Tonight’s game feels like a treat for Tranmere fans. A reward after more years of hurt than we can care to remember. The types of struggle that fans of our illustrious opponents today could probably not quite imagine or understand (no disrespect meant).
As the national – and even global – media focuses its attention on Prenton Park once again, we can sit back and watch the circus unfold. After three years of being expected to win every single game that we played, and after a period of time in which struggle followed struggle, tonight we can relax.
Well, sort of.
Tonight, we have the perfect man to be leading us into an unlikely battle. In fact, there is probably nobody else we would rather have managing us tonight.
Restoring the pride
When we were at our lowest ebb 3-4 years ago, we’d have given anything to have someone in charge of first team affairs that knew the club like Micky does. That knew the club, but also knew its significance to the local area and its loyal fans.
We had players, managers and boardroom-level people over a period of 10+ years who had treated the club with contempt. With equal doses of arrogance, incompetence and a significant lack of personal or professional pride, we fell away in to the abyss of non-league football.
The saving grace was that in the final months of our previous Football League existence, we gained owners who understood and respected the club. That would prove fundamental.
The National League was not fun, to say the least. But it gave us several things, two in particular. A squad of players who would, with some tweaking, fight for the club and get us back in to the league at the third attempt.
That was largely thanks to the other big plus of our time in non-league. The arrival of Micky Mellon.
From day one, Micky let every single player know what Tranmere is, what it stands for, what the expectations are and why.
He’s treated every opposition team with respect while consistently underlining the value of the fans and the importance of delivering winning football. He treats Tranmere fans with more respect than most football managers would ever give to his/her supporters.
He speaks about the club with a genuine passion and a deep understanding. Having played for us during two quite different periods, all be it not too far apart, he knows how strong we can be. He played for us in the Championship and pulled on the white shirt in FA Cup Quarter Finals. He’s also suffered the pain of relegation as a player. He gets it. He gets Tranmere.
So much is his affection for the club, he would drop two divisions in order to take over at Prenton Park in October 2016.
He arrived at a club with some strong foundations taking shape, including some key elements of a promotion-winning squad (Norwood, Cook, Harris, McNulty, Davies, etc).
However, a divide between the playing side and the supporters still existed. Previous management had advised Tranmere fans to lower expectations and ‘accept’ our position in the National League.
Under Mellon, we got some respect and the divide began to evaporate.
Before and after every game, he greets and applauds Rovers fans, regardless of the result. With every victory comes a fist pump in front of the SWA. There’s a genuine feeling that we win, lose and draw together.
There was no better illustration of the bond between Mellon, his squad and the Tranmere fans than in the immediate aftermath of that remarkable Wembley triumph in May.
The final whistle was met with the gaffer leading a charge at full speed down the Wembley turf to the fans to celebrate. No disrespect meant to Boreham Wood, but Micky knew what that moment meant – it was for the club, for the local area, for the owners. But above all else, it was for the people, the loyal fans who had been to football hell and back.
Tears flowed among players and fans, a Wembley steward commented that the noise created by circa 14,000 was more than at most Tottenham and England games. The out pouring of emotion was just…so, so special.
The squad raced back to Birkenhead that night and packed in to the bars at Prenton Park with fans to celebrate in sensational fashion. Fans, players and management singing, dancing, drinking and sharing the trophy with each other well in to the early hours. The celebrations resumed (or continued) the following afternoon at a sun-drenched Prenton Park.
The divide has gone, the pride has returned and we’d become a formidable partnership.
“We’re still here”
It should come as no surprise then as we count down the hours and minutes until kick-off tonight, that Micky continues to speak about the club with the recognition and respect that it was deprived of for so long.
The national media is awash with quotes from Micky about the game. As usual, he has spoken about our great club succinctly, perfectly.
He recognises the bad times and hardships that we’ve had, celebrating that we have come out of it the other side and reminding everyone that while we are going to have a damn good time tonight, we’re also intent on making this as uncomfortable as possible for Spurs.
And that brings us back to the whole ‘relax’ element for fans tonight. We relax in the sense that we won’t be favourites, there is no pressure, and nobody expects us to get near Tottenham.
However, the SWA will make Prenton Park feel like the grandest of sporting arenas tonight. If there is one thing we know with our club, it’s to expect the unexpected. And we will do our part to help the players in any way possible. Our players.
These players, guided by Mellon, stared adversity in the face and smashed right through it to get us back in to the league a few months ago. We know our chances tonight are remote, but we also know that this squad cannot be ruled out of anything. They’ve shown us what they’re made of, they’ve shown us more bottle and determination than a decade of Tranmere teams mustered.
So, get yourselves down to Prenton Park early tonight, enjoy a pint (if that’s your thing) and enjoy watching Micky’s troops lock horns with some of the best in the business.
After all, nobody gave us a chance against Everton. Or Leeds. Or Coventry. Or Southampton. Or West Ham. Or Middleborough.
One newspaper went with a headline “half party, half FA Cup tie” when describing tonight’s game. That’s probably just about right.
For the loyal fans who have stuck with us through the hardest of times, enjoy it. You’ve deserved it. As have you, Micky.