Nick Hilton looks at what Tranmere Rovers FC have to do to achieve their dream of promotion
EVERY day that Tranmere’s name stands at the top of the table, the story of the 2012/13 League One season becomes more of a tale of the unexpected.
Who says a league competition can’t steal a little of the FA Cup’s thunder by delivering a touch of romance?
And in football terms, Tranmere’s achievement so far this season has been a refreshing affair of the heart rather than hard-headed pragmatism.
The neutrals have gone past the phase of predicting the Rovers bubble will burst any time soon. Now they are rooting for the little club with one of the lowest budgets in the division who have been running a jump ahead of the big spenders for the best part of the last five months.
When the final reckoning is made however, Tranmere’s fate will come down to the bare mathematics of how many points they can squeeze out of the 46 games.
Manager Ronnie Moore believes Rovers do not need to concern themselves with targets based on last season’s final table.
He reckons 2012/13 was an exceptional campaign. Champions Charlton Athletic finished with 101 points, the division’s highest total of last decade – and eight more than Sheffield Wednesday, who also secured automatic promotion in second place.
Sheffield United finished third with 90 points, enough in eight of the last 10 seasons to have earned them an automatic ticket to the Championship. Danny Wilson’s team then suffered the heartbreak of losing in the play-offs.
In the majority of the last 10 seasons, a final points total in the mid-90s was enough to secure the title. Moore suspects the winning total this season may be significantly lower than that.
He said: “This season I don’t think a team will need 90 points to go up automatically. I think you could be looking in the lower to mid- 80s. And I think 71 to 75 points might be enough to get a team into the play-offs.”
Moore says he is expecting low numbers because dominant teams have not emerged this season and there is precious little to choose between the top dozen runners.
“Every team is capable of beating every other team on a given day,” he said. “That’s why so many teams are in the mix.”
Last season the top five positions were occupied by teams with the best support and the most generous budgets – Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Huddersfield and MK Dons. The surprise package were Stevenage, who sneaked into sixth place and the final play-off spot with 73 points – seven points behind third-placed MK Dons.
This season Sheffield United and MK Dons are just about doing enough to justify their status among the bookmakers’ pre-season promotion favourites while Doncaster are comfortably outperforming the other sides to drop down from the Championship at the end of last season.
But no team has found the consistency to be confident of securing a top six finish and it is difficult to counter the argument that the division is not as strong as last season. Moore and his players have handled the pressure of front running remarkably well so far. They are enjoying the ride.
Tranmere’s momentum slowed during late November and December – due largely to injuries to key players. But none of the chasing pack did well enough to overtake them.
Rovers regained momentum through a profitable Christmas and New Year holiday programme and those injured influential players should be back in harness at the beginning of next month.
Moore admits managing the expectations of supporters is becoming more difficult the longer Tranmere remain at the front of the pack.
“We’ve got to be realistic and say everyone is going to be disappointed if we don’t make the play-offs, that’s the difficult thing,” he said. “All we can do is carry on doing what we are doing and hope everything turns out.
“At the start of the season our first target was to get to 50 points so we would be safe in the division – and in the last three years we’ve got to 50 points in April. We did fantastically well to get to 50 in January.
“But you never know what is around the corner in football. Things can change so quickly. We have to stay positive and see what happens. At the start of the season no one expected us to be in the position we are now.”
Tranmere’s last appearance in the play-offs was in 2004/05, when Brian Little’s team finished third in League One on 79 points, seven points behind second-placed Hull City and 19 points adrift of champions Luton Town.
Rovers’ highest ever points total in a season is the 80 posted by Ray Mathias’s team in the 2002/03 League One season.
In an exceptional year, it was only enough to see Tranmere finish seventh, one point behind Cardiff City and 15 points ahead of the team in eighth place, Plymouth Argyle.