2017-18 Season Review
Reflections on Tranmere's first promotion-winning campaign for 27 years
Posted: 20/05/18 | Updated 21/03/19
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2018. Information correct at the time of posting may no longer be so.
Warning: Long Read
In the week following Tranmere's play-off victory over Boreham Wood at Wembley, their players, staff, owners and fans have found themselves thrust into the unfamiliar surroundings of success. For much of their recent history, using the term 'recent' to generously encompass the past quarter-century, everything at Rovers has been geared to applauding the nearly men, courageous battles that almost brought success with the club invariably falling at the final hurdle.
In the mid-nineties, Tranmere almost reached the Premier League on three consecutive occasions, cruelly denied in the play-offs in 1992-93, 1993-94 and 1994-95. In 2000, John Aldridge's charges nearly lifted the club's first major domestic trophy, reaching the League Cup final before losing 2-1 to Leicester City.
With Ray Mathias at the helm, a club record Football League total of eighty points saw 'unlucky' Tranmere miss out on a play-off place by a single point. Under Brian Little, a third-placed finish meant they were just one position away from securing automatic promotion, whilst a crushing penalty shoot-out defeat in the home play-off semi-final witnessed their dreams of promotion disappear at the penultimate hurdle.
Fast-forward to 2009 and, leading 1-0 in the eighty-eighth minute, Tranmere seemed to have secured a play-off place. Unfortunately, Gareth Edds was dismissed and Scunthorpe captain Cliff Byrne scored from the resulting free-kick to snatch that play-off dream away from the SWA at the death.
In 2012-13, Tranmere had started the season with a remarkable twelve-game unbeaten run, winning nine matches to proudly sit atop the League One table. A defeat to Bournemouth, where Eddie Howe had just returned as manager, in the thirteenth fixture of the season did not stop Rovers from maintaining their place at the head of the division for a further couple of months, with Tranmere still topping the table in January 2013.
However, they again failed to capitalise on the position, falling not only from the summit, but through the play-off positions altogether, ending the campaign in a disappointing eleventh.
After back-to-back relegations left the club with absolutely nothing to celebrate between August 2013 and May 2015, it was a return to the depressing familiarity of almost-events. In 2016, they finished sixth, missing the National League play-offs by one place and two points.
In 2016, a club record ninety-five points was still only enough to finish as runners-up, four points behind eventual champions Lincoln City. Rovers progressed to the 2017 play-off final but again tripped themselves up on the home straight, losing 3-1 to Forest Green Rovers.
They also secured their passage to the semi-finals of the FA Trophy, this time falling to Macclesfield Town at the semi-final stage.
For twenty-seven years, the post-season discourse centred around finding the positives whilst combing through specific matches, decisions, even seconds of the season in an attempt to understand and process yet another 'almost'.
As of 12th May 2018, everyone connected with Tranmere Rovers Football Club was thrown into a whirlwind of elation, a dizzying collection of formal and informal celebrations. From the fabled steps of Wembley to the historic steps of Birkenhead Town Hall, the SWA was able to show their appreciation for a select group of players who had fought, indeed clawed their way across the finish line to ensure that it would not be twenty-seven 'nearly' seasons in a row for the Super White of Prenton Park.
Ultimately, as evidenced in the subsequent celebrations, the 2017-18 season will be remembered as the year when Tranmere Rovers finally took a forward step, James Norwood's header bringing the curtain down on an agonising twenty-seven year wait for progress. It would have been easy, therefore, to sit down, enthuse about the promotion and ultimately define the season by that one game.
Yet, I'm unwilling to boil the season down to the events at Wembley because that would be doing Micky Mellon and the players a disservice. What I did, however, was draw inspiration from a game that was the perfect microcosm of the season; worst possible start, worrying at the halfway point before ending in the jubilant scenes of a mission accomplished.
As in 2016-17, this review will assess the season in six areas — League Performance, Cup Performance, Excitement, Entertainment Value, Recruitment and Club Atmosphere. The six categories will then be used to form an overall assessment of the season and determine the Deadly Submarine season rank.
So, without further ado, here is the Deadly Submarine season review.
The start to the 2017-18 season has been discussed multiple times across various platforms.
To summarise, Rovers struggled to score goals and found themselves languishing in the lower reaches of the National League table. It simply wasn't good enough and something had to change.
|Total Wins||9 (10th)||24 (2nd)||+8|
|Home Wins||7 (2nd)||15 (1st)||+1|
|Away Wins||2 (16th)||9 (3rd)||+13|
|Scored||28 (14th)||78 (2nd)||+12|
|Conceded||18 (3rd)||46 (3rd)||=|
Thankfully, change was affected and, in certain circumstances, in spectacular fashion.
Figure 1 highlights the dramatic improvement in Tranmere's performance between the first and second halves of the season. In every area, they either maintained their strengths (home wins and goals conceded) or significantly improved upon their weaknesses.
The side that struggled to score goals and thus record victories in the first half of the season found a way to rectify these problems in the second half. Therefore, they were able to end the campaign as runners-up and play-off finalists for the second successive season, with the obvious difference coming in the final result.
Through winning the play-off final and securing the accompanying promotion, they have changed the narrative of a season that, statistically speaking, fell below the previous year. Compared to 2016-17, Tranmere recorded thirteen fewer points, five fewer wins, scored fewer and conceded more goals and finished six points further behind the automatic promotion position.
Notwithstanding, our 2016-17 review stated:
Overall, it was an excellent league showing that, although not defined by its conclusion, is slightly tainted by the inability to gain promotion.
— Deadly Submarine, 19th May 2017
Well, conversely, 2017-18 could be described as a less impressive league campaign elevated to greatness by the achievement of promotion.
In the FA Cup, Rovers qualified for the First Round Proper (hopefully a process never required again) for first time in three years, beating FC Halifax Town 3-1 at The Shay. They then earned a very creditable 1-1 draw at League One Peterborough, then two divisions above Rovers, to secure a replay at Prenton Park. Unfortunately, they lost said replay 0-5 on national television.
Their performance in this competition was better than 2015-16 and 2016-17, yet it is disappointing to lose by five given relegated Woking managed to score twice in their 5-2 Second-Round exit against the same opposition. In the interests of fairness, it is important to note that Posh beat Championship Play-off finalists Aston Villa 3-1 at Villa Park, highlighting their quality and reinforcing how well Rovers played in their match at London Road.
With regards the FA Trophy, it was not such a positive performance. With Tranmere leading 0-1 in initial First Round tie at Solihull, floodlight failure meant the game was abandoned in the fortieth minute. The Super Whites lost the replay, played on Monday 18th December, 2-0, exiting the competition in a disappointing manner given their semi-final exploits a season prior.
Overall, Rovers' participation in the 2017-18 cup competitions produced mixed results. On the positive, they recorded their best FA Cup performance since dropping into non-League football, earning plaudits for the way they played at Peterborough. Conversely, the manner of the exits from both competitions was regrettable if somewhat overshadowed by eventual promotion success.
The journey taken by Tranmere's supporters during 2017-18 was incredible. The aforementioned awful start left them in seventeenth after quarter of the season. By the end of the season, they had been promoted.
It is hard to ignore the impression that the lows being so low served to magnify the incredible highs at Wembley. In terms of excitement, it was a true rollercoaster of a season; started terribly, picked up, had hopes of the title reignited before key defeats to eventual top-seven contenders AFC Fylde (5-2), Macclesfield Town (1-4) and Boreham Wood (2-1) seemed to have closed that avenue.
Rovers then won five consecutive games to take the title race to the penultimate weekend before falling just short. Losing back-to-back home games against sides fighting relegation for most of the season (Solihull Moors and Hartlepool United) allowed nerves to creep in but ultimately the Play-offs, and subsequent promotion, brought a level of excitement unthinkable just twenty-three games prior.
The entertainment value of the season will unquestionably be heavily weighted towards the play-off final. With its ups and downs, there is little doubt that the Wembley showpiece provided an entertaining, if nail-biting, afternoon for the SWA and everyone connected to the club.
However, as previously explored, to take that one match as the summation of the entire season's entertainment would again be selling the efforts of the management and players short.
In addition to their excellent home form, Tranmere ended the season with the National League's second-highest scoring tally of seventy-eight goals. In Andy Cook, Rovers had the division's Golden Boot winner, a feat not seen at Prenton Park since John Aldridge in the 1990s.
The facts speak for themselves — Tranmere were the great entertainers for the majority of the season and certainly made up for their goal-shy start. They won sixteen matches by a two-goal margin or greater, six matches by a three-goal margin or greater and recorded three wins by a four-plus goal margin.
Between the 25th November and 30th December 2017, the SWA witnessed Mellon's side win five consecutive league matches. Between 24th March and 21st April 2018, they went one better and notched-up six straight league victories.
They ended the season having scored in twenty-eight consecutive games, a run that will carry over into the 2018-19 League Two campaign.
It's not simply the number of results, but also the manner in which points were acquired. One example is the 2-2 home draw at home to eventual play-off final opponents Boreham Wood, where Andy Mangan (83') and Andy Cook (89') scored two goals in seven minutes to snatch a draw from a 0-2 deficit.
Another entertaining comeback came in the away fixture at Maidstone United, where Tranmere found themselves 2-1 down in the eighty-fifth minute. An own goal (85’) levelled the tie before Supporters Club Player of the Season Adam Buxton slammed home a last-gasp penalty to seal an unlikely win.
With a second successive play-off appearance secured, Tranmere had to come from behind twice at home to Ebbsfleet United before eventually winning the tie 4-2, whilst the heroics of the play-off final will remain in Tranmere folklore for time immemorial.
Overall, both the road to promotion and the epic scenes upon lifting the trophy provided plenty of twists, turns, ups and downs to keep the SWA nervously teetering on the edge of their seats. An incredibly entertaining season.
At the end of last summer, the initial impressions of the recruitment appeared entirely positive. With players such as James Alabi, Elliot Rokka, Jay McEveley and Ollie Norburn boosting the ranks, there seemed to be a good balance between youth and experience from front to back.
However, with Rovers starting poorly, many of the signings were given little time to bed into the side.
Suffice to say, what appeared on paper to have been a successful recruitment drive quickly failed to deliver upon those expectations, with Ollie Norburn the only player signed in the summer to make a good first impression.
With summer-signings such as George Waring, Elliot Rokka and James Alabi quickly loaned out, in Alabi's case for the rest of the season, the Club embarked upon a mid-season recruitment process that brought players such as Ollie Banks, Gerry McDonagh and Dylan Mottley-Henry into the fold.
There is no doubting that the majority of loan players brought in made a positive contribution to the cause, with post-January signings Josh Ginnelly and Manny Monthe playing key roles in the end-of-season play-off success.
That notwithstanding, it is imperative to understand the sheer scale of the recruitment issue this season. Whilst loan players such as Banks, Ginnelly and Monthe brought something different to the squad, short-term signings such as Josh Kay (two appearances) and Drissa Traoré (three appearances) brought little to the team that players already here couldn't have replicated. It's hard to avoid the feeling that some signings were completely unnecessary.
In short, this was by far the greatest weakness of Tranmere Rovers' season, leading them to use thirty-nine different players throughout the season. Without the excellent mid-season additions previously referenced, this category would have been a resounding failure, but the positive impact of those mentioned above helps take the recruitment from a near-complete disaster to 'average'. The club must learn from the mistakes made this season, as League Two will unquestionably expose any failings in a more pronounced manner than the National League.
From the most negative aspect of the season to the undisputed number-one positive — the atmosphere.
Understandably, after a twenty-seven year wait for a promotion, the exorcism of that demon has released a tidal wave of positive emotion around Prenton Park. The connection between club and fans, built over the previous eighteen to twenty-four months, was cemented with well-attended celebration events in the Kop and at Hamilton Square.
On a national scale, after season upon season of negative press, finally the region and the country were informed of the transformation both on and off the field of play.
The excellent work of the Trust and the TROSC has led to an incredible three-thousand, four-hundred-plus season tickets being sold for the 2018-19 campaign, three thousand of which came before the club had confirmed their promotion to League Two!
On the field, new club legends were established, with the likes of James Norwood, Andy Cook, Stephen McNulty and Micky Mellon written into the history books for their efforts.
Off the field, the fans appear to have as great an influence as they have ever done, with the Cowsheds Catering and TRFC Radio just two examples of fan feedback transforming the club's operations to suit their requirements. In the stands, three newly-produced giant flags are waved at the front of the Kop, a symbol of the re-established pride bursting through every crevice of Prenton Park.
Quite simply, the club has never felt as positive, productive and forward-thinking in my entire time supporting Tranmere Rovers.
A season of genuine success, both on and off the pitch.
For the first time in almost three decades, the club has begun an upward trajectory and feels like a football team going places and a business finally emerging into calmer waters.
As the post-Wembley euphoria dissipates and the waterfall of emotions flows into those same waters of serenity, one suspects everyone connected with Tranmere will look back on the 2017-18 season as the season when a decade of wrongs were finally addressed. Perhaps a decade of progression will now be forthcoming?
One thing is for certain — nobody at Prenton Park will forget the ending of this non-League story, especially Liam Ridehalgh and James Norwood!
Thank you for your amazing support throughout the season.
League Two here we come!