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Tranmere Rovers' remarkable revival under Mark Palios explained
Tranmere Rovers host Wycombe Wanderers live on Sky Sports Football this Sunday from 11.30am; kick-off is 12pm
Last Updated: 17/11/19 8:57am
It is a simple question. Just two words. There is an obvious answer too. Mark Palios is a fan. A former player who played more than 200 games for the club over two spells. With the experience accumulated during a successful career as an accountant and more recently as chief executive of the FA, of course he was going to help when the club was in direst need.
And yet, in conversation with Sky Sports inside a meeting room at Prenton Park, the club's stadium for the past 117 years, Palios expounds on his reasons for taking over in 2014 with a passion that consumes much of the next hour. It is a story that takes in austerity Britain, the importance of community spirit, and his dreams of regenerating an entire area.
It is the tale of a man determined to give something back.
"The club gave me an awful lot," explains Palios. "I didn't have a silver spoon upbringing so playing for Tranmere as a kid helped me move on. It gave me a bit of kudos and confidence. It made my life easier and I suppose it ignited me in a lot ways. But when I came back in 2014, the place just had a smell about it. It was in massive decline. Destined for the cart."
Former chairman Peter Johnson had served the club well for more than a quarter of a century but his appetite to fund Rovers indefinitely had long since dwindled. He had been trying to sell up for years and that had its consequences. As Palios puts it: "If you are trying to sell your house you don't put in a new kitchen or bathroom before you leave."
On the pitch, trust had been eroded. Ronnie Moore was sacked in April 2014 for a breach of betting regulations. A number of player were lifted for spot fixing and although no charges were ever brought, the damage was done. "It all goes back to the relationship between players and fans, one I knew very well," says Palios. "I knew it would destroy them."
Mark Bartley, now chairman of the Tranmere Rovers supporters' club, had to watch on as the problems mounted. It was painful. "We had no access to anything," Bartley tells Sky Sports. "Fans were viewed as important on a match-day but the rest of the time nobody was interested. We wanted to help but we felt shut out. It was an us-versus-them mentality."
A fledgling plan was hatched for a supporters' trust to buy Tranmere with Palios viewed as their dream chief executive. But, while driving through France with wife Nicky, he had already made the decision to return. "Since retiring in 2010, I had been helping out here and there but none of it was really fulfilling," he explains. "It wasn't a project like this one."
In August 2014, a deal was agreed to buy the club from Johnson with the former owner wiping off the debts. It was a fresh start but it was not the end of the club's problems. Relegation followed in that first season and the club was running at a loss. Palios was prepared for that challenge but he had wanted to bring ideas not handouts.
His vision was for Tranmere to be a self-sustainable club.
"It wasn't pure emotion," he says. "I knew this place could do better than it was doing because if ever there was a club that could thrive in the lower leagues it was Tranmere, because of the circumstances of its location and what the fan base could be. I knew how important it was to life on the Wirral. The challenge was to bring all that back."
The challenge has taken longer than anyone would have liked but the turnaround has been achieved. Two promotions have followed and Tranmere now find themselves back in the third tier, upwardly mobile and with better prospects than before. What's more, they are the only club in the Football League both owned and managed by former players.
It has been quite a ride. At a recent AGM, a video was played showing the club's descent through the divisions and the subsequent rise. For Bartley and others, it was emotional viewing. "The whole place has a different feel to it now," he says. "It just feels on the up." Palios agrees. "We are in a totally different place to where we were five years ago," he adds.
So how exactly have they done it?
Changing the culture was a big part of it and that meant getting the fans back onside. "I knew they could be our best friend or our worst enemy," says Palios. "If you are open and you have nothing to hide then come in and see what we are doing. Size militates against access but here you get that access to Wirral's family club. We constantly work at that."
Bartley acknowledges that things have changed dramatically. "We get information that other clubs don't get. We are lucky that we have owners who answer questions honestly."
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It is a two-way street. The supporters' club have become more engaged too. "We do things that people at the club might not have spotted," he adds. "We paid for the lamppost banners. The trust run the big marquee and have made it what fans want so it's full now. The John King statue, the fans paid for. We rent a bar area in the ground and it's full."
Together, they have worked to improve the atmosphere.
Palios had been a long-time advocate of introducing a drum on the Kop. Bartley ensured they brought people in "who could actually play with a beat" and eventually it took off. "It took two-and-a-half years before the Dover game when everything caught fire," says Palios. "That was the turning point," agrees Bartley. "The atmosphere was brilliant."
Tranmere's 12th man has been making a difference ever since. Twice this season they have come back from two goals down to salvage something at Prenton Park. Against Burton Albion, they won a game that they were losing going into stoppage time. "The fans get it," says Palios. "That's why you are seeing late results. That oneness is really helping."
These are the little things. The bigger financial challenges have taken time to turnaround too but it has all been built on that same principle of engaging better with the local community.
"A large part has been about the community because a large part of the potential here comes from being a community club," says Palios. "One of the problems was a lack of pride in the club. We had to build proper communication channels to the supporters, restore some credibility and get the club into a position where it could attract investment.
"We have a new training ground, built with the proceeds of the one we sold, now being fully utilised. The stadium has gone from being empty for two weeks to being used in the evenings. Businesses come here, presentations happen here. We have a futsal centre that is multi-purpose with netball and walking football. So we have revenue coming in now.
"The community was so important because we have been able to turn that into an income stream for the club. There are lots of private suppliers to the public sector so why couldn't we do that, leveraging off the brand? A football club can be one of the most vibrant organisations at the heart of its community if you are able to leverage it properly.
"For example, we are sitting in a room where alternative provision kids will be here on a daily basis. They won't go to school but they will come here to a football club. That is leveraging the brand. Eighty percent of those kids end up in jail if they are not looked after and they are not educated so there is a community benefit to this.
"The council determine so much and I know, in days of austerity, it is a difficult one to run with but I can list what we do and the social value it has and I think we are contributing about £15m. We do stuff on Alzheimer's, on health, on social inclusion and so forth. We can do it better than other organisations because we are a unique entity in the community."
This is organic growth in action and Palios believes that is crucial if a lower-league club hopes to be truly sustainable. "I have seen directors who say they are prudent because they only spend what they can," he says. "But they are not changing the business model so you're always in that dependency culture in terms of what you get from central funding."
It doesn't have to stop here either.
The club is working with the council to add a 3G pitch. There is talk of building a school now that the club has demonstrated itself to be a credible education business. A hotel is possible. Improbably, Palios has used the region's reputation abroad to attract international investment with the club now receiving income for providing FA coaching badges.
"It is all about the potential, albeit not obvious potential, of this football club," he explains. "It was always there. Now we want to build on that. I believe within the next two or three years we will be a stable, solid League One club. We are not looking back, we are looking forwards. We are still trying to attract more equity into the club. There are irons in the fire."
The relationship with the council will be critical but the biggest game-changer could be yet to come. The Wirral Waters proposal is expected to regenerate Wallasey Docks at the north end of Birkenhead and Palios believes Tranmere's involvement in the form of a new stadium would "massively enhance" the project.
It is ambitious but Palios feels it is incumbent on him to do all he can. "I don't know how long I will be here but I have to future-proof the club and look at it because these projects take time," he says. "You have got to get the balance right between enthusing people but not deluding them." He is acutely aware that Prenton Park puts a ceiling on the dream.
"If we stay at Prenton Park, being a League One club is the height of the ambition. Even if everything comes off here, we would still have a bottom third budget in the Championship. You can't move the dial quickly enough in terms of the gate. You are not going to give yourself a chance of being a secure Championship club by sitting here and doing nothing."
Nobody could accuse Palios of that.
He has no regrets about coming out of retirement. He is thrilled that wife Nicky, the club's vice chairman, has thrown herself into this every bit as much as he has. "She's a bright lady and is very enthusiastic about sport so I knew she would get into it."
Three of his daughters have lent their considerable expertise too. "You just could not do this without the buy in from the family," he says. "I wanted it to be we and not I."
So has it all been worth it?
"I don't think anyone does anything for purely altruistic reasons," he admits. "I get my reward. It is not pecuniary but fans come up to me and say they are proud of the club again. I don't get paid for being here but I do get rewarded when people saying that to me.
"Ownership is about passing the baton and taking it further than where you were when you were given it. I wanted to show that being sustainable is not incompatible with having ambition. And I still believe that we can take this club to a different level.
"To be honest, it feels like my whole life has been a preparation for this. I have squared the circle."