Tranmere Rovers’ crowd of 10,261, as they saw off the challenge of Aldershot in their Vanarama National League play-off semi-final, would not have looked out of place in the Championship. It is now 13 years since they played at that level, and back-to-back relegations in 2014 and 2015 condemned the Wirral club to non-league football for the first time since 1921. Now, they are just one game away from returning, after two seasons outside the Football League.
For Rovers forward, James Norwood, who joined the club in 2015, it is where the club and its fans belong, as he exclusively told The Boot Room, “the fans deserve it after all they’ve put up, with the relegations and being at this level”. The support for the club is one of the biggest in the division, and the 26-year-old was quick to express just how significant the support has been in their promotion charge this season:
“I think we’ve got by far the best fan support and size that I’ve seen in the Conference in the six years that I’ve been playing. It’s been a different level this year, they’ve been so supportive and loud and really got behind us. They’ve really been the twelfth man, they’ve turned a couple of games on their head where we’ve been heading for a draw or a loss and we’ve got a result.”
Finishing just four points behind the incredible Lincoln City, Rovers were forced to settle for second place and a play-off campaign, despite recording a remarkable 95 points. With the goals of ex-Grimsby and Barrow striker Andy Cook and Norwood up-front, they put five goals past the league’s best defence when they faced Aldershot in their semi-final, a side that Norwood described as the “best we have played this season”, but insisted “with the form we took in [to the play-offs], we weren’t scared of anyone, we could beat anyone”.
Understandably, there will be frustration that the side could not have achieved promotion with a league title. With only one side automatically promoted from the top division of non-league football, the pressure is on, but Rovers only narrowly lost out on beating the Cowley brothers’ Lincoln City to a top place, and the club felt that they were contenders, as Norwood said:
“I thought after the first five games, this is it, but we had a blip and lost a manager. Since Micky [Mellon] has come in, I think if we had continued that form through the season I think we would have been champions.”
However, the 26-year-old felt that it was the arrival of manager Micky Mellon which turned the season around. It was a shock for many when the Scot left League One Shrewsbury Town to re-join the club where he made 115 appearances as a player, and he’s had a huge influence, as Norwood described his impact:
“He demands quality. He’s very astute as a manager in terms of looking at teams and how to beat them. We’ve changed our formation to suit the teams that we’re playing to give us the advantage. I think we’ve played three, four or five formations. He’s a winner and demands nothing else than three points, and if we don’t get them he’s not best pleased.”
Norwood praised Mellon, not just for improving the team’s form, but also his own level of performance. After a mid-season drought, it was the actions of his manager which helped the winger to turn things around and find himself back amongst the goals, as he explained:
“I was going through a sticky patch in December, and he got behind me and he showed me my goals from Forest Green and Tranmere last year and asked what I noticed. He said ‘look at your movement’ and it just clicked for me. He just reiterated what I’m good at.”
Now facing up against the league’s top scorers in Forest Green Rovers at Wembley on Sunday, it will be a special occasion for Norwood, in particular, having scored 50 goals in 170 games for the side from the south-west.
His last game for the Gloucester side was at Wembley, as the Green Army fell to defeat against another club steeped in Football League history, in the form of Bristol Rovers. Norwood was released the day following defeat, but he insists that there will be no ill feeling when the two sides meet in London:
“I try not to think of it as a revenge match or anything like that, I just think of it as any other game. It could have been anyone that was standing in the way of us and promotion.”
The club, where he held the record of record goalscorer when he departed in 2015, clearly means a lot to him, as he revealed ahead of his first return as an opposition player, when he told the Daily Echo:
“I loved my time at FGR, it’s the club that gave me a chance to give myself a career in the game, and the backing of the chairman, fans and players made it a very special club to play for, it is a club I will hold in my heart for a long time and I owe it a lot.”
This weekend, though, Norwood will instead have his eyes set on getting Tranmere back to where they belong. He beliefs that it is where a club the size of the Merseyside outfit belongs to be, explaining:
“I think it was a clever ploy by the chairman to meet me in the centre circle of the stadium as it just made me realise the magnitude of what the club really is. There were 9,000 there at my second game against Chester, and it just hit me, I thought ‘Wow, this is a real club’.”
The winger does have experience in the Football League, having made his breakthrough into senior football at boyhood club Exeter City, where he made four first team appearances, before being released. Norwood clearly learned from that experience though:
“I played in the league a few times, but I think it’s a completely different animal… You see big teams come into this league and they’re stuck for a few years. I don’t think the gap in the quality is that much, I think we’re at a level now where we could compete in League Two week in, week out.”
Now in some of the best form of his life, with five goals and an assist in his last four games, he will be hoping to take his current level of performance to his former club and push them to the edge at Wembley, with the ultimate prize at stake.
Norwood and the squad are excited for their opportunity to return to the fourth tier, a game which he described as “a massive occasion” and insisted, “we want to put on a show for the fans”. Tranmere go into the tie as favourites, but they have failed to beat their opponents in the league this season, something which the winger insisted will have no influence come Sunday afternoon:
“We take no notice of that. The play-offs are a cup, anything can happen. It’s a completely different situation in terms of pressure, occasion, stadium. There’s so many factors that have changed, players, formation, things like that. It’s so open that I think that both sides will have to be at it.”
With a squad that Norwood has described as the “best in the league”, the striker will be hoping that he will be celebrating on the Wembley turf come Sunday evening, with over 12,000 fans set to join him if that is the case.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Paul Loughlin.