Great players rarely make great managers. I don’t have any statistics to back that up but I like to make broad and sweeping statements. Few could argue though that the all time great Tranmere employed was lesss Anfield rap and more Anfield crap. Future journalist Sam Robinson tells the story of the worst decision Tranmere Rovers ever made.
On May 2nd 2009, with two minutes of the League One season remaining, Ronnie Moore’s Tranmere Rovers were overcoming the odds to make the play-offs alongside MK Dons, Leeds United and Millwall.
That was until Martyn Woolford broke away down the left for Scunthorpe and drew a challenge from Tranmere’s Gareth Edds. No sooner had the wideman hit the turf, the referee, Steve Tanner, flashed a second yellow card and subsequent red at the Australian right-back.
From the resulting free-kick, Grant McCann’s cross found Cliff Byrne, who powered his header beyond Danny Coyne to cancel out Craig Curran’s 38th minute goal and send the Iron back into the final play-off spot – above Tranmere.
It would be Scunthorpe who tasted the ultimate success at Wembley, beating Millwall 3-2 to clinch promotion to the Championship. For Tranmere though, things went from bad to a hell of a lot worse.
Just over a month after the Scunthorpe game, it was announced that Moore had been sacked as manager, with a 19% fall in attendances over the last three years given as a contributing factor.
To try and rectify this problem, the chairman, Peter Johnson, decided that a big name was needed to raise attendances and the profile of the club. And who better to pull in the drifting punters than ex-England international John Barnes?
Well, as it turned out, just about anybody else would have done a more efficient job.
Barnes’ time in charge was, frankly, a disaster for the club from start to finish.
Given only 13 games before his sacking, the former Liverpool winger, flanked by Jason McAteer, set the side out to play a fluid passing game, looking to sweep aside all before them in an unlikely surge to the Championship.
The only problem was that Tranmere did not possess players with the ability to do so. This was a fairly average League One side that had overachieved the season before with a miniscule budget in comparison to most other sides in the league. What Barnes wanted, Barnes was never going to get.
The signs were there from the opening game, a 2-0 loss at Yeovil Town without a shot on target. Things picked up and eight goals in two home games – a 4-0 win against Grimsby Town in the League Cup and a 4-2 win in the league against Gillingham – suggested that the future may have been bright on the Wirral.
It proved to be nothing more than a false dawn.
At the start of a run of seven consecutive defeats in all competitions, Tranmere surrendered a 10 month unbeaten home record in the league, going down 1-0 at home to MK Dons before being fortunate to only be beaten 3-0 at Elland Road by Leeds United. Were it not for a brilliant individual performance by loanee goalkeeper Luke Daniels, Leeds genuinely might well have had double figures.
A 1-0 defeat at home to Bolton, then of the Premier League, in the League Cup was acceptable; a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Charlton at Prenton Park, on the other hand, was not.
The rot had well and truly started and showed no signs of abating as Carlisle plundered three goals and three points up at Brunton Park. During the game, fans argued with one another on the terraces. The club was in turmoil both on and off the field and Barnes had given no signs that he knew how to sort it out.
By this point, going to matches had well and truly become a chore, and yet the fans still turned up – roughly the same amount that coming along when Ronnie Moore was in charge.
A 3-2 defeat to Walsall was followed by a 2-1 reverse at Exeter, the seventh loss in a row. Barnes, typically, refused to take the blame, instead blaming individuals. This time, 17 year-old debutant goalkeeper Joe Collister was the culprit.
It was too much for some Tranmere fans, who considered the outburst against the young goalkeeper to be the final straw.
Four points from the next two games – a 1-1 draw at home with Colchester and a 1-0 win at Wycombe – suggested that things might be improving and Barnes had began to make his mark on the team but a 5-0 demolition job by Millwall at the Den left Rovers with the worst goal difference in the Football League: -17 after just 11 games.
Barnes’ last game in charge was to come at Bury in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. It was another embarrassing defeat as the League Two side came from behind to dump Tranmere out. Throughout the game, even at 1-0 up, fans were calling for the head of the manager.
Three days later, those fans had their wish. Both Barnes and McAteer had been relieved of their duties with immediate effect after just 117 days in charge.
It says a lot about those 117 days that defining image of that period is Barnes and McAteer struggling to put his bicycle into the latter’s car boot on Sky Sports News. The pair were on their bikes, never to return, with a record of: played 13, won 3, drew 1 and lost 9.
Those 13 games set the tone for the season; Tranmere narrowly avoided relegation by a point and their safety was only confirmed on the last day of the season.
The following two campaigns were also relegation scraps and only the return of Ronnie Moore in March last year stopped a dangerous slide towards League Two after one win from 21 games under Les Parry.
Perhaps if Moore hadn’t been sacked in the first place, Tranmere may have been able to push on in 2009/10. As it was, Barnes’ appointment was the catalyst for three years of struggle that the club has only just managed to stop.
When you look at how well the club has done so far this season, it almost makes 2009-2012 seem like a waste of time. That is why, from my own experience as a Tranmere fan, the appointment of John Barnes as manager is the worst decision that the club has made.
Be sure to follow Sam on twitter @SamRobinson9