Are the SWA living another 'Trip to the Moon'?
I can't promise anyone success, but I can promise them a trip to the moon.
— John King, pre-season 1991-92
As part of his preparations for the 1991-92 Division Two season, Rovers' first at that level since an ill-fated one-season tenure in 1938-39, John King made the above statement. It has since become one of the most referenced and indeed influential phrases in Tranmere Rovers' history, earning a permanent place amongst the go-to lexicon of King's motivational speeches.
It is elevated above the often familiar hyperbole of most managers' press briefings for one simple reason — he delivered. On the opening day of the season, 17th August 1991, £250,000 signing John Aldridge scored twice on his debut as Rovers secured a 0-2 away victory at Brighton & Hove Albion. On 6th March 1992, Scotland international Pat Nevin debuted in a 2-1 home victory over Port Vale. And whilst Tranmere would finish their return season in fourteenth place, they had set the groundwork for three successive play-off appearances in 1992-93, 1993-94 and 1994-95 respectively.
Ultimately, King's men never quite reached the top tier of English football, however in aiming to do so they took the club to unprecedented heights. It was the greatest time to be a Tranmere fan and that era will likely be considered the standard for which the club must strive until such times as it is matched or surpassed.
When John King made those comments, he was doing so as the manager of a Second Division club plotting, if possible, a route into the First Division. Within twelve months, the club would have achieved that objective without the need for the previously requisite promotion.
The 1992-93 introduction of the Premier League saw the Football League's three tiers renamed Divisions One, Two and Three respectively. It was the first move in a fiscally-generated thunderstorm that would change the English football landscape forever.
On the 15th August 1992, the first day of the Premier League, the record transfer purchase by an English club was Manchester United's £1.5m acquisition of Bryan Robson from West Bromwich Albion in 1981. This put Tranmere's 1991, £250,000 record signing of John Aldridge at one-sixth of the English transfer record.
Over the next two seasons, Rovers would continue to spend big, breaking their own record by signing Pat Nevin for £300,000 (one-fifth of the English transfer record) in 1992 and Tommy Coyne for £350,000 in 1993. As second-tier club, Tranmere were competing with the very top teams in the country for talent.
By January 1995, just two-and-a-half seasons into the Premier League era, Manchester United were again setting an English record with a £7m transfer of Andy Cole from Newcastle United — twenty times Coyne's transfer to Prenton Park. Although Rovers would increase their own spending with a club record purchase of Shaun Teale from Aston Villa for £450,000 (one-sixteenth Cole) in July 1995, within eighteen months, the English record had almost doubled again, as Newcastle signed Alan Shearer from Blackburn Rovers in 1996 for £15m — thirty-three times Teale's transfer value.
A mere four years after King had uttered his famous line, the rules had changed and what was once sufficient to compete robustly with the top clubs in the transfer market was no longer so much as adequate.
As Rovers were relegated out of the second tier in 2001, Manchester United were completing a £28m deal for the Argentine Juan Sebastián Verón, a fee sixty-two times Teale's.
Quite simply, mission aborted.
Eighty-nine years before King's quote, French director Georges Méliès released his 1902 film La Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon). Considered by some to be the first feature in the modern sci-fi genre, the film sees a group of astronomers travel to the Moon in a custom-built capsule, where they find unexpected inhabitants.
Notable for its grotesque appearance, the visual imagery of the titular lunar body draws eerie comparisons to today's Premier League, with fees and wages unimaginably horrific back in 1991. At the time of writing, the English record purchase is Paul Pogba's 2016 return to Manchester United for £89m — one hundred and ninety-eight times Tranmere's record fee.
If a club is aiming for the Premier League in 2019, they aren't so much aiming for the Moon as they are a more distant, more exclusive entity. In the age of NASA's Journey to Mars, which plans to have humans travelling to Mars by the 2030s — a mere decade into the future — perhaps an assault on English Football's top flight is more akin to a trip to the Red Planet? Smaller (reduced to twenty teams in 1995) and further away, yet remaining just visible as you chart a course through space.
So where exactly would a 'Trip to the Moon' take you in contemporary English football?
If we accept that without huge investment à la AFC Bournemouth or Brighton & Hove Albion the Premier League is all but inaccessible, one needs to decide where the line between ambition and fantasy is drawn. In La Voyage dans la Lune, the astronomers are chased from the Moon and return to Earth rather hastily, unwittingly carrying a Selenite (lunar inhabitant) with them as they crash back into the sea.
Are Premier League parachute payments English football's Selenites?
With a quick glance at the 2018-19 Championship table, one can see the magnitude of the task facing smaller teams in the second tier. Twenty of the twenty-four-team line-up are former Premier League clubs. Two, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest, are former European Cup champions. Yet, as the Television revenues for those clubs in the Premier League increases, so too do the parachute payments.
In 2017-18, Sunderland received £35m in payments from the Premier League as they embarked on life in the second tier. They were relegated, placing twenty-fourth (bottom) and winning just seven matches. In 2018-19, in the third tier, they received another £35m of Premier League payments. At the time of writing, they are third, two points from automatic promotion albeit with a game in-hand. And if their bid for promotion should falter? They will receive a further £14m in 2019-20, where they could conceivably face Tranmere with such a massive fiscal advantage.
With such vast amounts of money available to even those clubs who are abject on-field failures, it is little wonder that investors throw money at Championship sides in the hopes of reaching a Premier League return. Said investment dovetails with the parachute payments to create a second-tier transfer market that is worlds away from that which Rovers left just eighteen years ago. On 30th January 2017, Wolverhampton Wanderers broke the Championship transfer record by purchasing Hélder Costa from Benfica for £13.5m (thirty times Shaun Teale), before breaking it again on 8th July 2017 with the £16.1m signing of Rúben Neves from FC Porto — thirty-six times Tranmere's club record.
Faced with this competitive environment, historically sizeable clubs are falling out of the top two tiers. Wigan Athletic, a Premier League club for eight years between 2005 and 2013 and 2013 FA Cup winners, have been relegated from the Championship twice in the five seasons since, bouncing back immediately on both occasions. Despite being named League One champions twice in three years, the implication being they are too good for the third tier, they find themselves nineteenth at the time of writing and three points above the relegation zone. They could find themselves relegated for a third time in five years, despite having almost a decade in the top flight, such is the pace of fiscal growth in the Premier League.
Should they be relegated, they will almost certainly be joined in League One 2019-20 by former UEFA Cup winners Ipswich Town, a club who have competed in the top two tiers of English football since 1957-58.
With clubs such as Blackpool, Yeovil Town and Burton Albion reaching the Championship (in Blackpool's case, the Premier League), it would be unfair to say that there is a ceiling at the top of League One.
It would, however, be entirely fair to suggest that there is a monumental chasm between the Championship and League One. As such, whilst it may sting to admit it, a fair-minded Tranmere fan would surely accept that without serious investment, the chances of reaching the second tier again become more remote by the season?
And this brings us to the current 2018-19 campaign.
At the time of writing, Rovers sit fifth in the League Two table, four points inside the play-off places with a game in-hand. Newly promoted from the National League, a play-off place would be an unbelievable achievement for a side considered unknown quantities at the start of the season. Automatic promotion, which remains a mathematical possibility, would be a huge. For example, our season predictions suggested Rovers would finish twelfth, comfortably away from trouble but outside the promotion race.
As of now, that appears to have done the club a disservice. If the players can finish the job and secure a second successive promotion — a feat that has never been achieved in Tranmere history — then there is a case to argue that the current period is as significant to the club, relatively, as the famous John King era.
A play-off appearance would make it three seasons in a row for the first time since 1995, with the club looking to visit Wembley in three consecutive seasons as well. A second promotion, possibly automatic, would return the club to the third tier for the first time in six years, bringing the descent into infamy to a close. With James Norwood, Rovers' all-time eighth-highest scorer, Tranmere could finish the season with the top goal-scorer not just in their league, which would also be the second time in succession, but in England as a whole.
Of course, Tranmere should never have found themselves in the National League, however they deserved to be, and they earned their way out. In doing so, players such as James Norwood, Scott Davies, Steve McNulty, Connor Jennings and many, many others have earned their status as legends of Tranmere Rovers.
These are players who have shared every high and endured every low of the past three seasons. They are the Wembley Warriors whose passion for the cause dictates their never-say-die attitude. Every time they have tasted disappointment, they have learned from it and improved.
From failing to reach the play-offs in 2015-16, losing in the 2016-17 final and finally securing their objective in 2017-18, Tranmere's owners, manager and players have taken the club forward, firmly establishing an upwards momentum.
What is happening at Prenton Park is special. With Rovers' primary objective of League Two safety long since secured, it's perhaps important to take a moment to reflect upon the current circumstances. With Micky Mellon signing a new contract that keeps him at the club until May 2021, the end of this journey has not yet appeared on the horizon.
So, it's incumbent upon the SWA to enjoy the remaining nine games of the 2018-19 campaign. How often do we, as Tranmere fans, get to say we are watching genuine Tranmere legends compete for a second successive promotion, playing some entertaining football along the way?
To answer the opening question, yes — Rovers are on another 'Trip to the Moon'. Unfortunately, the Moon is no longer the destination, purely a pitstop on a longer journey to a more distant dream.
Nonetheless, we should enjoy the ride and let's see where we end up in May.