10 October 2009 ~ So John Barnes wasn’t the man to "take Tranmere forward" after all. Rovers chairman Peter Johnson appointed Barnes in the summer, after blaming a 19 per cent drop in attendances as the reason for sacking the popular Ronnie Moore. Johnson hoped that appointing a locally-based (before taking the Tranmere job Barnes played five-a-side at Birkenhead School) big-name former player might raise the club’s profile. Last season Tranmere were two minutes away from the play-offs, missing out when Scunthorpe’s Cliff Byrne scored a late equaliser in the last game of the season.
Scunthorpe took the final play-off spot and beat Millwall at Wembley to win promotion. Today Tranmere are 22nd in League One, with the worst goal difference in England, above only Wycombe (who also fired their manager, former England caretaker Peter Taylor, on Friday) and a Southampton side that started on minus ten points. In fairness to Barnes, he had to contend with a reduced wage bill and replace the six players Tranmere lost in the summer. His star quality helped in the transfer market – players like John Welsh and Michael Ricketts enthused about the chance to work with him – but results were dire.
Rovers were disorganised and tactically confused. In August and September they lost six straight League games and shipped 16 goals. The relative upturn of a draw with Colchester and a win at Wycombe was shattered when they went to Millwall: the Lions had scored only seven goals in ten games, after 27 minutes against Tranmere they were 4-0 up. Barnes spoke of desire, commitment and discipline, but seemed unable to inspire any from his team. After losing 3-0 defeat to Carlisle, he threatened to play schoolboys on the basis they’d show more "desire" than the first team.
Those crucial attendances stayed comparable to those of last season, when gates were swollen by some big end-of-season turnouts as Rovers chased that play-off place, but the Rovers faithful were vocal about their opposition to both the manager and his assistant, Jason McAteer. Appointing McAteer to such a crucial role seems like an eccentric decision. Barnes spent most of his career at the top level and, if the popular theory about famous ex-players struggling to relate to their lesser-talented charges holds water, an experienced lower-league man may have been a better choice. Ray Mathias, who helped Paul Ince succeed at Macclesfield and MK Dons (before failing at Blackburn in a very Barnes-like fashion) and who has played for and managed Tranmere before, was available.
Tranmere have put physio Les Parry in charge for Monday’s game with Stockport. (It’s interesting to note that Nigel Adkins, manager of that Scunthorpe team who beat Rovers to last season’s play-offs, was formerly the physio at Glanford Park.) Parry, famous for sitting on the Rovers bench in shorts and T-shirt through even the most Arctic of conditions and for releasing his own Christmas song in 2006, has already said he doesn’t want the job full-time. Mathias might fancy another go. Some fans are dreaming of Steve Coppell but it’s unlikely that Coppell would fancy the hassle of not just trying to win games but also, presumably, selling the club to the floating fans. If Peter Johnson wanted a local big-name player, he missed the chance to bring in Paul Ince. Ince based himself in the Wirral during his spell at Blackburn, has the kind of glamorous contacts Johnson craved from Barnes and boasts a proven track record in the lower leagues.
Maybe one of Barnes’s problems, judging by the unmotivated performances his Tranmere churned out, was that his influence isn’t as strong as Johnson had hoped. To a child of the 1980s Barnes is undoubtedly a star, but the 20-somethings in the Prenton Park dressing room are more likely to remember him for Lucozade adverts, his short spell at Celtic in 2000 and that New Order rap. (In the run up to Tranmere’s game at Wycombe, one Wycombe fan site printed the rap as Barnes’s pre-match comments; the joke somewhat backfired when Wanderers turned out to be one of the few teams Barnes’s Tranmere were able to "get round the back" of.) Perhaps in a division that former Champions League semi-finalists call home, in which the relative aristocrats of Norwich were welcomed with a 7-1 home defeat and in which a team has just seen fit to dismiss an ex-England manager, star quality is an overrated virtue. Karl Sturgeon