Jan 6 2014 by Nick Hilton, Main WIR
RONNIE MOORE finds himself in unfamiliar territory at the start of 2014.
Tranmere may be perched just above the bottom four of the League One table by virtue of a slightly less negative goal difference than Crewe Alexandra, but they can’t escape the reality of being caught up in a relegation dogfight.
The Tranmere manager has been in these sorts of scraps before, most notably during three seasons between 2001/02 and 2003/04 when he kept tiny, unfashionable Rotherham United in the division now known as the Championship on a shoestring budget.
This time the battle is at the bottom end of the third tier, a level at which Moore boasts a proud record.
Every team he has managed over six complete seasons, at Rotherham, Oldham and Tranmere, finished in the top half of the table.
The challenge at the start of this new year is reversing a fall-off in Rovers’ results which began 12 months ago and straddles two campaigns.
Rovers began 2013 at the top of the table, an incredible feat considering they operated on one of the lowest budgets in the division.
Without the resources to replace key players lost to long-term injuries and the termination of loan arrangements, Tranmere slithered down the table and just about clung on to a top half finish at the end of April.
The reshuffle of personnel during the summer did not change the results on the field at the start of the 2013/14 campaign. They reached the halfway point with a record of six wins, five draws and 12 defeats.
After a 1-1 draw at home to Wolves on New Year’s Day, Tranmere require 26 points from 22 games to reach the 50-point mark, which is widely regarded as the safety line for the division. Securing enough points to beat last season’s 11th place finish is a personal target Moore has set himself.
He looks back on the year and describes it as “the most challenging of my managerial career”.
In rating his own performance the 60-year-old says: “Must do better.”
Moore added: “The calendar year was not as good as it should have been when you consider where we were at the start of 2013. We lost four key players this time last year. We could not replace them and it gave us a massive headache. That is all in the past. You don’t look back in anger, as the song says. You get on with it and face the mountain we have to climb now. It won’t be easy.”
Moore admits his pre-season conviction that he had assembled squad stronger than the group in place at the start of 2012/13 was misplaced.
“Some players have not responded as well as I thought they were going to,” he said.
The problem areas in the team are different. In the second half of 2012/13, the loss of creative and attacking players hit hardest and the goals dried up almost completely.
Since the new season began, plugging the gaps in a fragile defence has become the overriding priority. Rovers conceded 43 goals in the first half of the campaign. The defence did not settle following the upheaval of August when Tranmere cancelled the contract of Stephen Foster, an experienced centre-back signed from Barnsley who struggled with fitness issues.
The backline was patched up with loan signings and players operating out of position and a change of formation to 4-5-1 was made to provide extra protection to the defence. But the job is far from finished.
Moore said: “We look like a team capable of scoring goals but if you look at what’s been happening at the other end of the pitch, it puts a lot of pressure on the team. Basic errors have been costing us. Individuals in the back four have been making the same mistakes. We’ve had to put square pegs in round holes to patch things up.”
Moore is hopeful the loan signings made on the opening day of the January transfer window: teenage centre back Stephen Arthurworrey from Fulham right back Matthew Pennington from Everton, will help to ease the problem. The pair made encouraging debuts against Wolves.
Meanwhile Moore can look at the talent in abundance on the creative side now that Andy Robinson, Jason Koumas and James Wallace have overcome injuries that limited their contributions during the first half of the season.
Ryan Lowe’s strike rate as the spearhead of the team is phenomenal. The 35-year-old has 15 goals overall and 14 in the league from 24 appearances.
If Tranmere’s position at the turn of the year represents a fairly accurate reflection of the financial resources available to the manager, the club and the supporters have become used to the idea of the team punching above their weight. They hope to see an upturn in results over the coming months.
Chairman Peter Johnson sets the modest budget to keep Tranmere as close to a break-even figure as possible and Moore says the owner has been understanding about the difficulties on the field this season.
The two men have history. Johnson famously sacked more in 2009, shortly after Tranmere had missed making the play-offs by a whisker. He also re-hired Moore in 2012 when Rovers were in danger of sliding into relegation.
Moore is aware that several clubs in the bottom half of League One disposed of their managers during the first half of the season, including Notts County, Bristol City, Sheffield United and Carlisle.
He said: “There’s a certain amount of pressure in football and if you let that pressure get to you, you end up doing the wrong things.
“I know what can happen and right through this season you can look at managers who have lost their jobs because of results. I think the chairman has been fantastic about it here.”
Moore and his staff are on contracts running until the summer of 2015. In all likelihood, Johnson will have departed Prenton Park by the end of the season. The Wirral multimillionaire businessman hopes to conclude the sale of the club to a new owner or owners within a matter of months, perhaps even weeks.
Ensuring those new owners inherit a club with League One status for the 2014/15 season is job number one at Prenton Park.