“Excited but contained” is how the Tranmere Rovers manager, Micky Mellon, feels about the possibility of back-to-back promotions. A year after making it back into the Football League, Rovers are at Wembley again on Saturday looking for a win against Newport County that would see them playing in League One next season.
“Surely every fan’s dream is to see their club playing at Wembley, and I’m just pleased we can keep making it happen,” Mellon says. “These are the days supporters never forget, and football clubs have a responsibility to their public to make sure they happen from time to time.”
Tranmere are certainly fulfilling their part of that bargain. This will be the club’s third visit to a Wembley play-off final in three seasons, Mellon’s arrival in October 2016 having proved key to rediscovering upward mobility. Tranmere lost the first and won the second, so they have experienced both emotions at the national stadium, experience that might confer an advantage as long as they stay focused and relaxed.
Connor Jennings, who in the National League play-off loss to Forest Green in 2017 scored Tranmere’s first goal at Wembley since the 2000 League Cup final, believes his side are learning to take the experience in their stride. “We’ve known good and bad at Wembley but the important thing is that we are getting used to playing there,” he says. “It would be a great achievement if we could get the club back into a division where it feels at home and I fully understand why the fans are getting excited, but we have to be professional about it and treat it as a normal game.”
Scott Davies, the goalkeeper, says winning at Wembley would be another step in the rehabilitation of a club that not too long ago were taking on and beating Premier League sides in the cups and sometimes even pushing for promotion into the top flight. “I signed here four years ago and though it wasn’t in a great place at that time you could tell there were some good people in charge, people who believed in the club and its community and wanted to bring the good times back.
“I can’t speak highly enough about what the manager has achieved in a short space of time, I had him at Fleetwood and he was good for me there, and he is bringing the best out of a good set of players. I think for the past few years the squad has been playing a little bit below its true level, but it is all coming together now and we are beginning to see the rewards.”
Mellon admits that when Rovers found themselves back in the league last year, after managing to beat Boreham Wood at Wembley despite having a man sent off in the opening minute, he could not immediately aim for promotion as so many of his players were experiencing league football for the first time. “We couldn’t really set any targets because we didn’t know how it would go,” he explains. “What I did know was that we had a good mentality within the squad, we wanted to be competitive, and by mid-season it seemed clear to everyone that with a few additions we might be able to challenge for the play-off places.”
That led to a semi-final victory over Forest Green, which in turn led to television cameras picking up an unusual amount of partisan emotion from the Premier League referee and lifelong Rovers fan Mike Dean, but Mellon reckons many more supporters were just as elated. “Mike might be one of our more recognisable fans, but in many ways he’s typical,” he says. “He doesn’t just go to the big games, I’ve seen him down here when the crowd’s been so small you could count it. A lot of people have a genuine, deep-seated affection for this club, and I love the fact that at the moment we are making them happy. That, to me, is what’s great about football, it has the power to do that.
“Liverpool will be trying to make their fans happy in Madrid next week, but at the moment on Merseyside the spotlight is on us. The first time we went to Wembley I think we underestimated the power of the place and the way it would affect us. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it feels like playing at home now, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but that won’t happen again. We just have to be ready for the emotion that comes with a play-off final, and after last year I hope we are. When you can survive a setback like that you are probably ready for anything.”