Tranmere's epic trilogy puts them one game from a League One return
Posted: 18/05/19 | Updated 20/05/19
Warning: Long Read
On Saturday 3rd May 2014, a 1-2 defeat at home to Bradford City relegated Tranmere to the fourth tier for the first time since 1989 (twenty-five years). After a further relegation, a three-year tenure in non-League football and the jubilation of May 2018, Rovers returned to the EFL for the 2018-19 campaign.
Having confounded most pre-season predictions to mount a challenge for a second successive promotion, the Super Whites sit one win from recapturing third-tier status for the first time in five years.
Rovers hit rock bottom at the end of the 2015-16 campaign. Finishing in sixth position in the National League — the lowest placing in the Club's professional history — they failed to qualify for the play-offs at the first attempt.
The subsequent revival, charted over three seasons and now three play-off finals, has conspired to unintentionally establish a traditional trilogy; Wembley I, II and III.
With a clear and coherent narrative, a returning cast of characters and twists and turns akin to a Hollywood franchise, the stage is set for the third instalment on 25th May 2019.
As the SWA prepare for the premiere of Wembley III, it's important to reflect upon the saga so far in order to sufficiently determine the context surrounding the upcoming release.
Wembley I (2017)
In the original, Tranmere entered their second season in non-League football having squandered the opportunity for an immediate return to the EFL in 2015-16. Witnessing the team they were relegated alongside, Cheltenham Town, achieve this very feat as 2015-16 National League champions hardened Tranmere's resolve for the second attempt.
After a promising start of six wins from seven games in August faded, Gary Brabin was sacked as reigning Manager of the Month for August 2016 and replaced by former Rovers captain Micky Mellon, who initiated an immediate upturn in results.
Momentum and belief started to build, with perhaps peak confidence achieved after a 9-0 victory over Solihull Moors three weeks before the season's end. However, a 0-1 defeat at home to Forest Green Rovers effectively dealt a fatal blow to Tranmere's title aspirations. In a game marred by the opposition's tactics and an injury to National League Player of the Month for March 2017 Jay Harris, an eighty-fifth-minute winner from Kaiyne Woolery handed Lincoln City the initiative in the title race.
The Super Whites ended the season runners-up with a Club-record ninety-five points. Beset by injuries, they encountered Forest Green again in the 2017 National League play-off final. This was supposed to be 'the' day, a first visit to Wembley for seventeen years and a first play-off final for twenty-six.
However, they lost. Kaiyne Woolery, scorer of that gut-wrenching late goal at Prenton Park, helped himself to a further brace in a 3-1 win for the Green Devils. That they had been responsible for injuring arguably the most in-form midfielder in the division, damaged Rovers' title hopes and finished nine points behind Tranmere all helped construct a sense of incredulity around the result.
As the curtain fell on Act One, the closing scene of Forest Green lifting the trophy left the audience with the appetite for a second instalment the following year, if for no other reason than to rectify the perceived miscarriage of justice before them.
Wembley II (2018)
The sequel saw Tranmere suffering a hangover from their Wembley heartache, languishing in seventeenth place after roughly half the season. A returning character from Wembley I's villainous Forest Green team, adversary Manny Monthé went from antagonist to protagonist, transferring to Tranmere on loan in February 2018.
With the help of their one-time foe, Rovers produced a late charge for the title but fell short again, finishing as runners-up for a second successive season as Macclesfield Town lifted the National League crown.
Having learned the lessons from 2017, Micky Mellon decided to prevent the personnel crisis of the previous campaign by resting key players for the final two league matches. Rovers lost both 1-2, to Solihull Moors (the team they beat 9-0 in Wembley I) and Hartlepool United respectively.
Conceding the lead not once, but twice in the play-off semi-final, the gamble appeared to have backfired until goals from Josh Ginnelly, James Norwood and Larnell Cole helped Tranmere to a 4-2 victory after extra time. Yes, they had done it the hard way, but they had overcome the disappointment of Wembley I and the difficulties earlier in Wembley II to advance to the final.
Forty-seven seconds into the Wembley II final and Liam Ridehalgh was sent off by referee Neil Hair, leaving the Super Whites to play almost the entirety of the match with a numerical disadvantage. With injuries forcing Mellon to use all three permitted substitutes by half-time, Rovers had lost four players in forty-five minutes. Tranmere then conceded in the eighth minute of first-half stoppage time as a repeat of 2017's defeat looked on the cards.
With the deck firmly stacked against the heroes, what transpired was the ultimate underdog story, a backs-to-the-wall victory forged with an iron will and a desire to never give up.
As James Norwood scored an eightieth-minute header that proved the winning goal, Rovers overcame all the odds to secure the promotion cruelly snatched from them at the end of Wembley I.
The legend of the Wembley Warriors was created. From devastation to elevation as promotion was secured and Act Two closes with the victorious Rovers returning home to a hero's welcome on The Wirral.
Wembley III (2019)
The final chapter of the trilogy sees significant change brought to Prenton Park.
Wembley II leading scorer Andy Cook has left for Walsall, whilst other characters such as Jeff Hughes, Ollie Norburn and Josh Ginnelly have departed. Manny Monthé signs permanently and Rovers also sign the other Forest Green centre-back from Wembley I, Mark Ellis — the second player to cross the line from 'malevolent' to 'virtuous'.
Underpinned by a returning cast of familiar faces such as James Norwood, Scott Davies, Stephen McNulty and Liam Ridehalgh, the third instalment has followed Tranmere's adventures in the new environment of Sky Bet League Two.
It's a familiar scenario in Hollywood franchises. In Toy Story 3, the toys are faced with the challenges of the day care centre. In Rocky III, Rocky Balboa leaves his battles with Apollo Creed behind him, instead focusing on the new challenge of James 'Clubber' Lang.
In Wembley III, after gaining promotion, Tranmere are halfway to League One.
As the season unfolds, they once again cross paths with the anti-hero of Wembley I, losing twice to Forest Green in the regular season, 3-1 away and 0-1 at home; their third and fourth straight defeats against their original nemesis.
Despite these setbacks, Rovers finish sixth, a play-off place in their first season back earning them one more shot at redemption against the foes from the first instalment, Forest Green, who finished fifth.
Tranmere finally overcome their old rivals in the League Two play-off semi-finals, defeating them 2-1 on aggregate to reach Wembley for the third consecutive year, with Neil Hair, referee from Wembley II, as fourth official in the decisive second-leg tie at The New Lawn.
In Wembley I, the green colour palette served as a reference to both Forest Green's kit and their alleged supply of money. In Wembley II, light blue evoked thoughts of Boreham Wood's strip and the blue skies of promotion. For Wembley III, yellow dominates, a nod to the home shirts of Newport County and, perhaps most ominously for Tranmere, a warning of a new, dangerous hazard ahead.
This is another area where Tranmere's Wembley triumvirate shares aspects of many stereotypical trilogies.
For example, in Rocky III, Rocky Balboa wears yellow and black when he faces the undefeated Lang (28-0), and fights him in a ring with a yellow canvas. In Die Hard III, John McClane and Zeus Carver drive around New York in an iconic yellow and black taxi solving riddles posed by Simon Gruber to prevent bomb explosions throughout the city. At Wrestlemania III, the 'Irresistible Force' Hulk Hogan wore yellow as he body-slammed 'The Immovable Object' Andre The Giant (wearing black) in front of 93,173 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome.
In Wembley III, Tranmere face Newport County, a club famous for their amber shirts and undoubtedly Rovers' biggest Wembley test to date.
The Newport Story
Newport County were relegated to the Conference in 1988, ending a sixty-year tenure in the Football League. They went bankrupt and folded on 27th February 1989, failing to complete their first season in non-League.
With the support of the fans, the Club was reformed in June 1989, earning their current nickname of 'The Exiles' after being banished from their Somerton Park stadium. They returned to the Football League in 2013, defeating Wrexham 2-0 in the Conference Premier play-off final to end a twenty-five-year absence.
Their initial performance was respectable, finishing fourteenth in 2013-14 and ninth in 2014-15.
However, the Club was taken over by the Newport County AFC Supporters' Trust on 1st October 2015 and struggled at the foot of League Two, finishing twenty-second in 2015-16, one place above the relegation zone, albeit nine points clear of danger (ten with goal difference).
The following season, 2016-17, would be even worse. In the year of Wembley I, Newport came within a whisker of falling into the National League. Manager Warren Feeney was sacked in September following a return of just six points from the first twenty-seven available, replaced by Graham Westley, who was also sacked in March 2017 with the Exiles eleven points adrift of safety with just twelve games remaining.
Current Manager Michael Flynn was placed in temporary charge until the end of the season and masterminded a remarkable recovery, winning seven of the last twelve fixtures. They escaped relegation courtesy of an eighty-ninth-minute Mark O'Brien winner in a 2-1 victory over Notts County on the final day.
Since then, they have rediscovered their upwards momentum, placing eleventh in 2017-18 and reaching round four of the FA Cup. They defeated Championship Leeds United 2-1 in round three before drawing 1-1 with Tottenham Hotspur in round four, losing the replay 2-0 at Wembley.
They maintained their progress throughout the 2018-19 campaign…
Ending the regular 2018-19 season in seventh place, Newport's final record read W20 D11 L15 F59 A59 71PTS. Their top scorers were Padraig Amond (22 goals), Jamille Matt (18 goals) and Dan Butler (4 goals), whilst goalkeeper Joe Day kept 17 clean sheets, the third-highest total in the division representing 37% of County's matches. Amond also scored in the 1-1 play-off semi-final first-leg draw with at home to Mansfield Town, with Day securing a further clean sheet in the 0-0 second-leg stalemate.
No team collected more points at home than the Exiles, with only promoted Bury matching their total of 48 points. Their total home record was W14 D6 L3 F32 A22 48PTS. Conversely, Newport were weak away from Rodney Parade, sixteenth in the away table with a record of W6 D5 L12 F27 A37 23PTS.
With regards form, Newport ended the campaign second in the six-game table with a record reading W4 D2 L0 F10 A2 14PTS, whereas they topped the ten-game charts with a record of W6 D4 L0 F14 A3 22PTS.
Including their play-off semi-final ties against Mansfield Town, the Exiles come into the final on a twelve-game unbeaten run (8 wins, 4 draws).
They also continued their 2017-18 FA cup exploits in the 2018-19 competition. Dispatching Premier League Leicester City 2-1 in round three, Championship Middlesbrough 2-0 in a fourth-round replay and losing to Premier League champions Manchester City 1-4 in round five, Newport's cup adventure spanned seven confidence-building matches.
|15th March||Cheltenham Town||Won 1-0|
|30th March||Yeovil Town||Won 1-3|
|6th April||TRANMERE ROVERS||DREW 0-0|
|9th April||Swindon Town||Drew 0-0|
|13th April||Cambridge United||Won 0-3|
|19th April||Bury||Won 3-1|
|22nd April||Macclesfield Town||Drew 0-0|
|27th April||Lincoln City||Won 1-0|
|30th April||Oldham Athletic||Won 2-0|
|4th May||Morecambe||Drew 1-1|
|9th May||Mansfield Town||Drew 1-1|
|12th May||Mansfield Town||Drew 0-0*|
|*Tie ended 1-1 after extra time. Newport won 3-5 on penalties.|
As the SWA will know, Tranmere finished the season in sixth, one place and two points ahead of Newport with a record that reads W20 D13 L13 F63 A50 73PTS.
League Two Golden Boot winner and Rovers' top scorer James Norwood scored 31 regular-season goals, supplemented by the tie-winning goal in the 1-1 play-off semi-final second-leg draw at Forest Green's New Lawn stadium. He was ably assisted throughout the season by Connor Jennings (12 goals) and Paul Mullin (6 goals).
At the back, League Two Golden Glove winner Scott Davies kept 19 regular-season clean sheets, the joint-most in the division and representing 41% of all Tranmere's matches.
Like Newport, Tranmere had an exceptional home record, securing just one point fewer than Newport and Bury with a record of W14 D5 L4 F33 A13 47PTS at Prenton Park. Mirroring Newport, Rovers' away performance was significantly less impressive, thirteenth in the away table with a record of W6 D8 L9 F30 A37 26PTS.
Although the Super Whites compiled a seven-game winning streak towards the end of the campaign, their trying final five fixtures saw their results, if not performances, taper off. This is reflected in the six-game form table, where Tranmere sat seventeenth with a record of W1 D3 L2 F4 A6 6PTS. Extending the form guide to ten games sees Rovers rise to sixth (W4 D3 L3 F13 A9 15PTS), highlighting the impact of the closing matches.
Keys To Victory
Newport collected a staggering six yellow cards in their second leg against Mansfield Town. The pressing game implemented by Rovers against Forest Green could invite rash challenges that, over the course of the game, accumulate into a problem for Newport, especially players such as Joss Labadie who has a reputation for robust play.
The Exiles collected just two wins in eighteen away games against League Two teams finishing nineteenth or above (L12, D4); They won 0-1 at Prenton Park and 0-1 at Oldham Athletic. Despite the loss to Newport, Rovers are a different beast to that which faced the Exiles on 22nd September 2018 and should take heart from the neutral venue for the final.
Pinpointing personnel, James Norwood and Scott Davies continue to be key men at either end of the field, whilst players such as Jay Harris, David Perkins, Connor Jennings and Ollie Banks have shown their value to the team across the play-off semi-finals. Without being disrespectful to Newport, one would favour their Tranmere counterparts in every department the length of the pitch.
Keeping a clean sheet could be key for County. Tranmere have failed to score on ten occasions, including twice against Newport (0-1 and 0-0). Keeping Rovers out for a third time will go a long way to helping Newport be successful. Their twelve-game unbeaten run has foundations built on eight clean sheets, so it's a clear strength.
Treating the game as cup final as opposed to a league game could help Newport's players overcome their horrendous away form against all but the strugglers of the fourth tier. A team seemingly motivated by the big occasion, they have produced some outstanding results in cup matches over the previous two seasons. They also performed incredibly well at Mansfield's Field Mill and handled the pressure of the night, scoring all five penalties in the decisive shoot-out.
Tranmere's Wembley trilogy resembles a classic story arc; Heroes fall short (Wembley I), heroes overcome prior failure to succeed (Wembley II) and heroes face new threat (Wembley III).
The match pits a club travelling to Wembley for the fourth time in six years (2012 FA Trophy final, 2013 Conference Premier play-off final and 2017-18 FA Cup fourth round) against a club that is going for the third time in three years.
In anticipation of a tight game, there are causes for optimism for Tranmere. In the third instalments of their respective franchises, Rocky Balboa successfully reclaimed his World Heavyweight Championship, John McClane and Zeus Carver evaded the bombs in New York and Hulk Hogan eventually defeated Andre The Giant, felling the 'Immovable Object'.
Backed by the SWA, including celebrity endorsements from wrestling personalities such as Rob Van Dam (RVD), Jimmy 'Mouth of the South' Hart, Jeff Jarrett and Christian, Tranmere can ensure that they too become an 'Irresistible Force' and end their own trilogy having vanquished their latest, and most dangerous, threat to date.
A final between two sides that have worked wonders this season, the two finalists have defied the odds to not only qualify for the play-offs, but dispatch the two higher-placed 'favourites' in the play-off semi-finals.
As with the third chapter of any trilogy, the temptation to market the game as a more meaningful event than the preceding two is there. After all, with a crowd likely to be in the 25-30,000 range, it will almost certainly be a greater attendance than either Wembley I (18,801) or II (16,306). In Newport County, Tranmere are unquestionably facing a more sizeable foe than Forest Green Rovers or Boreham Wood, the Exiles a club with a combined sixty-six years of EFL history. And in terms of appeal, an EFL promotion play-off possesses a greater lure than a non-League play-off match, showpiece or not.
Notwithstanding, Wembley II will forever be the most important episode in the Tranmere Rovers story. The consequences of both success and failure are not nearly as profound in May 2019 as they were twelve months ago, when the very future of the Club in its current form was at stake.
Naturally, to be ninety minutes away from League One, one win from peering over the third-tier parapet for the first time in five years, is a massive incentive.
Wembley III should be seen as a celebration, the culmination of a struggle to drag the Club back to where the fans feel it belongs; contesting big matches in the EFL. Unfortunately, that sentiment rings true for both participant clubs and, whilst only one can reach League One, neither team can be considered losers.
Yet, for the trilogy to feel complete, the closing credits must surely be played over the backdrop of a second successive Tranmere promotion.
Tranmere boss Micky Mellon is certainly not content with simply taking part:
Our season has been extended and we'll make sure the players are ready for a trip to the big house to try and get out of the division
— Micky Mellon, tranmererovers.co.uk, 13th May 2019
Irrespective of whether or not Rovers obtain that objective, the SWA should enjoy the occasion; we're still waiting for The Godfather IV.
For more coverage of Tranmere's 2017 and 2018 visits to Wembley, please consult our previous pieces. Links have been provided below. Thank You.