Mar 22 2012 by Nick Hilton, The Liverpool Post
TRANMERE ROVERS versus Exeter City. It is a fixture that evokes memories of turning points and new starts at Prenton Park.
This year the call of history is especially strong. Saturday’s game falls close to the 25th anniversary of the 1-0 victory over the Grecians that secured Rovers’ Football League status and saved them from relegation to the Conference in 1987. It marked the beginning of an era of unprecedented success for the Wirral club under the ownership of Birkenhead businessman Peter Johnson.
The outcome of this weekend’s contest is not going to produce another defining moment, although a victory will edge Tranmere closer to the 50-point mark that should be enough to ensure they retain League One status.
The immediate future holds many uncertainties however, perhaps most significantly about the club’s ownership. Furthermore, in a couple of months’ time a large proportion of the current playing squad will, like manager Ronnie Moore, be out of contract.
“The players are fighting for their livelihoods and I’m fighting for my living too,” Moore said this week.
Should Moore succeed in keeping Tranmere in football’s third tier, he will have made a strong case for being hired long term .
Moore played centre-back in the 1987 fixture and recalled: “You won’t get a more nerve wracking game than that. This club was close to the edge a few times before Peter Johnson.
“Look what is happening at Portsmouth and Port Vale now. We’ve not had that kind of trouble. But it is hard now.”
Johnson’s investment, recently-installed manager Johnny King’s ability to build teams from diverse components and a rising tide of support helped Tranmere to climb the divisions after their brush with demotion in 1987.
After the high point of the mid-90s, Johnson called a halt to pumping money into the club but has remained a guarantor of the bank loans and the owner of a £5 million debt.
Now the Wirral businessman is looking for a way to unburden himself of that responsibility and take back some of the debt, while at the same time trying to ensure the club’s future is put into responsible hands. It is proving a difficult circle to square.
Over recent years a number of potential buyers turned up with business plans which may not have made Tranmere’s long-term future a priority. The last of them, Chicago-based investment group Club 9 Sports, retreated back to the USA in the spring of 2011.
Since 2009 the club’s attempts to run day-to-day operations on a break even basis have come under pressure from declining support through the turnstiles.
The recession is keeping some supporters away from Prenton Park.
Three seasons of football in which success had to be judged by the measure of keeping the team in League One on one of the lowest budgets in the division, is liable to be another factor impacting on attendances.
It is not such a surprise, therefore, that the only group actively campaigning to take a stake in Tranmere’s future are the Tranmere Rovers Supporters Trust, with their plan to bring the club into community ownership.
They have been in negotiations with Johnson about buying his controlling shareholding in the club since the summer.Those talks continue.
Sceptics have been saying for months that the Trust don’t have the financial resources to turn their ambitions into reality. They may have raised enough money to cover the cost of bidding for the shares but, they ask, where is the back-up to deal with the bank loans and the debt, not to mention repairs to the Main Stand?
But don’t write the Trust off. This week the Trust demonstrated they have more than just a lot of positive ideas about how to take the club in a new, radical direction. They have a plan and will present their vision and business plan for the Wirral club’s future to an open meeting ahead of the Exeter game.
The proposals include a three-phase redevelopment of Prenton Park, beginning with an upgrade of existing facilities followed by the construction of a commercial development behind the Bebington Kop, featuring a hotel with conference facilities, retail and leisure outlets, a supporters bar and a new club shop.
The third phase will see a complete redevelopment of the Main Stand, which was built in 1967. The Trust plan to make a formal presentation to Johnson at the end of this month. Then they intend summit a formal bid to buy the club.
Trust chairman Ben Harrison said: “These forward-thinking plans are about protecting the future of Tranmere Rovers and establishing a financially viable, step-by-step approach to steadily growing the football club.”
Harrison, formerly the chief executive of the Weston Spirit youth charity, talks with enthusiasm about turning Tranmere into a community hub, about running the club as a not-for-profit organisation and about reversing the decline in attendances by making football at Prenton Park more affordable for all.
Even so, the Trust’s best hope of success continues to rest upon the club’s attempts to reduce debt levels by selling assets, notably the Ingleborough Road training ground.
Don’t be surprised to see Tranmere resubmit a planning application soon to build around 90 homes on the Ingleborough site and redevelop the Woodchurch Leisure Centre into a community training facility.
The original application to Wirral Council was withdrawn last month against a background of issues relating to the Woodchurch project and protests from historical groups who argue the Ingleborough Road site is a war memorial and should be open space.
New rounds of protests and negotiations may follow and the outcome is unpredictable. However, a scenario in which Tranmere continue to struggle on down the current path looks less likely with each passing week.