“Shopping For Potential”
Why James Alabi's loan move poses questions about the ability of young players to realise their potential at Prenton Park.
Warning: Long Read.
Updated Warning: VERY Long Read.
Tranmere Rovers boast a proud history of bringing exciting young talent onto the national football scene. From William 'Dixie' Dean to Steve Coppell, Jason Koumas to Ryan Taylor, the Prenton Park outfit has always been a place where raw prospects are given a chance to showcase their strengths and develop their weaknesses.
In some cases, such as the aforementioned 'Dixie' Dean or the whirlwind sensation that was Dale Jennings, these players make an immediate distinction between themselves and their peers, demonstrating enough skill to entice bids from some of the biggest clubs in the country. Sometimes, the world (Everton and Bayern Munich respectively for Dean and Jennings).
Others, such as Robert 'Bunny' Bell, sign for Tranmere as a 19-year-old, stay for 6 years and score 104 goals in 114 games, including 9 goals in the Club's record 13-4 win on Boxing Day 1935.
Regardless the length of their tenure in the SWA, if you ask any Tranmere Rovers fan to name a player whose development played out, either wholly or in part, in front of the Prenton Park faithful, at least one would come to the forefront almost instinctively.
In my own lifetime, I've been fortunate enough to see a range of players given an opportunity in the first team. Some came through the Club's own youth system, such as Danny Coyne, Iain Hume or Ian Sharps. Others were given a second chance after being released from a club elsewhere, the Club putting its faith in players such as Calvin Zola, Lucas Akins and Adam McGurk. It's a fundamental pillar of the Tranmere 'model'. Always has been and hopefully always will be.
The current owners have gone on record with their desire to ensure that this ethos will endure, backing the rhetoric with the investment in state-of-the-art training facilities for young players, both at Solar Campus and at the futsal hub. Current manager Micky Mellon certainly put his weight behind it's continuation, recently telling the press that Tranmere are now “shopping for potential” in their bid to strengthen their 2017-18 squad.
With Club and manager united behind the ideal of developing talent, and the facilities to implement the training to do so, there should be no problems. Looking at the recent history, however, highlights a worrying lack of opportunity for 'potential'.
I think it is important to set out from the beginning what I am not suggesting. I am not suggesting the Club don't care about youth. I am not, in any way, doubting the conviction of those in power to the ideal of developing players, the investment in the development of both futsal and Chinese coaching two examples of the Tranmere ownership going above and beyond many of their Football League contemporaries, let alone their National League counterparts. And I am not suggesting that the current manager is unwilling to play younger players, as he has already proven his readiness give younger players a game in the first team with his selections of Ben Tollitt, Mitchell Duggan and Cole Stockton.
I am, however, questioning the suitability of Tranmere Rovers as a place for 'potential' to be realised in 2017. To clarify, by potential, I am specifically talking about the ability to eventually hold down a first team place or bring in a transfer fee. The key word here is “eventually”, because by its very definition, you cannot sign potential and then expect immediate results. It is a frustration of mine that has been building for a while, as prospect after prospect fails to deliver upon the end 'goal' of a first team player or transfer fee.
“The Players Aren't Good Enough”
There are multiple reasons cited for Tranmere's inability to transform potential into reality, but perhaps the most common among the fans is that these players are not good enough to play in the first team. It's a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly disagree.
If you were to sit down and draw up a list of factors that you would look for in a young player, what would be on that list? Match experience? A record of goal-scoring? Over the past 5 years, Tranmere have signed players with both and yet they've been deemed failures at National League level. Let's take Jonathon Margetts as an example.
Margetts signed for Tranmere in the summer of 2015 after a successful trial, eventually revealed as the mysterious 'Trialist H' who scored 5 goals in 3 games. He had been released by Hull City but had, across loan spells with Gainsborough Trinity, Harrogate Town and Cambridge United, amassed an impressive ratio of 14 goals in 27 career appearances. Coupled with his pre-season form, there was justifiable excitement at his arrival.
Unfortunately, he was afforded just 10 games in that season, which yielded 2 goals for him, not in-keeping with his previous ratio but still respectable for a young player whose entire career, bar 1 match, had been at a lower level. He was loaned out to the National League North with Stockport County, where he scored 4 goals in 7 matches to prove he still had the ability that had persuaded Tranmere to sign him in the first place. He'd shown he could score below the National League, but could he do it at National League level?
Tranmere evidentially thought not, loaning him out to National League Altrincham in January 2016 where he scored 2 in 6 in a struggling side. OK, surely now he'd get his chance at Tranmere, who were themselves in a run of form that saw them score more than 1 goal in just 4 of their final 13 matches? No, as Margetts was again sent out on loan to a National League side, this time scoring 2 goals in 3 matches for another of that season's strugglers, Southport.
So, his overall record that season ended up being 10 goals in 25 appearances across the National League North and National League. Surely not a bad platform from which to build? He left Tranmere that summer, instead signing for eventual 2016-17 National League champions Lincoln City, with whom he started the following season with 5 goals in 7 league games, earning himself a move to League One Scunthorpe United on 31st August 2016, just weeks after leaving Tranmere.
Not only had he proven himself capable at National League level, scoring for 4 different clubs in the space of 12 months, he had personally earned a move 2 divisions higher than Tranmere and earned our 2016-17 promotion rivals a fee in the process.
Of course, in football, this can happen. A player can slip through the net and flourish in pastures new. It's happened at Tranmere Rovers before and it will do again. However, in recent seasons, there is an argument to be made that this has happened far too often.
In the same season as Margetts signed for Rovers, Tranmere also signed a winger named Marlon Jackson from Oxford City. At 24-years-old, he was probably not 'young' but he was arguably 3 or 4 years away from hitting what most would consider his 'peak' years. He had built himself a career of 133 league appearances and 17 goals, a reasonable return for a player who had played mostly on the wing.
When he joined Rovers in 2015, he had just signed a one-year contract extension with Oxford City on the back of 5 goals in 24 appearances in the National League South, but he had also gained experience in League 2 with Bury and the National League with Lincoln City and Halifax within the previous 2 seasons. For his age, he had considerable experience.
Regardless, his time at Tranmere was cut short after just 11 appearances, re-joining Oxford City in December 2015. As with Margetts, Marlon would score 7 goals in 8 appearances at the back end of the 2015-16 season and earned himself a transfer to League Two Newport County, with whom he is currently enjoying his second season having represented the club 22 times to date.
Perhaps it was just the situation the Club found itself facing that season, trying to reverse a slide that had seen successive relegations? Well, no.
In the summer of 2016, Tranmere signed highly-rated Chorley forward Darren Stephenson, a 23-year-old striker with an incredible record of 62 goals in 157 games. He arrived at Prenton Park as Chorley's 2015-16 top-scorer with 21 goals. Yet he too was given just 11 games before he was sent out on loan to then National League North side AFC Fylde. An injury sustained during that loan spell saw his playing time cut short for the 2016-17 season and he left Tranmere in the summer of 2017, a year into a 2-year contract.
As far as I'm aware, he is yet to play for Stockport County, but his record prior to signing for Rovers suggests it is only a matter of time before he starts to score at that level (National League North) again. At 24-years-old, only time will tell if Stephenson too will be playing at a higher level than Tranmere after his Prenton Park departure.
And then we can look at the 2017-18 season. In the summer, I wrote a piece lauding the Club's transfer business, with the 'marquee signing' perhaps the acquisition of Chester's 2016-17 top-scorer James Alabi. A 22-year-old powerhouse who scored 17 goals at National League level last season, including the controversial penalty awarded in the Chester-Tranmere fixture, in terms of 'potential', he has unquestionably the most out of all of the players I have mentioned so far.
He's younger than the other players. He has already proven himself in the National League, with 23 goals in 58 games for Chester. He's even scored on his only appearance for Championship side Ipswich Town. Yet here we are again, 9 games this season and Alabi has already been sent on loan to National League rivals Dover Athletic, who ended his first game at the Crabble Athletic Ground second-top of the National League, whilst Tranmere sit in 15th.
If James Alabi is not considered good enough for the lowest-scorers in the entire National League, why has he been snapped up for the rest of the season (according to Dover Athletic's Twitter account) by a team 13 places and 9 goals better-off than Tranmere? How can the Club have made that assessment after less than 10 appearances?
Even as I have been preparing this article, George Waring, another 22-year-old striker with 7 goals in 54 Football League appearances, has joined FC Halifax Town on a short-term loan. Halifax are currently 11th in the National League table, 4 points and 5 goals ahead of Rovers and yet they see George as an option to improve their attack? Waring made his debut for Halifax on the same day as the story was announced. He scored. Still, his goal isn't even the most perplexing issue surrounding his departure.
Side-lined with an injury at the start of the season, Waring didn't make his Tranmere debut until the game against Barrow on 9th September 2017. Between then and his albeit temporary departure, Waring has made just 3 appearances for Rovers. Three. One would have thought it is nigh-on impossible to make any sort of impact, positive or negative, in such a miniscule period of time.
In the spirit of fairness, it is important to reference the confidential nature of the internal mechanics of the football team at Tranmere Rovers. We, as fans, don't get to see the everyday contributions these players make in non-match scenarios. That notwithstanding, are we really to believe that Margetts, Jackson, Stephenson, Alabi and Waring have all made such poor representations of themselves that they all needed to leave within months of arriving? Were they that much worse than we had originally thought? After all, we handed Stephenson, Alabi and Waring 2-year contracts, yet they've made just 23 appearances between them.
Once can happen. Twice can be coincidence. But 5 times (and counting) in just over 2 seasons at National League level? I'm not so sure that's just bad luck.
As damning as I believe the previous examples are, sadly they do not represent the entire scale of the issue at Prenton Park. Margetts, Jackson, Stephenson, Alabi and Waring are just the most prominent examples of external 'potential' signed in recent seasons. Tranmere's recent failures to develop potential also extend to internal potential as well.
The last Tranmere graduate to leave Prenton Park for a fee was Max Power in the summer of 2015, when, after relegation to the National League, Max joined then League One side Wigan Athletic. Since then, not one Tranmere graduate who has debuted post-relegation has left the Club for a higher division. OK, let's be fair, it's only been just over two years so perhaps it's not too surprising given the upheaval over the last couple of seasons.
But how many have made an impact at Prenton Park?
Well, let's start with Tranmere graduates who made their Rovers debut before we were relegated. Jake Kirby and Cole Stockton made their Rovers debuts well before relegation from League One, have more than 100 Football League appearances between them and had scored in both League One and League Two.
In 2015, however, both players were loaned out to other clubs. Kirby left to spend time on loan at Stockport County in the National League North, where he scored 4 goals in 11 appearances before returning to Prenton Park. Both his loan spell at Stockport, and his 5 goals and 31 appearances in the record-breaking 95-point 2016-17 season highlight how needless this loan spell appeared to be.
With Cole Stockton, the absurdity is even worse. During the 2014-15 League Two relegation season, Cole had scored a reasonable 6 goals in 27 games, including against Premier League Swansea City, improving on his record of 9 goals in 61 games when Tranmere were a League One side. 15 goals and 88 appearances in the Football League and associated cups, Stockton was deemed surplus to requirements at Prenton Park and was loaned out to Southport during the first half of the 2015-16 season, where he scored 4 goals in 10 games, proving he could score at National League level.
3 goals in 16 appearances back at Prenton Park saw him leave Rovers again in March 2016, making the step up to League Two with Morecambe, where he scored 2 in 5 League Two starts. In the summer of 2016, he again joined Morecambe on loan for the first half of the 2016-17 season, this time scoring 10 goals in 26 appearances before returning to Tranmere in January 2017.
And what happened when he returned? He scored 8 in 19 matches, including a hat-trick in the 9-0 victory over Solihull Moors and in both legs of the Play-Off semi-final with Aldershot Town. Since relegation, Stockton's record for Tranmere was 11 goals in 34 matches, a ratio that would see him score roughly 15 goals over a 46-game season. His record away from Prenton Park? 16 goals in 41 matches, mostly at League Two level, a ratio that would see him score circa 18 goals over a 46-game season — almost exactly the same, but at a higher level.
So, what happened that Tranmere decided not once, not twice but three times that Cole Stockton wasn't good enough to play for Tranmere Rovers in the National League, when all possible metrics (experience, goals, age) surely made him a better prospect than a Ben Tomlinson (0 goals in 10 matches) or Michael Higdon (2 goals in 9 matches), for example?
Other Tranmere graduates have suffered a similar fate in recent seasons. Evan Gumbs, who made his debut for the Club against Luton Town in November 2014, spent loan spells at Burscough, Trafford and Salford City in 2015-16, including 23 appearances in Salford's successful promotion bid into the National League North. 47 external loan appearances and a promotion later, how many games was Evan afforded at National League level in 2016-17? One. On the final day, after further loan spells at Bradford Park Avenue and Warrington Town, and a change of manager. Two years and five months between his first Tranmere appearance and his second Tranmere appearance.
Even in 2017-18, he finds himself out on loan at Warrington Town, the sixth different time he has been sent out in just over 2 seasons. How much experience is he expected to get? He's already won promotion. He's not done anything wrong in the few appearances he has made. What are we actually asking of him?
Others, such as Tolani Omotola, make just one appearance. Omotola made his debut on the final day of the League Two season in 2015 and signed a contract the following summer. After a short loan at Burscough in 2015, he spent the entire 2016-17 season on loan at Witton Albion, where he scored an astonishing 18 goals in 25 games, helping them to promotion from the Northern Premier League South, yet he was released at the end of the 2016-17 season.
The question here is why?
In the summer of 2017, Rovers signed Elliot Rokka from Radcliffe Borough, who had won individual awards, and who is a bright prospect, but who had played at the equivalent level to Witton Albion. They finished 20th out of 22, yet Omotola scores 18 in 25 for a team who finishes 2nd at a comparable level, wins a promotion but is then released? What more could he have done to persuade the Club?
There are positions on the pitch where opportunities will be limited, namely goalkeeper. Therefore, I can understand that, with Scott Davies' excellent form, a player such as Luke Pilling has had limited first team playing time and, in fairness, he has been promoted to the clear second-choice goalkeeper at Prenton Park. But he's playing for his country, he's winning awards at international level and, looking at the situation from outside, it seems almost inevitable that he will move on next summer, so the most Tranmere will benefit from his talents would be any fees involved (which themselves are massively reduced due to the Club's current league placing).
Outside of these 'selective' positions, however? I fail to see the excuse for making players wait over 2 years between appearances.
Irrespective of my previous comments, one could still find an element of sound reasoning in such behaviour if players of 'potential' were being kept out of the running by experienced professionals, in their prime and bang on form. It would be hard luck, but it would be understandable.
And in certain areas, that has been the case. Players such as the Scott Davies, Steve McNulty, Jay Harris, James Norwood and Andy Cook fit that criteria and have proved, at times, difficult to shake out of the first 11. Fine, that's how you would expect it to be.
But what about the bench? Even if you accept that those with 'potential' are unlikely to start, surely players such as an Omotola could have done no worse than a Ben Tomlinson? Are our current young defenders so far off the pace that it's better to name 4 strikers on the bench than to put one of them in the 16?
And if you subscribe to the theory that the pressure of a promotion challenge is no place for young players, then why are the Club bringing in young players from other teams? What message does that send to our own young players? Does the experience of promotion achieved by Evan Gumbs or Omotola even matter if they are going to be overlooked for players from clubs in higher divisions?
Furthermore, what message does it send to the coaches and scouts responsible for youth development? This is a setup with younger sides who have won cups and topped leagues. It's a team of scouts who have identified potential in players, witnessed them do it at other clubs (either before or after their Tranmere tenure, sometimes both) and yet seen them afforded very few opportunities to realise said potential at Prenton Park.
It's a practise that Mr.Palios had publicly vowed to halt and yet in the past 2 seasons it's slowly started to rear its head once again.
As I have hopefully conveyed, this isn't just a case of a handful of young players failing to reach their potential. This behaviour is a multi-season issue that has affected both external and internal potential alike. We've seen too many signings binned after a handful of matches and we've seen too many young players' progress hindered by unsuitable, short-term solutions at either end of the age spectrum, benefitting everyone and anyone except Tranmere Rovers or the 'potential' within their ranks.
From a personal perspective, the transfer of James Alabi to Dover Athletic was to be a pivotal point in the future of Tranmere Rovers' ability to develop talent, but the subsequent additional departure of George Waring has absolutely solidified my resolve that we have now reached a watershed moment in the development of the Club.
As we've explored, this has happened to multiple people under different managers, under different circumstances and in different leagues. We've heard every excuse under the Sun as to why the time isn't right to afford young players a sustained run in the side to develop their talents, from pressure to inexperience and every option in between, even when the excuses don't necessarily correlate with the facts.
It simply cannot be the case that we have been so unlucky as to have stumbled across what must be close to 20 'potential' talents, all of whom happened to suffer similar fates concurrently. At what point do we, as a club, start our introspective reflection, because something we are doing isn't working?
Are 10 games really enough to judge someone's talent, as was the case with Margetts, Stephenson, Jackson and, more recently, James Alabi? Are these players performing so badly, over such a short period, that it warrants their removal from the squad? The team, yes. The 16, possibly. But from the Club altogether?
If we are to accept that at Tranmere Rovers, the current expectation is that you start performing within 10 matches, can the current manager find himself fortunate to still be in his position, excellent 2016-17 notwithstanding?
And are the current owners, who have so far had little-to-no ill feeling from the loyal fanbase that is the SWA, walking an atmospheric tightrope 3 years into their development as football club custodians?
I appreciate this has been a long piece, and I thank you for sticking with it but, as with developing potential, some things take time to do properly. In my case, it was to put forward reasoning based on fact, that couldn't simply be dismissed as a knee-jerk reaction to a miserable season. Hopefully, I have succeeded in that goal, even if I haven't persuaded you of my argument.
I ask that you forget the notion that these players have not been, or are not, good enough, because their respective records were good enough to earn contracts in the first place. If Jonny Margetts was such a poor player, why is he contracted to a League One club? Why is Cole Stockton playing for an Edinburgh giant? Why is Marlon Jackson currently a League Two footballer, whilst those deemed 'better options' are still in the National League or worse? Why have James Alabi and George Waring both transferred to, and in Waring's case scored for, teams better-placed in the National League than Tranmere currently find themselves?
There have been successes. It can be done. Michael Iheikwe and Cole Stockton proved that, when given a chance, even young players with a history of relegation can develop into good players. Adam Mekki, Jonathon Margetts and Elliot Rokka highlight the willingness of the Club to go out and find potential and to give that potential an opportunity to join the squad. And the performances of players such as Evan Gumbs, Luke Pilling and Tolani Omotola when they do go out on loan reinforce my belief that the Club has a cohort of youth graduates who want to learn, want to improve and want to develop into first team players.
As I referenced at the beginning, Tranmere Rovers are a football club whose very ethos includes developing talent. When Mark and Nicola Palios bought the Club in 2014, they themselves were “shopping for potential”. The potential of the fanbase. The potential of the facilities. The potential for improvement, both on and off the pitch.
In 2017, it's hard to argue against the idea that at least some of potential they bought has yet to be realised. In some areas, such as attendances, the potential is actually starting to diminish.
It is therefore a watershed moment for the Club, because if we keep losing players for free, if we keep overlooking the talent within our own ranks, if we keep chipping away at the goodwill of the SWA, then soon the only potential left at Prenton Park will be the potential for looming disaster.
It takes bravery to buy a football club on the brink of financial meltdown. It takes bravery to invest huge sums in football development both home and abroad, especially in the face of financial restrictions. It takes bravery to sign a player from a much lower league. It takes bravery to give a young player a chance in a team expected to challenge for the title. It takes bravery to, as a fanbase, resist the urge to form an immovable initial impression of a young player. And it takes bravery to have courage in your convictions.
At this point, everyone at the Club has too much invested in the pursuit of 'potential'. It cannot be allowed to fail, mistakes must be a source of learning. If a player has been identified as a source of 'potential', everyone from the owners to the SWA owe that player a fair opportunity, because ultimately everyone from the owners to the SWA, not to mention the player themselves, benefit from potential being realised.