For someone with his heart and money invested in the fortunes of Tranmere Rovers at Wembley on Sunday, Mark Palios is remarkably relaxed about the fine line between waking up as owner of a Football or National League club on Monday morning. “You cannot rely on one game, you have to step back,” he says of the National League play-off final against Forest Green Rovers. “I’ll just get up earlier if we lose.”
It is almost three years since the former Football Association chief executive and his wife, Nicola, acquired a controlling interest in the club where Palios made more than 270 appearances in the 1970s and 80s. The past two seasons have been in exile from the Football League having tumbled out of League One and Two in successive campaigns. Ronnie Moore’s dismissal as manager in April 2014 for breaching FA betting rules added to the tumult around a club that came tantalisingly close to reaching the Premier League in the mid-90s, losing three consecutive play-off finals, and reached the 2000 League Cup final.
The slide did not deter Palios, who credits Tranmere not only with his playing days but also with enabling him to pursue a more successful career as a chartered accountant. As a senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers he specialised in business turnarounds. The 64-year-old is in the right place.
“Before we came in I said to Nicky that the momentum of the club is so negative we will go down, which we did,” Palios recalls. “We didn’t come in until the die was cast and we went down again. We had to arrange £2m of finance for two years and going down increased the loss and made it slightly harder. Going down was devastating for the club but it wasn’t disastrous because there was a plan in place.” The plan was “to build something to support itself,” Palios explains. “The patronage model,” he says, “is what I am railing against.”
The Rovers chairman delivers an accountant’s description of what has occurred behind the scenes while Micky Mellon, Tranmere’s popular manager and former player, has brought the Football League within sight since replacing Gary Brabin in October. Palios talks of organic potential and phased development but evidence of progress is all around.
Prenton Park’s infrastructure has been transformed since the Palioses arrived, the main stand home to several plush executive lounges and a new club shop. A marquee that serves as a fan zone sits on the directors’ car park – a revealing situation. Non-match-day income is at a record high and the chairman says: “I get a massive lift from seeing the club moving the way it has and the massive difference it has made in the community.”
Meals for the homeless were served in the executive lounges over Christmas. The marquee is run by the supporters’ trust. “The goodwill around the club is fantastic,” says Palios. “That potential needed to be unearthed.”
It has been unearthed using innovative means. The Inner Mongolian government, yes them, provides a healthy revenue stream after Palios agreed for Tranmere to train coaches from the region – initially two batches of 25 but now replaced by plans for 300 – and helped establish the Little London International Football School for 45% of the profits. “They have seen we deliver and like the quality of what we do, irrespective of the fact we are a National League team,” he says. “They see our drive to improve.”
Victory on Sunday will be worth £1.5m to Tranmere. The price of defeat Palios calculates at £400,000 – the costs of the club’s academy for a year. But he is prepared to take the loss rather than close down a system that has produced national under-16s champions plus under-13 and under-15 teams that defeated their Manchester United counterparts this season. Everton’s Tom Davies was also at the academy and Rovers will get 15% of any sell-on deal should he move on.
Palios says: “If we stay down, we get no funding from the Premier League for the academy. How do I say to a parent: ‘wWe are out the league so we will shut the academy to save costs but if we go up we’ll open up again and you can give us your child back.’ That is not doable. The academy can lose its status and, not only that, your players can be nicked by Premier League clubs. That is insidious and I wrote to Richard Scudamore about it. It looks like sour grapes but where else do you finish second on 95 points and stay in a league? The game does a disservice to clubs and fans having this bottleneck in league five.”
Tranmere have not beaten Forest Green this season, indeed their only defeat in the last 13 matches came at home to Sunday’s opposition, and Mellon will have eight players absent through injury. But overcoming adversity at Wembley is nothing new to Palios. During his time as FA chief executive between July 2003 and August 2004 he needed to find £27m in 21 days to meet construction costs, raising the money by securing an advance on Sky’s broadcasting deal having scrapped the organisation’s plans to take a £130m loan.
Palios recalls: “The £27m was the next payment we had to make and if we didn’t keep our side of the agreement, the other members of the syndication could have walked away and Wembley might not have been built. I helped get it built, so it will be nice to use it on Sunday.”
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