Limitations to progress

What are the realistic ambitions for those outside the top half of the Premiership? Rob Fitzgerald sums up Tranmere's situation

The growing gap between the Premiership and Nat­ionwide League makes Tranmere fans acutely aware of the limitations of what their club can achieve. We are unlikely see a return of the optimism experienced at Prenton Park during John King’s second spell in charge, when we went from the bottom of the Fourth Division to the top of the (new) First in five years.

Tranmere’s recently acquired reputation for beat­ing Premiership opposition in cup competitions, though severely dented by Tottenham this season, has provided us with an unprecedented level of media cov­erage. But you can’t be a giantkiller if you happen to be playing in the Premiership, which was not such an unlikely prospect when we were top of the First on Good Friday 1995, before a collapse of Devon Loch pro­portions, taking just two points from the last five matches.

The redevelopment of Prenton Park in that period was our last serious attempt at bringing Premiership football to the Wirral. Even though the capacity on com­pletion stood at a modest 16,800 it was still a gamble, given that our average crowds were around half that figure. Since then, Prenton Park has only been a fort­ress when we’ve played top flight teams in cup competitions before near-capacity crowds. It’s harder to pro- vide a sufficiently intimidating atmosphere with a half-empty stadium, and our previously excellent home League form got gradually worse (only to im­prove on relegation to the Second Division).

The good youngsters we continue to produce, such as Jason Koumas, Ian Sharps and Joe Murphy, are gen­uine assets, though in terms of ability rather than bank­ability. If they leave soon we might get a modest fee for them, if later we might not receive a penny, as was the case with Alan Mahon. These days, Tranmere serves as a springboard for future aspirations and a graveyard for old pros searching for one more contract.

After last season we could easily have nose­dived towards another relegation battle but Dave Wat­son stopped the rot after a shaky start. With effectively the same squad, we are serious play-off contenders again. If we go up, those deemed responsible, including pos­sibly Watson himself, will be offered more appealing career alternatives. If we were to go down further, dwin­d­ling crowds would increase our already substantial financial burden; first team foot­ball played in a reserve team atmosphere, with more blue seats than fans, would make a reversal of fortune all the more difficult.

We are resigned to the fact that the club’s future is in the hands of unpopular owner Peter Johnson. The last couple of years have seen a considerable tightening of the purse strings, with new players coming in on frees. Our cup exploits have generated significant revenue, but it’s unclear whether this is going towards Tranmere’s upkeep or is being used to repay Johnson’s investment in order to hasten his departure. My fear is we’ll only know for sure when it’s too late.

From WSC 182 April 2002. What was happening this month