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Why 3 Years In Non-League Can Help Tranmere In The EFL

Rovers reborn during EFL exile

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Posted: 01/08/18

By | Matthew Evans | @M_R_Evans1

mevans@deadlysubmarine.com

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If you have been following our countdown to date, thank you for returning for this, the eighth instalment of the ten-part series. If you are visiting us here at Deadly Submarine for the first time, welcome. We hope you enjoy this piece of content and, if you do, there are links at the bottom of each page to direct you to previous days' entries.

With just three days remaining until the EFL campaign kicks-off for Tranmere Rovers at Stevenage, today we focus on how a three-year absence can help Rovers on their return to the fabled 'ninety-two'.

Fans

As has been well documented both by Deadly Submarine and various other outlets, Tranmere fans were a long-suffering bunch. Starved of any trophy success for twenty-seven years, humiliated with off-field antics and on-field performances, it was a miserable time.

In May 2018, the trophy drought was ended with a flick of James Norwood's head. With the final whistle at Wembley, the club finally took a step up the pyramid after three unanswered steps backwards in 2001, 2014 and 2015.

Following that 2015 relegation from League Two, it would have been easy for fans to throw the towel in, ending their association with the Club as it ended its own association with League football. At many clubs, that would have been the case. Not at Tranmere.

Rovers' fans backed the Club in brilliant numbers. Over two thousand people turned out for a Prenton Park open day mere weeks after the drop, with the event becoming an annual occurrence. A new, official supporters club (TROSC) was founded. The SWA now have representation in the Club's hierarchy with a seat at the table ring-fenced for the Tranmere Trust. In return, there have been many initiatives to improve the fans' experiences at the games. In the Paddock, new shelters for wheelchair-bound supporters. An access ramp at the front of the Kop sits proudly in front of the new family zone introduced on the Main Stand side of the imposing structure.

TROSC members can now vote on the kits the players will wear and have dedicated awards given in their name, to the players they vote for, at the end of every season. Instead of turning their backs, the fans stuck by the Club and the fan experience is as good, if not better, than it has ever been.

This fact was reflected in the attendances, where Rovers topped the National League attendance table in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons — statistically the best supported non-League club in England and ready to return to the EFL with a rejuvenated vigour in 2018-19.

Endurance

After season upon season of disappointment and despair, one could argue Tranmere fans had become conditioned to expect the worst. If falling into non-League was not confirmation enough that things can, and will, deteriorate, then humbling defeats to Welling United and Woking, amongst others, provided fuel for the fire of the eternal pessimists within the ranks.

However, whilst it would have been preferable to have avoided the years of heartache and despondency, they had engrained within the Club a vital characteristic for success — endurance.

An uncomfortable truth for a proud and storied club, the setup at Prenton Park had simply stopped being able to maintain a Football League club. This trait seeped into the psyche at Tranmere, eventually making its way onto the pitch, where the team stopped producing adequate displays — at first tailing off at the end of a season (2012-13, 2013-14) before developing a habit of doing the same within matches.

It's something that continued into the first season in non-League football, but over time, this changed. In every season in non-League, Tranmere built momentum in the second half of the season. Eventually, they almost completely lost the habit of throwing results away late in games.

The 2017-18 season proved the culmination of this transformation. Starting poorly, the Club dragged itself back into promotion contention before finishing as runners-up. In the play-off semi-final, the team came from behind not once, but twice to beat Ebbsfleet United after extra time. Of course, in the final, they endured almost all imaginable setbacks, yet they found a way to win.

When Tranmere return to EFL action, they can do so in the knowledge that they are a tough, resilient club, able to withstand whatever is thrown at them and come through the other side.

Vision

Cast adrift of the EFL jetty, the good ship Rovers was carried out to sea by the tides of relegation. Marooned on the biggest of the non-League islands, the Club was left to its own devices on many fronts. If Tranmere were to plot a route back to the EFL mainland, they would have to come up with new means of survival.

When the BBC stopped providing match coverage, they faced the prospect of radio silence. Instead, two new entities stepped forward, willing to communicate the S.O.S. signal over the airwaves. Both the official Club radio and Wirral Radio stations provided a platform for those unable to travel to games.

Aware that the Club would need support in their efforts, the SWA2 campaign was launched to attract new helpers. With all hands on deck, these new recruits were able to help steer the Club back to the right course and will join the adventure in the 2018-19 return to the mainland.

Whilst out at sea, the Club recruited the help of people from lands afar, striking a mutually beneficial relationship in China and setting up an international football school.

In the fight for survival, to get back to the EFL shores, Tranmere found a vision and guile that will prove invaluable upon their return home. Cut off from their usual tried and trusted routines, they were forced into adaptive measures to sustain themselves. In finding solutions to these problems, the Club appears much more able to sustain itself in the medium to long-term.

Perhaps once guilty of not seeing the woods for the trees, this new Tranmere would doubtless put plans in place to build a log cabin holiday resort, adventure playground and nature reserve, before settling down to a dinner cooked over a log fire and eaten with wooden cutlery.

Appreciation

Possibly the most long-term outcome of a three-year tenure in non-League football will come in a newfound appreciation of the EFL.

After thirteen years in League One, it would have been understandable if a state of apathy descended upon Prenton Park. Fighting for survival in the third tier became routine, but even the most pessimistic of fans would not have dared contemplate a loss of League status. Sure, the occasional comment from a disgruntled fan would rear its head, but did anyone seriously give credence to the possibility?

Following the drop into the fourth tier, none but a select few actually believed the Club would fall into non-League. Knocked out in the first round of the League Cup by Nottingham Forest, there would always be next year wouldn't there? Humbled 2-6 by Swansea City in the FA Cup, a mini resurgence under Micky Adams had suggested Rovers could start again in the first round in 2015-16.

Games against Burton Albion, Morecambe, Accrington Stanley — were these unfamiliar bedfellows truly given the respect they deserved? There is an argument that they were not by some.

Well, after struggling to qualify for the first round of the FA Cup (twice) and being expelled from the League Cup and EFL Trophy altogether, Tranmere return to the EFL knowing that entry into these competitions is a reward for EFL status and, whilst the EFL Trophy especially needs radical overhaul, they are gifts to be cherished.

In general, the Club should approach their EFL return with a fresh sense of appreciation for everything that comes with EFL membership — for they know what losing it entails.

Summary

Before relegation, falling into the non-League football scene could have been viewed as a death sentence for a Club plummeting through the leagues at an alarming rate. It certainly brought multiple difficulties.

However, as we've explored, with the backing, endurance and vision of all involved, Tranmere proved that a club can be maintained outside the EFL bubble. Now that they've returned, an appreciation of EFL status should afford greater enjoyment of League Two football.

Obviously, the Club cannot become happy simply being an EFL club, but a realisation that their non-League journey has improved the Club as a whole could, probably should, help ease any transitionary pressures.

Whilst they became a non-League club on the field, they once again became an EFL club off it. They are far more prepared to compete now than they were in 2014, and perhaps even have a little extra something over their EFL rivals who have not shared a similar experience.

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Remember: Check back tomorrow for the penultimate day of our ten-day countdown to the 2018-19 season.