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Tranmere had a better squad in the National League than they do in League One

Sitting in the Stadium of Light, high above the pitch, that old familiar disappointment set in. On a cold, dank Tuesday night 170 miles from home, Tranmere Rovers were outclassed by a Sunderland team that never got out of second gear, losing 5-0.

It was men against boys. It was rich against poor. It was haves against have nots. But more than anything else, it was a demoralising throwback to the sorry era that almost strangled the life from our beloved football club.

This is the highest division Tranmere have played in since 2013-14, and this is the worst squad Tranmere have assembled since Micky Adams was in charge four years ago. The more success we have had, the worse our squad has become, placing unfair pressure on Micky Mellon to cajole extraordinary results from decidedly ordinary footballers.

Many will disagree, but there is a new breed of Tranmere fan that fails to see what is actually happening before their eyes. Blinded by successive promotions, they believe everything is absolutely wonderful at Prenton Park, and they jump down the throat of anybody who dares to question the club’s strategic direction.

These people haven’t been around very long, and they are simply delighted just to be in League One. Intoxicated by Wembley triumphs, they swallow the club’s propaganda and like to look backwards with myopic imbecility. We were playing Solihull Moors three years ago, they explain, so we should fall to our knees and worship indefinitely at the altar of Mark Palios.

I say that is bullshit.

For a moment, just stop and actually think about the woeful squad Mellon has been forced to fashion on a shoestring budget that was predetermined for some inexplicable reason.

Which current Tranmere players would get into another League One starting eleven beside that of shambolic Bolton? Sure, Manny Monthe and Morgan Ferrier, but who else? Possibly Scott Davies on a good day. Maybe Mark Ellis when he is fit. Perhaps Jake Caprice or Oli Banks or Paul Mullin, but I’m not entirely convinced. Kieron Morris? The guy has only got one foot.

In truth, without sufficient rationale, we have chosen to tackle League One with a squad of average League Two players. The giddy new breed doesn’t care, though, because they see Tranmere as a non-league club on the rise rather than a Championship club attempting to restore equilibrium to Prentonia. This segment of the fanbase holds so much power that the rest of us are forced to shut up and wince at George Ray attempting to be a professional footballer.

I’m here to tell it straight, and I have been consistent in my belief that Tranmere had a better squad in the National League than they currently do in League One. I said it in a radio interview last month, and I have said it at every single match this season. We have now played 14 games, more than a quarter of the schedule, and my conviction grows stronger by the day.

Mellon’s men are in 20th position, one point above the relegation zone. This is not a small sample size problem anymore, nor is it an injury problem or a suspension problem. This is an ambition problem and a trust problem, because Tranmere Rovers are not doing everything they can to compete.

Of course, replacing James Norwood in attack was always going to be difficult. Filling a 30-goal void is a thankless task, but our attempts at doing so have been pitiful. Tranmere have tried to recreate Norwood in the aggregate, signing several mediocre strikers, none of whom could lace his boots. Yet while Norwood’s ghost looms large over Prenton Park, plunging the club into a philosophical crisis, the chronic failure to replace just about anybody is perhaps even more stunning.

Tranmere lost Andy Cook, another talisman, and never replaced him. Tranmere lost Jeff Hughes, the battery in our watch, and never replaced him. Tranmere lost Lois Maynard and Michael Ihiekwe, Oli Norburn and Adam Mekki. And guess what? They never replaced them, either.

Rovers released Steve McNulty, their inspirational captain, and never replaced him. Rovers released Jay Harris, their engine room personified, and never replaced him. Rovers released Ritchie Sutton, a timeless Wembley hero, and oh yeah, they never replaced him.

Then we have Eddie Clarke and Ben Tollitt, Andy Mangan and Larnell Cole. Fringe players, yes, but infinitely better than the lukewarm dross that is currently served up on a weekly basis.

When are Tranmere fans going to wake up and actually question why the club repeatedly loses assets and never bothers to replenish them? When will the shimmer of success wear off, revealing a club that is exactly where it was five years ago? When will we get real?

Okay, injuries have hurt us this season. Sure, we are playing better opposition in bigger stadiums. And yes, we are no longer the big fish in a small pond. I get that. But why do we accept such thinly veiled insults as that which is presently being passed off as a Tranmere Rovers starting eleven?

We are not stupid. This is shite.

You are probably screaming about budgets and pointing to bar charts that illustrate the gulf in resources between us and other clubs. In a certain light, those arguments hold some weight. However, you should never be fooled into believing that this embarrassing squad is the product of anything other than wilful parsimony on the part of club ownership. We chose this path and we elected austerity. For what reason, and to what end? Well, your guess is as good as mine.

Before crying poverty, actually use your brain and think independently for a second. The club has taken more than 10,000 fans to Wembley in three consecutive seasons. Attendances have soared at home games. We have won back-to-back promotions, pocketing prize money and growing as a commercial enterprise.

The club returned to profit when filing its accounts last year. Tottenham visited Birkenhead for a money-spinning FA Cup tie in January. Santini Group, one of the richest organisations in Indonesia, has supposedly injected £2.5 million by purchasing shares. And still, the on-field product, that section of the club which actually matters, is starved of funding to a point of spluttering humiliation.

It seems that, from the very outset of this season, the aim has been to merely survive in the third division, spending as little money as possible along the way. Every club in League One receives £677,000 per season from the Football League merely for participating. A further payment of £645,000 comes from the guilty Premier League cartel. In League Two, those figures are reduced to £472,000 and £430,000, respectively.

Accordingly, we see how simply staying in League One can net Tranmere an extra £420,000 per year at minimum. Apparently, that is good enough. Seemingly, that is the plan: to merely exist in a kind of modern football purgatory. To what end, and to whose benefit? I guess that’s where the lack of transparency leads to chronic frustration.

Look, don’t misunderstand my point here. I respect the revitalisation project undertaken by Mark and Nicola Palios, while Micky Mellon has done a miraculous job transforming the culture at Prenton Park. We have experienced a halcyon period in the club’s history, undoubtedly the most enjoyable in my time supporting Tranmere. 

Yet looking out at that pitch every week, those glory days seem but a distant memory. Indeed, they are relics of a different age, because this football club decided to halt its own momentum through conscious choice. The summer recruitment speaks for itself.

Go ahead, scream about Bury and the ills of cavalier management. Of course, reference Bolton as a dystopian case of chaos. That is not my point. I would simply like to know why, despite making more money than at any time in recent memory, Tranmere Rovers see fit to field such a dismal team that is patently unqualified to play at this level.

Mr Palios likes to appear on the radio and television analysing Bury and Bolton, positioning himself as the model Football League owner from some strange moral high ground. Well, perhaps he should focus internally first, because the team fashioned with his restrictive budget is barely worthy of wearing the white shirt.

For some people, a history lesson is needed, because this is the same brand of miserliness that doomed our club in the first place. Those back-to-back relegations were the by-product of decrepit veterans, incapable loanees and disinterested management set against a backdrop of short-term panic. Don’t look now, but that is a painfully accurate description of Tranmere Rovers in 2019-20.

Improvement is needed before the same nightmare repeats itself.

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5 comments

  • How can you say we never replaced Michael Ihiekwe when that is exactly what Monthe is? Hughes was replaced by Banks, Ellis effectively came in to replace McNulty in the side & or Sutton. While I agree that our performances have not been great as a supporter since 1990 i would welcome 20th in League 1 this season.

    You talk about the mindset of fans being happy to be in the 3rd tier based on the last 4 seasons but actually it is you who think we should still be winning more games than most based on the last 4 seasons.

    Things take time and we need to play a long game and securing the club financially will put us in better condition for a promotion challenge in the next few years.

    Micky Mellon clearly needed half a season (last year) to understand the kind of players we would need to be successful and what style to play, once he worked it out we had a great 2nd half of the season.

    Fred Taylor
  • One important thing overlooked in this article is the fact that Tranmere have had an abnormal number of injured players thus far this season. What MM would probably like to select as his first team has been denied him. Consequently there’s been no opportunity for the team to gel. Despite this, in the first 10 games I thought we gave a good account of ourselves and will continue to do so when back to full strength.

    Al Summerland
  • Disagee on who he believes could hold a place in div 1.Jake Capprice & Paul Mullin no chance,Capprice the man who does the same step over every game which slows him down,need a fullback to play fullback,he does not recover,causing the central defenders to pull out of position.As for Harris not replaced ha,Perkins anyday & Danns.Remember everyone slagging Harris off,came ok at the end due to injuries.As for Davies,he needs to practice holding onto the ball & coming to collect on balls over the top,similar to what Nixon was so good at,this takes so much pressure off the centre backs.People point the finger at the centre backs but I think they are playing ok just need support.Ridehalgh,poor lad just does not know where he is playing,like a headless chicken.To me Morris is ok,he may have only one foot,but hey so does Messi & he is ok ish ha.

    Brian
  • This is spot on Ryan. The lack of quality is stunning. I think Palios is taking the club for a ride. That 2.5 million was sold as shares that he never bought. I’m not sure how much he has delved into his own pocket but I don’t think it’s much. The transfer strategy is shocking and, like you say, is following the same formula that earned us successive relegations. I’m worried and sick to death of the phrase, ‘we got promoted too early.’ Stick your hand in your pocket and give Mickey and the fans half a chance.

    Greg Edwards
  • Have to agree 100% also not one home grown player apart from Pilling contesting for a place.

    victor Dowler

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