After falling in the playoffs in their two previous attempts to return to the Football League, the Tranmere Rovers succeeded last season, winning the National League playoff after the 2017-18 season to find themselves back in League Two. The club, four years removed from their last season in League One, were picked as a potential surprise, but most experts expected them to finish out of the playoffs, at least for this season.
Four the fourth season in a row, however, they managed to reach the playoffs, and their visit to League Two will be a short one as they are heading back to League One as the victor of the League Two playoff. Whether or not they will manage to stay up remains to be seen, but promotion will at least make the fans more excited for the upcoming off-season.
Here’s a quick look at how the Super White Army ended up in this position:
What Went Right
The Rovers spent much of the season in the top half of the league, including two different stretches in playoff position. After a 4-3 win at Morecambe on 6 October, the Rovers climbed to 7th place and the playoffs for the first time, and would remain there until a 3-2 loss at Notts County on 15 December would knock them back down slightly.
Their season-ending push for the playoffs began in earnest after a home victory against Stevenage on 9 February. The win was the first win in what would eventually stretch into a nine-match unbeaten streak (8-1-0) and a return to playoff position, this time for good.
Qualifying in 6th position, the Tranmere Rovers had a semifinal matchup against the 5th place Forest Green Rovers to begin the playoff. A 1-0 win at home in the first leg gave them the upper hand, and the Super White Army forced a draw in leg two to advance to the final at Wembley Stadium. Newport County, coming off an upset of their own in the semifinal, would be their opponent in the final, and the match remained tied through regulation. However, Mark O’Brien was sent off for Newport County at the tail end of regular time, so the Rovers played the extra time with a man advantage, and finally settled in for a win on a goal by Connor Jennings in the 119th minute of action.
What Went Wrong
After ten matches, the club found themselves in 15th place with a 3-5-2 record. Not terrible, but also the low point of the season. A brief three-match losing streak from 19 January to 5 February was not enough to knock them out of the top ten either. But the season was not without struggles.
Gaining only two points over their last four matches nearly doomed their hold on the playoffs, especially given the strong finishes of Colchester United, Exeter City, and Stevenage. The end of the season was simply an extension of the season write large, especially on the road, and the Rovers were lucky that their road struggles – 6-8-9 away from Prenton Park on the season – wasn’t their undoing.
Recent English Football League History
Two consecutive relegations resulted in the Tranmere Rovers playing in the National League three seasons ago. A 21st-place finish in League One during the 2013-14 season sent them back to League Two for the first time since 1988-89, and a 24th-place finish the following season found the Rovers in the National League for the first time ever. Three straight playoff seasons, however, got them back to League Two, and this season’s playoff victory returns them to League One for the first time since that 2013-14 season.
The most recent clubs earning promotion back to League One through the playoff have yet to find success in League One, and all will be playing there again next season. The best performer out of the past five was last season’s playoff winner Coventry City, who had a respectable 8th-place finish this season, though they did finish a distant eight points behind the Doncaster Rovers for the last playoff spot. Overall, the last five League Two playoff winners averaged a 14th-place finish in League One last year, which would be a nice finish for the newly promoted Rovers to strive for.
Who’s Playing Elsewhere Next Season?
Likely done playing football is former club captain Steve McNulty, who will be leaving the club at the end of his current contract. The 35-year old is likely to retire, but if he does come back for another season, with will not be with the Rovers, who announced his release after they secured promotion (along with Ben Tollitt, James Devine, and Paddy Wharton).
Otherwise, with the recency of their promotion, the club has yet to make any formal announcements regarding player movement at the end of the season. Leading scorer and League Two Player of the Year James Norwood looks to be moving to Ipswich Town, so the search will be on to find his replacement once the club returns from its post-season holiday.
Chances of a One-and-Done?
Should the Tranmere Rovers follow the example of the last five playoff winners, they could be spending a few seasons in League One before a potential return to the Championship. And it could be a long season for the Tranmere Rovers unless the dramatically over perform relative to the strength of the club.
Per FiveThirtyEight’s Global Club Soccer Rankings, the Rovers have a 14.4 SPI, which places them right behind Rochdale (14.7) in the rankings. Unfortunately for the Rovers, Rochdale is the lowest-ranked League One club that will be playing in the league, and with the departure of a top scorer looming, the Super White Army will need to find some quality players over the next few months to strengthen their club.
The Tranmere Rovers were a surprise playoff team this season, and winning the playoff was just as unexpected. The club should be able to ride the high of that success for a while, but they will need to ensure that they are building a club that is sustainable in the long run, even if that means that a return to the Championship could be years away. But after three recent seasons in the National League, continued stability in the Football League might be just enough for now.
Until next time…