After several years of dour FA Cup performances, how much importance should Tranmere place on the grand old competition this time around?
Rovers travel to Halifax tomorrow in the fourth qualifying round, with qualification for the first round proper at stake. Failure to progress past the Yorkshire side will mean Tranmere have not managed to qualify for the FA Cup for three years – unthinkable just a few seasons ago.
Lincoln City and Barrow have ended Rovers’ cup hopes at the same stage in the last two seasons. Like everything these days, there’s a stark contrast to the Tranmere of the previous decade.
Tranmere’s proud history in cup football
In the early 2000s, Tranmere were synonymous with cup competitions, reaching the FA Cup quarter finals on two occasions, and of course the League Cup Final.
Premier League clubs would visit Prenton Park, take a beating, and slide back out with their tail between their legs. It would happen in both the League Cup and the FA Cup. We even did it away from home occasionally, a trip to Goodison Park sticks in the memory.
West Ham, Leeds, Southampton, Sunderland, Everton, Coventry and Middlesbrough were all eliminated from cup competitions by John Aldridge’s Tranmere team between 1999 and 2001, while the likes of Newcastle and Liverpool were ran pretty close.
Even after Tranmere had surrendered their Championship status and moved in to League One, Brian Little also managed to lead the club to the FA Cup Quarter Finals, eventually being beaten by Millwall in a replay at Prenton Park in 2004.
Go back to 1994 and you’ll see a Tranmere team packed with big names going to the brink of the League Cup Final only to be beaten on penalties at Villa Park. Many teams had been ousted before Villa.
Cup football runs in the club’s blood. A packed Prenton Park on a winter night under floodlights. A muddy afternoon in January in front of the TV cameras. There is nothing quite like Prenton Park when cup runs get serious, and while I’m certain we will see those days again, it remains to be seen how long we will have to wait, or which players will have the luck, ability and bravery to take us there.
What priority should the FA Cup take?
With all of that reminiscing aside, let’s consider what importance Rovers should place on tomorrow’s game.
If I’m honest, I was absolutely gutted when Rovers were knocked out at this stage by Lincoln two years ago. I love the FA Cup, and I loathe it when we aren’t involved.
Twelve months ago, I wasn’t as bothered – the reality of non-league football had hit and I didn’t want anything to distract from the promotion bid.
So what of this season? Lincoln City changed how some fans look at the competition last season, myself included. They didn’t have a huge squad, yet managed an incredible FA Cup run and a phenomenal league campaign resulting in winning the championship.
They won at Premier League Burnley, and also put out the likes of Oldham, Brighton and Ipswich along the way. All the while, their league form did not once deviate.
Micky Mellon has suggested that he won’t be making wholesale changes for tomorrow’s game, which suggests that it’s being taken seriously. I’m firmly of the opinion that a good cup run will now bring confidence to the squad, not to mention could give Mellon vital funds to strengthen the squad as the season progresses.
I’d suggest Rovers also have a squad big enough and strong enough to handle a lengthy cup run. There is am embarrassment of riches in the striker department (ignoring the current lack of goals), and with younger players and fringe players all hoping for game time this season, even when the games come thick and fast theoretically we can handle it.
So, let’s go all-out and try and get in to the First Round to begin with, then we can see where the draw takes us.