Welcome to the Wirral. Merseyside, but not scouse. Cheshire, but definitely not Footballers’ Wives. For decades, the peninsula’s national flagship was Tranmere Rovers, a steady, reliable presence in the Football League.
It did quirky: those Friday night fixtures in the 1980s, an effort to lure fans of Liverpool’s big clubs to experience footie across the Mersey. It had a memorably arcane celebrity fanbase revolving around legendary indie band Half Man Half Biscuit, the Birkenhead surrealists whose yearning for Czech football is gently referenced in the Fan Park. Fan Park, a grand-sounding name, is the marquee signing: literally, it’s a marquee in the car park with a bar at one end and a display of banners, retro posters and tributes to Johnny King, the mastermind behind the team’s rise to within touching distance of the Premier League.
That 1990s high point didn’t last. Retro shirts from that era, proudly emblazoned with ‘Wirral’ as the sponsor’s logo, are widespread among today’s Rovers’ fans. Prenton Park, redeveloped to comply with the Taylor Report, gained an imposing Kop Stand – capacity 5,696 – that dominates its neighbours. Once given over to away fans, it’s now the home end but was left empty for Saturday’s pre-season friendly. However, the rising crowds that greeted the team’s 1990s success have dwindled as the team’s on-field fortunes dribbled away from that high-water mark.
From a League Cup final appearance in 2000, the last time it was played at the old Wembley, Tranmere slipped out of the second tier 12 months later despite the efforts of another local legend, John Aldridge. As founder members of Division Three (North) back in 1921, this was hardly unfamiliar territory for Rovers. Gradually the club reverted to type, short of funds and busking a living as Merseyside’s poor relation. Once a Premier League hopeful, now they drifted from play-off contenders to mid-table, then relegation battlers. Finally came the crash: back-to-back relegations saw Rovers out of the Football League by 2015.
This season, Tranmere are back. National League play-off victory over Boreham Wood – after several play-off near misses over the years – means team and Wirral are back among the classified football results. There’s a quiet optimism around Prenton Park and even a 0-2 friendly defeat against Fleetwood can’t dampen the sense that Tranmere are heading in the right direction again. “Two silly mistakes gave ‘em their goals,” concludes one fan. Fair comment, although it’s worth noting also that the home team look good across two thirds of the field only to falter when the opposition goal comes into view. A striker remains high on the wish list for most fans.
The final stages of recruitment for the coming season notwithstanding, Tranmere’s return to the League feels right. With long-serving former player (and one-time scandal-hit FA CEO) Mark Palios as chairman, there’s a sense that the club and its fans are on the same page and can steadily regroup after the shock of Conference football. The contrast with other fallen Football League clubs such as York or Stockport is stark – and encouraging.
Prenton Park, Tranmere, England
July 21, 2018, Friendly
Tranmere Rovers 0 Fleetwood 2 (Dempsey, Evans)
Att: not given