TRANMERE, Birkenhead — It was 11.20 p.m. on Thursday evening. League One side Tranmere Rovers had just beaten Premier League Watford 2-1 in the FA Cup and there were six men with pitchforks on the playing surface at Prenton Park. The mist was floating in off the River Mersey and the clock was ticking. In less than 72 hours, Tranmere will host Manchester United (live on ESPN+ on Sunday, 10 a.m. ET) in the next round on the same stretch of turf — although the vast swathes of mud and sand had obliterated most of the grass.
“Listen: everyone complains about it, but we’ve got to play on it as well,” said Tranmere manager Micky Mellon after his side came through their third round replay to secure a fourth round clash against Manchester United. “We have tried everything. A lot of hard work has gone into it and that’s what a lot of people forget.”
Tranmere are painfully aware of the state of their pitch. As the final seconds of extra-time passed against Watford, the stadium announcer pleaded with fans to “stay off the pitch at the end of the game or you risk damaging it for Sunday.” Those who ignored the appeal were forced to sheepishly walk home with footwear ruined by their sprint through what looked something like a mixture of quicksand and wet cement. But sometimes football can make common sense fly out of the window.
Two years ago this week, Tranmere hosted Maidenhead United in the National League — English football’s fifth tier — but now, they’re preparing to tackle Manchester United in a tie that embodies the romance of the FA Cup. If that isn’t worth a run onto the pitch, what is?
The two clubs have met just once previously, with United beating Tranmere 5-0 in a League Cup tie at Old Trafford in September 1976, so there is genuine excitement about the prospect of one of the biggest clubs in the world visiting Prenton Park for the first time. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his United players are unlikely to be as excited as those Tranmere supporters who lined up for tickets for the game until midnight on Thursday, however. Struggling for form in the Premier League, United have everything to lose and nothing, with the exception of a place in round five, to gain from their trip to Birkenhead. The pitch is bare, bumpy and unpredictable as a result of the damaging effects of Storm Brendan earlier this month and the visitors’ dressing room will be a tight squeeze with a queue for the postmatch showers.
Mellon has managed against United before in this competition, though, when his Shrewsbury Town team lost a fifth-round tie at the New Meadow in February 2016, and he expects Solskjaer’s players to take Prenton Park in their stride.
“They are a fantastic football club and will come here and be very professional,” Mellon said. “When I was at Shrewsbury, they came like robots, did the job and got out of town. I know that is the threat they possess.
“They are an unbelievable football club and we are a League One side, at the bottom end of League One, but we are going to give it everything we’ve got. My players will run their socks off again, so who knows? But what we do know is that we will be up against a formidable outfit. To pull Manchester United out of the bag and have them at Tranmere is massive.”
As well as boosting Tranmere’s bank account to the tune of around £500,000 due to ticket sales and broadcasting revenue, United’s visit will also have the unique effect of unifying the city of Liverpool. Although Birkenhead is on the Wirral Peninsula, on the opposite side of the River Mersey to Liverpool, it takes just 20 minutes (and a £1.80 toll fee through the Queensway Tunnel) to drive the six miles from Prenton Park to Anfield or Goodison Park.
Liverpool is a city with two football clubs and two cathedrals, but regardless of faith or allegiance, everybody across the river has a soft spot for Tranmere and Rovers have thrived in the past by offering a second chance to many young players who have failed to make the grade at Liverpool or Everton. Paul Mullin, whose extra-time goal sealed the 2-1 win against Watford, was released by Liverpool in 2011 to since become the latest in a long line of Scousers to turn out for Tranmere.
“I was at Liverpool until I was 16 but if you can’t make it there, you still want to be a footballer,” he said. “So to be playing here, 20 minutes from home, is a fantastic feeling, with your family there to support you every week.
“When you’re a kid, it’s your dream to be a professional footballer and you think your whole world has fallen apart if you are let go. But now I’ve been given a career as a footballer — only myself, Raheem Sterling [Manchester City] and Jak McCourt [Macclesfield Town] from our group at Liverpool are still playing professionally — and to get the chance to play against Manchester United, one of the biggest teams in the world, is a great feeling.”
For Tranmere, though, there is now a frantic dash to ensure that everything goes to plan on Sunday, both on and off the pitch. Over 15,000 tickets were printed for the United game even before the Watford replay in an effort to give the club the best possible chance of selling them before Sunday. Had Tranmere lost against Watford, they would have been pulped, along with the match programmes already made up for the United clash.
Catering for up to 500 corporate guests must be also arranged in the space of 48 hours, on a weekend when Tranmere had been expecting to play a League One game away to Blackpool rather than welcoming Manchester United. As for the pitch, it will be a case of touching it up, rolling it out and hoping that the rain that forecast for Sunday holds off until after the game.
And Mellon’s players will also need plenty of care, especially those who hobbled around with cramp in the closing stages against Watford.
“New Brighton beach is beautiful, it’s lovely,” Mellon said. “We might take the lads on a wander down there. But we will get them prepared. We don’t look for any excuses because two days will be enough for us.
“We’re used to playing a lot of games and we’re playing Man United. Come on, if you can’t find any extra energy reserves for that, then we are in trouble, aren’t we?”