BY MARK GODFREY
After 27 years as Tranmere Roversâ€™ majority shareholder, Chairman and more recently President, Peter Johnson has finally stepped down to be replaced by former FA Chief Executive Mark Palios and his wife Nicola as the new owners of the Birkenhead club.
Palios, who played over 280 times for Tranmere during two different spells, has taken a â€œcontrolling interestâ€ while his predecessor remains on the clubâ€™s board of directors and becomes its Honorary President.
The former Rovers midfielder comes back to the club with a long and successful financial career behind him having qualified as a chartered accountant during his playing days at Prenton Park before eventually becoming a senior partner at accountancy giants Price Waterhouse Coopers where he specialised in business turnaround. Nicola Palios is a commercial lawyer with experience in sports and consultancy.
It was his track record of steadying the ship at failing companies that won him the role of Chief Executive at the FA in 2003. Tasked with steering English footballâ€™s governing body away from financial disaster, his initiatives saved the Football Association over Â£100million during the rebuilding of Wembley Stadium. He resigned just 13 months later amid tabloid stories of an affair with secretary, Faria Alam â€“ one of then England boss Sven-Goran Erikssonâ€™s alleged conquests.
Tranmere kicked off the season with a 1-1 draw at home to York on Saturday; their first game in the bottom tier of English football since 1989, just two years after Johnson bought the club out of administration.
Johnsonâ€™s first stint as Chairman was hugely successful. The club were regular visitors to Wembley for cup finals and by 1993 had secured two promotions. They then contested three consecutive Second Division play-offs, only to miss out on promotion to the Premier League on each occasion.
Johnson was forced by the FA to abdicate his position at Tranmere in 1994 when, at the height of his personal wealth earned primarily from his Park Foods hamper company, he injected Â£10million to secure a controlling interest across the River Mersey at Everton. He handed the reins at Rovers to then girlfriend, Lorraine Rogers.
Despite initial promises of significant amounts of money to arrest the decline at Goodison Park, the Toffees continued to struggle and having to trade their best players; the sale of crowd favourite Duncan Ferguson to Newcastle behind the back of manager Walter Smith proving the final straw for Evertonians who had become deeply mistrustful of Johnson. He returned to Tranmere the following year having sold his stake to Bill Kenwright for Â£20million.
A League Cup final to Leicester City defeat in 2000 was soon followed by relegation from the second tier in 2002 at which point Johnson put the club up for sale. Since then he has written off the debt owed to him through loans to the club in a move aimed at keeping the books balanced, but gradual stagnation on the pitch finally took its toll with last seasonâ€™s relegation consigning Rovers to the same level as when Johnson first arrived in 1987 â€“ the same year they avoided dropping out of the league altogether but for a final day escape.
There have been several attempts to sell Tranmere in recent years; the most bizarre coming in 2009 when Dornoch Capital â€“ the firm hired by Johnson to find buyers â€“ listed the club on auction site, eBay. The resultant supporter uproar forced the withdrawal of the advert immediately.
Other potential takeovers have failed to materialise over the last eight months. Firstly, the Tranmere Rovers Trust missed their January 1st deadline to raise the minimum amount of Â£300,000 required to take control and then a bid by former Southampton chairman Michael Wilde was withdrawn in February.
The outgoing Johnson endorsed his successors in a statement on the clubâ€™s website, â€œI have been looking for a safe pair of hands to ensure the Clubâ€™s future.
â€œIn Mark and Nicola I have found that. As a local lad who played for the club, and a former Chief Executive of The FA with a successful commercial track record, Mark is uniquely placed to help lead Tranmere to a bright future. Nicola is an accomplished lawyer and businesswoman. Between them, they have the passion and the experience to take the Club forward and I am looking forward to working on the Board with them. Finding this mix of football and business skills is highly unusual.”