Rovers return in style

He may have fallen flat on his face at Wembley but Tranmere manager Micky Mellon, a tough Scot, came up smiling as his side won two promotions in two years.

By Colin McPherson

This article first appeared in Issue 13 which was published in September 2019.

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Mellon greets you with a smile as wide as the Clyde and a firm, warm handshake. And no wonder he looks happy. The new season is upon us and the club which he has stamped his personality all over is about to recommence life in England’s third tier after an absence of five years.
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He sounds like a man on a mission, determined to make the most of the chances he creates for himself through hard work and dedication.

The sight of a Scotsman running across the precious green rectangle of Wembley Stadium, arms aloft in celebration, is a sight many of us of a certain age would recognise. It’s what we grew up with and came to expect.

There was Jim McCalliog in 1967, wheeling away having punctured England’s unbeaten record as world champions, whilst ten years later, Joe Jordan’s toothless laugh heralded the now infamous encroachment which saw not just one, but thousands of Scots indulge in gloating and gleeful celebration at a victory on the Auld Enemy’s home patch.

At club level too, who can forget the slick interchange between Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish which ended in the latter’s exquisite finish that delivered the European Cup to Merseyside? His beaming, effervescent grin is forever imprinted on my memory, just one of so many instances where Scottish smiles lit up England’s national stadium.

Decades on, these moments are seldom, if ever repeated. Discussions and dissection of the reasons behind the diminishing influence of the Scots in the English game have been long and intense. Analysis and conclusions are many and varied. But more of that later.

Instead, I want to take you back to Wembley Stadium on Saturday, May 12, 2018 and the moment the final whistle sounded on one of the most remarkable games ever completed at either the old or new versions of that ground. The closing phase of play in the National League play-off final sees Tranmere Rovers players encamped in their own box. Defenders frantically gesture, midfields jostle and mark, even the forwards have sprinted back to help out with the task of defending a 2-1 advantage, deep, and I mean really deep, into injury time. Around the vast but nearly empty stadium there is a sense that this is it: the final act in one of the most unusually thrilling matches ever staged in this renowned corner of north-west London.

An opponent floats the ball towards the box; the ten men of Tranmere stand firm and hack the ball away one final time. Simultaneously, the referee blows his whistle and brings this dramatic confrontation to conclusion. The scene that unfolds in front of me takes me back immediately and instantly to those far-off, Tartan-clad glory days.

Tranmere’s manager, Paisley-born Micky Mellon, leads the change across the pitch towards his team’s fans, 15,000 of whom were now catapulting and cavorting in delirious joy, suspended in disbelief at their team’s achievement. Mellon arrives at speed on the edge of the penalty box, his backroom staff and players trailing in his wake. Suddenly, realising he is alone, he turns and looks for someone to share this moment of joy and ecstasy with. Face elated, fists pumping, his burly frame collides magnificently with a colleague and sends him sprawling across the lush, green turf.

It was a moment of pure comedy, lost in a scene of jubilation and sheer relief. The bald facts look bland on paper: having defeated tiny Boreham Wood by two goals to one, Tranmere had secured promotion back into the English Football League after an absence of three seasons in the non-League wilderness. That doesn’t even begin to tell the story of a day, and its implications, when Mellon’s managerial prowess and nerve would be tested beyond anything ever conceived in the job description when he was appointed to the post 18 months previously, on October 6, 2016.

Like many things in this digital age, I invite the reader to become a viewer and look online for the match highlights – and there were many – from this extraordinary encounter. As an unbiased writer, I would quickly run out of superlatives; as a fan, I was lost for words.

The bare necessities are that Rovers had their left-back Liam Ridehalgh dismissed for an ugly lunge after just 48 seconds Yes, you read that correctly. Five minutes later, they were ahead. After two tactical substitutions, and injury to first choice centre-back Ritchie Sutton during a first half which lasted 54 minutes, Tranmere found themselves going into the break all-square against their much-fancied opposition.

The second-half ebbed and flowed like an angry tide. With a handful of minutes remaining, Rovers conjured up a rare passage of coordinated passing which culminated in a long cross flung into the box being met by top scorer James Norwood’s head and the keeper’s frantic – and untimately futile – grasp. Short and simple, that was how Rovers won it and clinched promotion. But you need to look to Micky Mellon and his effect on this famous old club to understand how they got to that point.

Birkenhead these days is a ragged and weary town, perched on the northernmost tip of the Wirral peninsula, casting an often envious eye across the famed waters of the river Mersey towards its much more starred and famous neighbour, Liverpool. Ten years of austerity have piled misery on decades of decline. It is a place which looks and feels like it is at the end of things, rather than the beginning.

Wirral itself is a patchwork of settlements squashed into a small spit of land jutting out into the open sea, flanked on one edge by the north coast of Wales and on another by a city famed for so many things, including its giant football clubs from Anfield and Goodison Park. When each of these two stage their home games, football fans drain through the Mersey tunnels, leaving behind a small vacuum filled by Merseyside’s third club, Tranmere Rovers, whose home in suburban Prenton is one of the collection of communities which make up Birkenhead.

A brief glance at the history books, or a walk around the fading splendour of the Georgian marvel which is the town’s Hamilton Square, leaves you in no doubt that this was a place built on the vision, initiative and money of one man. In this case 19th century Greenock-born ship builder and entrepreneur, John Laird. Cammell-Laird, the famed shipyard which still bears his name, may be much diminished in stature and size these days, but it is still the most important manufacturing landmark locally in this post-industrial age.

Birkenhead – indeed wider Wirral – is characterised by some harsh and shocking social statistics where inequality across the Borough, more so than almost anywhere else in England, is like a chasm depending on where you were born and raised. Leafy neighbourhoods inhabited by wealthy businessmen and Premier League footballers abut areas with rows of trademark red-brick houses, dwellings for those with none of the advantages and privileges which wealth brings.

Similarly, Tranmere Rovers have always been the poor relations to Liverpool and Everton football clubs, even here in their own back yard.

The Reds’ recent Champions League win was greeted with a sea of flags and banners fluttering from every vantage point, whereas Rovers’ appearance at Wembley the previous week, their third in three successive seasons, brought only a modest display of affection and support from residents. It encapsulated the problem Tranmere have always had and always will have.

Squeezed by the big two, their modest history has never attracted the masses to their neat and tidy Prenton Park stadium when the top-flight alternatives are just so tantalisingly close at hand. Save for an extraordinary decade-long period of over-achievement from the late 1980s, Tranmere’s natural habitat has been the bottom two divisions of the Football League. That is until two catastrophic seasons from 2013-15 saw successive relegations and led to Rovers dropping into the non-League arena for the first time since they were elected into the Football League in 1921.

The three seasons in the National League almost broke the club. Despite the emergence of new owners in the shape of ex-player and football executive Mark Palios and his wife Nicola, the whole operation had to be stripped back and cloth cut according to need. Mr and Mrs Palios had a vision and a strategy, however, and gradually there was a sense that things had bottomed out, at least off the pitch.

On it, the first season ended outside the play-off places in a division which is notoriously difficult to escape from and is strewn with the wreckage of former League clubs rotting and festering way beneath their expected level of attainment. In an echo of the past which brings to mind John Laird’s achievements in Birkenhead, it was another Renfrewshire-born man who was entrusted with the task of resuscitating and saving the town’s football club from probable oblivion. That man was Micky Mellon.

Mellon greets you with a smile as wide as the Clyde and a firm, warm handshake. And no wonder he looks happy. The new season is upon us and the club which he has stamped his personality all over is about to recommence life in England’s third tier after an absence of five years.

His accent, unmistakably Glaswegian, has not softened or diminished in the three decades since he left his native Scotland and signed for Joe Jordan’s Bristol City as a callow but gallus 17-year-old midfielder. The vernacular includes the usual references to ‘big man’, ‘aye’ and ‘yous’. What is also striking and unmistakable, is his enthusiasm and optimism.

These days, he brings many good qualities to his management style, and much of it is down to Jordan: “Joe Jordan was brilliant. Disciplined. Scary. But I liked him. Jimmy Lumsden was a good foil for him. He fathered us. He let us away with nothing. There was no inch given. And they would be tough on you if they had to come down on you. But they were fair.

“You knew why they were coming down on you tough. If you tried to cut a corner, Joe was all over you. He never said a lot. He wasn’t really matey with anybody. A consummate professional. Ran a fantastic football club, from top to bottom. I loved playing under him.”

The youthful Mellon responded well to life as a young adult, living in digs with other aspiring professionals, training hard in a structured youth set-up which had been noticeably absent during his time on S-forms and as an apprentice at Hearts. There, he feels, he was set up to fail. There were no youth teams at the time in Scotland and he often found himself playing training matches against six or seven full Scottish internationalists.

“Madness” is how Mellon describes being pitched in with the likes of Craig Levein, Gary Mackay, John Robertson and Davie Bowman. And at the end of it, Hearts let him go. To make it worse, manager Alex MacDonald had never even seen him play a match. To say Mellon learned from this would be an understatement. As a manager today, his talk is peppered with references to development, learning and a duty of care. A far cry from life as a teenager at Hearts.

After achieving promotion, Jordan left Bristol City, ironically bound in the other direction, for Hearts. After a broken leg interrupted his fledgling career, Mellon was on the move too. Interest from West Bromwich Albion gave him a chance to join a bigger club, and play under the acclaimed management duo of Ossie Ardiles and Keith Burkinshaw. By the time he was 21, he had achieved a second promotion into English football’s second level.

In 1994, Mellon found his way to Blackpool, the town in which he brought up his family and still lives today. The move cemented his reputation as a hard-working, combative midfielder, full of heart and energy.

This period was pivotal in his career and personal life: “Football is all about finding a way. And accepting that every day is not going to go the way that you believe it’s going to be. So it’s about finding a way of attacking that,” Mellon reasons. “I’ve learned that due to my upbringing in Glasgow. I wouldn’t say I was fearless, I would just say that I was probably not arsed. We have a certain confidence about us that we can work our way out of things.

“You get very streetwise when you go off to school on your own at four. That’s what everyone did, it was accepted. That stood me in good stead. I still look back on it very, very fondly. When people go and learn about body language, I pretty much knew about that from an early age. I could perceive a threat, I could tell you right away if somebody liked me. I knew about looking people in the eyes. I knew about respect.

“All these qualities you hear people writing about we got that in Glasgow, because we had to. You knew certain areas you walked through you had to be quite cute. There was that perceived threat. I never felt danger as I grew up, but if I took my kids there they’d go ‘whoa, did you live there, dad?’”

Mellon’s playing career would last another decade, during which time another promotion with Burnley was sandwiched in between two significant spells at his current club Tranmere Rovers. Then came the first forays into management, first at Lancaster City and then, most importantly, at Fleetwood Town, where he became synonymous with the club’s rise from sixth-tier obscurity to gaining a place in the Football League, assisted by the goals of Jamie Vardy and defensive colossus Steve McNulty.

Incredibly, with the club lying eighth in the table, Mellon was sacked before Christmas in Fleetwood’s debut League season, to be replaced by fellow Scot Graham Alexander.

Two seasons at Barnsley as assistant manager was followed by another two, at Shrewsbury, where he revived a relegated team, remodelled them and got them bouncing straight back up. Another promotion on his CV. A trend was emerging.

After being forced to sell many of his most effective players, his remaining time in Shropshire was characterised by struggle and strife. After a poor start to the 2016/17 season, he jumped ship, landing back in Birkenhead, one division lower, at a club in desperate need of picking up.

When he took over from his somewhat lacklustre predecessor Gary Brabin, Rovers were languishing in the middle of the National League, miles from the owners’ minimum stated aims of play-off places and promotion. Somehow, Mellon dragged the same group of players kicking and screaming to new heights, embarking on long unbeaten sequences, backed by a vociferous and loyal support until Wembley Way was in sight at the end of the 2016/17 season. There they ran out of steam, beaten on the day by village eco-club Forest Green Rovers after a disjointed and nervy display.

Understandably, after that crushing disappointment, the following season started flat and morose. Performances were poor and the grumbling from the infamously inpatient Rovers fans led to a palpable sense of pressure building on the manager. But the resilience and guile learned growing up in Scotland guided him through. His exceptional record with his previous clubs bought him the goodwill and time he required to tweak his squad and pursue long-time leaders and eventual champions Lincoln City to within a whisker of catching them.

The Wembley triumph against Boreham Wood, another village club stuffed full of owners’ cash, may have been achieved against all the odds on the day, but looking back it seems like a natural progression for a club by then full of vigour and confidence. By that time, Micky Mellon had cemented his reputation as a promotion expert. But what’s the secret?

“As a player you just work hard and you try the best you can. You’re getting led there. As long as you look after yourself, you’re a decent player, you’ll play in good teams and good teams get promoted. As manager you’re then leading and you just get to a place where you know how a football club has to behave. You know how it has to be.

“One of my staff said to me just last week: ‘You’re breaking the dog in again, aren’t you?’ Because we’ve got a number of new players. Because I’m at the new ones all the time. Because I know what it (the club) has to do to win games. So at the start it can feel quite difficult to play for me. I’m into them all the time. But I make it plain to them that I want you to be successful.

“I have a thing I say to my players: ‘You give me your career’. Because way back Alex MacDonald was quite flippant with my career, I was only 16, but I think that’s had an affect on me, so it’s made me think I won’t be so flippant with someone’s career and I’ll try my best to try to get the most out of them.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work. But it won’t be for the want of me trying. So when a player comes here, I work to try to get the most out of him and if I piss him off, I don’t care, because as long as the player understands: I just want you to be good and get the most out of you. And I want you to do it right. I don’t want you to fanny around. You are out there to improve. And that’s how I know I can get the best out of players. And we’ll do that with the group. And we’ll design a way of playing that suits the group.”

If Mellon thought that was where it would end in terms of Wembley visits, he would be very much mistaken. Twelve months later, on a sun-kissed afternoon in May 2019, Mellon emulated something that only two other Scottish managers have ever achieved in the long and illustrious history of English football. As Sir Alex Ferguson and King Kenny Dalglish had done before, he became just the third Scot to lead his team out at Wembley at cup finals in three successive seasons.

After a season which was supposed to be all about consolidation and securing a place in League Two, Mellon’s men marched onwards and upwards, securing a play-off place and the prospect of another promotion. After gleefully dispatching old foes Forest Green Rovers in the two-legged semi-final, Rovers took on Newport County for a place in League One.

Ironically, it felt at the time that there was less at stake than the previous May when the whole future of the club, its investments in new facilities, partnerships locally and with coaching and development in China, were all hanging by a thread with the threat of another season in non-League football.

The match against Newport seemed like a free shot at goal: the culmination of a magnificent and entertaining season which had seen crowd numbers steadily rise at Prenton Park, culminating in almost sell-out home ends for crucial matches. The final itself didn’t have the pot-boiling plot but did feature a dramatic denouement, with midfielder Connor Jennings heading the game’s only goal with just seconds remaining before a penalty shootout at the end of extra-time.

A club in ruins, a club re-born, screamed the television commentator as once again silverware glinted in Mellon’s eyes while he showed off the trophy to around 18,000 satisfied and adoring supporters, wrung dry by the emotional journey of the past three seasons.

Watching a Micky Mellon team is seeing a group of players modelled in their manager’s image. He likes to talk to the fans, engage with them and understand what they want. Putting the club at the heart of this often battered community. Providing the leadership that had been sorely missing for many long years.

At Tranmere it’s all about wingers. They’ve always had them and that’s what they like to see flying down the flanks.

It’s about taking the aspirations of supporters and representing them, on and off the pitch. He takes this on board with clarity and simplicity: “How do you decide the way you are going to play? It’s a bit like walking into a pub and shutting the door behind you. And the pub’s got 18 people in it. Men, women, guys with one leg, guys of varying ages and somebody’s saying to you, ‘That’s your group, try to win games of football with them, with the qualities that they have.’

“Don’t try to play like Bayern Munich if that pub doesn’t have that type of players in it. And that’s a brilliant way of explaining what I try to do. Obviously I don’t want a drunk, but it’s probably the best way to describe how you walk in and you accept, these are the cards I have been dealt, how do I keep clean sheets and how do I win games? And I’ll get to know them all, develop them all and get the best out of them.”

It is an approach which will be severely tested by life at English football’s third level, inhabited by massive clubs such as Sunderland, Ipswich and Portsmouth.

Mellon communicates this clearly to anyone who will listen. And the people of Wirral have responded. On his daily jogs from the club’s training ground, he tells you proudly of people passing by hailing him, wishing him luck and tooting car horns at him.

At just under three years into the job, he is already the longest-serving Scottish manager in the English game. In the top four divisions, there are only 11 men in charge from north of the border, and none in the Premier League. He sounds like a man on a mission, determined to make the most of the chances he creates for himself through hard work and dedication.

And it would be foolish to bet against Micky Mellon running across the Wembley turf in celebration after achieving another promotion at some point in the future.

This article first appeared in Issue 13 which was published in September 2019.

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