Tranmere Rovers may be on the verge of a possible takeover, but as Tony Morris discovers, it is not want the fans were hoping for
On Halloween, frightening rumours began circulating among Tranmere fans that Chester City’s owner Stephen Vaughan was about to buy Rovers, leading to a groundshare at City’s Deva Stadium and a merger of the two clubs. The next day’s papers reinforced fans’ fears. One claimed Tranmere would be forced to sell its Prenton Park ground to pay the £5.3 million the club owes to its owner Peter Johnson. Another confirmed Vaughan’s interest in purchasing Rovers, claiming a deal could be struck in days.
Tranmere supporters were outraged by these nightmare scenarios and dismayed at Vaughan’s involvement. For although Chester have prospered under Vaughan’s ownership, his tenure at his previous club Barrow was less successful. Barrow fanzine editor Graham Murphy described it as “a catastrophe, an absolute disaster”, and blamed Vaughan’s “financial mismanagement” for Barrow’s expulsion from the Conference in 1999. Murphy urged Tranmere fans to fight the take-over “until your dying breath”.
Opposition to Vaughan’s plans hardened when the Observer reported his intention to merge Tranmere and Chester. Vaughan rubbished the story but the journalist responsible stands by it. Faced with opposition from fans, and responding to a request from Tranmere’s board, Vaughan issued a statement to clarify his plans.
He announced he would build a new stadium for Tranmere in Birkenhead on the site of the Cammell Laird shipyard and create a youth academy on a new, unspecified site elsewhere in Wirral. In a matter of days, supporters’ opposition had forced him into an embarrassing climb-down. Not only was the original merger now off the agenda, so too was the back-up plan of a long-term groundshare.
Tranmere supporters remain suspicious of a man who speaks about buying their club as “purely a business opportunity”. Some doubt a new ground would ever be built, leaving the club without the one major asset it could rely on in any future financial crisis.
Rob McKay of Tranmere’s supporters’ trust accused Vaughan of “asset-stripping”, believing he plans to make a tidy profit from re-developing the Prenton Park site and leasing Rovers’ new ground back to them, leaving the club to pay rent for the right to play at home. Supporters’ association chairman Andy Doyle echoed such fears. He criticised “a lack of openness” about Vaughan’s bid for the club.
The success of that bid is far from certain. The council has indicated it is unlikely to grant the planning permission required to re-develop Prenton Park and the Ingleborough Road training ground for commercial or residential use. The site supposedly earmarked for the new ground is bidding to help build aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, and a new football stadium there does not fit the council’s plans.
Failure to secure any of the agreements needed would leave Vaughan’s plans in ruins. There are also other parties interested in buying the club. The supporters’ trust and youth charity the Weston Spirit plan to turn Tranmere Rovers into a self-financing community club, using spare land at Prenton Park to build facilities such as a youth centre, arts centre, creche, cafe, shops and a cinema to bring in money 365 days a year. Significantly, Rovers would remain at Prenton Park.
The club’s attitude to the supporters’ trust is hard to gauge. After decrying it when it was launched, chairwoman Lorraine Rogers recently claimed to have put Weston Spirit in touch with the trust, believing their aims were similar. Owner Peter Johnson – reported to be an admirer of the charity – is a Lucanesque figure these days but spokesman Rob McKay said the trust hopes to draw him out and appeal to his “better nature”.
McKay admits time is against the fans’ initiative. Vaughan has tabled a bid already and the club insist the trust must submit concrete proposals by Christmas. The trust has asked Johnson to delay the sale until a feasibility study can be concluded and McKay hopes the club will recognise it is “a viable option”.
Andy Doyle warned potential buyers fans will not allow themselves to be sidelined. He said: “Any prospective buyer has to understand they are not just talking to the present management, but they are going to have to take the fans on, and take the people of the Wirral on.” Doyle believes not giving the fans a chance to buy Tranmere would be a mistake, and warned anyone with designs on the club: “There’s a fight on, and the fans are ready for it."
From WSC 191 January 2003. What was happening this month