Blueprint For A Title
Why Tranmere Rovers can take inspiration from their sole league title victory.
Almost a decade on from a major global financial crisis, Tranmere Rovers entered the New Year with somewhat of a splutter, winning one, drawing one and losing one of their first three league fixtures of the calendar year, including a defeat on New Year's Day.
The first half of the season had produced mixed results. There were wins, such as the home victory over Barrow. There were draws, such as the 0-0 stalemate with local rivals Chester. And there were losses, such as the disappointing defeat away to Gateshead.
Yet, spurred on by a run of five consecutive victories between November and December, four of which came on home soil, Rovers had entered the New Year with bags of momentum before hitting some turbulence in their attempts to chase down the single automatic promotion place.
Well, whilst the scenario I've just outlined soundly encapsulates the 2017-18 season so far, every statement made above actually refers to the 1937-38 season at Prenton Park — Tranmere's sole league title season to date.
The world was less than a decade removed from the Wall Street Crash and Tranmere were trying to hunt down the single promotion slot available in the Third Division North at that time. And the similarities to the current season are remarkable. So, if Tranmere Rovers 1937-38 set out the blueprint for winning a league title, how closely are the current Tranmere side following the instructions?
Following in their footsteps?
As it happens, very closely.
Before we start the comparison, it's important to note that the 1937-38 Third Division North featured just 22 teams, meaning just 42 fixtures. Also, there were only 2 points for a win at that time, meaning 1937-38 Rovers' 56-point tally is highly unlikely to ever secure a league title in 2018.
Using 3 points for a win, their record of P42 W23 D10 L9 would give them 79 points from 42 games, or 1.88 points per game. Over a 46-game season, that would equate to 87 points. Whilst Rovers' 2017-18 record of P29 W13 D8 L8 sees them tracking at 1.62 points per game, with a projected final tally of 75 points, their more recent 8-game form of P8 W6 D1 L1 has them on 2.38 points per game, which would take them to 88 points if continued across the remaining 17 games — 1 more than the adjusted 1937-38 total.
Aside from points, the 1937-38 team topped the goal difference charts with a league-best +40 goal difference. As of writing, their 2017-18 counterparts also top the goal difference charts, a +17 goal difference the best in the National League after 29 games have been played. It was not just the number of goals scored (and, conversely, conceded) that were important — it was how they were shared about.
The 1937-38 side scored an impressive 81 goals in 42 league games, spread across 14 players. Top-scorer 'Pongo' Waring contributed 22 (27%), whilst players such as Billy Eden (12 goals — 15%) and Ronnie Dellow (9 goals — 11%) shared the main scoring responsibilities. They were ably supported by the likes of James Cassidy, Ted Buckley, Thomas Davis (6 goals each — 7% each) and Ossie Jones (5 goals — 6%), plus 7 other players who scored at least once. The important factor is they were not reliant upon just one player to score most of their goals and top-scorer 'Pongo' Waring finished the season six goals behind the league's top-scorer, Port Vale's Jack Roberts scoring 28 times for the Valiants.
This is a trait that can also be seen in the 2017-18 team. Rovers have scored 43 goals so far in 2017-18, with top-scorer Andy Cook on 11 goals. His 26% contribution is almost identical to the 27% of 'Pongo' Waring in 1937-38. The 2017-18 team has divided their goals between 12 players, with deputies James Norwood (10 goals — 23%) and Connor Jennings (7 goals — 16%) supporting Cook in shouldering the scoring expectations. Ollie Norburn (4 goals — 9%) and 8 other players have also found the net. With players such as Ben Tollitt, Jake Kirby and James Wallace back from injury, Tranmere could yet surpass the 14 different scorers from their only title-winning campaign. Andy Cook also trails the National League's top-scorer by 4 goals, AFC Fylde's Danny Rowe scoring 15 goals so far this season.
Another similarity between the two sides is their respective home forms, with both sides making Prenton Park a fortress. Jim Knowles' men won 15 of their 21 home matches, a win percentage of 71%. In comparison, Micky Mellon's side have won 9 of their 14 home games, a win percentage of 64% with 9 games left to play.
On their travels, however, both sides fared considerably worse. In 1937-38, Tranmere won just 8 of their 21 away games (38%), whilst in 2017-18, they have managed just 4 wins in 15 games to date, winning just 27% of fixtures away from Prenton Park. This is one of the rare occasions where following the blueprint probably isn't advisable over the remainder of the season.
To the top of the table.
As faithfully as Rovers appear to have replicated the title-winners in certain areas, they still find themselves in 5th-place and 8 points from summit. So, how can Tranmere take inspiration from the 1937-38 side to reach the top?
By winning 7 of their remaining 9 home matches, Tranmere would come close (70%) to the record set by their predecessors. If they win 5 of their remaining 8 away fixtures, they would surpass (39%) the 1937-38 away win percentage. In fact, to reach a total similar to that of the adjusted 1937-38 total, Tranmere would need a record resembling P17 W12 D3 L2, which would give them 39 additional points from 51 available for a total of 86 points, one shy of the adjusted 87 of 1937-38.
It's a tough ask, but there are reasons to believe it could be done, however unlikely.
After a poor start to the 2017-18 season, Rovers strengthened their ranks with the loan signings of Dylan Mottley-Henry and Ollie Banks, both of whom made a tremendous impact in helping the side improve their fortunes. However, there is precedent for such mid-season impact in a title-winning season. On 10th November 1937, Ted Buckley made his debut for Tranmere in a Division Three North Cup game at home to Port Vale. After a couple of games to settle in, Buckley would score in 7 consecutive games between 20th November and 27th December, as Rovers won 7 straight games in all competitions. With the likely returns of Ben Tollitt and Jake Kirby to the attacking ranks at Prenton Park, plus the addition of National League winner Josh Ginnelly, who is to say one of those cannot have a similar impact between now and the end of the season? Tollitt in particular has had a positive impact once before, after his arrival during the 2016-17 campaign.
Squad depth appears to be yet another area where the two teams are comparable. The 1937-38 team had back-up players with such talent that Rovers' reserves were able to win the Cheshire County League, whilst the squad players were able to help Tranmere reach the semi-finals of the Division Three North Cup.
Now, in 2017-18 Tranmere don't have a reserve team and are no longer in either of the cups, but we know the quality of players such as Jeff Hughes (former Northern Ireland international), Jay Harris (former Player of the Month), Evan Gumbs (promotion winner with Salford City) and Luke Pilling (Welsh Under-21 international), amongst others, that have found themselves out of the starting line-up in recent weeks.
Winning the league will not be easy. But the number of automatic promotion places is almost irrelevant in the chase for the title — there can only be one winner, regardless of how many additional automatic promotion contenders are promoted alongside the eventual champions.
Rovers haven't had the best of starts to the season, and their away form isn't as good as people may expect from a club the size of Tranmere. That being said, as I've hopefully conveyed, neither of these issues prevented Tranmere from winning the Third Division North title in 1937-38. Whilst many will use the example of John King's 'Trip to the Moon' as a guide for success, Jim Knowles' men did something no other Rovers side have achieved — they were crowned league champions.
As we've explored, if they set the blueprint on how to win a title, the current team are following that guideline in a plethora of ways.
Let's hope, come May, they have one more thing in common.