by their mightier neighbours across the water, it’s easy for a Rovers romantic to sit back and think what might have been had the club somehow managed to keep hold of Dean. He won two league titles and an FA Cup with Everton, while Tranmere ricocheted around the lower divisions for a majority of their existence.
Interestingly, Ruth and Dean met in the 1930s, the foremost sporting superstars from either side of the Atlantic likely drawn together by the photo press. Whether they discussed Rovers’ latest exploits is beyond the recall of history. Nevertheless, as early as 1934, there was newspaper talk of Tranmere botching major opportunities for triumph. In that era, Rovers frequently led Division Three North only to throw it all away in the vital run-in.
In 1964-65, we missed winning the fourth tier title by three points and automatic promotion by one point, despite scoring 99 goals. The following season, we managed a further 93 goals, only to lose the title by three points and automatic promotion by a goal difference of four. We finally cracked the code in 1966-67, not before time.
After years of placid stagnation, Tranmere became the first English club under American ownership in the 1980s. Bruce Osterman, a San Francisco lawyer, wrote a dystopian chapter in our history by purchasing the club, occasionally flying in to train with the team, then eventually offering to sell it, bulldoze Prenton Park and build a supermarket where the fabled centre circle once resided.
Thus, in 1987, Rovers became just the third English football club to enter administration, following in the footsteps of Charlton Athletic and Middlesbrough. Both of those clubs were in higher divisions when the axe fell, once again exposing Tranmere fans to an unprecedented degree of trepidation.
Amazingly, Rovers rose like a phoenix from those ashes of desperation. Local businessmen Peter Johnson and Frank Corfe saved the day, purchasing the club and reinstalling Johnny King as manager, eleven years after he last orchestrated promotion at the helm.
King delivered instant success, masterminding a famous victory over Exeter City to secure Tranmere’s Football League status. In 1989, under King’s guidance, Rovers won automatic promotion out of the fourth tier. The following two seasons saw four trips to Wembley, as Tranmere hauled themselves into the second division and lifted the Leyland DAF Trophy.
That burst of sudden victory, anachronistic and emphatic, details the gradient of King’s majesty, the magnitude of his genius. Aside from Johnny, the last person to steer Tranmere Rovers to promotion was Dave Russell in 1967. Without King, that wait would be 51 years in duration, almost six times the national average.
That’s why King is so lauded in the annals of Tranmere history. With style, sophistication and cunning, he brought success to one of the most chronically unsuccessful teams in British sport. This is a man who won three promotions and a trophy as manager of Tranmere Rovers, making feared throughout the land a club routinely overlooked. Hence the statue.
Yet even King and his swashbuckling galacticos encountered the dark gravity that rules Prentonia.
In December 1992, Rovers ventured to the County Ground to face Swindon Town, a chief rival in the early race for Premier League promotion. With Tranmere 2-1 up, the lights went out in a convenient floodlight failure, forcing abandonment. When Rovers returned for a replayed game in February, with even more at stake, John Aldridge was unavailable. Swindon won 2-0, and Tranmere subsequently faded into the playoffs, where the Robins beat them again before securing promotion.
The near-miss grief continued, weaving its way through even the most prosperous epoch of Tranmere Rovers history.
The 1993-94 League Cup transformed into an enchanted journey, as Rovers dispatched Oxford United, Grimsby Town, Oldham and Nottingham Forest to earn an illustrious semi-final tie with Aston Villa. This two-legged fiasco remains the undisputed, unequivocal, irrefutable epitome of Tranmere Rovers injustice.
The first game, cast on a spellbound eve in Birkenhead, encapsulated an era. Rarely had an event so captured the imagination of Wirral’s sport-watching multitude. Seventeen-thousand, one hundred and forty dreamers crammed into the ancient confines of Prenton Park, squashing and cramping one another, clambering for a view of history in the making.
For 89 minutes, they bore witness to the swaggering zenith of a gilded age. Tranmere wiped the floor with their Premier League adversaries, purring and thrusting with sensational aplomb. Ian Nolan crashed one home, the ball kissing the underside of the crossbar for dramatic effect. Mark Hughes lashed a thunderous volley into the Cowshed net, doubling our advantage. Then, with the sands of time ebbing sweetly away, Aldo raced through to fire Rovers into dreamland, 3-0 up.
The raucous crowd rocked and lurched, delirious in the searing otherness of this most stunning victory. Among the number was my dad, who arrived at the ground hours before kick-off hoping against hope to source an elusive ticket. After weeks of trying, he could scarcely believe his luck when a smiling stranger offered him a ticket outside the Kop. For face value, dad was treated to a Tranmere display of mesmeric proportions; one of the proudest outpourings in his lifetime of blind devotion to this wonderfully beguiling club.
And then it happened.
Deep into stoppage time, referee Roger Milford awarded a dubious free-kick against Kenny Irons. Andy Townsend hit the turf rather easily, as groans pierced the whistles of those gathered at Prenton Park. A quick cross caught Rovers napping in the box, and a loose ball fell between statuesque defenders. With predatory instinct, Dalian Atkinson rifled it beyond Eric Nixon for a priceless Villa away goal.
There’s always a caveat.
Legend has it that, after the match, referee Milford saw a television replay of the Irons ‘foul’ and apologised to Johnny King, expressing hope that such a marginal decision would not cost Tranmere a place in their first major cup final.
Unfortunately, this adjudicating error pales in comparison to what transpired in a second leg from hell. Almost two decades later, the wounds incurred at Villa Park are still raw and gaping. One wonders if the club has ever fully recovered.
Villa notched an early goal through Dean Saunders, then Shaun Teale exploited more lackadaisical defending to level the scores on aggregate, 3-3. Of course, Villa had that away goal up their sleeve, as the Tranmere fantasy turned sour.
But, out of nowhere, Aldridge was unleashed. In on goal. Bearing down on history. Just the goalkeeper to beat, as he had hundreds of times before. As the travelling horde held its collective breath, Mark Bosnich, the Australian goalkeeper of Aston Villa, mauled Aldridge savagely to the ground. A clear goal-scoring, future-making opportunity upended outside the legal parameters of football.
The referee, Allan Gunn, awarded a penalty, but buckled under the slimy theatrics of Bosnich, who wasn’t even booked for a clear red card offence. Aldridge slammed home the penalty, notching Tranmere ahead once more, but the repercussions of such a grotesque refereeing meltdown would radiate through a generation.
With 87 minutes elapsed, and defeated locals beginning to traipse out of Villa Park, Rovers were undone by further poor defending. Perhaps it was tiredness. Perhaps it was Premier League superiority. Whatever it was, another quickly-taken free-kick left Tranmere exposed, and a right-wing centre was met by Atkinson, again roaming free between heavy-legged defenders, to nod home a stinging equaliser.
With the kind of courage and aspiration that so defines Tranmere Rovers, back they came. Never say die. Up off the mat. In the 91st minute, Liam O’Brien stepped forward to club a twenty-five yard free-kick towards goal. There it went. Here it came. Soaring through the pleasant Sunday air. Bosnich beaten, flailing, desperate. Time suspended. Wembley on the horizon. Then, just as thousands twitched in kinetic ecstasy, the ball crashed off the goalpost and flew away; fractions from immortality, another souvenir from hell.
Alas, this blockbuster cup tie was settled with a penalty shootout. And that’s where the gross incompetence of Allan Gunn and the faceless rule-bending of Mark Bosnich conspired to break Tranmere hearts. Diving emphatically to his right, Bosnich saved three penalties – from Ged Brannan, the tortured O’Brien and decisively Nolan – as Villa stole a rendezvous with Manchester United beneath the towers.
My dad couldn’t get a ticket for the second leg. He watched it in the living room on Granada TV, wincing and cringing through the most uncomfortable hours of his interminable relationship with Tranmere Rovers. When Bosnich saved that last fateful kick, he remembers recoiling in utter sadness, defeated by the inexorable forces of inequity. Tears were shed. Sorrows were drowned. History wasn’t changed.
So close, but oh so harrowingly far.
With United crowned Premier League champions, Villa qualified for the UEFA Cup by default. To rub salt in the wounds, they won the final 3-1. They then proceeded to play Internazionale and Trabzonspor in Europe; games that were effectively robbed from Tranmere by a swindling goalkeeper and a pair of shambolic referees.
From that point on, misery came thick and fast for the hometown team. Three months later, Rovers failed in the playoffs again, as Leicester emerged victorious. Peter Johnson left for Everton, and 1994-95 represented one last hurrah for the Friday Night Football cohort.
With five games to go, Tranmere lay in second place, two points behind Middlesbrough, jostling for a lone automatic promotion place into the Promised Land. Woe betide, the roof then caved in. Derby thumped us 5-0. Southend beat us 2-0. Then West Brom hammered us 5-1 and Wolves held us to a 1-1 draw.
By the time Middlesbrough rolled into town for the final match of a rollercoaster season, the wheels had fallen off for Tranmere. What could have been a winner-takes-all clash for the ages in the fully refurbished citadel of Prenton Park was just another game as Rovers prepared for another assault at the dreaded playoffs. We eventually finished fifth, six points adrift, and were beaten by Reading in the subsequent semi-final. And, just like that, the curtain closed on our window of opportunity.
Our next moment on the grand stage came in 2000, with Aldridge at the helm as manager. Once again, the League Cup provided a platform for heroics, as Tranmere beat Coventry, Oxford, Barnsley and Middlesbrough to somehow heave themselves into another semi-final. This time, quite sensationally, Bolton were mullered 4-0 on aggregate, granting Rovers a certain element of revenge.
Of course, my dad went to Wembley, eager to witness Tranmere’s day in the limelight. This time, he was accompanied by my two older brothers. At five years old, I was deemed too young to make the journey. The Rovers bug wouldn’t totally consume my life for another sixteen months, and therefore a crowd of 74,313 sang without me.
In a pleasing quirk of fate, Villa were trumped by Leicester in the other semi-final. At Wembley, they took the lead after 29 minutes, when defender Matt Elliott headed beyond Joe Murphy. Gallant Rovers had Clint Hill sent off midway through the second half, but fought back to strike an unlikely equaliser through David Kelly with thirteen minutes remaining. Exultation was swiftly submerged in burning anguish when Elliott popped up again on 81 minutes, heading home with no Tranmere player manning the far post.
Once again, Rovers fought back bravely, and their efforts conjured one last opportunity. However, in the dying seconds, Scott Taylor saw a header graze off the crossbar, as destiny beckoned. A moment oh so Tranmere in makeup and conception, as Leicester scraped through to victory.
Gloom. Dejection. Darkness.
Two days after Leicester played Red Star Belgrade in the UEFA Cup – their reward for lifting the League Cup – Tranmere slumped to a 3-1 defeat at home to Crewe. It was one of many sullen days in a calamitous season, which culminated in relegation back to the third tier after a decade.
Attempting to reclimb that ladder was a treacherous and ultimately futile endeavour. Nevertheless, our pained attempts to do so coincided with my love for the club blooming and growing. I was raised on a steady diet of stories about Muir, Morrissey and Nixon, as my dad passed on the greatest of all gifts: that of Tranmere Rovers Football Club. My first match was in the autumn of 2001. From there, I never looked back, becoming increasingly passionate about this precious thing.
There seems to be a direct correlation between the worsening of Rovers’ plight and the intensifying of my obsession. The first time they made me cry came in May 2005. Under the tutelage of Brian Little, a scintillating Tranmere blazed their way to a third-place finish and playoff semi-final against Hartlepool United. A 2-0 defeat in the first leg created a timeless occasion at Prenton Park, home to 13,356 on a barmy Wirral night.
There I sat, ten years of age, wearing a small shirt with HUME etched on the back, full of footballing wonder. The only seats we could find were right beside the home dugout. I remember looking up at the monumental Kop, dwarfing all for miles around, sucking in the expectation.
That night, Rovers played some electrifying football. The woodwork was hit. Hartlepool were pinned to the ropes, flailing and rocking, begging for an exit. Tranmere eviscerated them with mesmeric wing play and cutthroat intent. We just couldn’t score.
Then, with seventy minutes elapsed, Ryan Taylor stepped up to spark sheer pandemonium by scoring a brilliant free-kick. The momentum gathered. The noise peaked. The moment awaited. With three minutes left, and hope wearing thin, David Beresford, a most unlikely superman, swirled across the penalty area and arced a shot into the Kop net. Parity. Anarchy.
I remember the untrammelled jubilation. I remember the ear-piercing noise, still largely without equal in my lifetime supporting Tranmere. I remember a young Hartlepool fan and her family nearby having to leave because the atmosphere was too overwhelming.
I also remember the penalty shootout.
Taylor missed the first spot-kick, as moans reverberated around Prenton Park. Hartlepool converted their first effort, before Paul Hall notched one for Rovers. When John Achterberg saved a horrendous penalty from Mark Tinkler, equilibrium was restored, and the ancient ground rocked to its foundation. The next four rounds of spot-kicks were faultless, as sudden death ensued.
Up trudged Ian Sharps, an old fashioned central defender. Midfielders Danny Harrison and Mark Rankine were still available, but the duty fell to Sharps, whose side-footed effort was saved at a convenient height by Dimitrios Konstantopoulos. When Ritchie Humphreys slammed his subsequent penalty beyond the desperate dive of Achterberg, a new scar was opened, a new villain created.
After such a phenomenal season of excitement, it seemed cruel how abruptly the fairytale crashed to a halt. Achterberg was in tears at the end, hobbling off the pitch a broken man. That’s what Tranmere can do to you, when it cascades through the blood. That’s what we all felt, hollow and defeated once more. The same tears that overwhelmed my dad after the Villa defeat visited me. The torch had been passed.
New Era, Same Pain
You could argue it has been all downhill since that inglorious, inexplicable night. Rovers narrowly avoided relegation the following season, and didn’t mount another serious promotion push until 2008/09.
That race came down to the final game, away to Scunthorpe United. They were sixth, in the final playoff place; we were seventh, two points behind, needing a victory to keep the promotion dream alive.
In a familiar theme for monumental away games, we were unable to get a ticket before they sold out. Therefore, I remember listening on the radio in our back garden on an early summers day.
When Craig Curran headed Tranmere into the lead shortly before half-time, the anticipation was exceptional. Rovers held on through most of the second half, although the narration of Derek Jones on BBC Radio Merseyside made it seem like the action was confined to our six-yard box. We were holding firm. We were nearly there.
Then it happened. Again.
With three minutes left, Gareth Edds was sent off for Tranmere, as the inevitable bombardment arrived. One minute later, Grant McCann curled a free-kick into the Rovers box. Cliff Byrne, the Scunthorpe captain, rose above a phalanx of bodies to crash a header into the net. Glanford Park, another fulcrum of fear, erupted in ecstasy. Tranmere couldn’t get up off the canvas.
Cliff Byrne scored a goal once every 37 games during his career. It’s just our luck that one of them happened to strike an everlasting dagger through Tranmere hearts.
As news of the capitulation crackled through my radio, it was all too much. I couldn’t deal with it. Not again. Not now. Rovers were my life, and all I wanted was to see them succeed. To so frequently have disaster plucked from the jaws of victory seemed impossible. As it so happened, this was merely the continuation of a lifelong saga, an endless quest for salvation.
Following the Scunthorpe meltdown, Ronnie Moore was sacked as Tranmere manager. By way of rationale, Peter Johnson cited tumbling attendances. In a contrived publicity stunt, John Barnes was selected as Moore’s replacement, with assistance from Jason McAteer. A summer of ghastly news was complete when a US firm appointed by Johnson to find a new buyer for the club placed Tranmere Rovers on eBay. The starting bid was $10,000,000. Our humiliation was endless.
Barnes lasted 12 games, of which Tranmere lost eight. Club physiotherapist Les Parry somehow managed to keep Tranmere in League One, salvaging a team of considerable spirit from the comical wreckage. Parry lasted three years, maintaining our place in the third tier as budgets were slashed and ownership interest dissipated almost entirely.
Moore returned in 2012, spearheading a resurrection of sorts. In January 2013, following a terrific start to the season, Rovers found themselves top of League One, as Forever in Blue Jeans became the soundtrack to an unlikely promotion drive. Somewhat predictably, Tranmere won just six times after New Year’s Day, eventually finishing 11th, well adrift of the playoffs.
A Fresh Nadir
Relegation beckoned in 2013-14, as Moore became embroiled in a scandal over betting irregularities. Club legend Ian Goodison was also arrested in this investigation, as were former Rovers players Delroy Facey and Akpo Sodje. Embarrassment permeated every facet of our existence, as Tranmere played in the fourth tier for the first time in 25 years.
Next came the Jeremy Butler-Rob Edward axis of ineptitude, followed by the utter debacle of Micky Adams taking minimal interest in a club he steered to yet another relegation. New ownership was found in the form of Mark and Nicola Palios, but after 94 unbroken years, Tranmere Rovers fell out of the Football League.
From January 2013 to May 2015, Tranmere fell from the summit of League One to the squalor of non-league.
In 28 months, plausible dreams of visits to Leeds, Derby and Blackburn turned to an actual reality of trips to Altrincham, Braintree and North Ferriby United.
In 12 years, Rovers went from enjoying three FA Cup quarter-finals in five seasons to not even reaching the First Round Proper.
In 15 years, Tranmere went from playing in the League Cup final to not even qualifying for the competition.
In 23 years, our heroes went from winning in Europe to losing in the FA Trophy.
But still we followed. Still we loved. Still we hoped, against all reasonable doubt, that our day would arrive.
Tears of Hurt
Rovers promised to ‘come back stronger,’ but managed to miss the National League playoffs by two points after losing to the likes of Boreham Wood and Woking. When inconsistency plagued the start of our 2016/17 season, Gary Brabin was replaced by Micky Mellon in the dugout.
At long last, a tangible revival began to take foot, with Tranmere securing 95 points, the most in their history. However, in typical fashion, Lincoln managed to attain four more points, as defeats to minnows such as Sutton United, Barrow and Gateshead came back to haunt Rovers.
By virtue of the ludicrous margins that govern promotion into the Football League, Tranmere found themselves in the dreaded playoffs once again. Aldershot were dispatched in a totally anomalous display of virtuoso football, granting Rovers their inaugural visit to the new Wembley, where Forest Green Rovers lay in waiting.
The momentum behind our chosen few was incredible. For every person that bounced to Wembley in support of Forest Green, five did so for Tranmere Rovers. Within that number was myself, my dad, and my teenage brother, who represents a fourth generation of Tranmere fandom within our family.
A great day was had by all. A day for the scrapbook, full of beer and singing, hoping and yearning. We believed our team was on the cusp of redemption, of sweet ecstatic relief. Forest Green went ahead after 12 minutes. A thunderbolt from Connor Jennings fired Rovers level, catalysing chaos, before the sky fell in.
James Norwood missed a glorious one-on-one. Andy Mangan had a Gazza Euro’96 moment down beneath our army of fans, stretching at the far post to reach a beautiful cross but ultimately failing by mere fractions of an inch.
Then it happened.
Forest Green scored twice in three minutes, just before half-time, to stun the national stadium and blunt the edge of Birkenhead desire. In the second half, Rovers had plenty of chances, with Cole Stockton going close on three separate occasions. But it was never enough, and the true Tranmere style – resuscitated under Mellon – never arrived on that most important of days.
With ten minutes to go and still no goal, then seven minutes, then five, three and two, those unstoppable tears began to flow once again. Running through generations, weaving through families, dripping into history. That ball in the throat, that burning in the stomach. That unshakeable sense of unjust futility. That Tranmere.
I looked at my dad and brother, and knew they both felt the same. I looked at thousands of people all around, and knew they shared my pain. What else can do that? What else, but football? What else, but Tranmere?
Ubi Fides ibi Lux et Robur
We all have that one Rovers heartbreak that hurts more than most. It typically arrives when we’re young and impressionable, head-over-heels in love with football. It’s a generational thing, linked to the era when your passion was most intense. Yet still, we suffer each new setback together, as one, welcoming youngsters into the fray with a pat on the head, an arm around the shoulder and a whispered promise that, one day – one sequestered day – they will make it all worthwhile.
One day, it will happen.
When? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s a question that gnaws at us all. It’s a question I’ve been asking for seventeen years. But it’s also a question that inspires us to travel the length and breadth of this fine land in the wake of a faltering sports team. We’ve lived with this magnificent thing, this force that can thrill and depress beyond comprehension, for all of our lives. We’re not going to stop now.
Perhaps I’ll have children by the time we eventually witness success; a fifth generation of devotion to England’s most glory-deprived team. Perhaps we need to arrange an exorcism, with Neil Diamond singing Blue Jeans backwards as we dance around an effigy of Bosnich.
You just never know, and that’s the essence of our addiction.
It’s the great enigma of our time, of our town. The junction of Prenton Road West and Borough Road is a magnet, drawing passion towards the deified progeny and faltering hopefuls of Tranmere Rovers. Their progress, regress and everyday operation reverberates through the peninsula, fuelling discussions in pubs and restaurants, on trains and buses, at parties and barbecues.
You see, Tranmere Rovers is an extension of so many families, that hard-luck relative awaiting a brighter tomorrow. When Tranmere is sick or facing a crisis, we gather round and trade solutions in erratic tones. Likewise, when Tranmere is doing well, reaching the cusp of success or achievement, we beam with contentment and articulate our joy in rushed declarations of pride.
And so, with nine games remaining in another emotional season, this is what you are playing for, lads. Every second that ticks by without that promotion or trophy, history is made. The wait gets longer. The frustration mounts. The burden is inscribed further into that sacred crest, woven into that beautiful white jersey.
End the hex. Reverse the curse. Make yourself immortal.
Give me that day in the sun, when I can hug my dad and brother, and say that – just this once – they didn’t let us down.
- Hope and heartbreak: life with English football's most tortured fanbase
- Inside the promotion dream
- We did it
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