Micky Mellon and the Tranmere Rovers renaissance
The date was Thursday 6th October 2016. Tranmere Rovers lay ninth in the National League table, outside the top 100 clubs in the English football pyramid. A home game with fierce rivals Wrexham loomed on the horizon, but the people of Birkenhead were understandably preoccupied. They had a new manager to welcome, a familiar face offering hope. They had another new dawn to comprehend, somehow different to all that had gone before.
Micky Mellon, a former Rovers player, left League One Shrewsbury to take control at Prenton Park, dropping two divisions to join a club that holds a special place in his heart. Managing Tranmere was always his dream job, regardless of how far they fell. Resuscitating the sacred ruin became a tantalising project, and Mellon grabbed the torch when finally he got the chance.
The vast majority of managers appointed on a Thursday would take a watching brief a few days later, perching high above the field from the Main Stand, casting a judgmental eye over their new squad. Not Micky Mellon. He backed his own ability to make a difference, and he appreciated the fine margins between success and failure at that juncture of Rovers’ history. There was no time for idle gazing. Micky found his tracksuit, rolled up his sleeves and steered Tranmere to a handsome 2-0 win over their Welsh nemesis. Happy days were here again.
A proven winner, Mellon had three promotions under his belt as a manager before taking control at Prenton Park. His appointment wasn’t just a sentimental choice, but one grounded in strategic wisdom. Mellon gained exposure to non-league with Fleetwood, where he won two promotions, while his time at Shrewsbury was also laden with success. At Tranmere, he hit the ground running, avoiding defeat in his first ten games. He helped the club learn to walk again, then encouraged it to run.
Born in Paisley on the outskirts of Glasgow, Mellon was first inducted in the tragicomedy of Tranmere Rovers in 1997, when player-manager John Aldridge paid £300,000 for his services. A tenacious midfield schemer with fine vision, Mellon graduated through the youth ranks at Bristol City before joining Blackpool via West Brom in a promising playing career. He caught Aldo’s eye with the Tangerines, transferring to Tranmere at the age of 25.
In two initial seasons as a Rovers player, Mellon gained considerable influence. His natural leadership ability was appreciated by teammates, while his eye for a pass piqued the interest of several clubs. Burnley purchased him for £350,000 in 1999, only for Mellon to return on loan in 2001. He spent three further seasons at Prenton Park, topping a century of appearances and becoming club captain.
Tranmere was inculcated into Mellon’s blood, and he gained a fine appreciation for the club’s potential. Average attendances approach 9,000 while Mellon was a Rovers player and, years later as manager, he resolved to rekindle those halcyon days.
After immense hard work in his first days as boss, the thunderous awakening culminated in a breathless victory away to Chester in March 2017. Rovers were 2-1 down after 82 minutes only to come roaring back with vicious intent.
Backed by a partisan, mobilised crowd, Tranmere scored twice in six minutes, including a last-gasp winner from Andy Cook, to author one of the greatest comebacks in recent memory. The sheer outpouring of euphoria, cathartic and generational, was quite unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It was the greatest rush of utopia I have ever felt at a football match. It was the moment we got our club back from the abyss.
Tranmere continued to grow under Mellon and Mike Jackson, his able assistant, thrashing Solihull Moors 9-0 in a brutal display of power. The club’s enormous potential, so long a millstone around the neck, was now a driving force of momentum. Tranmere had a rightful arrogance, a purposeful swagger. They pushed Lincoln all the way in a tense title race, earning 95 points, the most they had ever accumulated in a season, only to miss out at the last.
Rovers settled for a playoff place and dispatched Aldershot in emphatic fashion to earn their first trip to Wembley in seventeen years. Amid a giddy surge of excitement, Tranmere didn’t give their best on the big day, however, losing 3-1 to Forest Green in agonising fashion.
Though the pain was strong and the indignation potent, we were proud of the Superwhite revolution that occurred. Football was back on the radar in Birkenhead, a crucial first step to putting our grizzled town back on the map.
A Wembley hangover saw Rovers stumble out of the gate in 2017-18, but with shrewd leadership, they eventually found their stride. James Norwood and Andy Cook formed a potent strike partnership, and Tranmere scored four in a match on four separate occasions within an eight-week span between October and December.
Rovers became embroiled in another National League title race, competing with Macclesfield, the season’s surprise package, for the lone automatic promotion place available. A tense February meeting between the two clubs at Prenton Park ended in a stunning 4-1 defeat for Tranmere, who eventually finished ten points adrift of the summit. They finished second once again, forever the bridesmaid, progressing to English football’s first ever one-legged promotion playoff semi-final against Ebbsfleet United.
That was another instant classic at Prenton Park, a throbbing drama played out before 8,898 enraptured fans. Tranmere fell behind twice, requiring immense interventions from Norwood and Josh Ginnelly to force extra-time. Another sublime individual effort from Norwood, who struck a phenomenal free-kick, and Larnell Cole, who fizzed a twenty-five yard bender into the top corner, finally killed the Ebbsfleet insurgence. Tranmere were going to Wembley again. This time, we were desperate.
The word easy does not exist in the Prentonian lexicon. Following the Forest Green debacle, conjuring the bravery to believe in success was an arduous ordeal. As fans, we had waited longer than any other group in England to witness our team achieve something of renown. So when Liam Ridehalgh was sent off after 48 seconds beneath the famous arch, the sense of déjà vu was sickening.
It was happening again.
Yet unlike in previous eras of failure, Tranmere had a coaching team of impressive tactical acumen. More pertinently, they had a manager with motivational skills belying his present employment in the fifth division. They had Micky Mellon, and they had belief. Everything else fell into place.
Andy Cook put Rovers ahead before Boreham Wood snatched an equaliser just before half-time, a forum which enabled Mellon to deliver one of the greatest team talks in club history. He conjured from his weary warriors a most superhuman effort. Every man clad in white dug to the furthest reaches of human energy, endeavour and appetite, visiting the dark place where sporting success resides.
When Connor Jennings wriggled free, and when Norwood jumped high to meet his cross, heading home a goal of utmost destiny with but nine minutes remaining, we had done it. At last, we had done it. Tranmere held on. Tranmere fought through. Tranmere won promotion, for the first time in 27 years. It was the greatest day of our lives.
“You’d have to be involved inside the football club to see how desperately we needed this,” Mellon said in the champagne-soaked aftermath. “We’ve suffered, people have lost their jobs, and to get the club back into the League is an unbelievably proud moment for me.”
For the first time in a generation, Tranmere had a figurehead in whom to believe. Moreover, they had a distinct ideology, an underpinning methodology guiding their every move.
Mellon played under some incredible managers during his career, including Joe Jordan, Sam Allardyce, Gary Megson, Nigel Worthington, Stan Ternent and Aldridge. His managerial doctrine was duly influenced, creating an infectious motivational style with Jackson mastering the strategic minutiae. This became The Tranmere Way, a template laid down for generations to come. It was everything we had banged on about for years. We should enjoy every second of its prominence.
To lead this club requires a personality. We’re partisan people up here. We’re tough. So many managers have failed at Prenton Park because they had no connection with the fans, from Rob Edwards and Micky Adams through to Dave Watson and Ron Yates. If you make an effort to understand us, and if you represent us with pride and dignity, we will back you to the hilt – win, lose or draw. Micky Mellon mastered that art, becoming an extension of our ardour. He’s one of us, a fan who happens to occupy the dugout. You can’t really ask for more.
Rovers’ first season back in League Two was a topsy-turvy rollercoaster ride of hope and embryonic expectations. Tranmere lingered around the top half long enough for a characteristic spring surge to fuel another promotion bid. Through February and March, Rovers maintained an unbeaten run encompassing eight games. They won seven in a row, keeping five clean sheets along the way, adding conviction to claims that they could replicate the glory.
Tranmere finished sixth, securing another playoff date with Forest Green. Revenge was sweet in the semi-final as Mellon’s men navigated their way to a third consecutive Wembley showcase with cunning maturity. In Norwood, Rovers had the most lethal marksman in English football, and he had a transformative impact on Mellon’s ethos. Tranmere saw a small window for exponential growth, coinciding with Norwood’s expiring contract, and they went all-out in pursuit of achievement.
Rovers’ approach to their third Wembley conquest was one of serial winners. They took a professional attitude, breathing deeply in contrast to the frantic panting of previous years. Newport were stubborn opponents, competing valiantly for almost two hours in the London sun. Tranmere’s superior belief in unseen dreams, the defining essence of Mellon’s reign, pulled them through to victory, however, with Jennings arriving in the final seconds of extra-time to break the stalemate, spark delirium, and catapult Rovers into the third division.
Micky Mellon duly became just the second manager to lead Tranmere Rovers to multiple promotions. Nobody had ever authored back-to-back promotions at Prenton Park, and certainly not via the playoffs, the most stressful mode of glory known to man. Mellon took his personal promotion tally to five as a boss, with three of them coming via the playoffs. A more impressive record barely exists.
In Birkenhead, his legacy as a Tranmere immortal is secured in perpetuity. From the ashes of utter despair, at the lowest ebb we’ve ever encountered, Micky Mellon saved this absurd football club from itself. In just two-and-a-half-years, he excavated the poisonous culture that derailed the club for so long and replaced it with a philosophy that helped the club win with greater regularity than at any point in its existence.
The club also celebrated harder and longer than at any point before. Like all great Tranmere men, Micky Mellon loves a beer, and the promotion celebrations he led gained legendary status within the community. More than any manager in recent history, perhaps more than any manager ever, Micky gets us. He understands the privilege of his position and the prestige of his achievement, but he doesn’t exploit it. He respects it, and he respects us. That’s unique in the modern game.
Tranmere was a non-league basket case when Mellon became manager. It was broken and desperate, a monumental institution burdened by its own chronic inability to meet expectations. Barely three seasons hence, after winning some of the most important games it has ever been involved in, the club is a prosperous paragon of sustainability, competing in the third tier against respected rivals.
It took five years in the wilderness, and one too many trips to North Ferriby United, but finally the club is back where it belongs. Many people have contributed to such an exhilarating revival, but none more than Michael Joseph Mellon, our king amongst men.
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