Why Tranmere Must Avoid The 7 Deadly Sins Of An EFL Return
Promotion is fantastic providing it is approached correctly by everyone concerned
As we enter the final week of pre-season, Deadly Submarine brings you the fourth instalment of our countdown to 2018-19. You can find links to previously released instalments at the bottom of each piece, so if you missed one, don't worry — it's easy to catch up.
For now, we will focus on the number seven, as that reflects the number of days remaining in the countdown.
Whilst promotion to the EFL brings undoubted benefits, said rewards can only truly be reaped if the upwards transition is approached in the appropriate manner. For every team that secures back-to-back promotions, there are others who are thrown straight into a relegation battle during their first year in League Two.
For Rovers to thrive in their new EFL environment, everyone connected to the Club should probably avoid what Deadly Submarine refers to as the '7 deadly sins of an EFL return'.
What's the old saying? “Pride comes before a fall”.
For Tranmere Rovers, that statement could not be any truer, with all but a select few severely overestimating their club's ability to manage the demotion to the fourth tier following the 2013-14 season.
Having spent twenty-five years above the basement of the Football League, there was a great deal of unfounded expectancy placed upon the shoulders of a manager, and of players, that were simply not up to the task of mounting a promotion challenge. That's not to point the finger at any group in particular, as I was as guilty as anyone else of making the presumption that Rovers would be challenging at the top end.
Ultimately, the Club did escape the division at the first attempt, albeit at the wrong end of the table.
Of course, fans should take pride in the achievements of the Club, both historical and contemporaneous. Watching Stephen McNulty lift the National League play-off trophy at Wembley will no doubt be the highlight of supporting the Club for an entire generation of fans. It was something to be extremely proud of. But in 2018-19, it will not put points on the board.
We will be coming up against four teams who were in League One, not four years ago like Rovers, but three months ago. Teams such as MK Dons and Yeovil Town have been in the Championship within recent history. Swindon Town and Oldham Athletic have played in the Premier League, Bury have won the FA Cup… you hopefully get the point.
I am certainly not saying there is nothing to be proud of, because there is. However, it is imperative that pride does not transform into hubris, arrogance and unfounded overconfidence. We know how that story ends.
In modern football, greed is rife amongst the 'elite'. You only have to look at the top Premier League clubs, whose insatiable appetite for financial rewards sees them trampling over the best interests of lower league clubs at an alarming rate, to see that football is a ruthless, money-orientated business. You could argue that it has always been this way, with the haves and have nots, the rich and the poor, the large and the small.
However, has there ever been a time when the inequality within the top four divisions was wider than the resounding chasm that has been driven into the heart of the professional football pyramid?
The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) has forced many lower league clubs, including Tranmere, to assess their approach to youth development. This is not only bad for the clubs, who lose a traditional and vital source of revenue, but for the local communities of young footballers whose options are reduced.
The introduction of youth sides in the Football League Trophy (we'll have more on that farce in due course!) is the first acidic step on the journey to 'B' team normalisation, which risks making clubs further down the pyramid little more than glorified sparring partners for those packing the financial punches. Greed for success leads clubs to horde young talent, then greed for a return on that investment has seen those same clubs demand more matches in a tournament that was specifically designed to give lower league fans and clubs a day out at Wembley.
In returning to the EFL, Tranmere once again fall under the purview of an organisation whose track record on standing up to greedy interests is questionable at best. No longer a big-hitter in the National League, one fears as a club Rovers will have to fight, every day if necessary, to maintain their interests, their status, their identity as an EFL club.
They must stand up to the forces of avarice where necessary, else the return to the EFL may turn into a nightmare, leaving the Club little more than a vassal shell to the wishes of the greedy.
Tranmere's second-tier history is storied, the architect having a stand and a statue at Prenton Park making those achievements unavoidable for the majority of the SWA. Rightly lauded as the most exhilarating days of the Club's existence, for many fans, a return to what is now the Championship would be a return to where Rovers 'belong'.
Fans of a slightly older vintage, or indeed those who have elected to carry the Tranmere banner in the post-2000 era, may consider a return to League One as a more appropriate 'home' for the SWA. Indeed, statistically, Rovers' historical league placings put their natural position somewhere in mid-table of the third tier. Personally, if forced to commit to a placing, I would declare Tranmere a top-half third tier-sized club.
Where Rovers need to be careful, however, is in lusting after a return to those levels. Of course, people with an affection for the Club will want it to succeed, to climb the pyramid and to play at as high a level as is possible. It's an ambition I share.
Such ambition must be grounded in reality. If one was to be honest, Tranmere stopped being a club that could compete at the second tier in 2001. They haven't looked like being able to do so since.
Post-2009, barring an extraordinary six-month spell at the start of the 2012-13 season, they were unable to compete at League One level, survival becoming the only ambition every year.
By the time they were relegated out of the Football League in 2015, the Club had ceased being able to even compete at League Two level, dropping like a stone and making such a small splash that the other members of the division could be forgiven for forgetting they were even present that season.
None of this is designed to say Tranmere could never compete at Championship or League One level ever again. Notwithstanding, lusting after a return to those levels before proving they can do a better job of competing at League Two level than their previous, let's be frank pitiful, attempt is foolhardy and misguided.
The cart must not be put before the horse.
Now that Rovers once again rub shoulders with the 'ninety-two', or more specifically the 'seventy-two' of the EFL, they no longer enjoy a sizeable advantage over most of their competitors. In the National League, all but a few clubs struggled to compete with Tranmere's resources. At League Two level, that may not be as obvious.
Certainly financially, Rovers do not appear to have the resources of other League Two contemporaries. With Tranmere so far unable to replace Andy Cook, whilst other clubs sign notable names, it is sometimes hard as a fan to avoid casting an envious glance in their direction.
However, from a purely practical perspective, Rovers have, and will continue to have, the shortest current tenure in the EFL for at least twelve months. Looking at a club such as Lincoln City, who have ridden the momentum from an exceptional season in the 2016-17 National League, and comparing the signings made is folly.
Whilst Tranmere may not have the financial resources to compete at the very top of League Two immediately, one suspects there will be no other club with the same level of expertise off the field to ensure any competition will be sustainable.
The TROSC, the Trust marquee, the campaigns to end period poverty at Prenton Park and to help local foodbanks, the SWA2 campaign, the Futsal hub, the Campus — none of these developments existed during Tranmere's previous tenure in the EFL. All of these initiatives help embed the Club in the local community for the foreseeable future.
Far from envious glances at other clubs' short-term personnel acquisitions, one can look around Tranmere and realise there are numerous long-term reasons for others to be envious of Rovers.
Serving three seasons in non-League football, Tranmere have perhaps developed unusual excesses in their footballing performances. Naturally, one will have to go far to find someone who will complain about the regularity with which Rovers racked up the wins, the points and goals — it was all enjoyable at the time.
However, like most excesses, there is an argument to be made that what tastes good in the short-term can have unhelpful consequences in the long-term.
For example, Tranmere recorded 255 points over three seasons in the National League, at an average of 85 points. By comparison, it took the Club five seasons to break the 255-barrier whilst in the EFL, where they averaged 53 points per season — 32 points fewer.
Whilst in the National League, Tranmere won seventy-five league matches, averaging twenty-five league wins per season. In the EFL, it took five seasons to win sixty-nine league games, averaging just fourteen wins per season, and six seasons to break the seventy-five win-mark.
Conversely, they lost just thirty-three times over three years in non-League, averaging eleven defeats per season, whilst in their last five seasons in the EFL, they lost an astounding one hundred and three times, at an average of twenty-one per season.
On the scoring front, a +89 goal difference in three years in the National League compares to a -48 goal difference in the last five EFL seasons. Those figures average out at +30 for a non-League season and -10 for an EFL term.
Most importantly, Rovers' averaged a third-placed finish over their National League tenure, whilst they averaged a seventeenth-placed finish over their final five EFL campaigns.
The point of exploring these statistics is to reinforce the reality of playing EFL football. Over ninety-four years in the EFL, seasons such as those experienced in the past three seasons were very much a rarity. The first and second-highest points totals in the Club's history came in the National League. The Club last reached 80 points in the EFL in 2003.
Adjust expectations of success accordingly.
Over the past eighteen months, there has been a newfound groundswell of goodwill towards Tranmere, with the atmosphere at matches transformed from the hostile environment of the late 2000s and early 2010s.
This has come to fruition partly from a recognition by groups such as the Trust and the newly created TROSC that they could affect change as fan representatives. It is also clear, however, that improved performances on the pitch and relative stability within the playing staff have enabled the fanbase to form bonds with the people who represent them on the pitch. There are numerous players within the squad with whom sections of the SWA have a genuine affinity.
The danger with promotion is twofold. The first issue is the loss of said players, evidenced with the departures of Jeff Hughes, Eddie Clarke and particularly Andy Cook. In the cases of Hughes and Cook especially, Tranmere have lost not just genuine quality but regular, consistent performers.
With a new, higher division bringing new challenges, the potential is there for the wrath of the supporters to rear its head again should results prove underwhelming. A return to the pre-Mellon atmospheres of the last decade must not be allowed if Tranmere's new and future players are to feel comfortable in the EFL.
The seventh and final deadly sin is that of sloth, which has previously manifested itself at Tranmere in the short, medium and long-terms.
In the short-term, it can be narrowed down to individual matches. For the entirety of the Gary Brabin era, and the first part of the Micky Mellon reign, Tranmere had a habit of starting games slowly. At National League level, their quality would shine through and they would often come back to secure results. Over the course of the past eighteen months, that trait has become less prevalent, with no bigger counterargument than their early goal, with ten men, at Wembley in May. When faced with a superior standard of opposition in 2018-19, this trait cannot find itself returning or it will make getting results incredibly difficult.
In the medium-term, Rovers have had relatively slow first halves of seasons in the National League, building momentum in the second period of each of their three non-League terms. Again, this is a trait that may not continue against superior opposition, as they may leave themselves with too much to do. Obviously, this will depend upon expectation level regarding objectives for the season, something we will discuss later in our countdown. It may be unrealistic to expect Augusts like those from 2015-16 and 2016-17, but it would be nice to think they would not repeat the struggle for form from the opening of 2017-18.
In the long-term, the Club cannot be too slow in its ambitions to move up the leagues. Obviously, we have discussed the need to be ready to make that transition, so two or three seasons in League Two would not be horrendous in the bigger picture. However, should it take a decade or more to progress, there is the risk that the current atmospheric and on-field momentum dissipates.
There are a lot of positives to promotion and it is only natural, perhaps even right, to approach the new season with a sense of optimism. After all, it is the first time Tranmere will start a season further up the pyramid than they ended the previous one since 1989.
It is also important, however, to keep optimism and expectation separate to avoid the 7 deadly sins of the EFL. Steer clear of these pitfalls and there is no reason why Rovers can't continue to build upon their 2018 triumph.
What do you think? Do you agree that Rovers need to be careful or are you awash with anticipation for another excellent season? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter.
Remember: Check back tomorrow for day five of our ten-day countdown to the 2018-19 season.« 08 Days 06 Days »