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Club News

An update from Chairman Mark Palios

19 March 2024

Club News

An update from Chairman Mark Palios

19 March 2024

As we approach our 140th season as a football club, I wanted to provide you with the latest update on a variety of issues and let you have my thoughts on matters both on and off the pitch.  I apologise in advance for the length of the update, but I know there are lots of different aspects which interest people.

I’ve done the last few of these quarterly briefings either by podcast interviews or on Facebook live, but I’m conscious that that doesn’t reach all fans so have decided to do this one in writing.  However, for those who prefer to ask questions in person, there will be an opportunity to do so at the AGM on the 27th of this month.  For those of you who aren’t attending the AGM, If you have any questions that you feel I haven’t addressed in here, then please send them into and I will try to answer as many of them as I can. 


On Pitch Matters

After the terrible start we had to the season, I was really pleased to see, notwithstanding the injuries to certain key players, how Nigel was able to get the undoubted potential of the squad producing some exciting football and impressive results to pull us clear of the relegation spots.  

In the January window, Nigel’s key priority was to retain Robbie Apter’s services for the remainder of the season, which I am delighted that we were able to achieve.  There was also an opportunity to bring in some new players but Nigel, after consulting with his recruitment team, felt that none who were available to us were going to make the squad clearly better. In addition, he was mindful of the risks of introducing new personalities into the group and potentially upsetting an excellent dressing room dynamic following the four wins in a row over the Christmas period, culminating in the win against Notts County on New Year’s Day.  

Part of that decision making process was the knowledge that Luke Norris, whom we missed so badly for the vast majority of the season so far, was likely to be returning to competitive fitness in February, as indeed has proved to be the case.

Therefore, the only additional signing we made was Ousmane Kane, a Senegalese international, who was brought in more as a development player than someone that Nigel saw in the immediate first team environment.

Since the turn of the year, we have shown our ability to beat some of the best teams in the division, including all three of the teams currently occupying the automatic promotion spots (Stockport, Mansfield and Wrexham), but have also suffered frustrating defeats to teams such as Forest Green, Swindon and Doncaster. We lost those games and dropped points against Gillingham through the finest of margins. Winning would have seen us in the Play-Off positions. We know we are more than capable of matching the best this division can throw at us when we are on form, but a handful of errors which have been clinically punished, and some moments of simple bad luck – a wonder free kick with virtually the last kick of the game against Morecambe, and worldy goals against the run of play at Barrow and Forest Green – have seen us drop points where we probably did not deserve or need to.  I have been as frustrated by that as I know that all of the footballing staff, the players and many of you, are.  

Some fans will doubtless feel that we should have brought some additional personnel in during the window, but there is nothing to say that we would be in a better position with any of those who were available, and I think our most recent results have shown the potential of the existing group and the benefits of them having a settled period of working together under such an experienced and well respected manager.    

As Chairman, I take responsibility for the appointment of Ian Dawes as manager.  I felt he had earned the opportunity to try to prove himself in that role, after having been with us for three years as assistant, earning a great reputation for his coaching ability and having had an excellent spell as interim manager in 2020, when he was undefeated in his five matches in charge, winning four of those games.  It is always something of a gamble to give the opportunity to an assistant manager to make his first step up to manager in the League and of course we now know that it unfortunately did not work out, but every young manager has to be given his first opportunity somewhere and there are benefits to continuity and knowledge of the Club and players.  In the knowledge that there was some risk in making that appointment, I sought to protect the Club by bringing in Nigel who would both be available to act as something of a mentor to Ian, but would also be in a position to step in if needed and so avoid going into the market for a manager, choosing from whomever happens to be around at the time. Nigel knows the Club as both a player and a fan, and I was pleased that he accepted the permanent position and has risen to the challenge.  

We’ve had a couple of seasons where we have not made a strong promotion push, which is very disappointing, but we have no divine right to success as 23 other clubs are trying to achieve the same thing in every campaign.  Every club will go through periods where they have more success than others; Stevenage and Bolton both had recent scares with potential relegation from League Two before getting promoted and both are now contending for promotion to the Championship, whereas Forest Green were in League One last year and now sit in the relegation zone in League Two.  Money, of course, plays a part, it’s no coincidence that the top three teams in our League have amongst the biggest budgets, but there is no certain correlation between budget size and success – if it was, then Chelsea and Newcastle would be playing in the Champions League next season, and Luton would never have made it to the EPL. But if football was entirely predictable, then it wouldn’t be the game that we all love.  

Whilst still trying to win every game, our focus between now and the end of the season will be geared towards building on the excellent work that Nigel has been doing. Since he took over the reins on a permanent basis, the team’s form, despite some hiccups, would see us in the automatic promotion spots. That is a cause for real optimism for the next campaign.

In Nigel we have an enormously talented and experienced manager who cares passionately about Tranmere and who has managed to build an excellent work ethic and team spirit and collective confidence in a short space of time. In addition, many at the Club believe that this squad is the best in terms of professionalism and attitude that we’ve had in years which is, in part, down to the focus on finding what we’ve defined as a “Tranmere Player” as a major part of the due diligence we now do before signing players. I trust that Nigel and his backroom team will get the best out of this squad and get results and exciting play we all want to see.  But if reaching the Play-Offs this season proves to be too much of a stretch, then I am entirely confident that Nigel’s approach, and the staff he has working with him, will bring us the long-term success that we all want once he has had time to build on the core of this season’s squad and a full pre-season to mould them into his team.


Finances and Recapitalisation

Part of creating long term success – but by no means all of it - is having the budget to finance a strong playing squad.  Our playing budget is about average for League Two, but there are some teams we are all aware of who can simply out-pay almost everyone else.  

When I came back to the Club I defined a self-sustainable club as one that can break even whilst having a top third budget in whatever League they play in. Over the years we have worked to have a top third budget, even if it meant we made losses that we could manage from a cash perspective.  The reality this season is that we can only afford to be middle of the pack.  Nicola and I are not wealthy enough to compete with the top three or four budgets in this division, but nor can the vast majority of teams in League Two.  We therefore have tried to ensure we are on a level playing field with the majority, and, importantly, that we have the financial resilience to ride out the run of bad luck that every football team suffers from time to time. We have an average budget, but a much better than average manager. It is generally acknowledged that we also have excellent football support processes that should ensure that we are competitive. In any event, I have taken steps to ensure that the playing budget for next season remains competitive.

My main task on coming to Tranmere was to stabilise the Club, which was in free fall, and to pass it on to the next custodian in a stronger position than when I took over. We initially viewed the task as something which would take around five years. Putting the Club on a sound financial footing was never going to be an easy task, but it was made much harder by the initial relegation to the National League and consequent loss of EFL funding and academy player registration rights, followed by the pitch drainage collapse, Covid, demotion to L2; the impacts of war in Ukraine and the hyper-inflationary environment that followed it. The Club survived all of these shocks through a combination of funding by Nicola and I (around £6 million in total). In addition, part of the turnaround process was to make the Club attractive to external investors and we achieved a further £3.9m from our Indonesian investors. This was no small feat for a L2 club and considering the specific circumstances at the time. These investments and through steadily building the commercial revenues we were able to sustain a competitive playing budget whilst rebuilding the balance sheet which in turn provides resilience against the types of knocks referred to above, without having to rely on continual injections of cash from a benefactor. 

We have now got the club to a position where it is broadly financially stable in League Two, and can roughly break even on a cash basis with an average playing budget. As referred to above, the Club has a much stronger balance sheet than we inherited, with net assets in excess of £18 million and a much reduced level of external debt. Our net asset position is, I believe, uniquely strong in League Two, and we have worked hard to get us to this position. Whilst having assets on the balance sheet (like the stadium and the training ground) does not necessarily translate into short term cash, it is vital for the long term stability of the Club, which is far more important than the performance in any single season.

Furthermore, we have identified and scoped capital projects in the pipeline which give a clear pathway to financial stability even as high as the Championship. The two key projects are the development of the Campus, to accommodate strong growth in the International business, and the development of a new stadium capable of generating year-round income. Both of those projects, however, would require external funding to make them a reality as they are well beyond the financial means of Nicola and me, so we have been looking for suitable investors who can take the club forward and provide the additional capital needed to make that step change. That is most likely to be by way of a sale of our shares in the Club.

We are in active dialogue with a number of interested parties but it remains to be seen whether we will get a deal over the line. It’s not simply a case of agreeing financials – it’s also a case of ensuring that we find the right owner who can help the Club to thrive in the future. Whilst those discussions go on, it remains business-as-usual and Nicola and I continue to try to keep moving the Club forwards.  We both remain committed to, and focused on, doing that until there is someone better placed to take over the baton.

If and when there is something more concrete to share with regard to the ownership of the Club, we will of course let you know, although there are strict EFL rules in place which prevent clubs from sharing information unless and until a potential purchaser has been approved by them under the Owners and Directors Test.  We are not yet at a position where any application has been made.


Season Cards

I am delighted to be able to report that Season Card sales are currently running ahead of the same point last year, and I thank every one of you who has kept the faith and renewed, or become a Season Card holder for the first time.

On the day we released Season Cards for the new season there was a great deal of negative sentiment online, which I have to confess caught both the Club and the supporters’ groups somewhat by surprise given that, despite another year of high inflation, we had frozen our Season Card prices for the coming season. One of the key reasons seems to be that on the day we launched the new prices, it, unfortunately, coincided with the circulation of a highly misleading survey on season ticket prices in League Two, which showed our season ticket prices as the most expensive in League Two for the 2023/4 season at £440.  The survey was misleading because in some cases the prices quoted for clubs were the early bird prices, and in some cases (including ours) the price quoted was the price after the early bird discount ends.  Had they quoted the early bird price – which is the price at which over 90% of fans buy their Season Cards - then our Season Cards would have shown up as more than £40 cheaper. 

Furthermore, the survey only looked at standard adult Season Card prices, and most of our concessionary prices are both more widespread (for example, our reduced cost bracket for young adults) and cheaper than most other clubs in League Two, and in some cases the survey was comparing the price of a Season Card in an uncovered standing area with our covered seating.

Finally, the survey did not take into account the fact that more than half of our supporters buy their season tickets through what I believe is still our unique 12 month interest free payment plan option.  At many other clubs, spreading payments over the course of a year costs an admin fee in the region of £50, plus interest (in some cases at more than 20%), all of which adds around £70 – £100+ to the cost of buying a Season Card. The real cost to a fan of purchasing is then very different to the picture presented in the survey.

Nevertheless, I acknowledge that buying a Season Card is not cheap. I do not want our Season Cards to be expensive as I fully appreciate buying is a big financial commitment for many, but it is a complex equation to finance a competitive playing budget, balance the books, and take into account all of the factors like concessions and instalment options. This is why setting Season Card prices is always something we do in consultation with the supporters’ groups.  

On balance, when setting the prices for the current season, we felt that protecting our most vulnerable fans (those who cannot afford to pay up front, and those entitled to concessionary pricing) was probably more important the headline figure for a standard adult Season Card after the end of the early bird period.  

We will never take our fans for granted, and I am hugely grateful to those who have already opted in for next season.


Matchday Experience

Making matchdays an enjoyable experience is always a priority, but not always as simple as we would like given an old stadium infrastructure.  Below I outline some of the improvements made recently.

I have been pleased with the huge step up in the quality of matchday catering in the hospitality lounges this year. We have received some excellent feedback on the quality of the food from season ticket holders in the lounges.  This has been an area in the past where we have struggled to achieve consistency due to a high staff turnover and limited kitchen space, but we now have an experienced and relatively settled catering team who have really helped us to reach the standards that we all want. I’m really pleased to see their efforts paying off, and thank all those involved for their hard work.

We reintroduced some pre-match activities for young fans that had ceased during Covid, such as the popular target practice inflatable, and focused hard on making sure that families feel welcome at Prenton Park, so I was delighted that we received excellent feedback from the EFL on the quality of how we look after families coming to our home games, being ranked first amongst all League Two clubs for family excellence at the mid point in the year.  We are working hard to try to make sure we retain that position for the whole season.  

We have now started to distribute an electronic matchday programme free of charge to all match attendees and season ticket holders.  The readership statistics suggest that this is proving very popular, but we also continue to have a print version available for those who prefer the more traditional format. Pleasingly, there has been no drop off in sales of the hard copy programme, despite thousands of downloads of the free electronic version for each match, and in fact sales of the hard copy have increased slightly.  It seems that the electronic version is prompting some people to buy the hard copy who would not previously have done so, but it is also helping us to stay connected with our fans who can’t get to the match in person.

For next season, fans will have access to a brand new Club app, website and streaming platform, all of which should make it a lot easier for supporters to access all of the content they want without needing multiple logins to different websites and applications.  This project is under way at the moment and will be tested in the close season, in time for a launch hopefully for the pre-season friendlies.  iFollow, which is the EFL’s streaming service, will cease at the end of the season and we hope that what we have lined up to replace it will be a much better experience for fans.

Finally, one of our aims at Tranmere is to make games more accessible, and I am therefore delighted that we now offer audio descriptive commentary for the visually impaired – the first EFL club to introduce this facility. 

There are still lots of areas I would like to improve further if I had the funds available – we have already replaced many thousands of the old ungalvanized metal seats in the stadium, but we still have lots of them left, and it is a task like painting the Forth Bridge to keep on top of essential repairs, especially given that many of the spare parts are no longer available to purchase.


New Fan Zone

The project to build and operate the new fan zone was a Supporters’ Trust project, with the Club simply acting as landlord of the land on which it is being built.  As such, we had, and still have, only limited visibility on the financial situation of the project as it was never intended that we would be involved in the construction project or the operation of the new fan zone (or indeed the funding of the building).  

Despite this, it became clear in the autumn that the project was running into some issues due to delays and rising costs, since when the Club has stepped in and is currently working with the Trust to try to ensure that the fan zone is completed and opened as soon as possible, and to ensure that the Trust will have the income it needs to repay all of the investors in the project. It is frustrating how long the process is taking but we are moving it ahead as quickly as we can.

In the meantime, any questions should continue to be directed to the Trust Board.


Off the Pitch

As ever, there is plenty of work going on off the pitch, to contribute to building regular income streams for the Club.

The International business has been growing strongly, and in 2024 we expect to welcome around 4,000 international visitors to the Campus for training sessions and tours (and where timing allows, a match at Prenton Park). Many of these visitors are touring teams from North America, Australia and Indonesia. At present, we do not provide the accommodation for these visitors but it is a very real growth opportunity for the Club if we can further develop the site at the Campus. This is one of the capital projects that I referred to above.

The esports business has recently seen some external investment. We will shortly be launching a competition to find our first ever professional EAFC player, which will be a phenomenal opportunity for the winner and which we expect to significantly raise our profile in this area.

Our Education department continues to expand and we now cover the whole range from BTEC, Higher Education courses and alternative provision (for pupils excluded from school or who have additional needs). From next September, the range of courses being offered is expanding slightly, to offer more options to those who don’t want to focus on sports coaching qualifications, to cover areas such as business and esports. Whilst our priority will always be delivering a good quality education, it has been good to see some young players on the football courses making the transition from the Education Hub into the first team environment. One of our unique features as a Club is having an Education facility which co-exists alongside the first team environment, which facilitates a smooth transfer for those good enough to make the professional grade.

You may have seen the Wirral Festival being advertised, which is to be held on 11th May at Prenton Park.  This Festival is not being run by the Club, but by Monopoly Events, who have done a number of similar events at football grounds, and who also run the very successful Comic-Con events in Liverpool. The Club is simply the venue for the event and whilst we are not taking any financial risk, we do stand to benefit if the event is a commercial success. It looks like being an excellent day, so I hope we will see many of you there and we can see it becoming an annual event. The VIP tickets have already sold out, and the standard tickets seem to be selling strongly, which augers well for a successful event.

Finally, our important community work continues through our hubs at Prenton Park, Beechwood and the Campus. We have such a wide range of services that I cannot list them all here, but for anyone who wants to read our latest impact report – and I would encourage you to do so - a copy can be found here. Community has always been a massively important part of what we do, and we are determined to make sure that that never changes.  


EFL/EPL Negotiations

I have touched in this update a number of times on financial matters, because these are difficult times for all EFL Clubs not lucky enough to have an enormously wealthy benefactor. You will doubtless have seen lots of comment in the press regarding the failure of the EPL to put forward to the EFL a revised financial offer to address the growing gaps in the football pyramid, and the financial peril that many EFL clubs have experienced as a consequence.  

It may surprise you to know that I was happy that the EPL did not offer a package to the EFL, because the arrangements being discussed would have offered some additional cash to EFL Clubs, but would actually have made the long term position worse than at present.  The parachute payments, which cause much of the wage inflation and dangerous over-spending in the EFL in order to be able to compete with the relegated EPL teams, would have remained, and over time the gaps in the pyramid would have got wider rather than narrower.  Furthermore, there was no attempt to address the issues faced by National League teams, which is something that also needs to be sorted. Whilst having a deal agreed would have given us some additional cash this year and next, in my view a bad deal is worse than no deal, and I do not want the EFL to do what it always does, which is to sacrifice its long term position in return for short term cash.  

For that reason, I have spent a fair bit of time over the last few months talking to the DCMS and to other key stakeholders, to explain why, in my view, we would be better taking our chances with the new football regulator. Football has shown time and time again that it is not capable of regulating itself, given the huge conflicts of interest both between the Leagues and within them. The latest fiasco is just the most recent example.

I guess one of the key messages I am trying to get across in a lot of this communication is that I am focused on the long game, and the 140th anniversary of the Club’s formation is an ideal time to reflect on the long view.  It is very easy to get caught up in the rollercoaster of the here and now (and what a rollercoaster it has been over the last ten seasons!), but my overriding concern is to ensure that Tranmere, and the EFL, are thriving in 50 years from now.

Over the last 140 years we have had some epic highs (the promotions, the Wembley trips, the Championship days), and some massively challenging times (relegations, the pandemic demotion, the dark days of the 1980s with crowds of 1,500 and a game marred by football hooliganism, going into administration). I’m proud of how the Club has weathered it all and I believe that we can look forward with a sense of optimism to celebrating our 140th anniversary season and all the twists and turns to come in the Club’s future.  

Ubi Fides Ibi Lux et Robur

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