Supporters Trust hope to buy out Peter Johnson but other potential buyers and investors could be in the picture also
Tranmere Rovers will be sold in the hands of new owners by the end of the year, according to the Tranmere Rovers Supporters Trust.
The fans organisation say they have set themselves the task of raising £500,000 inside nine weeks in order to make a formal offer to controlling shareholding Peter Johnson to take the club into community ownership.
But they are certain that other potential buyers and investors are also in negotiations with the Tranmere board. The identity of the other bidders is unknown.
Trust chairman Ben Harrison explained to a packed public meeting of supporters at Prenton Park that long-running negotiations with Tranmere had reached the stage where they had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the club' s board of directors.
This imposed restrictions on how much information the Trust could pass on to supporters.
Harrison said: "We believe we are looking at a club sale before the end of the year. We believe there are other bidders, who and how many we do not know.
"Our own position is to try and raise £500,000 by the end of the year that will enable us to make an offer to buy the club. We need cash, not pledges.
"We recognise we don't have a lot of time to raise the money but after more than two years since we first set out proposals to take control of the club, the time has arrived.
"Opportunities like this don't come around very often. Peter Johnson is going to sell."
Tranmere have made no official comment on the issue.
Johnson, the multimillionaire businessman who bought control of Tranmere in 1987, has been looking to sell his 60% controlling stake in the Wirral club for more than a decade, without success.
Negotiations with potential buyers in the past often foundered on the issues of club debt. Rovers owe around £5 million to Johnson and around £2 million to the Allied Irish Bank, according to the last published accounts.
The club is losing around £500,000 a year on day-to-day operations, in spite of cutting costs to a minimum since Johnson returned to the role of hands-on chairman five years ago.
The Trust have been engaged with Johnson for more than two years about ambitious plans to turn Tranmere into a club owned and run by the community. An appeal in the summer of 2011 to raise funds to launch a buyout campaign realised £100,000 in cash and a further £100,000 in pledges.
That cash remains banked so now the Trust are looking to find an additional £400,000 to fund their bid.
The Trust have the support of local politicians such as Birkenhead MP Frank Field, Wirral Council, ex-players such as Pat Nevin and Dave Higgins and the backup of expertise from the National fans organisations Supporters Direct.
Harrison says the Trust board have a business plan designed to make the club debt free by 2016.
He said: "We have a business plan which we will present to the club, to Wirral Council and to Supporters Direct and the Allied Irish Bank. We would invite other bidders to come out and do the same. If we can see their ideas are for the good of the football club, we won't have a problem. But we would not like to see the club sold without anyone knowing the motivation of the buyers."
The Trust's duty to give supporters as much information as they can about the progress of negotiations is as odds with Johnson's preferred method keeping business dealings confidential. Even so, the Tranmere board were aware of the Trust's decision to hold a public meeting to launch a new takeover prospectus entitled "Our club, our future." It took place at a Prenton Park function room, the Belmont Suite.
Harrison said: "Money talks and we have to put cash on the table. Two years ago we asked people to put money in to support our ambitions but there wasn't a sense of urgency then. Many people might have held back because Peter Johnson was still in charge and his departure did not seem to be imminent.
"Now he wants to go. Now is the time. We have to act. We don't want to be coming back here in two years time, with a club in crisis, as happened at Chester and Wrexham."
Speculation is linking Salford City Reds owner Dr Marwan Koukash to Tranmere.
The Kuwait-born businessman and racehorse owner bought the rugby league club in January and says he is looking to take over a football club.
"There is a club I'm looking at which hopefully we will be able to secure within the next month or two," he said in June.
Salford were on the brink of administration when the Liverpool-based businessman took over.
Fans can support the Trust bid by signing up with the Trust on the basic membership (from £50) a gold membership (from £300) or a corporate membership (from £500). Details about the Trust's prospectus and fund raising can be found online at www.tranmereroverstrust.co.uk
Any potential sale of Tranmere is liable to be influenced by the Trust's application to have Prenton Park registered as a community asset under the Localism Act of 2011.
The application, should it be granted by Wirral Council, means any future owner attempting to sell Prenton Park would immediately be subjected to a six-month moratorium, during which the community has time to raise the necessary capital for a rival purchase.
Several major grounds in England, including Manchester United's Old Trafford, Liverpool's Anfield and Blackburn Rovers' Ewood Park are registered as community assets under the Act.
A Wirral Council spokesperson said: ‘A policy in respect of the Community Right to Bid has been drafted and will be reviewed by Wirral Council at a date yet to be set.
"The application in respect of Prenton Park will be processed as soon as this policy is agreed. If accepted, the ground will then be put on a register of assets of community value and, should it be offered for sale, this process will be delayed by six months to give any community group properly constituted under the Localism Act time to put a bid together."
The Trust made the application in June.
Tranmere and the debt
Chairman and controlling shareholdre Peter Johnson has been reluctant to inject more of his own money into Tranmere since the end of the 1990s, when he insisted the club should try and stand on its own two feet.
However, the accounts from the 100th annual meeting last March showed the Johnson Foundation, a charitable organisation, made a loan to the club of £250,000 on commercial terms, which was repaid.
Tranmere are seeking to reduce the burden of debt on the club by instigating the sale of real estate assets.
Planning permission has been secured from Wirral Council for the building over 90 homes on the Ingleborough Road training ground currently used by the club's youth academy. It is linked to a scheme to redevelop the council owned Woodchurch Leisure Centre into a new training complex for the club, with facilities to be shared with the local community.
Meanwhile Tranmere submitted plans early in the season to build up to 50 homes on part of the nine acre site at Prenton Park. The building of a new estate will result in the demolition of the recreation centre, function room and social club located behind the Bebington Kop Stand and reduce the car park at the ground to around one third of its present size.
Estimates suggest Tranmere may raise £1.5 million from selling land at Prenton Park to developers and the scheme has the potential to proceed quickly.
However, the Ingleborough/Woodchurch projects are mired by delays, relating to protests over Ingleborough Road's status as a memorial to pupils of Birkenhead School who fell in the First World War and also over grants and funding for Woodchurch. Protesters have asked European Union Commissioners to look into the issue.