To casual observers, today’s League One clash between Tranmere and Shrewsbury Town may carry little importance. However, for those closer to the story, it marks a significant milestone.
Three years ago, the Shrews – then managed by Mellon – were in League One. Mellon had done an incredible job securing the Shropshire outfit automatic promotion from League Two in his first season in charge.
He’d arrived at the club in May 2014 following Shrewsbury’s relegation from League One. The Shrews ended the campaign second-bottom, five points and two places worse off than Rovers who had also suffered relegation.
Mellon immediately turned around the fortunes of the club, guiding them to an exceptional second-placed finish in League Two and securing an immediate return to League One. There were some great cup memories as well, not least running a star-studded Chelsea team to the wire in a League Cup clash in October 2014.
Despite working on limited resources, Mellon achieved what his predecessor at Shrewsbury could not and maintained League One safety during the 2015/16 season. As the 2016/17 campaign entered its early stages, Shrewsbury were again in a relegation scrap.
Two divisions and 59 miles away, Tranmere were getting started on their second campaign in non-league. Despite an encouraging first few weeks which saw Rovers go unbeaten, there was pressure on boss Gary Brabin.
For all the excellent work Brabin had done, including signing some terrific players who would later write themselves in to Tranmere’s history, there were still glaring issues.
The divide between fans and the team/club was still significant – there was no close bond and the atmosphere at games could turn in an instant if games ebbed away from Rovers.
On the pitch, Tranmere were hard-working and methodical at best, but dull and lacklustre at worst. Brabin had guided the club through a troubling period, one of the most challenging in fact, but new impetus was needed to take things further.
In October 2016, Brabin had left the Tranmere hotseat and Mellon began to be linked with a return to the club where he served twice as a player. Shrews had dropped to the foot of the table and were probably leaning toward a change in leadership themselves.
Shortly thereafter, the Glaswegian had entered talks with Tranmere and opted to leave the League One strugglers in favour of a return to the Wirral.
An incredible journey begins
On the face of it, some football pundits and fans expressed surprise that Mellon would leave a job to drop two divisions to a club which was mid-table in the fifth tier. Tranmere was a club where the expectation was massive.
Mellon inherited a squad of players which was packed full of quality. He had managed the likes of McNulty and Davies previously during his Fleetwood days, while Andy Mangan – a firm favourite of his – was also back among the ranks at Prenton Park.
From the first game he took charge of against Wrexham, live on BT Sport, Mellon had set a new level for the squad to reach. The expectation was no longer purely from supporters, but in fact Mellon himself left his players in no doubt what was expected of a player wearing a Tranmere shirt.
The turnaround was instant, and Rovers were subsequently involved in a fascinating title race with Lincoln City in which, despite a huge points haul, Tranmere narrowly missed out and were confined to the play-offs. Rovers would lose in the final at Wembley.
Twelve months later and following another title race, Rovers went one better and secured promotion back to the EFL in Mellon’s first full season. It proved to be the next step in a memorable journey.
Another year on, Rovers were back at Wembley once again, this time in the League Two play-off final. Another exceptional day in London resulted in a second successive promotion. In less than three years, Mellon had led Rovers from mid-table in the National League back to League One.
So, as we go in to today’s match, it will be a special one for the Tranmere chief. Both clubs have him to thank for getting them to their current positions and you cannot help but feel his journey at Rovers could go so much further.
It was no doubt a long-term vision he had for Tranmere when he took the decision to swap League One for National League, and just three years later, Rovers are closing-in on passing his old club.
Shrewsbury are currently four points ahead of Tranmere going in to today’s clash. Mellon will be keen on trying to reduce that to a single point.