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Tranmere, Watford and the meaning of proper football

Sometimes, I forget why football has held such control over my life for twenty-five years. As the game becomes more serious, cloaked in transient materialism, it also becomes worse for my mental health, causing agitation and piquing anxiety. This season, I have come closer than ever before to losing my religion, drawing little enjoyment from football.

That changed on Saturday, when Tranmere Rovers, the jaded juggernaut, rose like a phoenix once more. Just when I had lost faith in the childlike magic of football, Micky Mellon authored a minor miracle to hook me back in. With a superlative comeback against Premier League Watford, the grand old dame showed signs of life. I did not think she was capable of this anymore.

The first half at Vicarage Road displayed everything I hate abut football. A sterile ground slathered in sponsorship. Middle class snowflakes called Dermot screaming entitled garbage from the plush seats. Messages on the giant screen reminding people to watch for flying footballs, as if this were a cinema, not a stadium. Skinny-jeaned millennials discussing pass completion percentage. Millionaire stars swaggering through snarls.

It was painful.

Watford played tippy-tappy, fancy-pantsy, second gear football, awash with sideways passes and arrogant strolling. The Premier League footballer, suave and sophisticated, expects a crescent of space - of respect - in which to spin and purr and plot. A pocket of room in which to pick his pass and pack his sensitive ego. This is modern football, a bourgeois charade of unending tedium.

We’ll file back and sit off, says the contemporary Premier League team. We’ll stand tight and shuffle across while you pout and gesticulate in front of us. Nowadays, the game is akin to sanitised basketball, a parade of superficial flexing devoid of true exertion. It’s all restrained emotion and redundant care. Somewhere along the way, football became conflated with beauty pageants.

These guys are professional footballers in the purest, most arrogant sense imaginable. They go about things with nary a smile, trading one-twos with the same blank-faced disinterest of your typical workaday accountant or HR administrator. They are exponents of football science, robotic pawns in a game of philosophical chess, trained to subdue their feelings lest they expel vital energy that can be used to score goals, win matches, fleece fans and make money. To smile is to concede an advantage in the post-modern quest for market efficiencies. Damned if anyone actually enjoys this capitalist jamboree on grass.

In the first half yesterday, Tranmere adhered to this blueprint, affording Watford too much respect. The fallout was not pretty. We were embarrassing, in all honesty, during those first forty-five minutes. Watford flicked the ball around, occasionally bursting forward at will like that annoying Ultimate Team player who saves a burst of R2 energy for the second period. Seemingly fazed and woefully inept, Rovers were 2-0 down after fourteen minutes. It was all so familiar.

Unable to purchase beer in the stadium, some Tranmere fans trudged to the pub across the street. At 15:15, the afternoon was already over, merely an exercise in wasting time and loitering around until the last train home. Finding a point to it all, beyond mere habit and tradition, became increasingly difficult. Such is the ineffable lunacy of football fandom. 

Watford added a third shortly after the half-hour, when Argentina international Roberto Pereyra swooshed home with consummate ease. Dull cheers emanated from the home fans, who seemed burdened by the need to rise and actually celebrate. At half-time, the hosts led 3-0. We were down, out and belittled. I abandoned all hope of a comeback, suggesting we leave on the hour mark should the score reach five or six.

In times of yore, Tranmere perfected the art of giant killing. They reached three FA Cup quarter-finals in five years between 1999 and 2004, slaying titans like Everton, Sunderland and Southampton from the second and third tiers. Rovers reached the League Cup semi-final in 1994 and went one better in 1999. They were unstoppable. 

The club’s soul was enriched by those achievements, but I thought them impossible in this age. The financial chasm between Tranmere and the Premier League is just too great. As illustrated in the first half against Watford, we were incapable of even getting close to these megastars, let alone beating them. Battered and bruised by a faltering season and a runaway sport, I gave up. Continuing to fight seemed like a recipe for eternal frustration.

Micky Mellon had other ideas, however. The passionate manager of our bedraggled club, Micky gave another inspirational team talk. Years ago, John Aldridge cajoled superhuman effort from his boys by hurling teacups across the dressing room, but Mellon takes a more considered approach. He reminds his players of what it means to represent Tranmere Rovers. That is usually enough to engender a response.

“My heart was bleeding,” said Mellon of his half-time intervention. Citing the 2,700 fans who followed Rovers from Birkenhead to Hertfordshire, Micky told his players to fight for the shirt and make us proud. That is exactly what they did, restoring lustre to that badge and reminding the world of its potential magic.

In a total transformation, our mismatched team of ageing veterans dug deep and bullied the opposition. They fought with guts, sweat and tears, delivering the ultimate paragon of Mellon’s rattle-tattle, harem-scarem, rooting-tooting ethos. What Micky is able to cajole from this island of misfit toys never ceases to amaze me. The ballad of Vicarage Road is another fine addition to his developing tome.

The Football League journeyman, grizzled and gnarled, excels in fast-forward, relying on the muscle twitch fibre of yesteryear, playing breathless roulette with probing insurrection. The less time he has to think, act and move, the more incisive his contribution. It’s rolled-up sleeves football. It’s meat and potato pie football. It’s early morning graft football. There is no room for pretence.

We will take your tiki-taka and shove it where the sun does not shine, says the Football League team. We will play through the channels and scrap for second balls. We will squeeze the space and quicken the tempo, asking questions and providing inconsistent answers. Sometimes, we will be great. Other times, we will fall flat on our face. This is proper football, a grand elixir of the proletariat. There is nothing like it.

Within that oxymoron between old and new, modern and proper, style and substance, you will find the beguiling beauty and vice-like addictiveness of football. Even when a situation seems dire, lurking beyond recall, there is hope for those who believe. There is a road to respectability, but bravery is required to find it.

Ironically, the most controversial symbol of modern football – the video assistant referee, or VAR - actually helped Tranmere in their comeback quest. All-encompassing technology, the product of mega-rich moaning, conspired to boost the fortunes of those less fortunate. Rarely have I experienced a more dramatic turn of events at a football match.

In the second half, every Tranmere player was heroic. Morgan Ferrier led the line with majestic authority. Kieron Morris jinked in and out, shifting the ball sharply. Corey Blackett-Taylor beat his man every single time on the left wing, bursting beyond the Watford defence to create recurrent danger.

On 65 minutes, Connor Jennings ghosted in to head home one of his crosses. The evergreen personification of Rovers’ resurgence, Jennings was distraught to see the linesman raise his flag for offside. However, referee Graham Scott sought guidance from VAR, which overruled the decision and awarded what seemed like a fine consolation.

Even at 3-1, I could sense something in the air. For the past couple of years, I have scarcely been animated at football matches, preferring instead to sit in the shadows away from the maddening crowd. Anxiety shuts me up and depression makes me disinterested.

Yet, at Vicarage Road, that changed. Just as Neil Danns rolled back the years in midfield, I hearkened back to a bygone era of immense pride. Despite them lurking in the League One relegation zone, I believed in my team. And regardless of the imposing deficit against Premier League opposition, I sensed they could spring an upset. The game was not over, and I screamed myself hoarse willing Tranmere Rovers forward.

Jennings almost scored again shortly after his header, but Watford goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann produced a wonderful reflex save to deny him. The hosts faded before our eyes, dying on their feet. Pampered youngsters went down with cramp while flustered veterans struggled for match fitness. Tranmere kept surging. Tranmere kept believing. Tranmere kept trying, and that is the most pleasing thing of all.

With 78 minutes gone, Bachmann flapped at a wide Blackett-Taylor free-kick. Ferrier poked at the ball, which ricocheted into the vicinity of Manny Monthe, Rovers’ mountainous centre-half. Swivelling instinctively, Monthe bludgeoned the ball beyond a slew of yellow-clad defenders and into the net. 3-2. Pandemonium engulfed the away end.

Still they ran. Still they chased. Still they won corners and free-kicks, throw-ins and challenges. With three minutes remaining, Morris made a phenomenal tackle to win possession in midfield. Jennings sprayed the ball to Blackett-Taylor, who goaded the full-back, knocked the ball past him, and galloped into the penalty area. Blackett-Taylor was hacked to the ground, eliciting hopeful pleas from our army of fans. Graham Scott gave a corner. Alas, VAR reviewed the decision and awarded a penalty. The away end became a lawless nirvana of utter bedlam.

On as a late substitute, striker Paul Mullin thumped the resultant spot kick down the middle, beyond Bachmann and into the net. Into history. Dead and buried, three goals down, Tranmere Rovers had done it again. They had equalised against the big boys. After a spell in the wilderness, I understood again why this game matters. Only football can offer such raw emotion.

Seemingly despondent, Pereyra was sent off near the end. Exhilarating and invincible, Rovers even had a chance to win it in the dying embers of stoppage time. Backed by the disbelieving denizens of Prentonia, resplendent and raucous, Danns slithered through the penalty area to be halted at the last. Jennings lay in acres of space, waiting for a pullback of destiny. It never arrived, but you can’t ask too much of the football gods, can you?

After Rovers defended one final Watford attempt, a woeful free-kick dumped over the crossbar, Scott blew his final whistle, carving another famous result into the annals of Tranmere accomplishment. They did not win, at least not in the conventional sense, but their unbelievable fightback rekindled my fire for this degenerating sport.

In football, as in life, the poor are triumphing over the rich less than ever before. We live in a time of absurd inequality, where the richest six people in Britain own as much wealth as the poorest 13 million. In football, similar financial chaos has reduced the number of giant-killings, and the game is less intriguing as a result.

Watford have a wage bill that exceeds £85 million. Tranmere operate on a fraction of that budget. Watford pay striker Andre Gray £60,000 per week. Tranmere could afford to employ him on the same wage for 16 months, so long as they did not employ anybody else.

I have been critical of Rovers this season, bemoaning the lack of quality signings amid a spluttering campaign. However, if advancing up the pyramid and reaching the Premier League means becoming Watford, a hulking institution devoid of purpose, then perhaps we are okay after all. You can keep it, thank you very much.

Unless you have seen what we have seen, and unless you know what only we know, such moments of inexplicable ecstasy as that which occurred yesterday are unattainable. Unless you are a proper football club, with proper football fans, marooned in a proper football league, such peaks of confounding euphoria barely seem possible.

Yes, you might have flashy advertising boards and racing car seats in the dugout, but you do not have heart. And yes, you can keep the fancy pre-game montages and carefully curated social media platforms, because those things have little bearing on the final result.

Our players went to Watford as strangers and came back as heroes yesterday. They proved that, no matter how far this game progresses, Tranmere Rovers will always remain relevant. Though dazed and weary, the grand old dame will always be capable of the extraordinary, at least from time to time. And that, dear friends, is why we continue to attend football matches, because witnessing something larger than yourself is the most cathartic thing of all.

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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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