Rogers' reality is survival for Tranmere

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Their chairman gave Tranmere Rovers three weeks to live. Keeping alive professional football on the far shore of the Mersey was, said Gerry Gould, a pointless exercise. He was "flogging a dead horse".

This was 1982, unemployment in Birkenhead encompassed one in five of the adult population, Michael Heseltine was "Minister for Merseyside" in the wake of the Toxteth Riots and Tranmere were languishing in 19th place in the Fourth Division.

The dead horse had quite a kick. In the intervening seasons Tranmere have appeared in five Wembley finals, reached the semi-finals of the League Cup and are now preparing for their third FA Cup quarter-final in four years, a record neither Liverpool nor Everton can match.

No club in recent history has slain giants quite so regularly as Tranmere. Since 1999, they have beaten Middlesbrough, Sunderland and West Ham, put five past Coventry, crushed Everton 3-0 at Goodison and recovered from a three-goal deficit to overcome Southampton. All those teams were then Premiership material and in the 2000 League Cup final Tranmere were one match away from bringing European football to Birkenhead.

When you stir into this the fact that the chairman who oversaw nearly all of this is a woman, you have quite a story. If cups are supposed to be about romance, there should be roses round the main reception at Prenton Park and chablis and chocolates for half-time sustenance rather than pie and Bovril.

Reality is very different, reality in Birkenhead usually is. As she prepared for tomorrow's FA Cup quarter-final with Millwall, Lorraine Rogers remarked that this was the first cup run she was completely relaxed about. The others brought in money and prestige but the latter never lasts for very long and the cash was swallowed up by relegation from the First Division in 2001 and the fall-out from the crash of ITV Digital the following summer.

"The cup runs in the past have secured the site, have allowed Tranmere to stand still and crucially guaranteed our youth programme. It doesn't sound dramatic but it is a real achievement," Rogers said. "The great plus about Tranmere is that we are located in an area where people, eat, sleep, breathe and dream football, and that has been great news for our youth set-up. There are are always people on Merseyside who will want to be footballers. We must use the players coming through because nearly 20 per cent of our turnover is spent on the youth teams.

"We have been a loss-making business for many years, losing between one and two million [pounds] a year pretty much through the last decade. For a while in the past the losses were covered by a massive benefactor, who spent years writing cheques, now we have to rely on ourselves."

The "massive benefactor" is Peter Johnson, who is still Tranmere's majority shareholder, biggest creditor and Rogers' business partner. The club owes him nearly £5.1m on which no interest has been charged. When Johnson took charge of Everton in 1994 and was forced by FA rules to relinquish his control over Tranmere, Rogers became first his representative on the board and then in February 1999, chairman. That season manager John Aldridge made an appeal to businesses on the Wirral to help pay his players' wages.

"There have been some very difficult times," she recalled. "One, in the first couple of weeks, when I was trying to get a handle on the business, within the first 48 hours I had to sell one of our most popular players, Kenny Irons. Then in the summer in 2002, the one where ITV Digital failed, we like a lot of clubs were under enormous pressure and we sold Jason Koumas just before the transfer window closed. The most important and difficult part of the job is saying no. The number of clubs in administration show how easy it is to get carried away."

Tranmere have always by necessity been a selling club. The scarred boardroom table at which we are sat is 50 years old. It was too young to be the one over which the sale of Dixie Dean to Everton was negotiated for £3,000 in 1925, although since you could buy a sizeable house in London for £650, it was in real terms not far off the £2.25m they received from West Bromwich for Koumas. Tranmere even sold the great Robert "Bunny" Bell, scorer of nine goals in a single game against Oldham. Again, they had no choice, Goodison came calling.

Aldridge is a more significant figure in Tranmere's history than Bell or Dean. Rogers concedes that luring him to Birkenhead from Real Sociedad as first a centre-forward and then manager was a stroke of fortune that first Johnson and then she benefited from. "These days you wouldn't be able to do that; there are not many big-name players who would want to play in the lower leagues. They are either too wealthy or they don't need to.

"But it was hard when he walked away [as manager], as John chose to. We weren't prepared for it, and it was a couple of days before the transfer deadline which gave nobody any time to do anything. We beat Everton on 27 January and played Stockport the following week, went into the bottom three and never came out. There is a lesson to be learned about the distraction of cup games."

Should they win at the New Den tomorrow, Tranmere will join Millwall, Chesterfield, Wycombe, Plymouth and York as clubs who have reached the FA Cup semi-finals from the old Third Division. Crucially, not one achieved promotion.

Wednesday's defeat at Swindon did not advance Tranmere's cause. Rogers drove down to Wiltshire to witness it before driving back to Prenton Park to see a creditable defeat to Middlesbrough in the FA Youth Cup quarter-final. Unlike say the Birmingham chief executive, Karren Brady, who admits to a limited interest in the game, Rogers is a fan of football. "I'm from this area so you can't not be; Liverpool, Everton, even Tranmere are part of people's lives. Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley were everywhere when I was growing up."

She does sometimes venture on to the team bus, although admits that the advantages of working on it are offset by the dire quality of videos the players chose to watch. "Being a woman is not an issue. I was a lawyer first and then an investment banker and they are pretty male-dominated environments. I find people in football quite refreshing because they are often very straightforward in a way lawyers and bankers are not. You know who your friends and your enemies are. I don't think women have achieved anything yet in football, no woman has had a senior position in the FA."

After she said this, Rogers pointed to a picture of the FA's chief executive, Mark Palios, part of the Tranmere sides of the 1970s, smiling under a mop of curly black hair that defines the decade. Perhaps one day, the FA might be headed by a woman. "Yes," she says. "But would football be ready for it?"