Tranmere are back in league action at Prenton Park tomorrow as EFL newcomers Wrexham come to Birkenhead in what is like to be a feisty derby match.
Our near neighbours from across the border will provide a stern test for a Rovers team that is finding wins hard to come by this season. In fact, since Ian Dawes replaced Micky Mellon as manager in March, initially on an interim basis, we’ve managed just 3 wins in 16 league games, a dismal record.
While some elements of performances have improved this season, a lack of penetration in attacking areas and shambolic defending have continued to hold Rovers back.
Make no mistake about it, Ian Dawes is under pressure already – if not from Mark Palios and the Tranmere hierarchy, he certainly is from sections of the fan base.
It would be overly-dramatic to describe Saturday’s match as ‘must-win’ for Tranmere, but defeat would put Dawes in an unenviable and increasingly difficult position, especially if it’s another poor performance in front of home fans.
A fixture with a history of managerial casualties
And Dawes would have good reason to be wary.
This fixture has produced managerial casualties before. It is a derby game, after all, one with a history and certainly a considerable amount of needle at times. Neither set of fans like to lose this one.
In September 2003, Ray Mathias was dismissed by Rovers after his team surrendered a one-goal lead to lose 2-1 to Wrexham at Prenton Park.
The shoe was on the other foot in 2016 when the sides met in the National League, with Wrexham’s Gary Mills being sacked after Rovers eased to a 2-0 win.
While not a direct casualty of the fixture, Tranmere manager Gary Brabin incurred the wrath of Tranmere fans and never really got them back onside in December 2015 after Rovers were soundly beaten by Wrexham 4-2 at Prenton Park in the FA Trophy.
After the game, Brabin suggested Tranmere fans need to accept being at National League level and enjoy themselves, like the Wrexham fans had.
He said following the defeat: “I always knew it was going to be hard for the club coming into this league and everyone expects to jump straight back up but it’s a tough league.
“Our opposition can vouch for that. Their fans have accepted it now and have started to enjoy their football again and I think that helps in terms of wanting to progress forward.”
While he kept his job for another nine months, it felt like a matter of time before he would fall on his sword, which is duly did. The mere suggestion that the SWA should ‘accept’ being a National League club was hard to stomach for many and there was no coming back from it.
So, Ian Dawes and Phil Parkinson should be only too aware of the damage this fixture can do.
What to expect from Tranmere?
With all that being said, what should we expect from Tranmere tomorrow? Well, Tuesday night offered some promise as Rovers had a go at a Leicester City team packed with international talent in the Carabao Cup.
While it ended in a 2-0 defeat, Rovers defended fairly well in parts and did threaten the visitors at times. Yes, it wasn’t a buccaneering display that had us out of our seats, but they did well enough to largely contain a Leicester team that had millions of pounds worth of talent, not to mention Jamie Vardy.
From that game, if Dawes has learned anything, it’s that Chris Merrie must start in the holding midfield role. No more messing about with him at full-back or banishing him to the bench in favour of Paul Lewis.
Full-back Dan Pike made his debut on Tuesday night after finally being given a one-month deal following a lengthy trial. He can play either side but occupied the left full-back position against the Foxes. Up against a player with a wealth of Premier League experience in Marc Albrighton, Pike did very well and offered some attacking threat also.
You’d think he has to start tomorrow, but it may well be at right-back instead. Rovers today brought in youngster James Norris from Liverpool on a season-long loan. The combative left-back has two senior appearances to his name for Jurgen Klopp’s men and you’d think he would be a good bet to start tomorrow given the lack of full-back options.
Up front is the other headache for Dawes. Luke Norris looked a fabulous summer signing, and despite starting the season short on fitness due to an injury picked up playing for Stevenage in March, he soon got up to speed, scoring twice and being generally excellent.
However, the big centre forward picked up an injury against Salford and hasn’t been seen since. The official line is that the club is still waiting on results of a scan to determine what the damage is. It sounds ominous for the season, let alone tomorrow.
Therefore, you’d expect Kristian Dennis to start with Connor Jennings almost certain to play either alongside him or just behind him. Jennings has been comfortably Rovers’ best performer this season, somehow looking a better player than he was during his last spell with us.
A Tranmere legend and a former Wrexham player, tomorrow is a big game for Jennings and his family, his brother James also an ex-Wrexham player.
Ian Dawes has confirmed Josh Hawkes will return to the starting line-up as well, a relief for many as he offers real threat. He was believed to be close to joining Barnsley earlier this transfer window, so as long as nothing happens before tonight’s deadline, Hawkes will feature.
What of Wrexham?
So then, after becoming an established non-league club, Wrexham are back in the EFL. They also have some quite famous owners. They’ve kept it all very low-key, so you may not have heard.
As we prepare for the North Wales travelling circus to roll into Birkenhead tomorrow, it’s important to discard all memories of them barely ever filling our away end. Nope. They’re huge now, and giving them the entire Cowshed stand (as usual) is now suddenly not enough.
Of course, I’m being flippant.
For the genuine Wrexham fans who endured more than a decade in the bin league, the current journey must be like a wild dream. I won’t say I’m happy for them, but fair enough.
They’re without ex-Tranmere striker Paul Mullin for tomorrow’s match, in case you missed any of the BBC’s 37 articles about it, he punctured a lung in pre-season and is likely to be out for another couple of weeks yet.
Big striker Ollie Palmer will carry a threat up front, while the Dragons are also trying to get a deal over the line for a striker today. Wycombe’s Brandon Hanlan looks like being that man for a fee reported to be around £400k. Whether he will sign in time to be involved tomorrow, we don’t know.
Wrexham have though confirmed the signing of Millwall midfield George Evans on loan and at the time of writing he is expected to receive clearance to be involved in the game.
Rovers will need to be on their guard against the long throws of Wrexham skipper Ben Tozer – and we write that from experience. In April 2021, Tranmere took an absolute hammering down at Cheltenham on an afternoon when they displayed a total inability to defend the throws.
If memory from fuzzy iFollow footage serves us correctly, at least two, possibly three goals that day stemmed from throw-ins. Considering Tranmere were one of the pioneers of profiting from long-throws in the Dave Challinor era, the class of 2021 made it look impossible to deal with them.
This one is hard to call. In the early weeks of the season, both teams have displayed an ability to score goals, but not always enough(!), and an ability to concede even more goals. Add in the spice and atmosphere of a derby game, and this could be a thriller.
While Tranmere have been pretty poor for nearly a year now, we’re going to be optimistic and say with the vociferous home crowd behind them, they will get the job done tomorrow. It will be close, edgy, and probably not very enjoyable.
If things take a turn for the worse, such as an early Wrexham goal or just a rubbish performance, then the danger is Prenton Park could become a little toxic. It feels like some fans are on the brink of losing their remaining patience with the club, and if the team fail to turn up tomorrow, the players, manager and ownership will certainly know about it.
On the flipside, a win – especially a convincing one – could be the catalyst to boost morale and kick-start the season. Considering it’s only the first weekend in September, it’s a pretty big match this one.
Hold on to your hats, folks.