Zak Hayes’ thoughts ahead of the new campaign.

Zak Hayes gave his thoughts ahead of the new Tranmere campaign. He joined me to give his thoughts on the summer, the players that the club has recruited on Micky Mellon’s return to Prenton Park and the friendlies that have been contested in the past few weeks. It has been an action packed summer, one in which has set a promising background to a hopefully successful ten months. 

Hello Zak, to start our conversation off could you tell me and whoever’s reading this a little bit about yourself. How long have you been following Rovers, how did your love for the club first develop and could you tell us also about your sports journalism work?  

I was first taken to Prenton Park by my dad in early 2008. We were playing Millwall and won 2-0 with goals from Ian Moore and Shane Sheriff and I just remember being taken in by the atmosphere and feel of it, it just felt right for me. I’d followed Liverpool before then and continued to after but over the next few years I realised that supporting Tranmere just felt like the right thing to do.

I’ve been studying sports journalism at the University of Chester since September 2019, I’ve been lucky enough to report from the press box at Prenton Park as well as Chester FC’s Deva Stadium and interview some very interesting people as a result. In the past year I’ve also written for a couple of websites and appeared on a podcast. I’d love to be able to cover Tranmere in any way, shape or form as a sports journalist in the future if it’s possible.

What are your greatest and worst moments as a Tranmere supporter? If you had to make a best and worst six-a-side and place a manager behind them both, what would those teams look like? We’ve had many good and bad players!

The greatest moment has to be the final whistle of the 2018 playoff final. I can’t recall ever going through so many emotions as I did that day. Connor Jennings’s winner against Newport a year later is a very close second, with honourable mentions to Paul Mullin’s equaliser and winner in the two FA Cup games against Watford, Andy Robinson’s strike against Millwall in 2010 and Harvey Gilmour’s last minute winner at Morecambe.

The obvious worst moment would be confirmation that we were out of the football league in 2015, although the PPG demotion being confirmed last year isn’t far behind. The defeat to FGR at Wembley in 2017 was gutting but not as damaging as the first two, since I knew we had the right manager and a good enough team to go again the next season, which we certainly did.

The best 6 a side for me in my time supporting the club? I’d probably go with Danny Coyne in goal, Ian Goodison and Peter Clarke at the back, midfield of Max Power with Connor Jennings just in front, James Norwood up top. Only one man for manager, Micky Mellon.

The worst 6 a side? Blimey, where do we start? Probably Owain Fon Williams in goal (feels harsh but we’ve not had much range of keepers in my memory), Marcus Holness and Ash Taylor at the back, Marc Laird behind Elliot Richards with Kayode Odejayi up front. There’s probably plenty more who haven’t come to mind though.

Talking about sports journalism itself at Tranmere, what is it like surrounding the club? What sports journalism and reporting features do you enjoy that someone who may be unaware of it but loves Tranmere could enjoy too? 

I think the likes of Richard Garnett, Nick Hilton and Ben Reardon all do a very good job with covering the club in the local media but it’s great that we also have plenty of coverage and content made by fans independently, such as the This is Tranmere and ATTTM podcast and websites such as Planet Prentonia and Prenton Park Press. I think the fact that we’re a medium sized club with a modest fanbase helps us out in this area, we don’t get much coverage from the national sports media so anything that gets produced is usually read/listened to and appreciated by fans.

Possibly the greatest bit of recruitment this summer for Rovers has been the re-appointment of Scotsman Micky Mellon, who won two promotions via the Play-Offs last campaign. What are your thoughts on his return and what does he bring to the club that other managers may not? 

I was really pleased when the re-appointment was confirmed, he’s not only a man who understands the club and has an outstanding relationship with the fans but also has a proven track record in League Two with two previous promotions from this division.

In terms of what he brings to the club that other managers wouldn’t, there’s the unfinished business following our very harsh removal from League One, as it’s something he’ll be determined to put right. There’s also the way he very much has the club in his heart and is in some ways a supporter in the dugout, whereas to Keith Hill we were just another job at just another club.

You obviously experienced the club under the ownership of Peter Johnson so what has Mark Palios, owner since 2015, brought to the club as well as Mellon and do you believe that the club is in good hands going forwards for a successful future?

Mark Palios is an example of a chairman who’s involved in the club for all the right reasons. I honestly think we’d have ended up like Stockport County or maybe even worse, like Darlington or Hereford if he and Nicola hadn’t intervened. After years of stagnation under Johnson I think it’s their contributions that have breathed new life in to the club over the past seven years and the work they’ve done to improve the stadium and the matchday experience is commendable to say the least, even if I sometimes wonder if the amount of money allocated to the playing budget could be improved.

I do think the club is in good hands going forward. Palios is certainly someone who cares about the club’s future and sustainability and when there’s often news of other EFL clubs having financial difficulties and struggling to put a team together it does make me think we’re lucky to have a man with the experience and know-how of Mark Palios in charge at Rovers.

Last season opened in an unprecedented fashion, with the Covid pandemic posing many questions for lower league clubs. What were your thoughts on the demotion and the appointment of Mike Jackson? Looking back, how would you describe the way that the 2020-21 season went and do you believe that Mellon will hold the demotion as something to tackle now he is back?

I had a feeling the demotion was coming for weeks before it was confirmed if I’m honest, but it doesn’t take away how it left a large sense of injustice and unfairness. I will say though that it would have been a lot easier to take had the playoffs not gone ahead in both league one and league two. It was wrong that teams were allowed to play on to try and go up, but we weren’t allowed to play on to try and stay up.

At the time, I thought Jackson was a sensible, no-nonsense appointment who would stabilise us in mid table at least before pushing on the year after.  Obviously I and many others were proved wrong, as no disrespect to Jackson but it’s safe to say the job just wasn’t for him.

I thought the 20/21 season was one which had it’s good moments, but overall was one of underwhelming disappointment. Ultimately we had no solution when James Vaughan got injured and things just spiralled downward from there, culminating in Keith Hill calling fans “fickle” and refusing to accept responsibility for poor results. The positive of losing in the playoffs for me was knowing we could now get a new manager in and start the clear-out and rebuild.

Who do you believe were the club’s shining lights and biggest recruitment mistakes of last season? There are a few who have extended their contract at Prenton Park this summer, Liam Feeney etc but there has been a massive overhaul of new faces. I think I counted up to 20 when analysing things the other night. How do you think this overhaul could affect things and how important is it for them all to gel quickly?

The obvious answer to last season’s shining light would be James Vaughan, for being our most consistent goal scorer up until his injury. I can only wonder if we would have kept our good form going and gained promotion to league one had he not become unavailable for a large part of the season due to his injury.

There’s also Ian Dawes and Andy Parkinson, for surprising everyone, getting the team going again in between Jackson and Hill and giving it everything they had in the playoffs when they found out they’d be in charge at short notice.

Not to mention Peter Clarke. For 39 years old he’s ridiculously good, playing every minute of the league season and showing the passion and commitment to the cause we love to see as supporters.

I think the overhaul means we might have to be patient with the new squad and that we might be stop start for the first few weeks and months of the campaign, however we’ve looked fairly sharp and organised in the preseason games I’ve seen so I’m hopeful it shouldn’t take too long to click. Not to mention we aren’t exactly the only club in League Two that’s had a large rebuild so it’s a very interesting season in more than one way.

I’m open minded with the new players and how Micky will set them up but I still think the objective of the season has to be promotion, no doubt about that. If we can keep ourselves at least in the playoff places or the chasing pack by January time I’ll be happy as we tend to kick on and mount a push from there.

We’re obviously talking at a very early stage of the campaign. I’m sending you these questions after only two pre-season games, one in which was a great victory against Rangers with Mellon back in the home dugout and a mammoth 7-1 victory against Cammell Lairds. However, what were your thoughts going into the games, Rangers especially, and how did they compare with your thoughts leaving the stadium?

I was expecting us to be comfortably beaten by Rangers so was very pleasantly surprised to see us taking the lead and seeing the rest of the game out with good organisation and defensive play even if Rangers played at half pace.

I wasn’t able to be at the Lairds game but went to our friendlies away at Stalybridge Celtic and Warrington Town (won 3-1 and 1-0 respectively) and thought we looked fairly well organised, the players seemed to be getting to know each other and we came through with no injuries which is all you can really ask for. Callum McManaman and Ryan Watson spring to mind as two players who stood out and impressed me in those games and I think they’ll be really useful assets for us in league two. 

Do Tranmere need any more players in your viewpoint?

Yes, in my opinion we need at least one more out and out striker to boost ourselves up front, from his stats Mani Dieseruvwe looks to be more of a utility striker who can both thrive from having a good strike partner to work with and a player who can help bring out the best in a strike partner through tactics like laying the ball off for them and helping to create space for example.

I do think we have a lack of depth in our squad as well and the thought of injuries and suspensions kicking in does worry me a little. I am aware though that for league two, having an out and out goalscorer and strength in depth is often asking a lot of a club’s finances and availability of players.

Why will this season be different to any other?

The obvious answer would be that every match-going fan will have a feeling of being very grateful indeed simply because they can attend games, something no one could have predicted at the start of 2020.

Aside from that, I’m not sure if there have been many summers where as many clubs have had as many full on rebuilds ahead of the season as this one. There are a good number of teams in this division with similar hopes and capabilities to us and it’s looking like it could be a very action packed season for league two as a whole.

Zak Hayes and his dad at the 2018 National League Play Off Final at Wembley Stadium. Rovers would beat Boreham Wood with thanks to a late header to reclaim their Football League status. This is what Zak has described as his greatest moment during his time supporting the club.

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