On January 27 2001, Tranmere Rovers made the short journey across the River Mersey and humbled Everton 3-0 in a hopelessly one-sided FA Cup tie.
It’s a game that remains etched into my own index of soccer memories, not only because of the wretched performance turned in by the Toffees that day, or because it was the only time my dad insisted we leave the ground early, but because of the manner in which the second tier side played.
After all, as a Wirral-born lad I would often hear Tranmere-supporting mates wax lyrical about the diligent Clint Hill, effervescent Andy Parkinson and the staggering potential of Jason Koumas. But being at Goodison Park and watching them run my own team ragged, there was an unshakeable sense that the men from Prenton Park were on the up.
“It was a side that was young, brash and played with no fear,” Tom, a long-term Rovers season-ticket holder, told me. “At the time, as supporters, we felt as though we could go anywhere and beat anyone.”
Just over 14 years on, the Super White Army are on the cusp of oblivion. After an abject display at home to Oxford United last weekend, Rovers are rooted to the bottom of League Two, without a manager following the subsequent resignation of Micky Adams and are facing up to the prospect of non-league football for the first time since 1921.
They have two games to preserve their status as a Football League club. But they’re both against teams in the top seven and even if Rovers take six points, they require Hartlepool United and Cheltenham Town to slip up too. All things considered, there’s an irrepressibly terminal feeling about their plight.
It’s been a staggering fall from grace for a team enriched with local significance. While the stature of Everton and Liverpool hog much of the Merseyside spotlight from Rovers, they are a proud club that have always relished their underdog status.
“Tranmere will never be able to compete with Liverpool and Everton,” the club’s greatest ever manager Johnny King famously said. “They’re big liners like the Queen Mary, but I see Tranmere like a deadly submarine.”
But for a brief spell prior to the aforementioned embarrassment of the Toffees, Rovers tantalizingly were close to competing. They made it to the final of the League Cup in 2000, putting in a valiant display with 10 men before eventually losing to Leicester City. But prior to the Wembley date, from 1993 onwards they lost out in the playoffs for Premier League football three times in three years. Having missed the opportunity to tap into that lucrative financial treasure chest the top flight yielded, sacrifices had to be made.
“The start of our demise could be argued to go back as far as the late 90’s when the club began to reduce its investment and sell off key players,” Steve, another Tranmere supporter, told me. “Little of this transfer money was used to replenish the playing squad and it was instead used towards normal running costs due to lack of external investment.”
Indeed, the trip to Wembley, the Goodison rout and a stunning 4-3 win over Southampton—a game in which the Wirral outfit rallied from three goals down—seemed to be indicators that better days lay ahead. But for Rovers it was as heady as things got. Player-manager John Aldridge left, the club was relegated to the third tier and the downward spiral was triggered in earnest.
Flirtations with promotion eventually gave way to survival scraps and after clinging on to League One status in 2009 and 2010, they were relegated to the fourth tier of English football on the final day last season. To make matters worse, the club’s manager Ronnie Moore left the club prior to the end of the campaign, amidst accusations and an eventual admittance of a breach of Football League gambling rules.
“The relegation last season was in many fans’ eyes an inevitability that, if anything, should have happened earlier,” said Steve. “The club seemed to be punching above its weight with an ever-diminishing financial clout. By the time we reached League Two we had one of the lowest budgets in the league, a squad of untried and inexperienced players and an untried manager.”
The debilitating cocktail of all those factors leave Rovers where they are today: two points from safety in League Two with two games to go. There are slender hopes of survival, but with Adams abandoning ship and the fans protesting angrily outside Prenton Park after the Oxford game, it’d be remarkable for this team to raise itself from its current malaise.
The prospect of Conference football is a daunting one for supporters, too. So often we’ve seen teams like Rovers slalom down the pyramid after falling through the Football League net and or a club that is already rife with financial issues, the demands of playing in a less lucrative division, diminished attendances and inevitable player sales will be tough.
But quite remarkably, there’s still light at the end of the tunnel for some. Indeed, with the savvy Mark Palios—a former Football Association chief executive and Tranmere player—now having a controlling interest in the club, his revered business acumen should ensure stiffer foundations are put in place.
“I think we will be fine with Palios,” Sean, another Rovers diehard, told me. “I also think out fanbase is down to a minimum now. Extra income from local games [clashes against the likes of Chester and Wrexham represent local derbies of sorts] and being more competitive will help.”
The fact remains that for this generation of Tranmere supporters, non-league football is unchartered territory and for any club dropping out of the league, choppy waters lie ahead. So it’s perhaps understandable that for some fans, there are morbid thoughts about the club’s long-term future.
“If we do not reclaim our league status in the first season or two then I really do fear for the existence of the club,” confessed Steve. “Not just in terms of its fundamental existence, but it’s existence at a standard that I would even want to watch on a regular basis.”
To hear those words from supporters who have travelled to obscure corners of the country to watch the Super White Army for years is saddening. But it’s a harsh reflection of the state of the game in England and how the monetary chasm between the elite and the rest—amongst other factors—can quickly prompt a demise of such harrowing standards should a club stray slightly off course.
For all the doom and gloom that has engulfed Prenton Park, Rovers aren’t down quite yet and for a club that has refined an ethos as a “deadly submarine,” it’d be mawkish to completely rule out the prospect of a late rally.
But the days of springing shocks akin to the cornerstone triumph at Goodison Park or that famous night against Saints seem increasingly nostalgic for this humble Merseyside club and its clutch of devoted supporters. For all associated with Tranmere, that’s an enormous concern.
Tom, Steve and Sean asked not to share their last names.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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