A review of the season that wasn’t completely a ‘season’, the thinking that went behind an ‘unjust’ and ‘extremely poor’ decision to end the season and what exactly could this ‘relegation’ mean for Tranmere Rovers in a very frustrating yet interesting period of time.
Before the season had started:
Tranmere Rovers were promoted to the football league in mid may 2018 against Boreham Wood, three seasons since their relegation to the non-league after a defeat at Plymouth’s Home Park, it was a game that typified the club and the attitudes within it. Everyone put in a shift, from the pitch to the many thousands of superwhite fans within and outside the ‘home of football’ Wembley. It was a very eventful ninety minutes, Rovers were without a man and the option of any substitutions just before the whistle blew for half time, yet managed to achieve promotion in the saying that bleeds Tranmere ‘it’s never easy’. Celebrations flowed, Tranmere would be a football league club for the first time since 2015 with great ownership in Mark and Nicola Palios and a great manager at the helm in Micky Mellon. Although Tranmere were promoted, hot-shot striker Andy Cook departed for league one Walsall FC, which meant James Norwood would be the lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation that would promote Tranmere to League One. Again at Wembley Stadium, again with many vocal supporters, the story of success continued.
For the 2019/2020 season, Tranmere Rovers would compete in the third division ‘League One’. This would be the first time the club had graced the heights of this league since 2013/2014 and the mood surrounding the place had transformed massively since then. Supporters had gone from fed-up to optimistic, the ground had gone from run-down to sublime and the fans were incredibly thankful to everyone involved with the club for this. The thankfulness was shown in the stands, as the chants spurred the team on to victory. The optimistic chants of ‘Micky Mellon’s going for two in a row’ was soon replaced by the incredibly optimistic chants of ‘Micky Mellon’s going for three in a row’. This optimism was another subject matter that typified the club, through the motto brought to the club by owner Mark Palios ‘Ubi fides ibi lux et robur’. Latin for ‘Where there is faith, there is light and strength’.
The summer transfer window of 2019:
In the summer transfer window of 2019 a great amount of lower league quality and experience left the squad, with a mixture of released players and players that would leave on free transfers. Adam Buxton, James Devine, Steve Mcnulty, James Norwood, Cole Stockton, Ben Tollitt, Paddy Wharton, Zoumana Bakayogo and Jay Harris. The greatest loss of them all was the loss of James Norwood, the striker who had joined Gary Brabin’s national league Tranmere in 2015 with the aim of firing the whites to promotion. According to Wikipedia, the Eastbourne-born forward scored 82 goals in 165 appearances and this record proved his importance in Tranmere’s successive promotions. He scored the winning goal at Wembley in the summer of 2018, which is arguably the most important goal in Tranmere’s history. He also fired Tranmere to play-off promotion with 29 goals in 45 appearances in the 2018/19 season, whilst playing as a lone striker. Replacing him would be a massive task, yet it was a task that had to be completed in order to continue the recent story of great success. Tranmere signed players on permanent deals: Corey-Blackett Taylor, Kieron Morris, Sid Nelson, Stefan Payne, Darren Potter, George Ray, Calum Woods, Morgan Ferrier. They also signed players on loan deals: Jordan Ponticelli, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, Jacob Maddox and Kane Wilson.
August – The start of a league one campaign:
Tranmere endured a tough start to a competitive league one campaign as they faced sides such as Rochdale at Prenton Park and travelled to Portsmouth on the South Coast. They would lose four games with one meaning that they would be knocked out of the EFL cup as they lost 3-0 against Hull City. However, positives were shown in the creation of great fan experiences. Micky Mellon’s side beat local rivals Bolton Wanderers 5-0 at Prenton Park and Stefan Payne’s equaliser at Rotherham United’s New York Stadium were memories that the ‘Super White Army’ could look back very fondly of.
Heavy defeats and new additions:
In September, the ‘SWA’ saw two heavy defeats on the road against Oxford United and against James Norwood’s new club Ipswich Town. Their team drew two games, against Peterborough United and Gillingham and they witnessed Tranmere’s famous comeback ability at Prenton Park against Burton Albion as Ollie Banks and new striker Stefan Payne netted in injury time. Neil Danns, a central midfielder, was brought in September following the demise of Bury. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was another signing made in September, a full back relatively unused at Manchester United, as depth was needed in the defensive area. Many argued this was a poor transfer window as although the players brought in had quality to excite, it looked worrying up-front. James Norwood out, Stefan Payne and Morgan Ferrier in ultimately wasn’t enough and this showed throughout the course of the season. The Tranmere faithful would have to wait until the winter until their excitement for the strikeforce grew.
Euphoria in Birmingham, the feeling didn’t last long:
In October, Tranmere would win on Sky Sports cameras at St. Andrews against Coventry City after Corey Blackett-Taylor netted in front of the away fans to cause a scene of pandemonium. However, the game didn’t do much to show how the future would pan out … little over a week later Tranmere travelled to Sunderland, they left with a 5-0 defeat. This was the game that Micky Mellon chose to question the mentality of his squad in a post match interview with the local press, ‘We can’t be saying that we were in the national league recently, we have to move on and our performances have to improve as we are Tranmere’.
Great win in an early ‘six-pointer’ and FA Cup progress:
This message was heard by the players, Rovers travelled to Buckinghamshire next to face Milton Keynes. Loanee forward Rushian Hepburn-Murphy scored a hat trick to bring all three points home against opposition that Tranmere would seemingly finish near. In the FA Cup that month, Tranmere would progress after a hard fought win at Wycombe Wanderers in a replay following a tightly contested draw at Prenton Park. However, the league results didn’t match the levels of performance quality. Wycombe managed to be victorious with a 2-0 win at Prenton Park and Tranmere travelled to Fleetwood Town and returned with a 2-1 defeat.
The ‘festive’ period:
December was a huge month in terms of league table importance, the ‘Superwhites’ were tasked with cup progression and league result progression if they were to achieve league safety. Tranmere beat ‘non-league’ Chichester City 5-1 at home as they progressed to the third round of the famous English football competition. In the league that month, Micky Mellon’s side averaged a point per game, as they played five games. The high point of those three games was the home win against AFC Wimbledon, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy netted mid-way through the first half which settled the game as a 1-0 win. On the other hand, the low point came on Boxing Day at Burton Albion. The travelling faithful would see a 4-2 defeat, as a ‘thriller’ at the Pirelli stadium had the home team displaying more quality than their opponents. This game, as well as the many before that, made it evident that the squad lacked quality and a greatly successful January transfer window would be needed to provide safety.
A successful transfer window, a FA Cup success story. League form needed to improve quickly:
In the January window, Rovers made many new successful signings. This would factorise into the form seen prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Peter Clarke and Luke Mcculough joined on free transfers whilst Andy Cook, Alex Woodyard, James Vaughan and Morgan Feeney signed a loan deal until the season’s end. This was an incredibly successful January window, that was mirrored in the positivity shown by the Tranmere faithful when the season ended. Departing the club on a loan deal was forward Paul Mullin, who joined Cambridge United on the final day of the window (January 31st).January came a FA Cup success story, after the recent progression in the great cup competition Micky Mellon’s men were the ball out of the cup draw to face Watford at Vicarage Road. In ‘Istanbul’ fashion, Watford led 3-0 at half time yet Tranmere’s consistent comeback ability was put to the test and again it became evident as the ‘Hornets’ were stung. Tranmere drew 3-3 and set up a great money spinning tie at home to the premier league opposition. They would win at Prenton Park 2-1, with goals from Emmanuel Monthe and Paul Mullin. This set up a great home cup tie against Manchester United, as money was pumped into the club’s finances with a sold-out prenton park and a game televised on BT Sport cameras. The result against Manchester United showed the distance in quality, ‘The red devils’ won six goals to nil. However, the money seen surrounding the game was more important. In the league, Tranmere’s start to a new decade wasn’t successful as they lost three games and drew one. The most humiliating defeat came on New Years Day, 4-1 at home against Coventry City despite beating them less than three months previous.
The growing desperation for quality to become bedded in, it’s finally bedded:
This poor form was carried on in February, as the new successful signings needed time to bed in and truly show their worth. A surprising defeat at Bolton following a positive transfer window came before a humiliating 3-0 defeat at Prenton Park in mid-week against Doncaster Rovers. A defeat against Portsmouth and Wycombe followed, in the midst of a draw at home to Bristol Rovers. 25th February 2020 came the turning point, as youthful pacey winger Corey Blackett-Taylor netted in the 95th minute at Shrewsbury Town in a 3-2 away victory. This game proved that the newly signed players had bed in to play well together and to play with the comeback ability and ‘ubi fides’ motto that is adopted by the Merseyside club.
A ‘season’ cut short as soon as the quality was put on show:
In March, two games were played until the season was brought to the halt following the unwelcome arrival of the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Those two games saw two great wins, 2-1 at Blackpool and Accrington Stanley saw Tranmere having a great run of form and this grew positivity in the terraces. The Tranmere faithful had their optimistic thoughts renewed. The fixtures set to follow were: home encounters against Milton Keynes and Lincoln City, the away encounters saw Tranmere travel to AFC Wimbledon and Rochdale.
Personally, I believe with the growing optimism and quality bedded into the side that Tranmere would’ve stayed up if the league season was completed as the squad’s quality improved immensely following the January window. The defence was strengthened with the leadership qualities and strength of veteran Peter Clarke who would partner the centre-half area with the returning Mark Ellis, in midfield Luke Mcculough and Alex Woodyard would start a great partnership with strength and the ability to dominate the oppositions midfield and up-front James Vaughan grew a great partnership with Morgan Ferrier as the pair would contribute goals and assists. This all came to fruition as Rovers travelled to the ‘Wham’ stadium as well as Bloomfield Road and left with all three points. The following games were against nearby, in the league positions, opponents such as AFC Wimbledon and Milton Keynes. Thus, it was a great shame to see the season end in the way it did when Mellon was on the verge of a new great wave with a solid Tranmere eleven.
The ‘players ‘end of season awards’ came a few months later, as the possibility of finishing the season grew slim. The video was hosted by Ray Stubbs and had small talking features from Mark and Nicola Palios.
Young player of the season: Corey Blackett-Taylor.
Goal of the season: Ollie Banks v Peterborough United.
Unsung hero award: Janice Monty.
Norman Wilson award: Santini group.
Players player season award: Liam Ridehalgh.
Player of the season award: Kieron Morris.
The awful outbreak of the Coronavirus and what this meant for football. What have Tranmere done throughout it?
The awful outbreak of Covid-19 postponed competitive sport globally, starting with the premier league clash between Manchester City and Arsenal at the ‘Etihad’ following Mikel Arteta’s announcement that he had the illness. Since then, many have come forward and announced their battle with the illness such as Chelsea forward Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers. I would like to send my best wishes to those fighting their terrible battles and send condolences to the families who have lost loved one due to it. The first I saw of the illness, within Tranmere, was when everyone involved with competitive fixtures were asked to avoid shaking hands and aim to place elbow to elbows as a sign of sportsmanship respect. This came at the ‘Wham’ stadium, where Tranmere would beat Accrington Stanley 2-1. Tranmere’s last game of the ‘season’ came at Bloomfield Road on Tuesday 10th March, fortunately they would win and send the away terrace into great satisfaction upon their journey home. Three months on, Tranmere’s relegation was announced. The EFL chose to ask league one teams ‘How would you like to end the season?’Many responded with ending the season on a points-per-game basis as this meant they wouldn’t lose money if they chose to play games without fans. However, Tranmere’s owner Mark Palios stated many times that the ‘P-P-G’ option was flawed as teams hadn’t faced all of the qualities that opponents had and drew up a proposal for a season curtail that would see no relegations. This proposal was turned down by the EFL upon asking clubs the options for a season closure. One thing that baffles me is how clubs can choose to not play on but to play on in play-off fixtures, in my opinion if you are to say no to playing on that should count for all games. Upon the announcement of Tranmere’s relegation, twenty staff within the club lost their money and the owner drew up a statement saying they would take the EFL to court, if they had to, to fight a legal case as the relegation could mean up to a loss of £1million which is an incredible amount of money especially within a climate of poor finances due to the covid-19 pandemic.
One positive from the break is that with the contributions from the investment of the ‘Santini group’, Tranmere were able to afford a new pitch described as being ‘Premier league quality’. It will be very interesting to see a new wave of Tranmere fighting for their return to league one on a wonderful pitch. Despite the growing negative feeling towards the EFL and football in general, let’s all support the club in the wishes of the great owners we have in the way we have been doing for a long time.
Throughout the summer, I will be keeping you up to date with transfer news and other Tranmere-related write-ups in this very frustrating but interesting period of time.
Thank you, stay safe.