Summer Transfers 2019
On Monday 15th July 2019, it will have been exactly 50 days since Tranmere regained their League One status after a 5-year absence.
Throughout the descent into National League purgatory, the revolving doors of transfer windows under Ronnie Moore, Rob Edwards and Micky Adams brought numerous players to Prenton Park, many of whom were lacking in ability, fitness, experience or attitude. A select few possessed none of those attributes.
Following their eventual arrival in non-League football, the Club, under the leadership of the Palioses and manager Gary Brabin, set about building the foundations of a squad that would eventually take the Super White Army back into the EFL at the third attempt under Brabin's successor, incumbent Micky Mellon.
The same spine, from Scott Davies in goal to James Norwood in attack, held together a unit that propelled Tranmere straight through the fourth tier at the first attempt. It was a remarkable achievement, the first time in the 135-year history of Tranmere Rovers that the team had achieved successive promotions.
It could be argued that by delivering this feat, many of the players involved cemented their places in the history of Rovers whilst simultaneously ensuring they would play no further part in Rovers' future. (On 19th March, Deadly Submarine published an article entitled Breaking Up the Band that explored this topic in greater detail.)
However, we are now in July and Tranmere have secured the services of 25 professionals Mellon believes will help maintain the Super Whites' upwards trajectory. With less than 3 weeks until the start of the 2019-20 campaign, Deadly Submarine assesses Rovers' summer 2019 transfer business to date.
Including the returns of loan players such as Ben Pringle, Jonny Smith and Luke McCullough, 13 players have departed Prenton Park.
The headlines will, of course, focus on 32-goal striker James Norwood's free transfer to League One rivals Ipswich Town. It's a massive loss for the team and it would be folly to suggest his absence will not be felt. He scored 29 of Tranmere's 63 regular-season League Two goals, an astonishing 46%. Losing his goals, his work rate, his attitude and his overall influence will hurt. Receiving no funds with which to replace him more so.
In what feels like the definitive end of the non-League era, icons such as Stephen McNulty, Jay Harris and Adam Buxton, all of whom shared in the successes of 2018 and 2019, also alighted the 'Trip to the Moon 2' at the most recent calling point.
Since their departures, both Harris and McNulty have expressed in the media their disappointment in the manner of their exits, and whilst looking in from the outside one will never truly know the exact details, any unsavoury occurrences would be hugely unfortunate given the three players' contributions to the Tranmere cause.
Other players with whom the fans developed an affinity such as Zoumana Bakayogo and Ben Tollitt said their goodbyes together with Cole Stockton, who had been under contract at Prenton Park for 7 of his 8 years as a professional footballer.
All were joined in the departure lounge by Chris Dagnall, James Devine and Patrick Wharton, who were allowed to seek new horizons in their careers.
Extended Stays (11)
When a football team is successful, it is natural that players will leave. Some will move to higher divisions and bigger clubs, whilst others will simply be surplus to the requirements of any new surroundings.
Nonetheless, losing big personalities such as Norwood, McNulty and Harris, who had helped to define a new Tranmere, threatened to leave the team struggling to keep its identity.
Thankfully, there were several players keen to extend their stay.
In what is undoubtedly the best piece of business thus far at Rovers, cult hero Manny Monthé penned a new 2-year contract that sees him remain at the heart of the defence for the 2019-20 campaign. A player who has developed beyond all recognition over the past 12 months, he has perhaps the greatest potential of the entire squad to continue his progression up the leagues. With him looking for his fourth successive promotion-winning season on a personal level, he could be a major player in League One.
Liam Ridehalgh, the Club's longest-serving player and a man who has experienced every peak and trough of the rollercoaster over the past 6 years, signed a new 2-year deal that, should he complete the duration, will take him into his eighth season as a Super White. The only member of the squad to have previous experience of League One football with Tranmere, he too could be a crucial signing at the back.
January 2019 loan recruits Sid Nelson and Kieron Morris signed permanent, 2-year agreements over the summer, providing further continuity from 2018-19, whilst Ishmael Miller signed a new 6-month contract as he continues his return from injury. All three players have already shown enough promise to be considered solid recruits. Nelson has all the makings of an excellent defender and, with a nomadic loan existence behind him, he can go on to make Prenton Park his home for years to come.
Morris has already proved capable of playing in a successful team and has previous experience of League One with Walsall, having made 17 appearances in the third tier as recently as the first half of 2018-19. Overall, he brings more than 4 seasons of League One knowhow to the team.
Substitute goalkeeper Luke Pilling signed a new 1-year deal, whilst fellow goalkeeper Bayleigh Passant earned his first professional contract alongside development contemporaries Carl Spellman, Danny Walker-Rice and Bailey Thompson.
In addition, young defender Evan Gumbs signed a new 1-year deal as he builds towards a return from an injury sustained against Lincoln City in April, taking him into his sixth season as a professional.
The final batch of transfers are the arrivals.
With the new contracts already discussed, it is now time to focus on the fresh faces for 2019-20 — players who have yet to pull that famous white shirt over their heads. Tasked with replacing some of the Club's all-time icons, Micky Mellon has decided the following players are up to the task.
Recruited from Crewe Alexandra, where he had been captain for the 2018-19 season. At 6-feet-4-inches tall, he brings height and leadership to the Rovers backline. If he is paired with Monthé, one would imagine they will be one of, if not the tallest defensive units in the League. At 25, it is likely he can continue to improve and, with his best years hopefully still far ahead of him, this could prove to be a shrewd signing.
You can read our profile of George here.
Joining Tranmere from Bradford City, Calum brings a wealth of experience to the Rovers defence. With various promotions and hundreds of career appearances, most at League One or Championship level, there are no question marks over his ability.
He has, however, endured a tough time with injuries of late and has played just 8 matches since March 2018. If he can return to full fitness, he should be an undoubted asset to the team.
You can read our profile of Calum here.
A young attacking player whose game appears to be based around skill and pace, Corey allegedly turned down a new contract at Aston Villa to join Tranmere Rovers. If that is the case, it is a positive sign that the player has the desire to play first team football and, more importantly, do so for Rovers.
A genuinely exciting prospect, he will probably require a degree of patience as he has just 10 League One appearances for Walsall under his belt, meaning he is still somewhat of an unknown quantity at professional level.
You can read our profile of Corey here.
A well-travelled striker who, on his day, was lethal at non-League level, Stefan also proved he could make an impact in League One when he helped Shrewsbury Town reach the 2018 play-off and EFL Trophy finals. Finishing the season with 14 goals, he secured a transfer to Bristol Rovers for 2018-19, where it all appears to have gone badly wrong.
If he can find the form that earned him the moves to Shrewsbury and Bristol Rovers, he will no doubt become an asset for the side. Will need to put his previous troubles behind him and has the perfect opportunity to establish himself with a club that also has something to prove.
You can read our profile of Stefan here.
Another vastly experienced professional with plenty of League One and Championship playing time throughout his career, Darren brings a wealth of knowledge from his spells at clubs such as MK Dons, Rotherham United, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
He is just coming back from a serious injury, but if he can regain his fitness this transfer could prove to be an excellent piece of business. No doubt about his ability.
You can read our profile of Darren here.
Jordan Ponticelli (loan)
Tranmere's most recent acquisition (at the time of writing), Jordan is a young striker with an exceptional reputation. Having suffered an injury early in 2018-19, he struggled for match time at both Macclesfield Town and his parent club Coventry City.
Nonetheless, he has an impressive background and was given a 4-year contract with the option of a fifth at the Sky Blues, almost unheard of in lower league football. There must be something there, and at just 20 years old, he has his entire career to develop. Joining on an initial short-term loan from Coventry, this has the potential to be a savvy piece of business.
You can read our profile of Jordan here.
The Verdict (So far…)
Having determined who has left, stayed and joined the cause for 2019-20 and beyond, one can see that there has been significant upheaval at Prenton Park over the last 12 months.
Of the 25 professionals currently signed to contracts, just 5 were with the club before 2018. Liam Ridehalgh and Luke Pilling first signed in 2013, Evan Gumbs 2014, Scott Davies 2015 and Connor Jennings 2016.
Of the remaining 20, 14 joined the club in 2019 — in other words, within the previous 7 months. If you take the 4 first-year professionals and add them to the 6 arrivals referred to earlier, there has been an influx of 10 new players since the final whistle at Wembley in May. There could well be a period of gelling required.
For those unfamiliar with Rovers, having 25 professionals signed up and ready to go 3 weeks before the season starts could look healthy, but the truth is Rovers' numbers flatter to deceive. With Mark Ellis seemingly out with a serious injury until midway through the campaign, and Evan Gumbs likely to miss the majority of 2019-20 with his, the numbers fall to 23.
Recent history suggests the 4 first-year professionals will be unlikely to feature in many games, at least initially. Even when they do play, it would be unfair to them and the SWA to expect them to make an immediate impact at League One level, so realistically the squad numbers fall to 19.
Of the 19, 6 are new faces and of those 6 new faces, Woods, Potter and Ponticelli have played very little football over the past 12-18 months. In Blackett-Taylor and Ponticelli, Rovers have also recruited potential as opposed to tried and tested League One talent, whilst in Stefan Payne, the dice have been rolled with regards his ability to put a testing time at the Memorial Ground behind him.
Indeed, of the new faces, only George Ray appears to be a known quantity, and when the Club will embark on its first season in League One since 2013-14, that uncertainty is somewhat disconcerting.
Even within the remaining 13 players, Ishmael Miller is just returning to fitness following an injury sustained back in January. Of course, re-signing players such as Monthé, Nelson, Ridehalgh and Morris helps to alleviate the ambiguity slightly, but it's important to be honest.
As it stands, there are far too many 'ifs' to be comfortable with the summer recruitment. And that is not a criticism of Micky Mellon, or the ownership, or the Club. It's simply a reflection of Rovers' elevated league standing and the talent market in which they now find themselves.
Going from non-League to League One in just 12 months is excellent from an on-field perspective, but it seems quite apparent that the fiscal strength required to compete with clubs such as Sunderland, Ipswich Town, Portsmouth and Peterborough United, amongst others, has not kept pace.
As such, Tranmere appear to have been forced to take calculated risks in the hope of squeezing every last drop of quality from their relatively modest budget.
If Calum Woods, Darren Potter and Ishmael Miller can put their injury woes behind them. If Corey Blackett-Taylor and Jordan Ponticelli can deliver on what seems to be great potential. If Stefan Payne's ill-fated time at Bristol Rovers proves to be an exception as opposed to the rule. And if the young players on first contracts can provide more than their counterparts from recent seasons, then the summer's business could prove to be a masterclass from Micky Mellon.
Summarising the transfer dealings thus far can be done in two words; risky business.
However, balance can be provided by a different pair of words; David Perkins, the then 36-year-old central midfielder whose signing raised eyebrows in January and helped raise a trophy in May.
With two successive promotions, Mellon has earned a certain level of trust amongst the SWA. Whilst there are undoubted risks to many of the incoming signings, there are also potential rewards that could once again see Rovers confound expectations.
One way or another, we'll discover whether said gambles have paid off in due course, starting in less than 3 weeks at home to Rochdale.