Is this Tranmere Rovers Vintage the Real Deal?

Tranmere
Image available under Creative Commons (c) Ben Sutherland

The general disbelief at Tranmere Rovers’ spectacular beginning to 2012-13 has all the same brought with it a highly pleasurable set of sensations – with most onlookers happily surprised at the Wirral’s finest’s unbeaten start and clear lead in League 1.

Even the manager himself has seemed perplexed in front of the microphone – for while clearly confident in his players’ abilities, he is aware as anyone of the limitations placed on a club of Tranmere’s size by budget and resources.

Those doubts persist. Ronnie Moore himself, in an interview with our sister site The Seventy Two, during his last spell with Rotherham United, bemoaned the reduced lack of quality of the lower division talent pool, with Premier League clubs’ tendency to stockpile good youngsters largely to blame.

Nor did the Summer bring unlimited cheer. Regulars John Welsh and David Buchanan skipped to Preston while Lucas Akins left for Stevenage and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, Ben Burgess announced his retirement just four weeks after joining and without kicking a competitive ball.

Burgess was a traditional target man and seemed to be very much a Moore player (one recalls his nurturing of Alan Lee at the Millers) and the Scouse native has always carried with him a reputation for condoning and up and at ‘em style, something he claims to have toned down with the passing years.

With the likes of France 98 veteran Ian Goodison and midfield schemer Andy Robinson currently missing through injury, the naysayers are once again making themselves heard, especially given the latter’s status as joint top scorer on seven. If ever a Football League player can be said to be unlucky to have missed the boat, it’s Robinson – outstanding during Swansea City’s early rise to prominence a few years back.

The cynics will also point to what Americans would label as Tranmere’s soft ‘program’. Rovers are yet to lock horns with Sheffield United, Stevenage, MK Dons, Preston and Swindon and despite a potentially significant win that saw them choke the life out of previously high flying Notts County on Saturday, the tougher matches are to come – indeed, back to back visits to Bramall Lane and the County Ground in December will be testing.

The cups have also brought defeat – disappointingly to Port Vale in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy (although as my fellow blogger Lloyd’s recent article pointed out, the Vale are no mean side) while Aston Villa comfortably put paid to the all whites’ chances in the Capital One Cup. Nor is faith in Moore absolute and total – his second of three spells at Prenton Park ended flatly, even if all was forgiven after occasionally unpopular chairman Peter Johnson mystifyingly and amusingly (to the rest of us) replaced him with John Barnes and Jason McAteer.

But let’s refresh ourselves with a few facts. Both the goals for (26) and goals against columns (6) are the best in the division and the club has a six point cushion to the Blades in third. Crawley Town had been reckoned to provide the toughest test to date but were blown away 5-2 after leading on their own patch while Jake Cassidy scored a memorable hat trick against Colchester.

Loan signings such as Liam Palmer (from Sheffield Wednesday) and centre back Ben Gibson (from Middlesbrough) have done well in particular with the latter looking to have higher division potential already – he had earlier impressed in a temporary spell with Plymouth amid the turmoil of their worst days.

Jean-Louis Akpa-Akpro has settled well after his move from Rochdale and ex-Reading kid Abdulai Bell-Baggie has added pace to the unit – Moore’s rescuing him from being released by Salisbury City looks to be a stroke of pure genius.

So is this Tranmere Rovers vintage for real? Towards the end of last season Rovers podcaster Paul Harper wrote a piece for us looking back on the significant upswing in fortunes the club enjoyed after Moore’s return had put an end to a miserable run of one win in 18.

Eventually finishing twelfth, the surge was largely powered by two astute loan signings – Cassidy from Wolves and James Wallace from Everton both adding considerable mettle to the team and helping secure easy survival. With the additional temporary cover enlisted above, it’s clear that Moore has realised earlier than most the importance of the loan system.

The veteran gaffer was quick to secure the duo’s services again this Summer and Cassidy has repaid him with seven strikes, while an additional bonus came in the shape of Wallace turning down interest from Championship concerns, joining Tranmere permanently.

So the personnel changes have been remarkably well judged and there is much in Moore’s past to provide faith too. The former Chicago Sting player was in a similar position during his first spell at Rotherham United – the Guardian’s Jeremy Alexander has described him as a ‘pendulum player/manager’ prone to swinging back and forth across the Pennines.

The Millers were favourites to be relegated from Division 1 in 2000-1 but enjoyed the kind of campaign that foreshadows Tranmere’s now – ending up as runners up and ascending to the second tier. The likes of Lee and Chris Sedgwick were fundamental to an underdog mentality that saw Champions Millwall defeated at Millmoor and much more heavily financed clubs like Reading and Wigan finish below them.

So Moore has history – and so do Tranmere. This is a club that made it to a League Cup Final and persistently knocked on the door of the Premier League in the nineties, falling agonisingly in the play-offs three years in a row. It’s a team that draws on the rich tradition and football-mad environment of Merseyside and it’s very silly indeed to under rate them.

The tendency to avoid the poor example of others and not to over spend will also serve them well, as will the burgeoning plan for the fans to gain control of the club via the Tranmere Rovers Trust. Fundraising efforts have been impressive and talks with majority shareholder Johnson are ongoing. Plans include a three stage redevelopment of Prenton Park and attempts to put down firmer roots in the local community. I think many neutrals will be rooting for Rovers on and off the pitch.

Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 45 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, A United View on Football and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

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