Tranmere were looking good for promotion after a spectacular start but an inability to score goals meant they slipped to mid-table
Tranmere Rovers know their place; with only four changes of division in the last 37 years, most campaigns seem to be a case of reality snatched from the jaws of hope. So finding ourselves top of League One and unbeaten after the first 12 league games of the season was startling stuff. For once, Rovers seemed to have pulled off the difficult trick of finding a blend of youth and experience that actually worked.
With a young centre-back pairing of Ben Gibson and Ash Taylor being able to draw on the knowledge of Tranmere's oldest ever player, Ian Goodison, and 20-year-old captain James Wallace supported by the gnarled determination of Andy Robinson in midfield, the spine of the team was more solid than it had been in years. Coupled with a strike partnership of new-boy Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro and returning loanee Jake Cassidy, we hit the ground running – our early season confidence never more in evidence than during an excellent 5-2 win at Crawley in September.
Yet although our starting XI deserved their place at the top, the cracks began to show once injuries took their toll. In the run-up to Christmas both Robinson and Akpa Akpro were ruled out and, by New Year, Wallace's season was over and talisman Cassidy had been recalled to watch Wolves' decline from a place on their bench. Our cutting edge was looking distinctly blunt. A succession of loan signings kept us clinging to an automatic promotion spot until mid-February but a punctured lung suffered by in-form winger Adam McGurk became a suitable metaphor for our deflated promotion push. The season fizzled out as we limped home in 11th spot.
Being in the top six with only a month to go can be seen as a qualified success but no goals at all in the last six games of the season – including five 1-0 defeats in a row, when we were still in with a strong chance of the play-offs – means that the manager's focus must be on rediscovering some sort of attacking threat. In the week that our challenge was finally defeated by the maths, the pick of the televised football action was Borussia Dortmund's Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. If manager Ronnie Moore was watching, he would have seen Robert Lewandowski score as many goals in 58 minutes as Tranmere's entire team did in March and April combined.
No one at Prenton Park is expecting world-class strikers to suddenly develop a yearning for Birkenhead but at least we all understand where things went wrong. As the inevitable summer rebuilding begins, Rovers have surely learnt one lesson from the season just gone; in every sense, it isn't how you start, it's how you finish. Tristan Browning