Founded: 1884 (as Belmont FC)
Nickname: The Whites
Ground: Prenton Park
Manager: Micky Mellon (previous clubs managed: Shrewsbury, Barnsley (caretaker), Fleetwood)
Honours: Third Division North (1938), Lancashire Combination (1914), The Combination (1908), Welsh Cup (1935), Football League Trophy (1990)
Have we met? Not for four-and-a-half years but yes, 12 times in total. All of those have meetings have been in the third tier bar the two most recent ones. The first back in 2001 ended all square, but every game since has gone one way or the other.
When were they last here? 2013/14. 13 years of third tier football at Prenton Park came to an end as Tranmere finished bottom of the pile. The following season, things took a further turn for the worse as the Whites 94-year first stay in the Football League came to an end with relegation from League Two. Their three National League seasons all culminated in top six finishes. They lost to Forest Green in the 2017 play-off final but enjoyed success in the same game 12 months later with a famous win over Boreham Wood – James Norwood’s late goal sealed promotion for Rovers, who’d been down to ten men since the very first minute of the game.
What happened last season? Another promotion via the play-offs! And one which rivalled the previous year’s for drama. After 119 minutes of stalemate against Newport – who themselves had battled valiantly with a man down for half an hour – Connor Jennings headed home the winner to send Tranmere back to League One after five years away. Micky Mellon’s side had come close to sneaking into the automatic spots, not finding themselves out of contention until the penultimate weekend. The sealing of back-to-back promotions for the first time in the club’s history capped a thoroughly memorable campaign.
Any connections to Wycombe? Until 2004, no one had represented both clubs. Since then, Iffy Onoura, Bas Savage, Janoi Donacien and…Delroy Facey have done so. Goalkeeper Jason Mooney, who spent a year at Adams Park but never played, moved on to Tranmere in 2012 and made four appearances.
How will they fare? A third successive promotion would rewrite the English football history books. It’s not going to happen.
The loss of prolific marksman Norwood to Ipswich was inevitable but no less of a blow; to say his 53 goals in the last two league campaigns have been key would be an almighty understatement. He netted 28 of the Whites 63 in the 2018/19 regular season, and it’s going to be some ask for Paul Mullin and the aforementioned Connor Jennings to come even close to plugging that gap – although the former was on target five times despite being limited to mostly substitute appearances. The same goes for new arrivals Stefan Payne and Jordan Ponticelli – on loan from Bristol Rovers and Coventry respectively, they have only 19 career EFL goals between them. Young Aston Villa forward Rushain Hepburn-Murphy has just joined on a season-long loan and appears to have got fans excited, but he is another inexperienced addition.
Rovers may have to rely more on their defensive solidity to keep them safe from the drop, then. While it’s a shame that we won’t get to see cult hero Steve McNulty in action in League One, the permanent signing of Sid Nelson – who had been on loan from Millwall in the second half of last season – represents a very welcome addition to the backline which finished 2018/19 as the sixth best in League Two.
Start well and keep the momentum that they’ve built up going, and Tranmere will have every chance of avoiding the dogfight – which ought to be less intense anyway with the relegation zone effectively slashed in half. They can also take encouragement from the fact that no newly promoted side has gone straight back down from League One since Chestefield and, er, Wycombe in 2012 – although how much that means in real terms is debatable. It’ll be a challenge but one which a well run club with an excellent manager will be more than up for.
Fan Q&A with Stuart Feltham (@stupot42)
What a couple of years it’s been for Tranmere! Just some the period up – have you achieved more than you could have imagined in such a short space of time? I think our recent success needs a bit of context. Just before Christmas 2012 we were top of League One and looking at promotion to the Championship. It was a 5-0 thrashing to Swindon the last game before Christmas which was the turning point that sent us on a downward spiral that didn’t stop until we dropped out of the Football League for the first time in the club’s history. That season we finished 11th; even the BBC, who didn’t seem to like us much, expected that it was impossible for us not to make the play-offs. The 13/14 season saw us relegated from League One and a second relegation in succession in the 14/15 season sent us out of the Football League. The 14/15 season saw us in total disarray. We played 48 different players, had 18 loan players and three managers during the season. The only saving grace of the 14/15 season was our new club owners, Mark and Nicola Palios.
I won’t go into how Mark and Nicola came to own the club, why or what they’ve done since – there are loads of YouTube videos, interviews and reports about that – but what I can say is that they’ve taken a sinking ship and not only steadied it and filled the holes, but turned things around completely. We have a self sufficient club that is a model of how a club outside the Premier League should be run, works with the supporters trust and puts the fans above all else. We are now the Deadly Submarine we’ve been striving to be since the 1980’s, when I first started supporting the Rovers. Without Mark and Nicola there may be no Tranmere Rovers.
When we were relegated to the National League I think a lot of fans thought we’d walk it, but, as Bristol Rovers and countless teams before and since have discovered, it’s no walk in the park. The football is hard and at times not pretty, but the standard was so much better than we ever expected. Our first season in NL was disappointing, but we owe Gary Brabin for stopping the rot. The second season got off to a disappointing start but marked the real start of the fightback. It was the brilliance of Mark Palios to bring Micky Mellon in as manager which has made all the difference. Mellon is a former player who knows what the club is about, how passionate the fans are and where the club could get to. He has a connection to the fans and is as passionate as we are.
Losing to Forest Green in the play-off final was devastating, but it gave us the experience to go and win the next season, even in the impossible situation of playing over 100 minutes of football with only ten men, and again last season to win at the end of extra time. We deserved our promotion into League Two, and I don’t think any fan could honestly say that they expected us to get promoted in our first season back. However, we played well and having the top scorer in the EFL didn’t do us any harm!
So, to answer the question, have we achieved more than we could have expected in a short space of time? Yes, absolutely, but I think we’ve deserved the success we’ve had. Everyone at the club (the players, staff and fans) has worked damn hard for it. The bad times were really depressing, but I’d do it all again, not just for the trips to Prenton Park South (Wembley) but more for the difference it’s made to our club.
Becoming stable in League One surely has to be the primary aim, but how high do you think you can finish this season? I started last season saying I’d take any position above the relegation zone, but I did believe we had a team capable of finishing mid-table or better. This season is a bit of an unknown. We’ve got the backbone of a good League One team, but again, I’ll take 5th from bottom. I really don’t want to be involved in a relegation dogfight, so a mid table finish would be great. Having said that, which fan wouldn’t love to see Micky get three in a row!
Who do you expect to be your star performers in 2019/20 and why? Like I said, we have a solid backbone. Scotty Davies in goal is a quality shot stopper and winner of the League Two golden glove, so he’s going to be one to watch. Manny Monthe in the centre of defence is a big, solid centre-back with a turn of pace. Ollie Banks has a touch of class and can run games from midfield on his day, and David Perkins came in last season and made a difference in the middle. Connor Jennings has been an attacking threat since arriving at the club and formed a great partnership with Norwood. I think they’ve all got the class and ability to compete in League One. However, I think I’m most looking forward to seeing how Corey Blackett-Taylor, who has joined us from Villa, gets on. He looks like he could be delighting the Super White Army this season with his skill and creativity.
What have you made of your summer transfer dealings so far? Where, if anywhere, do you still particularly need to strengthen? We’ve had a few of our big performers from the last few years depart Prenton Park this summer, so the new signings have something to live up to. I think Micky has done good business this summer, but I’m a little underwhelmed. With Norwood departing for Ipswich, we were all hoping to see a proven goalscorer come in, and I think we’re still missing that clinical finisher, but we have a number of good forwards who I hope prove me wrong.
Blackett-Taylor looks like he’s going to be a good player, even if he does have a bit to learn. Darren Potter looks like a quality signing to add some experience and quality in the middle of the park. Stefan Payne has been there and scored goals at this level. In Ishamel Miller, Kieron Morris and Nelson we’ve signed up players who we know and we expect to come back in and do the job we know they’re capable of.
Finally, what’s been the best moment for you as a Tranmere supporter? I’ve been going to Prenton Park with my dad since I was seven years old (a 2-1 defeat to Cambridge United). In that time I’ve had some really great experiences and some heartbreak too. When I got married in 2011 I said in my speech that it was the joint happiest moment of my life, tied with David Kelly scoring at Wembley in the Worthington Cup final to make it 1-1 when we were down to ten men. We went on to lose the game 2-1, but that was a moment of unexpected utter joy. However, I think that’s been superseded by James Norwood scoring to make it 2-1 in the National League playoff final. Don’t tell my wife! That game was a rollercoaster of emotions, and Nors’ goal wasn’t just taking the lead in the playoff final, it was against the odds (again down to ten men and having used all our subs before half-time). It felt like an end to the non-League days and the start of a new era, and the culmination of all the efforts of the past three seasons. It was a magic moment.
Micky Mellon image: Alexsimpson99 via Wikimedia Commons. Used under license.