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It is time for the real Tranmere Rovers to roar again

To repurpose the immortal lyrics of Baddiel and Skinner, Tranmere Rovers is the only professional English football club with three lions on its shirt – or, in this case, its badge. Shrewsbury had three logger-headed leopards back in the day, while Newcastle randomly have two seahorses. But nobody has three lions – except us. And after another tumultuous week in the Prentonian pressure cooker, it is time for those lions to roar again, without suppression from rebellious, grumpy forces.

How growing apathy made Keith Hill's position at Tranmere Rovers untenable

Admittedly, watching our beloved club has been a strain in recent months. Under the aegis of Keith Hill, football’s wayward uncle, Tranmere became stale and predictable. They tried the same things over and over again, then bickered when the same tepid results emerged. It was groundhog day. It was déjà vu all over again. It was tame, tedious and toothless, to the point where logging into iFollow became a moribund chore. Apathy set in, as loyal fans felt disenfranchised.

Yes, Rovers secured a place in the fourth division playoffs, but they stumbled over the line like a horse that was flogged too early. If the season went another week longer, Tranmere would have ran out of steam. The bottom fell out under Hill, and few could bear watching the same blunt attack splutter against the same generic defences, producing the same tired outcomes – frustration, impotency, profligacy, ineptitude. Square pegs in round holes became the defining Tranmere motto, and something had to give. That something was the manager’s job, ultimately.

Indeed, Hill was unceremoniously sacked amid post-season, pre-playoff purgatory. Some outsiders were shocked, looking on from afar, because this is not how Rovers typically do business. Yet, in my opinion, Hill did not behave how Tranmere managers typically behave, and that dense iconoclasm led to his inevitable dismissal. Few tears were shed in the Tranmere diaspora, as fans breathed a huge sigh of relief. At least no further damage could be done, and at least we could all move on, away from the endless arguing. 

Why Tranmere Rovers sacked Keith Hill

Including the EFL Trophy final at Wembley, Rovers won just four of Hill’s last 16 games in charge. The club briefly considered trademarking Tranmere nil after failing to score in eight of those contests, while seven draws and five defeats added to the miasma of mediocrity. Overall, just six League Two teams had less shots per game than Tranmere this season, while only five had fewer six-yard box touches. Turgid was a pretty accurate descriptor, and there was no sign of change.

Digging deeper, during Hill’s 16-game demise, Rovers managed just 42 shots on target, or one every 34 minutes. Many people literally fell asleep while watching iFollow, the dulcet tones of Phil Wilkinson blending with the anguished pleas of Dave Higgins to form a perfect slumber soundtrack. Even I, the author of a book about the club, dozed off on numerous occasions. I never missed much, apparently, save for another wayward Paul Lewis header that troubled the ball disinfectors more than the opposing goalkeeper.

In this regard, for two months, perhaps longer, Tranmere Rovers morphed into just another nondescript lower league football club, with just another nondescript journeyman manager. It behaved like a yoyo club, in effect, roaming through the stench of gathering stasis. There was no edge, no purpose, no instinct, pride or fight. There was no urgency, above all else, and that made the matches incredibly dull to endure. The stagnation could not go on.

Assessing the strained legacy of Keith Hill at Tranmere Rovers

Appointed in November 2020, Hill was the figurehead of that belligerent style, of course. He was the ayatollah of salt and pepper football that turned out to be marmite and lard. He was the doyen of rock and roll soccer that sounded more like pretentious opera – dull, repetitive and delusional. He was out of his depth, ultimately, complaining about intrusions and scrutiny, about pressure and attitudes. This relationship was never likely to end well, and that is exactly how it transpired.

You see, there was an obvious, unmissable bifurcation between Keith Hill and every person who has every succeeded as manager of Tranmere Rovers. To win here, to sustain here and to thrive here, a coach must embrace the club’s ineffable culture. They must embed themselves in the dark, daft and demanding DNA of Birkenhead’s flagship sports club. They must live and breathe those timeless peninsula values of hard work and fierce independence. Oh, and they must want to be here, first and foremost. Keith Hill never seemed convinced.

Indeed, the zeitgeist that engulfs Tranmere Rovers can be noxious and demanding, illogical and exhausting. However, it can also be a supernatural elixir. If harnessed correctly, it can propel mortal men to do immortal things. Those who succeed at Prenton Park – managers, players, staff – are those who use that passion as fuel and channel it into a positive, difference-making arrogance. Think Mellon, Aldridge and King. Meanwhile, those who fail in this football-mad citadel are those who fight the emotional outpourings and repel the intense enthusiasm. Think Adams, Edwards and Watson.

Now, we can add Keith Hill to that charred scrapheap of managers chewed up and spat out by this perplexing football juggernaut. In truth, he never got under the skin of Tranmere Rovers. He never took time to learn what makes the club – and its devoted fans – tick. Sure, the pandemic-enforced absence of supporters in the stands did not aid the development of synergies, but neither did his bizarre press conferences, in which he often branded the fans short-sighted and fickle. When all was said and done, Hill made the classic mistake of thinking Tranmere is just like any other club, when in fact it is splendidly unique.

Hill was prickly with the media and stubborn with the players. He refused to shoulder any blame when the wheels fell off down the stretch, literally saying it was not his fault while dishing out veteran players in public. He was never wrong and we – fans, pundits, writers, onlooking peasants – were never right.

Yes, Hill’s affinity with Bolton ensured our relationship was built on sand, but there was more to the disquiet than mere geography. While not quite a Trojan horse, it appeared that Keith Hill did not view managing Tranmere Rovers as the pinnacle of his career. Rather, he viewed it as an inconvenience. We were just a stepping stone to something else, and such arrangements have never been especially viable.

A word of warning to the owners here, too. Nobody is bigger than this football club, and short-term panic shopping does not work at Prenton Park. We have been down this road before, like when Adams was heralded as a marquee stopgap only to fail spectacularly. Past performance does not count for much at Tranmere Rovers. It is all about the here, the now and the future. We need players, coaches and managers to believe in and to build around. We do not need mercenary charlatans and part-time imposters. We do not need Poundland prophets, because they will never embody our ethos.

Were Tranmere right to sack Keith Hill when they did? A balanced view from the devil’s advocate

Of course, Hill will argue that – technically – he did not fail to meet his primary objective this season: winning promotion. After all, the playoffs are still to come, and he may have navigated a route through those choppy waters. Furthermore, Hill left Wirral with a 50% win rate from 40 matches, while also leading the club to Wembley in the aforementioned EFL Trophy final. From his perspective, there was evidence of improvement on paper, with the overarching goal still within reach. In one sense, then, he can feel aggrieved by the decision to torpedo his project – especially with a promotion clause guaranteeing him a one-year contract extension.

Still, Hill’s final game in charge was a vapid goalless draw against Colchester United that belatedly secured Rovers’ playoff place. After the match, he seemed resigned to a dismal fate, speaking in broken platitudes devoid of warmth. According to a report by The Athletic, Hill tore into his players in the dressing room before delivering a preposterous soliloquy to assembled reporters. While answering one question, Hill basically said Tranmere deserved to be demoted from League One last season, an unorthodox sentiment lacking validity. Even while wearing a Rovers jacket, he spoke like an outsider, almost as if his contract had already elapsed. The writing was on the wall, in other words, and the end was nigh.

Yet, for all the sinister snarling, Hill did raise some valid points in his farewell address, and the unravelling of a once-promising season was not entirely his fault. Tranmere recruited poorly in January, leaving the manager without many options to replace injured talisman James Vaughan. Meanwhile, Hill hinted at a defective team culture, with infighting and a poor work ethic undermining his operation. While I cannot corroborate the accuracy of those claims, and while the manager himself must take some responsibility if toxicity did percolate among the squad, we must heed such warnings before they sink our ship.

Nevertheless, Hills’ case for unfair dismissal hinges on fantasy projections, because any self-respecting Tranmere fan knew we had minimal chance of winning the playoffs with him as manager. With this squad, and even without Vaughan, we should have clinched automatic promotion from League Two. As late as 27th March, Rovers were in the top three, only to drop 15 of the next 27 available points. Talk of a title charge faded into whispers of a playoff whimper, and the owners were forced to act, giving Rovers a fighting chance against Morecambe in the end-of-season showcase.

“Despite success achieved on the pitch in the form of securing a place in the playoffs and reaching the Papa John’s Trophy final, in the playoffs an entire season gets distilled into two or three games,” said chairman Mark Palios in an official statement. “I have to do what I think gives us the best chance of achieving promotion in those games, and I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that means making the change before the semi-finals begin.”

Can Tranmere Rovers win the 2021 League Two playoffs?

Ian Dawes, a linchpin of the existing coaching staff, has been placed in temporary charge for the playoffs, assisted by Rovers folk hero Andy Parkinson. The duo had a five-game spell in the dugout earlier this season, betwixt the embryonic eras of Mike Jackson and Hill. That experiment was wildly successful, as Tranmere won all five matches and scored 14 goals in the process. Such was the revival, many fans were keen for Dawes and Parkinson to be given the gig full-time, hence the pall of disappointment that greeted Hill’s incongruous arrival.

Without doubt, Dawes and Parkinson rescued Tranmere’s season. Jackson was too cautious, and they took the handbrake off. The players expressed themselves under the unassuming caretakers, and their style of play was genuinely entertaining to watch. Whether that spark can be galvanised once again, after Hill’s thunderous departure, remains to be seen, but we live in hope, because stranger things have happened.

And so, here we are again, dear readers – ragged, frayed, dazed and disconsolate. Here we go again – nervy, twitchy, hopeful and anxious. Another change of manager, our twelfth in seven years. Another playoff campaign, our tenth since they were introduced in 1987. Another shot at redemption, just when all seemed lost for this battered old death star.

Can we spring a surprise and earn promotion despite finishing seventh? Can we stick it all back together and have the tape hold for another couple of weeks? Can we beat that old familiar path from CH42 to Wembley for a fifth time in five seasons? Only time will tell. With Tranmere Rovers, though, you just never know, and that is what keeps us addicted. That is what keeps us wanting more.

In the coming days, we have a punchers’ chance and a point to prove. We have an underdog’s spirit and a conclusion to write. We have a free pass, in some respects, and that is a very powerful thing. So by all means overlook us. Dismiss our chances if you like. You can never write us off completely, though, because lord knows we have been through worse and lived to sip champagne.

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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Planet Prentonia: The Real Story of Tranmere Rovers, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!

2 comments

  • You never fail to entertain. Haven’t heard you criticise your beloved team so strongly for a long time . You could be a manager you are so knowledgeable about football.long live tranmere ,we will,survive.
    Regards
    Sheila

    Sheila hudson
  • Ryan Ferguson, what a brilliant piece yet again. I absolutely love your articles. Thankyou

    Roger Donald Griffiths

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