Lowe And Behold!
Do you like what Rovers have done to the place?
Posted: 24/04/19 | Updated 25/04/19
On Saturday 2nd May 2015, Tranmere hosted Bury on the final day of the 2014-15 League Two season. Having succumbed to a 3-2 defeat at Plymouth Argyle the week prior, Rovers entered the fixture in the knowledge that their fate had already been sealed, relegated out of the Football League after a ninety-four-year tenure.
Conversely, Bury were embroiled in a promotion tussle, aiming to capture a victory that could send them into League One after a two-year absence. Backed by over 2000 travelling Shakers, Bury claimed their prize, Tom Soares' sixty-first-minute strike earning a 0-1 victory that, coupled with Southend United's surprise 3-1 defeat at Morecambe, sent the fans in the Cowsheds into raptures.
Well, those that remained in the Cowsheds anyway.
Salt In The Wounds
As the final whistle blew, two teams that entered the pitch in the same league would leave it two divisions apart. Understandably, the away support could contain neither their excitement nor their numbers, spilling onto the playing surface to celebrate their achievement.
For the Rovers faithful, witnessing those scenes hurt.
Whilst some of the SWA may have taken umbrage with the act itself, is there really any difference to the hordes that crossed over the white lines at Edgeley Park following Tranmere's 0-3 victory over Stockport County in 2010? On that occasion, Tranmere preserved their League One status at the Hatters' expense, sparking a pitch invasion from many of the 3000+ Rovers fans present which resulted in the crossbar at the Railway End being broken.
Therefore, there can be no stone-throwing about the post-match actions of the Bury pitch invaders.
Nevertheless, the sight of Bury's jubilant supporters revelling in their joy served to compound the abject misery in the home stands.
The defeat, the twelfth in the final fifteen games (one win), dealt one last indignation to the Super Whites as Rovers ended the season bottom of the entire Football League, a second successive relegation seeing Tranmere swap League One for the National League within 366 days.
“How Lowe Can We Go?”
Further to such a sense of infamy was the presence in the Bury team of a certain Ryan Lowe.
The veteran striker was signed by Rovers manager Ronnie Moore in the summer of 2013, penning a two-year contract at Prenton Park. Whilst a poor season saw Tranmere relegated at the end of the 2013-14 campaign, Lowe had enjoyed personal success, his tally of twenty goals in fifty appearances (all competitions) making him the first Tranmere player since Simon Haworth in 2002-03 to score more than nineteen.
So, despite the disappointment of relegation to League Two, Ryan's two-year deal meant Rovers could look forward to having the requisite firepower for an immediate return.
On 19th May 2014, just seventeen days post-relegation, Lowe left to join Bury.
Upon his departure, Tranmere chief executive Jeremy Butler said the following:
Since the season ended, Ryan has spoken publicly about his need to sign a new extended contract…We do not feel it is prudent for Tranmere Rovers to give a thirty-five-year-old player an improved two-year contract when he still has twelve months left to run on his current deal…The money will be put into the budget to sign new players for next season
— Jeremy Butler, Liverpool Echo, 19th May 2014
Claiming that the transfer provided “excellent value” for Rovers, Butler appeared happy with the completed business.
The SWA, however, were not.
Lowe's replacements that season would prove to not only lack the quality to mount a promotion challenge, but also to put up a successful fight against relegation. Indeed, such was the lack of firepower in the team that young midfielder Max Power would end the campaign as Rovers' top scorer with thirteen goals.
If certain fans felt betrayed by the use of Lowe's image in promotional materials in the weeks preceding his transfer, and dismayed by the “new players” Butler spoke of, then some were outright incensed when Lowe gave the following comments in the build-up to the meeting of the two teams at Gigg Lane in October 2014:
I didn't want to stay at a non-ambitious club, the Chairman [Stewart Day] put his money where his mouth was, and they were quick to sell me
— Ryan Lowe, mancunianmatters.co.uk , 3rd October 2014
Even then, five years before Mr.Day's tenure as Chairman came to a close amid revelations of severe financial problems, many amongst Rovers' SWA, hell, football in general could see the warning signs. It's one thing to lose your top scorer to a team in the league above, or a club who can afford to pay higher wages.
Contemporaneously, Bury were not the former and, if the fullness of time, have been revealed to not be the latter either. When Lowe signed for Bury, they were just thirteen months removed from an appeal for £1m to “secure the long-term future of the club”, without which they claimed, “there will be no more professional football played at Gigg Lane…the club will close”.
It's not ambitious to spend money your club doesn't have, it's just stupid. In fact, more than stupid — selfish, immoral and flat-out wrong. When it's financed by alarm-ringing schemes such as ten-year leases on the club's parking spaces for £9995 each, it's probably wise to wait and see how events play out.
Evidently, in the short-term, it worked out pretty well, Lowe playing sixty-six minutes of the Shakers' promotion-winning victory.
As they departed Prenton Park, the 5000+ home fans who made up two-thirds of the 7518 crowd would have been forgiven for asking themselves how low the club could fall. With the prospect that they had just attended the last-ever Football League match to be hosted in front of the Kop lingering in the post-match atmosphere, more than a few probably did. There was at least one!
On The Way Back, You Know?
It took three years, two play-off finals and one unforgettable tale of against-the-odds tenacity, but Prenton Park would once again host a Football League schedule of home fixtures in 2018-19.
In a bizarre twist of fate, the final home game in the forty-six-game season sees Bury once again arrive on The Wirral seeking to secure automatic promotion, doubtless hoping for a repeat of the aforementioned scenes of four years ago.
They shouldn't count on it.
Things are substantially different at Tranmere now.
From fan parks and official supporters' groups the world over, to a new training ground and a transformed atmosphere, Rovers can no longer be accused of “lacking ambition”. Just weeks ago, a local resident's home was adorned with a fantastic mural of club legends Ian Muir and Ray Mathias.
The good vibes are both figuratively and literally spilling out of the club.
On the pitch, Prenton Park is a fortress once more. In the two seasons between August 2013 and May 2015, Tranmere lost twenty of forty-six league home matches, winning just eleven. Since August 2016, they have lost just fourteen league matches in sixty-eight.
Focusing on 2018-19, Rovers have lost just four league matches at home and find themselves firmly in the play-off picture, needing one point from their final two games to qualify for the top-seven showpiece in their first season back. They do still maintain a slim hope of automatic promotion themselves, but even if they don't manage it, this time they are equipped with the personnel to prevent Bury from doing so either.
In James Norwood, the league's top scorer. In Scott Davies, the Golden Gloves leader. In Micky Mellon, a manager with four promotions and two further play-off appearances. In the Palioses, an ownership who, despite making mistakes at times, will never put the club's future at risk in the same way multiple administrations (no pun intended) have done at Gigg Lane.
And, in the SWA, a group of fans who have stuck through the hard times and are now driving the team forwards, game-by-game increases in attendance testament to the renewed appetite for The Wirral's only professional team.
The Other Side
A lot has changed at Bury, too.
For starters, Ryan Lowe has switched from playing to managing. Named permanent manager for the 2018-19 season, Lowe has no doubt learned the problems raised when ambition is not met with finance.
Whilst the off-field circus has once again rolled into town, it would be churlish to ignore the on-field successes under Lowe's stewardship. Second in the table, top scorers in the division and packed full of exciting, talented players, Bury seem determined to avenge their 2017-18 relegation at the first attempt.
In his debut full season as a manager, Lowe has been recognised with the League Two Manager of the Month award in November 2018, January 2019 and February 2019, a remarkable haul of trophies for someone who is essentially a rookie manager.
Sometimes, though, the more things change, the more they stay the same, with the financial spectres once again lingering over any potential promotion party.
Whilst Bury appear destined to repeat the mistakes of the past, Tranmere have well and truly learned their lessons. Whether it's two successive promotions, a rerun of fonder memories from yesteryear or, in Bury's players' case, two consecutive cashable paycheques, there will be a lot of people aiming to “do that again” on Saturday.
Rovers have grown so much in the interim period and a 10,000+ attendance is a distinct possibility.
This could be a brilliant game.