You wait twenty-seven years for a promotion…
You wait twenty-seven years for promotion and then, like buses, two come along at once.
As referee Ross Joyce blew the whistle to signify the end of the 2019 League Two play-off final, the players, staff and SWA of Tranmere Rovers celebrated securing back-to-back promotions for the first time in the Club's one hundred and thirty-five-year history.
Just one year, one week, four days and three hours removed from stepping onto the hallowed Wembley turf as a non-League football club, the Super Whites left it as a League One club once more.
In leading his team to successive play-off final victories, Micky Mellon becomes only the second manager in the Club's history to achieve multiple promotions, second only to John King for Wembley appearances and promotions as the commanding officer of the Deadly Submarine.
Until The End
Of course, Rovers once again did it the difficult way, the Tranmere way.
If the 2018 National League play-off victory was shaped in the formative seconds of the match, the 2019 vintage was defined by its dying embers. With the roles reversed from twelve months ago, Tranmere gained a man advantage in the eighty-ninth minute of regulation time, giving the Super Whites thirty minutes of extra-time to impose their greater numbers.
They required every one of them.
With a penalty shootout seemingly inevitable, two of Micky Mellon's substitutions paid dividends. Picking the ball up on the right, Adam Buxton produced an incisive run past a Newport defender before cutting the ball back to fellow introduction Ben Pringle.
Pringle cushioned the ball into the path of Jake Caprice, who whipped a ball into the box à la Connor Jennings to James Norwood against Boreham Wood. This time, however, provider turned recipient as Jennings rose at the back post to head the ball beyond Joe Day to send the travelling SWA into raptures.
In many respects, the last-gasp nature of the win is a perfect microcosm of Rovers' season. They applied themselves diligently, survived a few scares in the central portion before coming through eventually.
Let's not forget, on 5th February 2019, Tranmere had just been defeated 1-2 at home to Northampton Town. Their third consecutive loss, the Super Whites stood in tenth position in League Two, three places and eight points outside the play-offs with just fifteen games to go.
At no point then would anyone have foreseen a run of eight wins in nine, including seven in a row between 19th February and 30th March. Perhaps we should have.
After all, it's in the Tranmere DNA. When Rovers posted a then Club-record eighty points under Ray Mathias in 2002-03, the season concluded with a fifteen-game unbeaten run that started on 15th February 2003. When Ronnie Moore's men were cruelly denied a League One play-off place in the eighty-eighth minute against Scunthorpe United in 2009, they had lost just three of their final sixteen.
And in every season since relegation out of the Football League in 2015, Tranmere have ended the campaign with an excellent run of form. That the 2018-19 sequence did not result in automatic promotion can be attributed somewhat to their difficult final five fixtures.
Day In The Spotlight
During said sequence, the Super Whites watched as Lincoln City secured the League Two title on 22nd April, following a 0-0 draw at Sincil Bank. A mere eight days later, on 30th April, Rovers witnessed Bury secure promotion at Prenton Park, a 1-1 draw enough for Ryan Lowe's charges.
Even in the build-up to the play-off final, the national media's attention seemed transfixed on the Newport story, their twelve-game unbeaten run and their exploits in the 2018-19 FA Cup.
So, when Connor Jennings — an unsung hero for many outside the Tranmere family — rose above the Exiles' defence to head home the winner, he wrestled away the nation's gaze and shone the spotlight firmly on Tranmere.
In doing so, he also secured his own place alongside Chris Malkin and James Norwood in scoring winning goals in play-off finals for Tranmere. With goalkeeper Scott Davies securing the 2019 League Two Golden Glove, and Norwood securing almost every accolade imaginable, it is somewhat fitting that the often forgotten man of Tranmere Rovers' recent rise could step out of others' shadows and write his own name in the Prenton Park history books.
Connor Jennings scored the goal that took Tranmere Rovers back into League One in 2019. It's true today, will be true tomorrow, next week, next year and in the years and decades to come. The children and grandchildren of yesterday's SWA contingent will talk about his goal with the same deference as their parents and grandparents speak of Chris Malkin's extra-time strike against Bolton Wanderers in 1991.
Back Where We REALLY Belong
Conversely, some Newport fans and neutral observers were quick to reveal their disgust at the outcome of the game. On social media, that well-known bastion of calm and rational debate, plenty of football enthusiasts have claimed Newport were “robbed”, that Tranmere didn't deserve to be promoted and that the better team on the day lost.
Whilst forthcoming with best wishes for Tranmere, Newport Manager Michael Flynn declared his side's defeat an injustice:
They want improvements in football, why isn't VAR being used when you've got the facilities? Because that is a stonewall penalty if I've ever seen it. And it's not good enough. … That would have been game over.
— Michael Flynn (Newport Manager), Sky Sports, 25th May 2019
It's important to set the record straight on this issue, as nobody should be allowed to take the shine away from Rovers' achievements.
Yes, Manny Monthé's tackle on Jamille Matt appeared to be a penalty, but Tranmere should have had a penalty when Dan Butler jumped into Kieron Morris with his knee. Therefore, Tranmere could have been 0-1 up before the incident occurred.
It's also highly disrespectful to Tranmere's Scott Davies, who has proven in his four years at Prenton Park to be an excellent goalkeeper in penalty situations. There was no guarantee Newport would have scored any spot-kick anyway.
In a tight and evenly contested match, the statistics all point to the eventual outcome; a slight Tranmere victory. With regards possession, Rovers edged it 53% to 47%. Rovers (23) had one more shot than Newport (22), with 6 on target to the Exiles' 5. Rovers also had more corners and, barring a short spell at the start of the match and the final fifteen minutes at the end of the ninety, were the more composed team on the ball, and looked the most threatening.
That's not to say it was an 'easy' game, because it wasn't anything of the sort. Nevertheless, in many ways, this was the most comfortable of the Rovers' Wembley trilogy.
Tranmere fully deserved their victory and their promotion. They were handed nothing and earned everything bestowed upon them; the win, the promotion, legendary status and all of the trappings of success.
The players, as a team, have won their place in League One. Nobody and nothing can take that away from them.
Between 1989 and 2014, Tranmere played a quarter-century in either the second or third tier of English football. Whilst promotion to League Two saw Rovers rejoin the fabled 'ninety-two', this promotion genuinely takes the Super Whites back to where medium-term history suggests they REALLY belong.
League One 2019-20
When Mark and Nicola Palios purchased Tranmere Rovers, the Club had just been relegated from the third tier. There was so much wrong off-field that there was no short-term fix to the on-field issues.
It was something Nicola in particular was keen to acknowledge in their first press conference in August 2014:
We need to get that balance right between getting people excited and enthusiastic and behind us, but not setting wild expectations that everything is going to be sorted out overnight.
— Nicola Palios (Tranmere Vice-Chairman), Tranmere Rovers YouTube, Published 11th August 2014
On Saturday 25th May 2019, almost five years after taking a controlling stake in the future of the Club, Tranmere were finally further up the football pyramid than when the Palioses walked through the doors at Prenton Park.
In 2019-20, League One football will return to The Wirral, fans of clubs such as Sunderland, Ipswich Town, Portsmouth and Bolton Wanderers will sit in the seats occupied by those of Ebbsfleet United, Bromley and Solihull Moors a little over twelve months prior.
It's some difference in calibre, and whilst this season's success was unexpected, it seems almost incomprehensible that there could be #3inarow come May 2020.
Nevertheless, Tranmere Chairman Mark Palios gave the following battle cry in the aftermath of Rovers' Wembley success:
We're not finished. We're not finished by any stretch of the imagination.
— Mark Palios (Tranmere Chairman), Sky Sports, 25th May 2019
Next season's ambitions are a topic for another day.
If anyone wants to know what today really means to Tranmere Rovers Football Club, seek out Liam Ridehalgh. The only member of the current squad to have shared every minute of the journey from League One to non-League and back again with the SWA, he and the fans in the stands have finally been rewarded for their continued service to the cause.
In our play-off final preview, we referred to Rovers' story as a film trilogy, with the conclusion that for it to feel complete, the closing credits must roll over a backdrop of a Tranmere promotion.
Well, you can roll them now.
Tranmere Rovers are back in League One!