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Tranmere Rovers relegated to League Two following disastrous season

I moped slowly towards the exit, angry at the world following one last terminal humiliation. The team to which I have dedicated a life of support had delivered yet more pain, yet more misery and yet more sorrow. For the first time in 25 years, Tranmere Rovers was plunged into fourth division darkness and, all around, our club was dying.

I climbed the crumbling steps, indignant at the chronic mismanagement. I strolled on through the wrought iron gates, resentful at the betting probes and match-fixing allegations that besmirched a dreadful season. I looked up at the dilapidated Main Stand, eyed the obnoxious matchday staff, and observed the leftover crisp packets blowing calmly through the car park. There was no turning back.

Bradford City had the dubious honour of driving that final nail into our coffin on the season’s last day. The Bantams showed little mercy, steamrolling a weak Tranmere outfit with clinical intent. A freak Matthew Pennington strike gave Rovers an early lead, but the seeds of decline were planted long before.

How Tranmere Rovers were relegated from League One

Management’s apparent belief in directionless football was simply incompatible with the regular procurement of points in League One, and we needed results elsewhere to swing in our favour to have any chance of surviving. When Notts Country drew at Oldham and Crewe beat Preston, Tranmere’s 12-year stay in the third division came to a whimpering end. Just for traumatic effect, Jon Stead fired home a late equaliser for Bradford before Aaron McLean drained every drop of blood with his plundered winner.

In typical fashion, we received our comeuppance – this dysfunctional team, caught so often playing haphazard football, finally running out of lives. As jaded fans, we just had to grin and bear it. After all, what more could we expect?

When the board adheres to no recruitment policy, has no long-term ethos and is morally myopic, how can a football club progress? There is no structure for the players to rely on, no blueprint of expectations, no point to it all. When teammates change on a weekly basis, with one generic loanee replacing another, it is nigh on impossible to nurture cohesion. Naturally, this leads to a fractured camp which, in Tranmere’s case, underpinned a campaign of capitulation.

Ian Goodison, Akpo Sodje and the match-fixing scandal of Tranmere Rovers

The arrest of two prominent players in relation to spot-fixing was emblematic of our self-perpetuating struggle. Ian Goodison, a folk hero with more than 400 Rovers appearances, and Akpo Sodje, a high-profile summer signing, were held by police in December following a spate of suspected match-fixing. Of course, they are innocent until proven guilty, but mere speculation of this sort is heart-wrenching.

As a fanbase, we were incredulous at the scandal, forced to repair in public the tarnished reputation of our club. From every direction, we received scorn, all while asking whether we had really spent thousands of pounds, travelled all over the country, and become emotionally invested in football games of a pre-determined outcome? It was a kick in the teeth, a stab in the back. But it was not the end. 

Why Ronnie Moore was sacked by Tranmere Rovers for betting irregularities

No, quite the contrary, in fact. You see, just two months after those arrests, another gambling fiasco threatened to consume Tranmere whole. This time, manager Ronnie Moore was suspended by the club following a legal probe into his breaking of FA betting regulations. Indeed, Moore was found guilty and subsequently sacked in April as chaos reigned supreme at Prenton Park.

When the manager – of all people – becomes entangled in illegality, very little hope of salvation remains. How can such a person demand professional discipline from others? How can he instruct, command or teach? How can the club survive, quite frankly, when its senior leaders are complicit in breaches of regulation? Very quickly, we tired of defending the indefensible. And very quickly, the entire situation became untenable.

Moore lashed out at Tranmere, arguing that he would not have been fired if the club was top of the league. However, we were not top of the league. We were oscillating in and out of the relegation zone on a weekly basis thanks, in no small part, to an underperforming squad of his design. We received severe beatings from Peterborough, Leyton Orient and Carlisle – beatings that rank among the worst moments of my life following the club.

Many fans simply gave up, if truth be known, as attendances dipped to lows not seen since Thatcher occupied office. We understand the budget constraints, but ultimately, Moore should have produced a much finer tune from this squad. Granted, many of the loanees were unfailingly poor, but in Jason Koumas, Ryan Lowe and Steve Jennings, we had an experience nucleus more than capable of playing in the third division. Nevertheless, by subjecting these players to a rudderless brand of Dark Age football, and by incubating them in a nihilistic squad environment, Moore was asking for trouble. Ultimately, his professional fate was decided by his own chronic inertia – nothing more, and nothing less.

The failed takeover bid of Michael Wilde and Albert Ferrer at Tranmere Rovers

By February, our cheeks were red with perpetual embarrassment, our ears sore from the abuse of rival fans. When news leaked of a botched takeover deal involving local businessman Michael Wilde, we added ‘broken heart’ to the growing list of ailments. Likely alerted to the dire situation engulfing Prenton Park, Wilde pulled out at the last moment, taking Albert Ferrer, a preferred new manager, with him. Again, we were left to ponder what might have been, what so nearly was, what – for Tranmere Rovers – never quite is.

Wilde’s wavering interest is an accurate barometer of how far we have slipped, how much we have shrunk, and how gruesome a proposition we have become to investors. It makes you feel ever so slightly worthless, and there is a stigma surrounding Tranmere Rovers that must be exorcised.

To outsiders, we surely resemble a bunch of match-fixing, infighting, gambling-obsessed paupers. To insiders, that view is decidedly romantic. We, the diehard fans, see not only the betting scandals, but also a jersey sponsored by Home Bargains. We, the paying public, see not only the failed takeovers, but also a scoreboard that stopped working one night never to be repaired. We, the tortured souls, see not only the encroaching jaws of relegation, but also our away end condemned for serving out-of-date beer to Oldham fans.

Will there be any end to the calamity?

What next for Tranmere Rovers in League Two?

Guided by John McMahon in a caretaker capacity, the team experienced an early April revival that ignited belief, only for the bottom to fall out soon thereafter. The deep south, a traditional graveyard for Tranmere teams, formed a final gauntlet that left us on life support. The prospect of facing Crawley and Gillingham away from home in the same week was akin to digging your own grave. The players met those grim expectations, huffing and puffing before ultimately losing both matches 2-0. A goalless draw with Sheffield United did not really help, while another two-goal reverse away to Leyton Orient left Tranmere needing snookers to survive on the final day. Bradford cleared the table before we could even chalk our cue.

Dead.

A fan can only take so much, but I have learned to deal with the setbacks, to nullify the pain and to disguise the humiliation by distancing myself ever so slightly from the whole situation. Now, every time something goes catastrophically wrong at Tranmere Rovers, I stop and think of a humbling encounter that occurred in the car park shortly after the Bradford game. There, I met Joe Thompson, the young Tranmere winger battling cancer. The manner in which he continues to fight, continues to smile, and continues to accommodate fans brought a tear to my eye. It was then that I realised that some things are more important than lower league football. It gave me some much-needed perspective on life. I discovered that, despite the most incomprehensibly dismal year watching Tranmere, it is still just a hobby, still just an interest, still just a game.

We should never lose sight of that fact.

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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!

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