Football Commentary: Tranmere ride a new Mersey beat

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER Saturday, another defeat. Peter Johnson must have reflected again this weekend that the reality of being chairman of Everton is not matching the expectation.

When he heard the scores from the First Division - in particular, news of Tranmere Rovers' 1-0 victory away to Middlesbrough - Johnson may have felt a certain wistfulness. Tranmere, the club he left behind, are doing rather better than the one for which he crossed the Mersey.

If his aim is to lead a club that will be a major power in the game, history and economics suggest that Johnson's decision to jump chairs from Prenton Park to Goodison Park was a good one. But though football invariably follows such maxims in the long term, over a short period it can be remarkably resistant to logic.

Johnson became chairman at Tranmere eight seasons ago, when they were struggling in the Fourth Division. One of his first acts was to reappoint John King as manager. In Johnson's first season Tranmere finished 20th, the next 14th. Two promotions and three play-off failures followed in the subsequent six seasons, as well as an appearance in the Coca-Cola Cup semi-finals last year.

But for all this unprecedented success, average attendances refused to rise above 8,000. Johnson had to accept that the sort of mass support commanded by the likes of Everton takes decades to build. Thus, when the opportunity came earlier this year, the chance to realise Everton's greater potential proved irresistible.

Tranmere, whose rise was inevitably put down to the food millionaire's munificence, were widely expected to begin an inexorable slide back down the divisions.

Such gloomy prognoses have proved premature. Saturday's win took Tranmere to fourth place in the division, three points behind the leaders, Wolves, and second- placed Middlesbrough.

Like Reading, who are third, Tranmere are competing against clubs with far greater resources. Middlesbrough's team on Saturday cost pounds 5m and they had another pounds 1m-worth of players injured. Nor do those figures include the multiple talents of their injured player-manager, Bryan Robson.

Tranmere were assembled for less than pounds 1m. 'They kill us financially,' King said. 'We have to wave a magic wand, work on our youth development and look under every stone.

'Losing Peter was a big jolt. He was a man with a lot of clout and now I have not got that. That clout meant I used to be able to say: 'No way, we are not selling him.' Now we have to think about it. We sold Ian Nolan for pounds 1.5m (to Sheffield Wednesday) who we did not want to go. But it was a good price. It means we are not desperate to sell again.'

The previous big sale was on show at Ayresome Park, wearing Middlesbrough's No 5 shirt. Steve Vickers was sold last November for pounds 750,000.

Johnson was still at the club then and the transfer underlines why Tranmere have not suffered as much as might have been expected following his departure. Johnson backed his club, but he was not a chair-fan who underwrote it in the way Jack Hayward and Jack Walker have at Wolves and Blackburn. Tranmere always had to sell to survive.

Thus there was a certain irony on Saturday when Vickers, previously faultless, proved responsible for the late goal. Tranmere, who had been under siege throughout the second half, broke out and John Aldridge found John Morrisey on the right. Morrisey crossed, Vickers slipped, and in stole Aldridge to head his 10th goal in 11 League matches.

Ironic, but not a cause for gloating. King is not that type. Nor do Tranmere revel in Everton's travails. They may note wryly that Johnson's money does not seem to have done much for Everton, but he put too much time and energy into Tranmere for his former colleagues to gain pleasure from his current difficulties. The ambition is more to join Everton in the Premiership than to replace them.

'We need to get in the Premier to get our crowds high enough to finance things,' King said. 'There is room for three clubs on Merseyside.'

Middlesbrough, too, are striving to emerge from the shadows of bigger clubs, like Newcastle United. The defeat on Saturday, after they had dominated the match, revealed their limitations in attack. Had Aldridge been playing in red, they would have won comfortably. In the event, despite intense pressure (the home side had 17 corners and 16 shots, Tranmere three of each) Eric Nixon was so well-protected in goal that he was tested severely only twice.

The best effort came from the lively Craig Hignett, whose fierce shot was parried by Nixon and hoofed clear by John McGreal under pressure from John Hendrie.

The search for a forward will now take on a greater urgency. Nor should the investment stop there. Middlesbrough have power and purpose, but without the injured Robson and Alan Moore they lack poise. Jaime Moreno, the Bolivian, showed a classy touch, but collectively Tranmere's midfield, centred on the composed Liam O'Brien, were always more comfortable on the ball.

Given their financial constraints, Tranmere's best chance of promotion probably lies in making it third time lucky in the play-offs. However, such are the demands of the Premier League that success will merely signal a mighty struggle to stay up.

They would love the chance to try. Besides, when it comes to fighting relegation from the Premiership, they will not have far to go for advice.

Goal: Aldridge (83) 0-1.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Pears; Cox, Vickers, Whyte, Fleming; Hignett, Pollock, Mustoe, Blackmore (Moreno, 69); Hendrie, Wilkinson. Substitutes not used: Wright, Roberts (gk).

Tranmere Rovers (4-4-2): Nixon; Stevens, McGreal, Garnett, Mungall; Morrisey, O'Brien, Brannan, Nevin; Aldridge, Malkin. Substitutes not used: Edwards, Kenworthy, Coyne (gk).

Referee: B Burns (Scarborough).