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What happened to Tranmere Rovers? Inside the demise, 1995-2016

What actually happened to Tranmere?”

This is a question asked of us, as fans, on a daily basis by friends and colleagues, acquaintances and family. From the ivory tower of Premier League ignorance, they enquire about the demise of the professional football club that is actually closest to their home.
Well, here is the answer, once and for all, if you care to listen. Here is a tale of neglect and stagnation, decay and heartache. Here is the definitive story of our ignominious collapse.

Grab some tissues, it’s going to be emotional.

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The transformation was remarkable. Once dank and cramped, archaic and rudimentary, Prenton Park had experienced a stark metamorphosis. When Grimsby Town visited on 11th March 1995, the palatial new arena was officially opened before 15,810 paying spectators.

Tranmere won 2-0 en route to securing a second tier playoff place for the third consecutive season. Glory seemed inevitable, the stadium a launching pad, but this was actually another false dawn before an interminable sunset. It was the beginning of the end for Tranmere Roves as a fledging powerhouse.

Peter Johnson and Frank Corfe, the shareholding architects of Rovers’ revival, had grown increasingly disinterested by the time Prenton Park was reopened. Their drive was stunted, their passion forlorn. The deadly submarine ran out of fuel, and the aftermath wasn’t pretty.

Peter Johnson's Premier League dream

Johnson was besotted with the idea of owning a Premier League club. That dream inspired him to grant a liberal budget to manager Johnny King, who fashioned an iconic team that rose through the divisions in style. However, when the opportunity to purchase Everton was presented to Johnson in the autumn of 1993, he took full advantage, finding a shortcut to the top by way of a ferry across the Mersey. In the absence of a fully-engaged benefactor, the flame of Tranmere’s potential began to flicker. In subsequent seasons, it was extinguished entirely.

Johnson saved the club from the jaws of liquidation in 1987 before leading modernisation drives that delivered the most successful period Tranmere had ever experienced. But when the Premier League dream faded with playoff failure, insouciance infected the club’s culture and Rovers fell behind their rivals. We were late to the party as football soared into new markets. We are still playing catch-up.

With its sloping canyons of seats and mesmeric potential for growth, the redeveloped Prenton Park should have been a catalyst for further growth, another weapon in Rovers’ fight to finally blow through that glass ceiling of second division frustration. Instead, the stadium became something of a white elephant as executive apathy and ownership defection resulted in mounting austerity.

John Aldridge takes over from Johnny King 

Tranmere were beaten once again in the 1994-95 playoffs before tumbling out of contention entirely the following season. King was forced upstairs with Aldridge selected as his successor in a player-manager role. While Aldridge was a popular choice as Rovers boss, in retrospect his appointment was the cheap option. This became Tranmere’s go-to ethos amid the coming fall. Myopia pervaded.

Wage and transfer budgets were slashed despite Aldridge’s protests, forcing the neophyte manager to sell key players such as Ian Moore, Alan Rogers, Tony Thomas, Paul Cook, Steve Simonsen, Kenny Irons and Alan Mahon. Rovers shopped in the bargain bin for replacements, cobbling together squads of journeymen past their prime.

Competing in the second tier with veterans such as Richard Jobson, Sean Flynn and Paul Rideout became increasingly difficult as a chasm opened between traditional expectation and realistic probability. The identity crisis that later consumed the club has its genesis in that confounding dichotomy. Tranmere were caught between yesterday and tomorrow.

Regular cup giant-killings under Aldridge masked the grim reality of a creaking giant about to tumble. Johnson typically injected enough cash to keep Tranmere afloat, but seemingly never enough to see it succeed. Aldridge saw little of the money generated from those historic cup runs as Rovers failed to capitalise on the prestige of a League Cup final berth and landmark victories over Everton, Southampton, Sunderland, West Ham, Leeds and Bolton.

As per the rules of physics, Tranmere began to tumble. An eleventh-place finish became fourteenth, then fifteenth, before the inevitable relegation in 2001. Rovers returned to the third division for the first time in ten years as Aldridge resigned. Leadership from the top became increasingly anonymous, and Dave Watson became the next cheap, under-qualified manager tasked with heaving Tranmere back up the leagues against the sheer weight of gravity.

Delusions of grandeur

Somewhat predictably, Watson failed quickly as Rovers huffed and puffed in the third tier, coming nowhere near an immediate return. Club stalwart Ray Mathias eventually replaced him, doing an earnest stabilisation job, but by 2002, King’s empire was a distant memory less than a decade after its zenith. Tranmere entered a new era, one characterised by frustration and stasis rather than excitement and progress. Frustration became the norm.

Brian Little took charge in 2003, finally restoring some pedigree to the Prenton Park dugout, and his respected status within the game was a valuable recruitment tool. Little managed to assemble an accomplished squad headlined by Iain Hume and Ryan Taylor, only to be thwarted by that other prevailing force contributing to Tranmere’s demise: the club’s unparalleled penchant for self-capitulation.

For the longest time, this football club had an uncanny ability to find the most gut-wrenching way to lose at the most inopportune time. Rovers lost on penalties to Hartlepool in the 2004-05 third division playoff semi-final, for instance, before their star players departed for pastures new. They’re still yet to scale those heights again, favouring movement in the opposite direction, to the anguish of loyal fans.

The commercial decline of Tranmere Rovers under Peter Johnson

By 2006, Johnson wanted out. Plain and simple. The dream was over, and owning a flailing football club was an expensive hobby. Modernity transformed football into a different beast, more global business than genteel pastime, and Tranmere didn’t keep up. Rival clubs spawned commercial departments, built new stadiums with plush luxury suites and generally embraced the irresistible tide of digital media and marketing.

Under the plodding aegis of chief executive Mick Horton, a Johnson yes man, Rovers began to sink. Stuck with the same tired sponsorships and banal corporate offerings, Tranmere couldn’t even be bothered to paint their Main Stand.

Money was certainly tight, but there was no drive or proactive thinking to bring about change. In the purview of Premier League dominance, where money mattered more than ever and Rovers’ big city rivals seemed closer by the day, a holistic approach was needed to facilitate survival, stimulate prosperity and generate growth. Tranmere simply didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it off.

Non-matchday revenue became a crucial concept. Clubs began selling events space and partnership packages for absolutely everything, right down to goal celebration music and players’ bootlaces. With a chronic lack of vision, Tranmere was starved into a managed decline, relying on the same model of selling players to raise money that was authored by Bert Cooke a century earlier. The club became one-dimensional, and even that dimension was nowhere near good enough.

Ronnie Moore almost defied the trend as manager in 2008-09, leading Rovers to within two minutes of a playoff place before succumbing to familiar agony in a do-or-die clash with Scunthorpe on the season’s final day. Moore’s reward for a renaissance of sorts? Well, he was sacked. The board cited falling attendances as rationale, but that was merely code for we’re taking the cheap option again.

How Tranmere Rovers ended up on eBay

What came next was truly farcical, as the fine reputation of Tranmere Rovers, built with the toil of so many legends, was trashed almost beyond repair. I still struggle to countenance the depth of ineptitude that unfurled.

Seeking an exit strategy, Johnson appointed US firm Dornoch Capital to broker a potential sale of the club. Ignominy awaited when Dornoch placed Tranmere on eBay with a starting bid of $10 million.

The item description cited Rovers’ historic brand, zero indebtedness and significant potential for promotion to the second division or potentially the Premiership as unique selling points. Johnson instructed the listing to be removed immediately and noted that the club never approved such a selling tactic, but the sense of humiliation for loyal supporters was stark.

Barnes and McAteer, Dumb and Dumber

It only got worse when John Barnes was selected as Moore’s replacement, assisted by Jason McAteer in a flagrant publicity stunt that was never likely to end well. Barnes had previously managed Celtic for eight acrimonious months either side of the millennium before a later gig with Jamaica.

Quickly dubbed Dumb and Dumber by the Tranmere players and fans, Barnes and McAteer endured a catastrophic time at Prenton Park, losing eight of the twelve matches they oversaw.

Johnson was uncharacteristically quick with the axe, thankfully seeing sense and firing the disastrous duo after a 5-0 thumping at Millwall. Ironically, attendances actually decreased with Barnes at the helm as the rationale for firing Moore haemorrhaged yet more credibility.

Les Parry and the shoestring budget

Johnson essentially stopped funding Tranmere Rovers to any great degree from this point on. While he never recalled the significant amount of money owed to him by the club, Johnson retreated and forced the club to fend for itself. Tranmere could only spend money that they generated, rather than relying on injections from above.

The depleted commercial department was highly inefficient, while average attendances fell below 5,000. This produced a skeletal budget that drove Rovers into the loan and free agent markets. Prenton Park became home to a procession of raw teenagers and expired journeymen cobbled together in something resembling a team. And the man in charge had no managerial experience at any level.

Les Parry receives a lot of criticism, but what he actually achieved in keeping Tranmere afloat was remarkable. The long-time physio at Prenton Park famed for wearing shorts in all weather conditions, Parry became caretaker manager when Barnes left. Parry was already on the payroll and nobody with any power at the club could be bothered to look elsewhere, fearing the expense that may be incurred.

With help from supporters, who raised funds to sign hometown favourite Andy Robinson on loan from Leeds United, Parry inspired a sensational revival in the 2009-10 season as Rovers won huge games against Southampton, Norwich and Millwall before staving off relegation with a last day triumph at Stockport.

The great escape created a sentimentality that saw Parry appointed as permanent manager. Despite his respectable work, that was another mistake by Tranmere, at least when viewed through a prism of potential progress. Parry was the short-term plaster that became the long-term ‘solution.’ Tranmere treaded water under his tutelage, but the pool became deeper and the waves more violent.

Through no fault of his own, Parry was in charge as Tranmere’s expectations plummeted. The minimum criteria for contentment continued to fall, from competing for promotion to the Premier League to immediately returning to the second tier to reaching the League One playoffs to avoiding relegation. As the budget shrank, so too did the dreams of Tranmere Rovers. Indignation mounted as the club’s mundane reality slipped further away from its grandiose, fallen ambition.

Tranmere continued to flail through the corporate transformation of football. An ill-advised agreement with Home Bargains saw the discount brand splashed across Rovers’ shirts, a fitting motif of the club’s narrowing ambition and a concise illustration of its poor public relations acumen. Neglected and underutilised, Prenton Park also fell into an unloved state with broken seats and a dodgy scoreboard telling of confusion. An identity crisis brewed on Borough Road. Nobody with power seemed to care.

False dawns and betting scandals under Ronnie Moore

When the players eventually stopped playing for Parry early in 2012, Moore returned to catalyse a fine uptick in results that made the previous three years seem like a total waste of time. Tranmere were top of League One as the calendar flipped to 2013, begging questions as to what may have been achieved had Moore’s tenure not been interrupted. However, Rovers collapsed in the second half of the 2012-13 campaign, eventually finishing eleventh. The downward slope was harsh and slippery from there. The club’s slide down it felt inexorable.

Tranmere unwittingly became embroiled in a betting scandal in the spring of 2014 as their dismal on-field displays were matched with controversy off the pitch. Moore was sacked after admitting to a breach of Football League betting rules.

Club stalwart Ian Goodison was also arrested as part of a match-fixing investigation that rocked football. Goodison was later cleared, but former Rovers player Delroy Facey was jailed as part of the probe while Akpo Sodje, a Tranmere striker, was also questioned amid various fraud allegations.

With scandal spreading like wildfire, Tranmere failed to properly replace Moore yet again as first team coach John McMahon marshalled a sinking ship towards inevitable relegation from the third tier.

Jeremy Butler, Rob Edwards and a new nadir for Tranmere Rovers

Amid a rising tide of anger, Johnson - by this time residing in Switzerland far away from the Prentonian bubble – appointed Jeremy Butler as chief executive. Butler was essentially the day-to-day conduit of autonomy at Prenton Park. The fact that he was a journalist with no formal experience of working for a sports club at any level didn’t seem to matter to Johnson, whose consistently poor decision-making placed Tranmere in serious peril.

Relegation into the fourth tier for the first time in twenty-five years was confirmed in May 2014. The response was frankly pathetic as Butler was somehow given the power to make one of the most important managerial appointments in the club’s history. Rob Edwards, a near-anonymous Exeter coach, was given the job, his first managerial role in professional football. This was another manifestation of extreme austerity as Tranmere shrunk still further into the Football League basement.

Butler sold top goalscorer Ryan Lowe to Bury with a year left to run on his contract. Lowe notched 20 goals in the failed 2013-14 season and seemed likely to score even more in League Two. He was 35, however, and Jeremy Butler deemed that too old, placing no value in Ryan’s tireless work ethic and undeniable productivity. Rovers replaced Lowe with several inadequate alternatives, namely Eliot Richards and George Donnelly, who managed to score a grand total of one goal for the club between them.

Edwards lasted barely five months at Prenton Park, losing eight of fourteen matches in charge. When he was finally sacked, in October 2014, Tranmere Rovers was finally under new ownership following a takeover by Nicola and Mark Palios, an ex-Rovers player and FA chief executive who developed a successful career in business turnarounds.

New owners, same mistakes

Much of the damage was done by the time they took over. The seeds were scattered many years earlier, when Johnson’s interest first began to wane. But it is an unavoidable fact that, in May 2015, when Tranmere Rovers were relegated out of the Football League for the first time in almost a century, their name was above the door and it had been there for nine months.

They chose Micky Adams as a successor to Edwards, hoping that a managerial veteran could cajole improvements from a woeful squad. That was a disastrous choice as Adams didn’t have any intention of forming a bond with this football club. His reliance on loan players, most likely supported by the Palioses, was a ghastly sight. Players came and went with no frame of reference, no style of play, and no overarching philosophy.

The owners had a chance to fire Adams with a handful of games remaining, potentially inserting somebody else who could have stimulated a ‘new manager bounce’ that led Tranmere to safety. They had nothing to lose by making such a decision, but they stood pat. They froze, and the floor finally fell in. Tranmere Rovers became a non-league club just twenty years after almost reaching the Premier League. The fall from grace was complete. Our club was left in ruins.

From January 2013 to May 2015, Tranmere plunged from the summit of League One to the squalor of non-league.

In 28 months, plausible dreams of league visits to Leeds, Derby and Blackburn turned into 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.

The response to successive relegations was lukewarm. Somewhat paradoxically, tumbling so far from their rightful perch gave Tranmere an opportunity to fumigate the ghosts, analyse the problems and start from scratch. There was a chance to get things right, once and for all, by recruiting the best players at each level on a journey back through the divisions. Rovers made motions towards that vision, but never with the conviction we, as fans, would have liked.

A complicated transition under Gary Brabin

Gary Brabin, another under-qualified candidate, was handed the manager’s job, shouldering one of the most intense cauldrons of pressure anywhere in English football. With the National League permitting just one automatic promotion place, Brabin had virtually no margin for error. He had to do what no Tranmere manager had done since 1938: win a league title. And, even if he delivered that, it wouldn’t really constitute an achievement. It was just a necessary landmark on the road to recovery.

Despite losing central funding and television revenue from the Football League, Tranmere finally began to close the commercial chasm to their rivals. The Palioses implemented many initiatives to stimulate additional funds, from a futsal team and comedy evenings to revamped hospitality suites and an expanded sponsorship portfolio. They even painted the Main Stand as the club’s creaking foundations were finally rebuilt.

It took decades and several inconvenient relegations, but in the fifth tier, Rovers finally found that they had a budget conducive with success. That’s a damning indictment of various regimes, but it at least allowed Brabin to construct a really good squad for non-league football. His recruitment of players like James Norwood, Connor Jennings, Ritchie Sutton, Scott Davies, Steve McNulty, Jay Harris, Jeff Hughes and Andy Cook played a crucial role in Tranmere’s ultimate revival. In that respect, aside from the often embarrassing results of his tenure, Brabin had some kind of positive impact at Prenton Park. He got Tranmere winning football games again. Not enough games, but winning again nonetheless.

Heavily favoured for an immediate return to the Football League, Rovers promptly finished sixth in their first National League season, missing the playoffs after losing to minnows such as Altrincham, Woking, Braintree and Welling.

Micky Mellon sparks a revolution

The wheels began to fall off again early in the 2016-17 campaign as Tranmere fell to their lowest ever position in the history of an organised pyramid league system. Brabin was fired and replaced by Micky Mellon, who left Shrewsbury to take up the position, dropping two divisions to assume control at a club with a special place in his heart.

Finally, over two decades after Johnny King went shopping for his Prentonian galacticos, Tranmere Rovers once again harnessed the three-pronged elixir of success in the modern football environment: a manager with the requisite proven ability possessing a budget sufficient to build a squad capable of competing for promotion from the division in which the club found itself, without interference from above.

It’s a simple formula, really. We got there in the end.

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