Towards A New Tranmere Youth Policy:
Why Micky Mellon should always play Eddie Clarke ahead of Jay McEveley
'Dixie' Dean, Ellis Rimmer, 'Pongo' Waring, 'Bunny' Bell, Roy McFarland, Steve Coppell, Shaun Garnett, Tony Thomas, Ged Brannan, John McGreal, Ian Moore, Alan Rogers, Steve Simonsen, Clint Hill, Jason Koumas, Ryan Taylor, Ian Hume, Aaron Cresswell, Dale Jennings, Max Power.
To Rovers fans, all those names are legendary, or should be. Some of them played their best football at Prenton Park, others went on to far higher levels. But as products of our youth system, all of them are a core part of the Rovers story, of the 'deadly submarine' passing under the radars of the Mersey's 'big liners', and rising as high as it can.
Take the youth system away from this club, and it ceases to exist. Some of those players were integral to charges up the leagues, and big cup runs. But to put it crudely, all of them brought in the money desperately needed to maintain a third professional club on Merseyside. When former youth development boss Warwick Rimmer celebrated his testimonial last year, his protégés were estimated to have brought £14m into the club — a staggering amount for a club currently in the fifth tier.
Perhaps almost as important, a good youth system provides a club with a sense of identity. In the King/Aldridge/Rimmer years, it ran through Rovers like the proverbial stick of rock. It rooted Tranmere in the locality. I grew up feeling weirdly proud that Shaun Garnett was from Wallasey, and there he was playing alongside internationals. It gave me a ready reply when the 'glory hunters' at school teased me for supporting my — our — most local professional team.
That golden age of Warwick Rimmer's production line is a long time gone now. A lot has changed since then. But some important things haven't.
Firstly, Tranmere Rovers still play their home games in Birkenhead, Merseyside. The fact that Liverpool and Everton remain well-established top flight teams means that a sizeable proportion of Wirral football fans still support the Reds and the Blues, rather than the Super Whites. That's their loss in a way, but it is also ours. It is a limiting factor in our growth. Quite simply, the more fans a club has, the more money can be raised for improving the team. As the side with the highest average attendances in the National League, we can set one of the biggest playing budgets. But still, it is very rare for us to pay a fee — with the budget instead largely taken up by wages. Players at their peak or past it, coming down from higher leagues — like a Gary Taylor-Fletcher say — will probably command a relatively large wage, taking up more of the budget than a younger player of the same ability. And the ageing process being what it is, they are likely to physically deteriorate month on month, year on year.
But what if we look at the location problem a different way? Despite the fall from grace over recent years, we are, crucially, still the third club on Merseyside and beyond. So of course, Liverpool and Everton, with their vast scouting networks, hoover up the best local talent in Merseyside, North Wales, and far beyond. Those players are at those clubs, with their superior facilities, from primary school ages, likely far faster than Tranmere could improve them. However, in an overwhelming majority of cases, Liverpool and Everton realise that those players will never make it in the Premiership, and release them.
Tranmere should always be next in line, at least ready to have a look at a player. It could happen when the player is in his early twenties — like Jack Dunn. If so, brilliant. If he gets over his injury troubles, Dunn can really improve over the next five years. If he improves faster than the team overall, he will probably want to leave, and hopefully we can make a decent profit off him. If not, he should be a good player for us over a long period. But Liverpool and Everton could conceivably release a player at ten. Tranmere should be first in the queue to look at those players too. If we think he could one day be a better player than we currently have, we sign him up for our academy, and improve him as much as we can.
Of course, this doesn't have to happen all the time. It's brilliant if we find someone first. But their recruitment network will be better than ours, and their pull is so much stronger, so piggybacking on them is certainly worth prioritising. Of course I dream of a day when we compete with those clubs on and off the field, but until then, we can use them to improve ourselves.
What has changed since the 'good old days', in terms of youth development? In 1995, the Bosman ruling was flagged up as a major threat to the future of the club, as it was feared that the promising young players would now leave the club for nothing when their contracts expired. In practice, this hasn't often happened, due to a combination of good contract management and the use of tribunals, with a notable exception being Cole Stockton's departure to Hearts for nothing last summer. Furthermore, it can also work the other way. Tranmere took James Alabi from Chester in July, with the fee to be set by tribunal, because Chester offered him a contract, but he turned it down. Though Alabi has far from set Prenton Park alight so far, he could still be a player with decent potential, who might be sold for a reasonable fee in the future.
Perhaps the most obvious alteration from those times has been the Club's position in the football pyramid. King and Aldridge both left the Club in the Championship, and that was three relegations ago. Even when King began his second spell at the Club, and the Warwick Rimmer revolution began, the great helmsman was charged with keeping us in the fourth tier. So Rovers' pulling power has undoubtedly faded, alongside our league position. However, as I mentioned previously, we have retained our 'third club on Merseyside' status. This is crucial. If you have grown up on Merseyside, and Liverpool and Everton have seen enough, where are you going to? Well not Chester or Southport, that's for sure. Possibly Wrexham, but current league position aside, we are still a much more attractive prospect than our North Wales neighbours. Why? That's where the Palioses come in.
Tranmere Rovers are currently owned by the Palioses — Mark and Nicola. We haven't exactly seen a 'youthquake' since they took over, but we are only three years in, and youth development is clearly a priority for the pair. How do we know? Well, when we lost at Wembley last year, that meant the FA funding for our academy ended, leaving the club £400,000 per year out of pocket. But one of the first things that Mark Palios did after that defeat was guarantee that money would be found to keep the scheme ticking over.
Why? Well, we know that Mark Palios is very familiar with the workings of a spreadsheet. Aside from his time as a football administrator, he used the accountancy skills learned while a Tranmere player to 'turn around' failing businesses — i.e. make them sustainable and eventually profitable. And Tranmere Rovers have been a failing business for so long that it's not even funny.
In my view, Rovers' decline began at the exact moment that Peter Johnson lost interest during the mid-1990s, and cast his eye over the water, to Everton. The funding dried up, and everything became about short-term survival — an attempt to maintain third tier football on a poor budget, then the same in the fourth tier. The club was on sale for a decade, including — briefly — on eBay! Finding the Super White stars of the future became an extremely low priority.
But if you study the Johnson years up to that point — and no doubt the Palioses have — it becomes clear that promotion to the top league was almost won on the cheap, and this was all down to the successful youth policy. Sure, players were often sold on, bringing in money, but there would be another youngster behind them, waiting to step in. Look at the goalkeepers from that time, for example. Johnny King brought in Eric Nixon from Manchester City in his mid-twenties, for a £60,000 fee, which was an enormous amount of money for us at the time. Then Danny Coyne came through the youth scheme, and made his debut at nineteen. For the next couple of years, he deputised whenever Nixon was injured or suspended, developing his skills as he did so. By the start of 1995-96, he was John King's first choice, and went on to play 46 matches that season. But he was soon succeeded by Steve Simonsen, who'd been released by Nottingham Forest, and had signed for Rovers as a trainee. Simonsen played so well for Rovers' first team that he was snapped up by Everton (also then owned by Johnson!) for a reported £3.3 million — which would have been a record fee for a goalkeeper at the time. However, that wasn't a particular problem, because up stepped youth product Joe Murphy, who shared the keeper's jersey with the more experienced John Achterberg, before moving for a tribunal fee to West Brom.
What's the lesson here? Well, Tranmere paid £60,000 in transfer fees for goalkeepers over a period of fifteen years, and took seven figure amounts, as the quality between the sticks arguably increased. And this was a pattern replicated all over the field. Sure, they signed a few former top level superstars in their declining years too — John Aldridge, Pat Nevin, Gary Stevens, Shaun Teale. But these added hundreds on the gate, played some great football, and helped inspire the youngsters behind them. The same emphatically cannot be said for the fleeting, non-committal spells of some of the 'journeymen' recruited in more recent years.
So we have owners dedicated to youth development, and in sharp contrast to the Johnson years, those young players have access to top class facilities at Solar Campus, which is equipped with the best in everything, including sports science. Youngsters are taken on from under-8s, giving the Club much longer to mould them into the next Jason Koumas. If this continues for long enough, Rovers' future looks dazzlingly bright. Early signs, such as the under 16s winning the EFL Youth Alliance Cup last season, are enormously encouraging.
But for this process to come to full fruition, there has to be a way for talented eighteen-year-olds to make their way into the first team, because it's all very well sending them out on loan to lower clubs, but when they're ready, they need to be playing at the highest standard possible.
And this is where we have had a problem over recent years, as we tumbled down the leagues, and then tried to get promoted ASAP. Due to the circumstances described, it is easy to see why short-term thinking has dominated.
As @matthewronaldev illustrated in his recent long read article, 'Shopping For Potential', this has left Rovers in a situation where we no longer develop potential. As the article stated:
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.
— @matthewronaldev, Deadly Submarine, 22nd Oct 2017
The article goes on to claim — convincingly, in my view — that this isn't a case of the young players at the Club not being good enough. Neither is it bad luck, as the mistakes have been repeated far too many times for that. No, it can only be short-term thinking.
For the sake of the Club, this can't continue much longer. We're losing our identity, and we're losing far too many talented players. Admittedly, I hope we are now seeing the green shoots of recovery, with Micky Mellon handing out first team opportunities to the likes of Mitch Duggan, Evan Gumbs and Eddie Clarke.
The case of Clarke is particularly instructive. When Liam Ridehalgh picked up an injury in the game against Gateshead, Adam Buxton switched to left back for the rest of the match. For the next match, versus Macclesfield, Mellon could easily have switched Buxton again, or played Jay McEveley at left back — a position he has a lot of experience in. But he chose Clarke, who has so far seized his chance — defending well, and playing a big part in three Tranmere goals in the two games since. Clarke's expression when he celebrated with the Kop after James Norwood turned his cross in against Maidstone said it all for me. Pure delight, passion and excitement was written all over his face. It was like he was a fan himself, on the pitch. To see that does so much to reinforce the link between the supporters and the team.
In my view, this is exactly how Tranmere Rovers has to operate. Maybe Ridehalgh will displace Clarke when he's fit, and that's fine, Liam has an excellent record over the last couple of years. But Clarke should be first reserve, until he outstrips Ridehalgh, and is worthy of a regular first choice berth.
After the Maidstone victory, Micky Mellon declared that:
It's great to see so many young players coming through the youth here. We give them an opportunity. We don't try and get loan players if we've got a young'n there that we believe can go in and do what young Ev[an Gumbs] did and young Eddie [Clarke] did today.
— Micky Mellon, Post-Maidstone Press Conference, 26th Nov 2017
In a talk at Liverpool John Moores university earlier this year, Mark Palios stated that his recipe for stability at a football club below the Premiership is to always give the manager a top six playing budget, and that budget, combined with better than average coaching and management, should generally deliver a top six finish.
This all sounds reasonable. So then Tranmere's first choice players should all be in the top six for their position in the league, and they probably are, in ability if not in performance so far this season. But for the future of the Club, the backup players should all be young — certainly under 25 — and also good enough to play well in this division. If they're not yet, fine. Loan them out to a team in a lower league, so that they can get vital match experience against fully-grown men, and improve that way. In the meantime, bring in a young player who can't quite make it in a higher league — a Dylan Mottley-Henry for example. Put your second choice youngsters on the bench, so that they can get first team experience when an older player gets tired, or a tactical change is needed. But don't, whatever you do, bring in old players for the sake of it. You might 'get lucky', but in general, players under 25 are only going to improve (in performance and value), while players over thirty will deteriorate.
Because of the decidedly mediocre first half of the season, we have to be realistic: it's unlikely Tranmere are getting promoted in May 2018. Bookies currently estimate our chances at 9/2. It's far from impossible, and we should still go for it. But we'll have a much better chance this year and if needs be next year, using the remainder of the fixture list to give young players some much needed experience — whether they are products of our youth system or someone else's. And this season or next, we should always, always, always pick Eddie Clarke over Jay McEveley!