THE BATTLE TO WIN A PLACE IN THE EFL GREEN FOR GO OR CAN ‘OLD HERO’ FIGHT ON?
THE RACE for the Football League reaches boiling point at Wembley this afternoon when Tranmere Rovers take on Forest Green Rovers in the National League promotion final.
It’s a battle of two contrasting clubs.
Tranmere play the part of the old hero who has fallen on hard times, Forest Green, the upstart who wants to take his crown.
Come 3pm, it’s winner takes all with a place in the EFL at stake.
Tranmere finished runners-up in this season’s National League with 95 points.
Only Lincoln City’s incredible season stopped them from an automatic return to League Two after a two-year absence.
They’ve got one game to shoot for glory after sweeping Aldershot Town aside in the play-off semi-finals.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing for them in NonLeague football.
In their first season, they finished outside the playoffs behind two part-time clubs, Braintree Town and Dover Athletic.
They got off to a great start this season under boss Gary Brabin, a proven Non-League operator, but soon started pedalling in squares. In early October, chairman Mark Palios, the former FA chief, made a change.
Micky Mellon, who won promotion from the National League – then known as the Conference – with Fleetwood Town, featuring a certain Jamie Vardy, left Shrewsbury Town to take up the challenge at the club where he’d played.
With the spine of his team boasting plenty of experience and promotion know-how, the Wirral side have finally hit the heights this season and their support will travel south with renewed vigour.
Striker James Norwood points to the close-knit spirit between the players, who have fostered a competitive spirit thanks to plenty of in-house, lighthearted, competitions.
“It’s down to the chairman for bringing it round,” Norwood says.
“He’s got a group of lads together who have a massive belief in where we should be and where people want to be.
“The main difference here is how much the play- ers want to improve. You walk into the gym after training and there are lads going through their programmes to get stronger and quicker.
“I’ve never had that before. People just wanted to shoot off.
“We all have a cup of tea, go the gym, meet up on days off. The whole atmosphere is great.
“Then, we’ve made sure we’ve got a bigger relationship with the fans this season. As a whole community, there is a great buzz.”
That’s come from engaging with the support away from the club, with school visits.
The players also dipped into their own pockets to contribute £200 to buy season tickets for those less fortunate.
“We’re hoping to inspire another generation of kids who want to support Tranmere,” Norwood says. “Although, if their parents are Tranmere fans already, they don’t have much choice. But it’s getting to the people who might not have been to a game before to come. With the atmosphere as it is, people want to come back.”
More than 12,000 Tranmere fans will dwarf the Forest Green support.
The club, who finished third in the table, herald from the small town of Nailsworth in Gloucestershire, population 5,794.
Often known as the ‘Little Club on the Hill,’ their promotion charges have been fuelled by heavy investment from green energy tycoon Dale Vince.
Not your stereotypical chairman – he wears ripped jeans and refuses to indulge in boardroom small talk – the multi-millionaire has poured in cash since 2010 in a bid to get the club into the Football League.
So far they’ve fallen short, being beaten by Bristol Rovers in the play-off semi-finals two years ago and Grimsby Town in the final at Wembley last year.
But, under boss Mark Cooper, they are a different proposition and in striker Christian Doidge they have one of Non-League’s most in-form strikers.
The ex-Dagenham & Redbridge man has 26 goals this season, 18 of which have come since Christmas, including a vital strike in the semi-final second leg against his former club. “It’s just confidence and I feel like when you’re scoring goals at a club they start looking for you more,” Doidge says.
“They know you’re putting the ball in the back of the net. So I feel like that’s more of why I’m getting more opportunities.
“When I was at Dagenham, I got hardly any opportunities to score.
“I’d come out of games thinking ‘I haven’t even had a touch inside their box’. It’s all about opportunities.
“We create a lot, too. Liam Noble has been great for me. He’s got something silly like 20 assists this season.
“But I’m on at him all the time about setting me up.
“I’m one of those annoying strikers, to be honest. If he doesn’t give it to me in a game, I’m down his neck! And he’s way too good for this level.
“People often talk about how players paint pictures in football.
“He’s like that. He’s two seconds ahead of you. He’s not strong or fast, he’s just good at football.”
Doidge also thinks Forest Green are a lot more resilient than people realise.
“We’ve had a lots of ups and downs,” he says.
“We were flying at one point, slipped up against Lincoln and it went a bit downhill. But we picked ourselves back up and got back in a good position.
“A lot of teams might think we’re a mentally weak team, but it’s not true at all. We’ve probably been through more than anyone else.”
Both sides topped the National League this season. Forest Green were minutes away from taking a 12-point lead in the Lincoln game Doidge refers to, only for a late turnaround cutting it to six in a thrilling November clash.
columnist Adam Virgo, who covers the National League for BT Sport, fancies Tranmere to win.
“Tranmere have probably felt more pressure to win games at home and Forest Green don’t want another season in the National League,” he said.
“If it was either of today’s finalists against Dagenham or Aldershot, you’d say they had all the pressure and expectation.
“But, for very different reasons, both teams need to win today. I’m going for Tranmere.”
MANAGER: Tranmere’s Micky Mellon INFLUENTIAL: Tranmere striker James Norwood, right, celebrates with his teammates
VENUE: The magnificent Wembley Stadium GOAL-DEN BOY: Forest Green’s Christian Doidge, centre, is mobbed by his team-mates