Tranmere fans fear their newly redeveloped stadium may not be long for this world. Tony Morris reports on the chairman's post-ITV Digital manoeuvring
Dave Watson is not the first manager to be sacked after a heavy defeat and he won’t be the last. But events surrounding his dismissal by Tranmere Rovers – after a 7-0 pre-season friendly loss to Birmingham City – hint at something more than another knee-jerk reaction by a club chairman.
Watson’s dismissal came the day after the Birmingham game, one of a number of changes aimed at helping the club survive the ITV Digital fall-out. They included either the redevelopment of Prenton Park or relocation to a new site to bring in more non-matchday income. Chairman (her designation) Lorraine Rogers has relinquished many of her day-to-day duties to examine ways to bring in more money, including finding a buyer for the club itself.
Rogers, denying Tranmere is in crisis, claims this is a positive step to allow the club not merely to survive but to prosper. In a letter to supporters she says the club “would not accept mediocrity”. Not everyone is convinced. Some fans suspect the sacking of Watson was an attempt to win fans’ support for planned radical changes to the club.
Long time Rovers supporter Rob Allison believes Watson was a “sacrificial lamb”, adding: “I don’t think it [Watson’s sacking] was purely down to what was happening on the pitch.” Andy Doyle, the head of the supporters’ association, responded to suggestions the sacking was partly an attempt to win the fans over by saying: “I would like to think that my club would never resort to such actions… but I’m beginning to think that there’s more to this.”
Dave Watson’s appointment as Tranmere manager was not a popular one. His lack of managerial experience and his Everton connection meant most Rovers fans thought he was the wrong man for the job at a critical time for the club. His dismissal was popular with supporters disappointed at Rovers’ failure last season to bounce back to the First Division.
Rogers has made no secret of how hard the loss of TV revenue has hit Tranmere. In her regular local newspaper columns she said she feared the club would not survive unless it embraced “radical” change, and warned fans not to hold on to tradition “just for the sake of it”. Rogers also used the column to praise clubs who have diversified, significantly highlighting Wigan, where football and rugby clubs share a purpose-built stadium to cut costs.
Such comments sparked rumours among supporters that Tranmere might be planning to leave Prenton Park and share a new ground with New Brighton rugby club. The speculation intensified after the club’s announcement confirmed relocation was a serious option. A possible site has been earmarked at the Cammell Laird shipyard, now largely disused, where a new multi-sport stadium could potentially attract European grant money. The Wirral Globe ran a front-page story claiming talks had already taken place between “Wirral’s sporting community” and the council, coincidentally Rovers’ shirt sponsors.
The sale of Prenton Park for housing could net something in the region of £9 million, though Rovers might also have to repay the £2 million grant they received for its redevelopment in 1994. But with European funding it might just be possible to build a new stadium, pay off the former chairman Peter Johnson, and still have money left over to spend on the team.
So what’s the problem? Tranmere supporters are not opposed in principle to a ground move, providing it safeguards the club’s future and means more money will be spent on what is currently an average Second Division side. But there is lingering resentment towards Johnson for the millions he ploughed into Everton while still owning Rovers, and distrust of Rogers, who was brought in by Johnson in 1998 to oversee the (unsuccessful) sale of the club. A slanging match between Rogers and former manager John Aldridge – he calls her controlling and obsessive – has not helped to convince fans their club is in safe hands.
Fans are also concerned that if, as Rogers has hinted, Tranmere move to a smaller ground than Prenton Park, it will signal the club’s intention to accept mediocrity, whatever her rousing statements might say to the contrary.
From WSC 188 October 2002. What was happening this month