2018-19 Season Review
An unexpected triumph
Posted: 01/06/19 | Updated 02/06/19
Warning: Long Read
Waking up on the morning of 26th May 2019, Tranmere's first full day as a League One club since Friday 2nd May 2014, was a surreal experience. It wasn't supposed to be like this. It took three seasons of scratching and clawing to escape the non-League abyss. Having done so, any finish that avoided an immediate reunion with the fifth tier could be seen as a solid EFL return.
Indeed, our pre-season predictions gave Rovers little realistic hope of mounting a top-seven challenge. It was, of course, possible.
But likely? Not really.
Yet here we are, back-to-back promotions. Whilst unexpected, the resurrection of third-tier status brings to an end a five-year exile, and rewards all those involved with the Club — from ownership to players, management to fans — for their unwavering dedication to rectifying the Super Whites' infamous slide.
It's hard to shake the feeling that this promotion has as much to do with the attitude and application of those able to affect the outcome of the season as it has with the skill of the players; this is not a slight on the ability of the players, but a compliment of their 'point to prove' determination, their quest to showcase how good they actually are.
Well, Tranmere Rovers is a League One football club once more, so any questions have been answered and any doubts unequivocally dismissed. The 2018-19 season will forever be known as the season the Club finally put their successive relegation nightmare behind them, an unsavoury chapter in a one hundred and thirty-five-year-old tale.
However, before we turn the page, let's take one final look at the season as a whole.
As long-term followers of Deadly Submarine will be aware, for the past two seasons we've produced end-of-season reports based on six key areas: League Performance, Cup Performance, Excitement, Entertainment Value, Recruitment and Club Atmosphere.
We score each area from A+ to F and use these scores to give the season an overall grade. These are, of course, opinions and, whilst we will do our best to be objective in our outcomes, we will never profess to speak on behalf of the entire SWA.
With that said, please find our 2018-19 season review below:
League Performance = A
Much like 2017-18, 2018-19 was a season of two halves. However, these were not conventional halves in the sense of chronological sequencing, but halves based on venue; home and away.
At home, Tranmere continued the trend of their previous two play-off campaigns by being outstanding at Prenton Park. Rovers gained forty-seven points from twenty-three games, only Newport and Bury collecting more at home.
Home results included notable wins against champions Lincoln City and promoted Milton Keynes Dons, whilst draws with promoted Bury and play-off semi-finalists Mansfield Town served as further indicators of Rovers' formidable home record.
Indeed, 64% of Tranmere's total points came at Prenton Park, whilst they lost just four matches with home advantage.
On the road, the Super Whites' transition to the EFL was less successful, winning just twice in their opening twelve away matches. A heavy 5-2 defeat at Grimsby Town on 27th November 2018 was the third in a run of five successive away losses that saw the Tranmere defence concede seventeen goals.
In total, they conceded thirty-seven goals on their travels, a remarkable 78% of their total goals conceded. They recovered to finish thirteenth in the away table, a mid-table performance away from The Wirral and more akin to many pre-season expectations. By finishing sixth overall, and therefore qualifying for the League Two play-offs, Tranmere achieved something improbable. In winning them, they went beyond all seemingly realistic ambitions.
Whilst it was not a perfect season, especially when trekking around League Two's various stadiums, it produced the perfect outcome and that, ultimately, boosts the season from a very good EFL return to an exceptional one.
Cup Performance = B+
Following three seasons of having to qualify for the first round of the FA Cup, of which two attempts were unsuccessful, the 2018-19 FA Cup saw Tranmere embark on a five-game FA Cup run that resulted in three television appearances and a visit from Premier League Tottenham Hotspur.
Given the objective of most non-Premier League clubs is to secure a third-round showdown with a top-six club, Rovers were handed a relatively favourable route to do so. Notwithstanding the two-division gap between the National League North (Southport) and South (Oxford City), this is Tranmere Rovers — the club where doing things the easy way is practically impossible.
Having been taken to replays by both of their sixth-tier adversaries, the Super Whites eventually secured a massive home game against Tottenham Hotspur, third in the Premier League at kick-off. Whilst it was brilliant to secure a notable opponent, the manner of their 0-7 defeat served as a reminder of the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'.
A club famous for its cup scalps, it was nice to see Tranmere locking horns with the best once more, albeit coming up, understandably, significantly short.
|ROUND||OPPOSITION AND RESULT|
|First Round||Oxford City (H) = D 3-3
Oxford City (A) = W 0-2
|Second Round||Southport (H) = D 1-1
Southport (A) = W 0-2
|Third Round||Tottenham Hotspur ((H) = L 0-7|
In the League Cup, a tournament in which Rovers finished runners-up nineteen years ago, they were making their first appearance in four years. Unfortunately, it would not be a lasting return to League Cup action, losing 1-3 to Walsall in first round.
This result was disappointing, but they went out to a team from a higher division. Nonetheless, the two clubs' respective seasons (Walsall were relegated and will play a league below Tranmere in 2019-20) do leave a slight feeling of a missed opportunity to progress beyond the first round.
Finally, the EFL Trophy. Tranmere were again returning after a three-season absence. Deadly Submarine's thoughts on the competition have been well documented and this will not be covered again, other than to restate our position that the current format was not a welcome return to the calendar.
On a purely statistical basis, Rovers finished bottom of their first-round group, losing all three matches with a goal difference of -8, including a 6-0 defeat at Shrewsbury town. In the other games, they threw away a 3-1 lead at home to Crewe Alexandra to lose 3-4 and lost to Manchester City U21 0-1.
In any other competition, this would have been a shambolic performance. As the EFL Trophy has lost all credibility in the eyes of most fans, very few will place any significance on these results.
For a first season back in the EFL, a big money FA Cup run and an exit to a higher-placed opponent in the League Cup was a very good return and probably as much as could have been expected for a newly-promoted team.
Excitement = A+
From table-topping tussles to basement battles, one has to go back almost a decade for the last time Tranmere Rovers had a 'boring' season. Eight points above the League One relegation zone but fifteen points from the play-offs, 2010-11 was arguably the last time nothing exciting happened during the closing stages of a Prenton Park season.
2018-19 was no different. Buoyed by the initial euphoria of being back in the EFL, Rovers' first home attendance was 6,736, more than a thousand greater than the 2017-18 average. Being back in the 'ninety-two' was clearly an exciting, momentous occasion for all connected with the Club.
As previously mentioned, a decent FA cup run for the first time in years evoked memories of the sides of John Aldridge, Ray Mathias and Brian Little, when Tranmere reached the FA Cup quarter-finals in three of five seasons between 1999-2000 and 2003-04.
Whilst those SWA in their twenties or older will doubtless remember the visits of clubs such as Southampton and West Ham United, the buzz generated by playing Tottenham in 2018-19 — who brought a strong squad including 2018 FIFA World Cup Golden Boot winner Harry Kane — provided the SWA2 the opportunity to see Rovers' latest heroes play against the best. And make no mistake, although Tottenham didn't win the UEFA Champions League, they proved themselves to be amongst the European elite.
A seven-game winning streak between 19th February and 30th March 2019 served to ignite a floundering promotion flame and, as the weeks passed and the points accumulated, the excitement of what could be possible continued to build.
Rovers entered the final five games with a chance of automatic promotion and the accompanying excitement created some big gates and tantalising fixtures. Against the likes of Milton Keynes Dons (8,357), Forest Green Rovers (9,468) and Bury (9,145), the Wirral public descended upon the Super Whites' fortress home, whilst the SWA also followed the team in their numbers to awaydays at Lincoln City, Crawley Town and of course, Wembley.
Those who made the journey to London, and those watching from afar, witnessed Tranmere clinch promotion in the final minute of extra time, in the final game of the League Two season; it really doesn't come much more exciting than that.
Entertainment Value = A
As to be expected when playing in a division with a higher standard of opponent, Tranmere haven't always won, but matches have provided plenty of entertainment regardless.
In all competitions during 2018-19, Rovers were involved in a staggering seventeen matches where the teams shared four or more goals.
For example, on the opening day of the season, Tranmere came from 2-0 down to secure a 2-2 draw at Stevenage. On 18th August, Tranmere blew a 0-2 lead to lose 3-2 at Swindon Town following Jay Harris' eighteenth-minute red card. On 6th October, Rovers dropped a 1-3 lead at Morecambe to level the game at 3-3, before Harvey Gilmour scored an eighty-ninth-minute winner to win 3-4.
There were also big wins against Crawley Town (5-1), Grimsby Town (4-1) and Carlisle United (3-0).
The Super Whites also broke a six-game sequence without a win against Forest Green Rovers during the play-off semi-finals, whilst Ollie Banks scored the first-ever goal confirmed by goal-line technology at Prenton Park.
In total, Tranmere scored sixty-six league goals, just twelve fewer than 2017-18 but at a higher level of football. James Norwood won the Golden Boot and Scott Davies the Golden Glove (nineteen clean sheets; twenty-one including play-offs), so whether you enjoy a red-hot striker, goals galore or a defensive masterclass, there were plenty of reasons to be entertained during 2018-19.
Recruitment = A-
|PLAYER||SIGNED||HIT or MISS?|
|Shamal George||Summer 2018 (loan)||Miss|
|Manny Monthé||Summer 2018||Hit|
|Ollie Banks||Summer 2018||Hit|
|Mark Ellis||Summer 2018||Hit|
|Paul Mullin||Summer 2018||Hit|
|Jake Caprice||Summer 2018||Hit|
|Zoumana Bakayogo||Summer 2018||Hit|
|Cole Stockton||Summer 2018||Miss|
|Jonny Smith||Summer 2018 (loan)||Hit|
|Dylan Mottley-Henry||Summer 2018 (loan)||Miss|
|Franklyn Akammadu||Summer 2018 (loan)||Miss|
|Harvey Gilmour||Mid-Season (loan)*||Hit|
|Luke McCullough||Mid-Season (loan)||Hit|
|Ishmael Miller||January 2019||Hit|
|Chris Dagnall||January 2019||Miss|
|David Perkins||January 2019||Hit|
|Ben Pringle||January 2019 (loan)||Hit|
|Kieron Morris||January 2019 (loan)||Hit|
|Sid Nelson||January 2019 (loan)||Hit|
|*Gilmour's loan was made permanent in January 2019 but has not been considered as two separate signings.|
Last season, we graded recruitment as a 'C'. This season, the recruitment has been much improved.
In 2018-19, there were twenty players signed (not including contract renewals) to Micky Mellon's squad. As can be seen in Table 2, their impact has been assessed and each transfer given a rating of 'hit' or 'miss'.
Naturally, in a team that won promotion there were far more fruitful signings than ill-fated ones. As indicated above, we feel there were fourteen 'hits' and six 'misses', which equates to a 70% success rate.
Along with signing Ollie Banks and Manny Monthé permanently, summer signings Mark Ellis, Paul Mullin and Jake Caprice brought undoubted talents to the squad. Loan signings such as Jonny Smith, Harvey Gilmour and Luke McCullough also strengthened the ranks significantly.
January 2019 recruitment was excellent, with players such as David Perkins and Ben Pringle bringing quality and experience to a Rovers side requiring additional help post-Christmas.
Conversely, whilst rating a player as a 'miss' bears no reflection on their abilities, there were a few players for whom the move to Prenton Park didn't appear to suit.
Shamal George (three), Franklyn Akammadu (three) and Ryan Williams (two) didn't play enough. Dylan Mottley-Henry failed to replicate his impact from 2017-18. Cole Stockton scored just twice in twenty-one appearances and was loaned to Wrexham in January 2019 until the end of the season. Chris Dagnall made just five appearances and failed to score in any. For these reasons, said players must sadly be considered 'misses'.
It would be unfair to dismiss Ishmael Miller as a 'miss', as he scored on his debut and was injured on his second outing. He also waived part of his salary to allow Tranmere to sign a replacement, so initial impressions were very, very promising. If he'd have remained fit, it is highly likely he'd have been a huge hit.
On reflection, the 2018-19 recruitment must surely be considered the best at Tranmere under Micky Mellon, whose January signings and more frequent use of summer newcomer Mark Ellis changed the tide of the season.
Club Atmosphere = A+
The 2017-18 campaign was rated A+ for Club atmosphere. This has carried forwards to 2018-19, with back-to-back promotions enhancing the full-bloom flower of enthusiasm into a meadow of satisfaction and pride.
As with last season, the closing images of the campaign were well-attended celebrations at Prenton Park and Hamilton Square. For the second consecutive season, Tranmere Rovers have lifted a trophy for the SWA.
This has once again led to positive coverage from various outlets.
However, there were plenty of less obvious indicators of the oneness surrounding the Club at present. For example, SWA2 Ambassador of the Season Mark Ellis hit the news for his positive contributions to the life of seven-year-old fan Meghan Kewley.
For the play-off final, those Rovers supporters who could afford to travel helped pay for fellow supporters who couldn't. At a time when other competitions are dogged with ticket touting, the SWA were interested in just one thing: the SWA. For all the trophies and on-field success, there is as much pride to be found in the off-field activities at Prenton Park.
Even in a 2-0 defeat at the home of rivals Oldham Athletic, Rovers' newfound belief and fervour meant it was the SWA who caught the headlines for their incessant signing of the latest cult anthem Tequila, which has rung loud and proud ever since its debut at Colchester United. In years past, a 2-0 defeat at Oldham would have drawn the ire of the Super Whites' followers, but this is 2019 and Rovers are a different beast.
Said positivity and momentum will be carrying over to next season, with Tranmere selling more than 3500 season tickets for 2019-20 so far. It's fantastic support. For context, Tranmere's 2013-14 League One home game against Swindon Town attracted a total crowd of 3,717. It's not impossible Rovers will have that many season ticket holders alone in League One 2019-20.
Overall, it's pretty apparent that it has been another amazing season for Tranmere. It has provided brilliant entertainment and excitement from a first game comeback at Stevenage to a last minute promotion at Wembley. After three seasons of having to qualify for the FA Cup first round, to have a genuine cup run brought welcome revenues and attention to the Club.
On the performance side, whilst players such as James Norwood, Scott Davies and Stephen McNulty were already legends, other new recruits such as Jake Caprice and David Perkins helped write their own names into the current revival narrative.
The Club has decisively and definitively moved on from its non-League exile and has returned to the level most would agree fits its status.
And thus, with the Wembley trilogy complete, and with key figures such as Stephen McNulty and James Norwood confirmed to be/close to moving on, the recovery has come to its natural conclusion.
Tranmere Rovers are League One once again and therefore, it's been a fantastic season
Congratulations to Mark and Nicola Palios, Micky Mellon, the coaching staff, the players, the SWA and anyone else connected to the Super White Army.
Raise a few tequilas, enjoy the summer and see you in 2019-20.