By Joel Lampkin
In his first venture into management Jason McAteer stood side by side with former teammates John Barnes in an effort to turn a club on the brink of success into a powerhouse of the lower leagues.
However, shortly after they had put pen to paper, the promises they were assured of, quickly turned to deceit and the horizon of Prenton Park had changed, with the dreams of triumph, replaced with the nightmares of panic.
Having only left Rovers one season prior, McAteer was a familiar face on Birkenhead and distancing himself from the dressing room exchanges was a tough task to begin with.
He said: “It was difficult when I went back with John when I was assistant manager because there was still players there that I played with, [so] you have to distance yourself in that capacity.”
“You have to distance yourself from the dressing room you have to put space between you and the players you cannot get involved in the banter.”
McAteer is a man many have praised for his personality, but as a seasoned professional he knows that there is a time and a place for joking around.
Having been around football for a long time, he knew that the role of assistant manager would be difficult but one he felt he was equipped for.
The 46-year-old said: “Assistant manager is a very hard job to do because you have got to be very accessible to the players to then go and speak to the manager about what the players want”
“You have to be able to tell players off and even if some of them were your mates – some of them I was very close to there that were still there, I had to be able to point fingers at them in the dressing room where I felt they were not pulling their weight or were not putting a shift then I found that hard.”
However despite putting his relationships with past teammates to one side, one rapport that McAteer had no choice but to accept was that of owner Peter Johnson.
The Liverpool businessman took control of Tranmere for a second spell in 2000 as the club went on a successful League cup run but by 2002, the former Everton chairman was ready to sell.
Johnson planned to sell assets of the club by 2006 and by 2009 the club had shockingly been put up for sale on internet website Ebay.
However, McAteer was not put off by the speculation and linked up with Barnes at Tranmere with the platform of the 2009/10 season a million miles away compared to what Ronnie Moore was given.
The former midfielder said: “I found that hard but the toughest [issue] came with the club changing the owner Peter Johnson who had done amazing job and had put a lot of money time and effort the into the football club [his time] was winding up really that was his prerogative that is what he wanted to do and who are we to say he was wrong.
“The budget the season before for Ronnie Moore was £1.8 million And the club could not sustain this through attendances and me and John were basically brought in to beg and borrow from all the football clubs and get help from the clubs around the north-west because Peter really slashed his budget in half so it become really difficult to sustain.
“We had a lot of first team players out of contract and we could not offer them improved terms so they left and they basically left us with the barebones.
“There were the kids coming through, the players that were already there on contract – so we had a very thin squad and a very young inexperienced squad.”
Despite all the negatives, McAteer remained focussed on the job at hand but maintained that he and Barnes both knew that it was about the ‘process’ at this point and that results, with the platform they were given, would take time.
The pair guided Rovers to just two wins in their opening 11 fixtures resulting in backlash from the fans and a sacking from the board.
Mcateer revealed: “Time is not what you are given. Football is very fickle, we had adverse results we were down and we could not get any sort of run coming together. Confidence was low, we tried everything and we could not sort of steady the ship [although] I really think we should’ve been given longer.
“I think it would’ve been okay I don’t think we would’ve been relegated but it was to be expected that we were going to be in a relegation battle with the budget and the players that we had so I think really we should’ve been given the opportunity to develop something really and we went and I was really disappointed with that.”
With a formula designed to fail, Rovers struggled and as a result McAteer and Barnes were sacked on October 9th 2009 although the former Republic of Ireland captain felt that it was an unfair dismissal.
The former Tranmere reserve coach was presented with a platform but “two or three weeks” after they had signed their contract, “the goalposts were changed” according to the former captain.
“We were in negotiations with the players out of contract and then suddenly it was pulled from beneath our feet,” he revealed. “We had to go back to the agents and their players and say listen we cannot give you what you want so they went elsewhere.
“So then you are entering preseason the back end of preseason with a limited squad and then starting the season with a very young team so we were very up against it from the very beginning.”
Breaking down negotiations
Having played professionally for the best part of two decades, McAteer was no stranger to doing the dance of a contract signing, but being on the other side of the table was a different experience for him.
He said: “You can understand the way negotiations work because I had been in them umpteen times there is a realistic approach to what a player wants – what level he is at and what the club can pay him.
“For some reason at league one level the senior players at that level for a reason, the young players might be coming through [and] might move on to bigger things as in the Premier league but the senior players are there because they are limited in what they can do and this is no Slate against them but it’s just they are either there because – they are limited or, they are there because they are on the way down, as in they have played at the top and they are going down the leagues.”
With each team and manager given a budget at the start of the season they must tailor their squad around the financial constraints they have been presented with.
After almost gaining promotion last season, the demands of some players exceeded the budget that Rovers could afford and ultimately this only created more friction and pressure for McAteer and co.
He said: “Some players expectations were unachievable from the football club and certainly when the budget was slashed in half were we were in negotiations with players and we were stretching to give them X amount of money extra on top of their old contract – it just become a flat no when we got the figures come through of what we actually had to spend.
“It was disappointing because there was actually a decent squad there.”
No Regrets for Ronnie
With success hard to come by, McAteer felt that despite his lack of success, this only put the spotlight on Ronnie Moore’s disappointment to gain promotion the previous term.
The manager who was replaced at the start of the 2009/10 season possessed a budget double to that of Barnes and failure to reach the playoffs was a disappointment for the Super White Army felt the former Sunderland man.
He said: “I did not care that Ronnie had been sacked. There was no sympathy for him, I did not feel anything for him. I just thought that with the budget we had -obviously [we had] been told the budget that he had and he never got near promotion with the budget that he had.
“If you look at the end of the season and you get a league table and then you get a budget table of each teams budget, they usually mirror so top of the table would be the team with the most amount to spend which was about £2.5 nearly £3,000,000 and it will go down from there.
“Ronnie’s budget the season before was extremely high and they should have reached at least the play-offs if not pushing for automatic promotion so they had on their achieved under any more so I knew it was time to change.”
Playing the right way
Despite the way his first venture into management ended, McAteer remains grateful for the experienced and can hold his head up high as he feels he approached the situation in the right way.
With the two men in charge playing at the top of their game professionally for many years, they tried to pass on their experiences onto a squad that they believed in.
McaTeer said: “John is a purist, I had played in that division so I knew what it took in some games. You have to be direct you have to go back to front a lot quicker you have to be competitive for 90 minutes – you have to be very fit but John is a purist.
“He wanted to play out from the back and I felt that with the players we lost we were very inexperienced and they were nerves amongst them to play that way.
“Over time [the football] would have developed and they would have developed into a nice footballing team we were just not given the opportunity to do what John wanted to do.
“I was thoroughly behind them and I felt we had the players that could adapt and could go onto it but you need time to implement that kind of style and we were just not given enough time which was sad really.”
With a sacking coming just a couple months into the season, it came as a sudden shock for the man who grew up just down the road of Tranmere.
Although McAteer feels that there was no way of setting up the side and achieving a different result, although signing certain players may have had a small impact.
He revealed: “I don’t think we could’ve done any different and have achieved a different result the results always would’ve been the same no matter what.
“We decided that was the way we wanted to go and that is what we did, but even if you went about it the different way I don’t think results would’ve been different.”
“We were very limited because of the age of the squad that we had, and the resources that we had to do it in. Tt was what it was, and it played out that way towards the end of the season.
“Les Parry came in after us and did not really change much, he just kept them up which is what we would’ve achieved the first season. [Which] was always going to be a learning curve – It was always going to be a very, very tough season.”
With things beyond their control, McAteer felt that if certain things had happened, maybe the events would not have unfolded in the fashion that they did.
Through a minuscule budget and needing more time to develop their style of football as well other higher clubs not willing to loan players out to the North West club, it was a season of research, rather than a season of success, but the lesson was ultimately cut short.
He finished with: “Peter being a bit more liberal with his money for the next season budget – maybe instead of £950,000 he pushed up to £1.2m just to improve us a little bit more.
“It might have been another six months that Rafa [Benitez] or David Moyes and Everton might of thought he will be good to go to Tranmere from the Everton or Liverpool reserves so we might of got a few more players and it is just hindsight isn’t it we will just never know but I really don’t think we would have achieved any other results playing any other way.”