Rovers Return: Tranmere Defy All Obstacles
At about five to four this afternoon, we might have been forgiven for thinking that this was not going to be Micky Mellon’s day. It was all a matter of a balance of power. Trabnere Rovers had finished the National League in second place in the table, and Boreham Wood finished in fourth place, but this only tells a part of a story. Both Tranmere Rovers and Boreham Wood have just completed their third seasons at this level of the game, but their backgrounds couldn’t be more difficult. Less than quarter of a century ago, Tranmere Rovers were regularly knocking on the door of a place in the Premier League. They’ve reached the FA Cup quarter-finals twice since the turn of the century. The National League is, whether rightly or wrongly, considered reduced circumstances.
Boreham Wood arrived at Wembley from a very different place indeed. As Tranmere were playing for a place amongst the elite, Wood were a middle of the road non-league club, occasionally bouncing between the Premier and First Divisions of the Isthmian League. Their ascension to the National League in itself was something of a surprise. Even this season, their average home attendance of 796 was the lowest in the division. At the other end of the scale, Tranmere Rovers’ average home attendance this season was 5,039, the highest in division. As such, the pressure, arguably, rested on the shoulders of the Tranmere Rovers players, all the more so when we consider that they lost here this time last year, to Forest Green Rovers. What Mellon needed was for his team to overcome any nerves or jumpiness and control the game early on.
Enter stage left, Liam Ridehalgh. The referee had barely removed his whistle from between his lips before Ridehalgh attempted to slide into Ricky Shakes and, either through a horrendous rush of blood to the head or through just plain old fashioned atrocious timing, found himself on the receiving end of, at forty-eight seconds, the fastest sending-off in the history of Wembley Stadium. It might have been easy for referee Neil Hair to dodge the foul by making an allowance for the fact that it came so early in the game, but Hair, rightly, saw this dangerous tackle for what it was and took a bold decision. Ridehalgh did not protest the decision in the slightest.
None of this, however, seemed to distract Tranmere much from the job at hand and five minutes later they took the lead through a close range header from Andy Cook. The afternoon took a nastier turn during these post-goal celebrations, however, when Josh Ginnelly was struck by a bottle apparently thrown from an area of the stadium reserved for Boreham Wood supporters. Boreham Wood’s support may be small, but it comes with a reputation. In a Ryman League play-off semi-final in 2010, a supporter got onto the pitch and punched Kingstonian’s Francis Duku before their team went on to win the match. Kingstonian requested a replay, but were denied. Ginelly was later substituted, one of all three made by Mellon before half-time.
For all this change and turbulence, though, the Tranmere players kept their heads and did go on to control the match. It was have been difficult for a latecomer to have picked out which of the two teams had been reduced to ten players after less than a minute of the match had been played. It was to be expected that there would be a considerable amount of stoppage time at the end of the match, and indeed the fourth official added a minimum of six minutes to proceedings. This, however, is only a minimum, though this didn’t matter to Mellon, who spent the seventh and eighth minutes of it screaming at the officials whilst pointing at his watch. Bruno Andrade brought Boreham Wood level in the ninth minute of stoppage-time. The Tranmere manager was unimpressed.
At five to four this afternoon, it felt as though it wasn’t going to be Micky Mellon’s day.
Their players, however, continued to control much of the play during the second half, much as they had in the first. Despite this control, however, the three substitutions forced upon Mellon during the first half, coupled with the stresses and strains of having completed a forty-six match league season as well as cup and play-off matches, meant that they were one injury away from being reduced to nine players. Boreham Wood started, finally, to assert themselves, and it looked as though the team that had been playing a man short for effectively the whole match would have to buckle. But then, with ten minutes to play, James Norwood’s downward squeezed past the hand of the Boreham Wood goalkeeper’s hands, and over the line to send Tranmere back into the Football League.
Tranmere’s two previous seasons in the National League had been punctuated with frustration. At the end of the 2015/16 season, their first back, they finished in sixth place in the table, failing even to reach the play-offs. Last season they chased and chased, but Lincoln City somehow lasted the length despite the pressures of cup fixtures. After beating Aldershot Town fairly comfortably in the semi-finals of last year’s play-offs, though, they were beaten by Forest Green Rovers in the final. It’s easy to fall into the National League and get… lodged there. Stasis of the type seen by, say, Wrexham or Hartlepool United is not uncommon. In more severe cases, it can lead to the sort of entropy that has seen Torquay United, York City and Stockport County fall even lower over the last couple of seasons. The fates of Hereford United, Chester City and Darlington were arguably worse still.
What might have happened, had Boreham Wood somehow have made it into the Football League? Might they have found the thousand or so extra supporters that they’d have needed for respectable League Two attendances? What might the Football League’s reaction had been, had their first actions in relation to their newest member been censure over the bottle-throwing incident. Boreham Wood Football Club has, to its credit, taken action to rid the club of this element. But this hasn’t been the first time that this has happened. Both the Football Association and the National League will doubtlessly be extremely unhappy at this incident and the club will likely face both sanction and further reputational damage.
None of that, however, will be any concern to Tranmere Rovers. Tranmere’s a football club that has had a fluctuating name, over the years. The 1980s saw the club spend ten consecutive seasons in the Fourth Division, occasionally scrapping to avoid the dreaded end of season “re-election” process. At the end of the decade, though, the club’s fortunes quickly changed, and Tranmere were promoted in 1989 and 1991, finishing the three straight seasons from 1992 in fourth, fifth, and fifth place respectively, before being beaten by Swindon Town, Leicester City and Reading in the play-off semi-finals. The club was relegated back to the third tier in 2001, but continued their wretched play-off form into the 2004/05 League One play-offs when they were beaten on penalty kicks in the semi-finals yet again, this time by Hartlepool United.
Relegation into a division with only one automatic promotion place was bad news for a club with a play-off record like this. Last year’s semi-final win against Aldershot Town was their first overall win in a play-off tie. Today, they broke that curse once and for all. Now all they have to do it not get themselves into that sort of a pickle again.There have been plenty of clubs who have dropped down and returned, such as Oxford United or Bristol Rovers. There’s no reason why Tranmere should find next season in League Two anything much to worry about. If the reserves of character displayed by their players this afternoon are anything to go by, they’ll be just fine.
And as for today, well… it turns out today was Micky Mellon’s day, after all.