Mark Palios sits at his desk at Prenton Park and offers a wry summary of the impact he made in his first season as owner and executive chairman of Tranmere Rovers. “I kept on saying when I came that I wanted to get us out of League Two, which I did but unfortunately it was into the non-league,” says the 63-year-old.
For Tranmere, relegation into the National League – aka Conference – last April brought an end to their 94-year stay in the Football League and Palios keeps in his office a match programme from the defeat at Plymouth Argyle that sealed their fate. It is a reminder of an “awful” day for Palios – a former Tranmere midfielder and, briefly, Football Association chief executive – yet also of the attitude showed by Rovers’ fans before the game which served to strengthen his resolve to restore the club’s fortunes.
“They were thanking us for coming in and saving the club when within 90 minutes we could – and did – go out of the league for the first time in our history,” he explains. “When we came they had been relegated [from the third tier in summer 2014] and there was a lack of investment. [Manager] Ronnie Moore was sacked for betting and they had four or five players who had been arrested for spot-fixing. The atmosphere around the club was horrible. The fans were thirsty for some leadership and direction.”
A second relegation cost the club “half a million quid this year” he estimates, yet Palios – working alongside his wife Nicola, Rovers’ vice-chairman – was undaunted. The large white board on his office wall features a multi-coloured array of circles, squares and squiggles which represents the plan of action for a man who became a successful turnaround financier in the City after stopping playing football. There may be a sign outside Prenton Park advertising a Keith Chegwin 80s night but this is a club looking forward again.
On the pitch, Rovers are sixth in the Conference table, separated by goal difference alone from a play-off spot ahead of tomorrow’s meeting with second-placed Forest Green Rovers. Off it, the new executive lounges in the Main Stand are a sign of Palios’s desire to increase non-matchday revenue and ensure the Wirral club have a “top-third budget” in whichever league they play in future. “The total turnover for our non-matchday income was £150,000,” explains Palios, whose £300,000 makeover of the lounges is paying off fast. “The estimate is that turnover will [rise to] half a million.”
That is just one marker of progress. Palios sold the club’s former Ingleborough Road training ground to pay off debts and this summer Tranmere will move into a new five-pitch training ground, incorporating first team and academy, in Leasowe. Another significant statement of intent was his decision to instal a futsal court outside Prenton Park at a cost of £120,000. “I ripped out a real-size 3G pitch there and put in a purpose-built futsal court,” he says.
This serves two purposes. It is a community resource – “It makes money for us in the evenings and one day at the weekend” – and it will also allow Palios to make the small-sided game an integral part of the education of the club’s young players. "When I was at the FA I wanted to bring futsal in. You get five times as many touches as in a game of football. Next year is the first year we will implement a very specific futsal curriculum.”
Palios, to his credit, has also given a place on the board to Ben Harrison, chairman of the Tranmere Rovers Trust, and the supporters have responded by standing by the team this term: their average home gate of over 5,000 is the highest in the Conference. “They are really in contact with the fans,” says Gary Brabin, the Rovers manager. Brabin, 45, came on board last May, leaving a job in the Everton academy and bringing vast experience of the Conference where he had previously managed Southport (twice), Cambridge United and Luton Town.
His experience at Luton, in particular, prepared him for the challenge of trying to take a relative big name back into the Football League. At Kenilworth Road he signed striker Andre Gray, later sold to Brentford for £1m, for a £30,000 fee from Hinckley United and reached the 2011 Conference play-off final, which Luton lost on penalties to AFC Wimbledon. “I knew Tranmere would be going to places like Guiseley and Barrow and it is easy to underestimate it as you are expected to win.” That said, Brabin – who has overseen a current run of one defeat in 10 – is grateful for the more realistic level of expectation found in Birkenhead. “The experience I had last time with that expectation [at Luton] was damaging and that is why I had to really think about it carefully but since I took the job I have loved every day. I feel we are heading in right direction, the whole club is vibrant.”