Breaking Up The Band
The sad yet necessary reality of on-field progress
With just nine games remaining of the 2018-19 campaign, Tranmere sit fifth in the League Two table. An incredible return to the 'Ninety-Two' has left the club fighting for a second successive promotion, much to the surprise of many.
Following their promotion in May 2018, key figures from the non-League years secured transfers, naturally appearing on the radars of clubs looking to strengthen their squads with proven players. Out of contract, Rovers' twenty-six goal leading scorer Andy Cook was snapped up by League One Walsall. Experienced midfielder and consummate professional Jeff Hughes earned a three-year contract with Northern Ireland's Larne, Ollie Norburn joined League One Shrewsbury Town and Eddie Clarke became a Joey Barton player at Fleetwood Town, again in League One.
There was the potential for a mass exodus. Tranmere departed Wembley without 2018-19 agreements with eleven of their sixteen-man matchday squad, plus Jeff Hughes had already agreed to transfer to Larne. Notwithstanding, Micky Mellon was able to secure new contracts with many of the club's non-League stalwarts. Six of the Wembley Warriors squad were secured for the current season, with Scott Davies, Stephen McNulty, Manny Monthè, Larnell Cole, Jay Harris and Connor Jennings penning new deals at Prenton Park.
Consequently, there remained a real connection between the SWA and the playing staff, having shared the struggle to return to the Football League. Few would deny players such as Jay Harris, scorer of Rovers' very first non-League goal in a 1-0 win over Woking on the opening day of the 2015-16 season, deserved the opportunity to play in League Two. Having witnessed Stephen McNulty skipper the side through the highs and lows of the fifth tier, the decision to have him lead the club back into the EFL seemed a natural fit.
Nonetheless, it's fair to say that Rovers entered the current season as somewhat of an unknown quantity. Yes, we'd seen James Norwood score fifty-eight goals in three seasons, but could he make the step up to League Two? Approaching his thirty-fifth birthday in September 2018, could Stephen McNulty make the jump? For players such as Liam Ridehalgh, Scott Davies and Ritchie Sutton, it had been three years since they had played at EFL level, for Connor Jennings it was five, James Norwood eight and Jay Harris nine.
Fast-forward to March 2019 and answers to pre-season questions have started to present themselves.
Topping the League Two goal-scoring charts at the time of writing, James Norwood hit the ground running, winning the League Two Player of the Month award for August 2018 and never looking back. Connor Jennings' double-double of goals and assists stands as evidence of his undoubted ability to play in the EFL. Manny Monthè has been a revelation at the back, whilst Scott Davies has readjusted to life in League Two almost as if he has never been away.
For others, however, playing time is starting to look increasingly limited. This does not mean that any player has let the club or the SWA down — nothing could be further from the truth. Even so, the difference in quality between the National League and League Two has proven every bit as large as some may have feared.
Micky Mellon has seemingly recognised this need for further EFL experience, recruiting players such as Luke McCullough, David Perkins, Ben Pringle, Kieron Morris, Ishmael Miller and Chris Dagnall as the season has progressed.
In the opposite direction, Ritchie Sutton joined Morecambe in January, whilst Larnell Cole was released. These moves were significant, as it took the number of 2018 play-offs finalists who have left the club (nine) above the number of those remaining (seven).
Looking ahead to May 2019, several more are out of contract, with the deals of Stephen McNulty, Liam Ridehalgh, Jay Harris, Manny Monthè and James Norwood currently set to expire in two months' time.
With Norwood's form, it seems almost impossible for Tranmere to keep hold of their star striker, whilst decisions will need to be taken by both the club and players involved over any extensions for the others.
As it currently stands, however, only two players who played at Wembley in May 2018 — Scott Davies and Connor Jennings ' will be contracted to the club beyond May 2019, with Davies the sole survivor from Rovers' very first non-League game in 2015.
And so, almost four years after collectively picking up the pen on a new, non-League chapter in the Tranmere Rovers story, with history written and legends created, it's approaching the time for new characters to be written into the narrative.
It will be an unquestionably sad day when these players, many of whom have grown on and off the field alongside the club, are no longer plying their trade at Prenton Park. The thought of watching James Norwood return wearing another EFL club's colours, as the SWA witnessed Andy Cook return with Walsall early in the 2018-19 season, stirs an inner conflict between a selfish desire to keep him at Rovers and the honest acknowledgement that he deserves his chance to play as high on the pyramid as he can.
Ultimately, everything comes to an end and if the club is to continue climbing the leagues, the unfortunate reality is we will lose players along the way. The non-League band has put out one hell of a debut album, with the farewell tour seemingly destined for one last post-season encore.
No matter what line-up hits the studio next season, it will be some task to produce a better follow-up.