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Why Relegation Would Cap A Dismal Year For Tranmere Rovers

Thursday 10th April 2014
Former Norwich City boss, Ken Brown, famously remarked after a poor run of form that “with our luck, one of our players must be bonking a witch”.

For Tranmere Rovers fans, their team facing the threat of relegation back into the bottom division for the first time since the 1988-89 season is only the latest in what has been arguably the club's worst season since 1987.

Then a 1-0 win over Exeter City thanks to a Gary Williams goal in the final game of the season saw Rovers narrowly avoid relegation into the Conference and with it, likely oblivion after only having avoided administration a few weeks beforehand.

That result sparked a revival for Rovers under new owner Peter Johnson and returning manager Johnny King. Over the next few years the club secured promotion from Division Four and Division Three, moving into Division Two, now the Championship.

At the dawn of the Premiership era, Rovers reached the play offs in three consecutive seasons and each time they succumbed at the semi final stage. In 2000, they reached the final of the Worthington Cup (losing to Leicester City at Wembley) but also suffered relegation back to League One at the end of the following season.

Since then Rovers have stagnated somewhat in League One, seldom worrying the top sides (they did reach the Play Offs in 2004/2005, but lost on penalties to Hartlepool United). They topped League One for most of the early part of the 2012-2013 season, briefly giving their fans hope of promotion, or at the very least a play off place. Their fall from grace has been astonishing:

On 10th November 2012 , a 1-0 win at Oldham saw Tranmere lead League One by eight points after 19 games, the clubs goal difference was also 11 better than any other team in the division.

11th November 2012 to April 2014 : Since then the club has played a total of 66 league games in that period, they have won 16, drawn 19 and lost 31. They have gone from 8 points clear at the top in November 2012, to being out of the automatic relegation places on goals scored over Carlisle United with seven games of the current season to go.

November 2013 – Winger Joe Thompson, who the club had paid a fee reputed to be around £50,000 for from Rochdale, was tragically diagnosed with a rare form of nodular sclerosing Hodkin Lymphoma. Thompson has undergone extensive medical treatment in order to recover and it is not yet clear if he will ever be able to return to football.

December 2013 – Two Tranmere players, Akpo Sodje and Ian Goodison were arrested and released on bail over spot-fixing allegations with claims that the pair were part of a group that sought to win money by influencing key decisions in games, such as players earning yellow cards.

January 2014 – A Tuesday night game against Rotherham United attracts just 3,777 fans to Prenton Park, the lowest attendance for a league game at the club for over 25 years. Rovers lose the match 2-1.

February 2014 – Michael Wylde withdraws from talks with Rovers chairman Peter Johnson about a takeover at the club. Mr Johnson has been seeking to sell the club for the past seven years, with numerous potential buyers being mooted, but all collapsing after initial talks. Mr Johnson does announce that he still has talks planned with other potential buyers.

Just a few days later, news broke that Rovers manager Ronnie Moore was being investigated by the FA for betting on games in competitions that he and his team were competing in or could directly influence. He was suspended by the club indefinitely until the outcome of the FA investigation with assistant manager John McMahon taking temporary charge.

March 2014 : A 0-0 draw at home to Carlisle leaves Rovers in 20th position in League One, ahead of Carlisle United in the relegation places only by virtue of goals scored with 7 games of the season remaining.

April 2014 – Rovers Chairman Peter Johnson announces that talks with a prospective buyer for the club have once again failed and that instead he wants to issue 2,000,000 new shares in the club (costing 50p each) so local businesses and the Tranmere Rovers Supporters Trust can buy into the club, thus raising funds. Critics suggest that this is simply a ruse for Johnson to get his hands on the £150,000 the trust raised to try and start negotiations with Johnson over the potential ownership of Tranmere Rovers. Jeremy Butler is announced as Tranmere's new Chief Executive to oversee this new era for the club.

Then in the past week, the FA have officially charged Tranmere Rovers boss Ronnie Moore with misconduct relating to breaches of rules pertaining to betting on games. This made Moore's return as manager of Rovers seemingly untenable regardless of whatever sanction the FA choose to impose following the conclusion of their investigation and on Wednesday 9th April his dismissal as manager of the club was confirmed.

Yet, ask any Tranmere fan about their fall from grace and they will tell you it is about more than just the preceding 18 months. The financial constraints of relegation from the Championship, the collapse of the ITV Digital deal, plus an owner unwilling to invest more of his money into a loss-making club mean that Tranmere's decline is as obvious as it is saddening to their fans.

It is a club with an owner that doesn't want to be there, with dwindling support, and with a patchwork squad of veteran players and young, untested professionals and a high percentage of loan players brought in from other clubs.

Now, when they need strong leadership the most, they have a manager who is facing an investigation over breaking FA rules on betting on the game, not to mention two players in the squad facing spot fixing allegations.

The financial constraints mean the club cannot build for the future. Top players at the club can and do move on when their contracts expire, meaning that source of revenue is closed off. The vast majority of players are released on frees when their contracts expire, with other free signings and loanees brought in to replace them.

In truth, the club hasn't moved forward since the 1990s, when Johnny King almost navigated his team to the top flight of English football. That, for Tranmere fans at the moment, is almost unthinkable.

Rovers are an embodiment of how crippling the financial constraints are at most League One and Two sides. Without a generous owner, huge support, a sound financial infrastructure, a burgeoning youth policy and perhaps most importantly, a sense of purpose and direction, the club has stagnated and now seems, to use one of Johnny King's nautical analogies, floundering on the rocks.

It remains to be seen whether season 2013/14 is the one that finally torpedo's Rovers hopes of League One football and plunges them back into football's basement.

But given how the past 18 months have gone, few would bet against it.

It may be the dawn of a new era, but not quite the one Tranmere or their fans, were hoping for.
Thomas Richardson
Big Newcastle United fan but even bigger fan of anything about the beautiful game. Englishman living in Scotland and currently taking plenty of stick for it. Best football moment Gaza celebration Euro 96, worst Kevin Keegan rant 95/96 season and eventual outcome.

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