Seasiders struggling for players and warm-up games
21 July ~ While other Championship clubs have got their squads assembled and are busy preparing for the new season, Blackpool are, not for the first time, scrambling around for players at the last minute. Even in the Seasiders' sole Premier League season, manager Ian Holloway was forced to entertain a number of trialists including the forgotten man Francis Jeffers. Twelve months ago, then-boss Paul Ince complained about having to field so many auditionees in a pre-season friendly at Penrith: "We're a Championship club, and with no disrespect to anyone, we shouldn't really be looking at trialists."
August issue available online
The new WSC is out now, dispatched on the day of order from the WSC shop.
- World Cup 2014 special
- England: playing the blame game
- Teamwork triumphs in Germany
- Return of attacking football
- A month travelling around Brazil
- 7-1: the hosts' humiliation
The secret world of José Mourinho
José Mourinho is a strange, as well as a special, one. He seems quite consciously and gleefully to play up to the stereo-type of a conniving practitioner of cunning tricks and brazen gamesmanship – a living affirmation of the lower morals of the southern European sort, with decent Englishmen being advised to be on their guard and lock up their wives and daughters should he attempt to beguile them with his oily ways. Read more
by Steve Leach
Often erroneously likened to a fifth division of the Football League, the Football Conference could more accurately be described as a halfway house. Non-League's top tier is home to a curious mix of teams; professional clubs who have fallen on hard times compete alongside new names making their way up the pyramid and getting a first taste of the big time. Read more
by James Ruppert
In 1970 the Ford Motor Company loaned every member of the England World Cup squad a car ahead of the forthcoming Mexico World Cup. With the exception of Jack Charlton – who requested a Ford Zodiac because he needed a bigger boot for his fishing tackle – they each received a Cortina 1600E. This is the story of how motoring journalist James Ruppert sets out to track down the 24 original "World Cup Cortinas". Read more
The end of another international tournament means it’s time for you to have your say on the state of football in the WSC Survey. Was Brazil 2014 was the best World Cup ever? Who was the worst TV pundit? How you get on with the people around you at games? What would you like to change about WSC? Don’t hold back now. As ever we’d be really grateful for your response – it should only take ten minutes and there's a chance of winning a T-shirt as a thank you. Just click on this link to take the survey.
21 July ~ Kick Off! is a global project that filmed fans watching the Brazil 2014 final between Germany and Argentina around the world. The documentary follows people's reactions to match, from a beach in New Zealand to a taxi in Moscow and market in Tokyo.
By Andrea Pirlo
Reading this autobiography of a playmaker nicknamed "Mozart" is like going to the opera: some bloke comes on and sings very loudly in Italian at you for a couple of hours, it's all very dramatic and enjoyable, but you don't always know quite what's going on. In no discernible order, its voluble and intelligent subject, who "has an opinion about everything and I'm not ashamed to express it", launches into an erratic, extended and idiosyncratic monologue. There are even (mostly much needed) footnotes to explain some of the passing references, although glossing ultras as "the self-styled, most passionate, vocal and committed supporters" was probably unnecessary. Read more
Notable kits of yesteryear
18 July ~ This shirt was a return to Southampton's traditional red and white stripes after a few seasons spent wearing the experimental red-sleeved, ticked chest of the previous Pony kit. It was worn by players such as Egil Ostenstad, Mickey Evans, David Hughes and Ken Monkou, during a period which saw Southampton complete their 17th consecutive season in the top flight.
17 July ~ You never knew when the Vulture of Fear would strike. In the Ghanaian region of Bechem, residents were terrorised for several weeks by a large, angry vulture who would enter a building surreptitiously, hide behind something papery or thin (often this would simply be a large piece of rice paper the vulture brought with it), before shoving its head through suddenly and cawing like a maniac. Read more
Despite three play-off semi-final defeats on the trot, the early 1990s were heady times for Merseyside's third team. Karl Sturgeon recalls
“Tranmere,” Johnny King once said, “will never be able to compete with Liverpool and Everton. They’re big liners like the Queen Mary, but I see Tranmere like a deadly submarine.”
In 1987, when Johnny King rolled into Birkenhead for a second go as Tranmere boss, Rovers weren’t the kind of team who inspired elaborate metaphors or poetic flights of fancy. If you wanted glory or romance, you took a trip across the Mersey to either Everton or Liverpool. Tranmere fans had no such pretensions. Prenton Park regulars Half Man Half Biscuit illustrated the difference in mentality when they sang: “Friday night and the gates are low... bastard slip of a sub’s ruined my weekend.” Tranmere were the archetypal lower-league stragglers, forever in the slipstream of their powerful, big-city rivals. They were Merseyside’s third team and everyone knew it. Everton and Liverpool’s dominance was set in stone, as surely as the world-famous Liverpool skyline, which is seen easily from the other side of the river and taunts Birkenhead residents every day.
But as the Eighties turned to the Nineties something happened. Those giant cruise-liners didn’t look quite so majestic and the submarine that had plumbed the Mersey finally struck. This was a time, as a post-Dalglish Liverpool fell from their perch and Everton’s ambitions had shrunk to just staying up every season, when Tranmere fans could genuinely say they supported the Merseyside team on the rise.
In the spring of 1987 it didn’t look possible. Everton and Liverpool were battling at the top of the First Division but Tranmere had spent the decade lurching from one financial crisis to another. Crowds for the 1986-87 Fourth Division season had dwindled to less than 2,000. Hamper millionaire Peter Johnson’s purchase of the club from American lawyer Bruce Osterman offered some hope, but the club were in real danger of dropping out of the League, maybe forever. Johnson turned to Johnny King.
King had played for Tranmere in the Sixties and initially managed the club in the late Seventies, during which time he had been something of a protege for the recently retired Bill Shankly. King certainly shared some of Shanks’s flair for a soundbite – when Elvis Costello appeared on the BBC’s Fantasy Football League, he called his team The Deadly Submarine as a tribute – and propensity for thinking big. He needed to. When Johnson brought King back to Prenton Park in 1987, King said, in his Shanklyesque way: “I can’t promise anyone success, but I can promise a trip to the moon.”
Before they could fly into orbit, however, Tranmere needed to avoid being sucked under. On the last day of the 1987 season, Rovers needed to beat Exeter to avoid relegation from the League. Chief executive Frank Corfe did everything he could to promote the game, talking to local newspapers and radio stations. “I think I realised,” he said, “the only way we could win the game was to... suck it into the net by the supporters. And 1,200 people weren’t going to do it.”
It worked. Tranmere won 1-0 to stay up and lifelong fan and director George Higham spoke of fans: “Hanging on the rafters... standing on the roof. Although the figure for the gate was 6,900, I know there were more there.” A day of celebration, then, but even amid the relief, the realities of lower-League life bit. Peter Johnson later bemoaned the players celebrating by throwing their kit into the crowd. “We hadn’t arranged for boots and shirts... and we had nothing to start the following season with.”
But with safety secured, Tranmere could set about building their own mythology. They played at Wembley five times in three years, reaching two play-off finals, two Leyland Daf Cup finals and representing the Fourth Division in the 1988 Centenary Cup tournament, in which 16 teams played a series of 40- and 60-minute matches over two days. Tranmere were the surprise hit of the tournament, beating First Division clubs Newcastle and Wimbledon to make it through to the second day of games. Rovers, expecting to go out early on, hadn’t bothered to arrange overnight accommodation. Luckily, Liverpool had been knocked out in their opening game and Tranmere were able to take over the bigger club’s hotel booking.
In 1989 Rovers were promoted to Division Three. Two years later they beat Bolton Wanderers in the play-offs to win promotion to English football’s second tier for only the second season in their history.
In the summer of 1991, with the Second Division awaiting, King was bold in the transfer market. John Aldridge, scorer of so many goals for Liverpool, joined from Real Sociedad. Later that season, winger Pat Nevin made the short journey from Everton. The symbolism was obvious – Tranmere were serious about joining Everton and Liverpool in the top flight.
And they nearly made it. Backed by Peter Johnson’s money, Tranmere played without fear in the second tier and made the play-offs in three successive seasons between 1993 and 1995. They lost in the semi-finals on all three occasions, but Rovers had a reputation for being easy on the eye. Nevin, on the right, linked up with left-winger Johnny Morrissey and between them they set up plenty of goals for Aldridge and strike partner Ian Muir, Rovers’s all-time top goalscorer. In 1994 Tranmere played Aston Villa in the semi-finals of the Coca Cola Cup and, after winning the first leg 3-1, looked ready for another trip to Wembley. It wasn’t to be – in the return at Villa Park, the home team pulled level on aggregate and edged past Rovers 5-4 on penalties.
That was probably the peak. Peter Johnson was casting coveting glances across the Mersey towards Everton, who were skint, haunted by relegation, but still one of England’s biggest clubs. Even at their lowest ebb for a generation, the Blues had a fanbase and a history that Tranmere would never have. Despite Tranmere’s long-standing tradition of playing home matches on a Friday night to attract punters who might have otherwise ventured to Goodison or Anfield, average gates in 1994 were still only around the 8,500 mark.
For the big games that had become a regular occurrence, Rovers could pull in crowds of up to 15,000, hinting at potential but still falling well short of the attendances Everton could expect. Johnson took control at Goodison later that year. He kept a stake in Tranmere – something he managed to keep quiet for a decade – but his attentions were now elsewhere. Symbolism again came into play. Merseyside’s natural order was
Tranmere finished mid-table in 1995-96 and in March 1996 Johnny King moved upstairs. John Aldridge took over as player/manager. Some of the old magic remained. Rovers remained cup upstarts, reaching the Worthington Cup final in 2000 and enjoying a famous 3-0 victory at Goodison in the 2001 FA Cup. Even that glory was quickly snuffed out when Liverpool won 4-2 at Prenton Park in the quarter-finals. Gravity eventually pulled Tranmere back to earth, and Rovers were relegated back to the third tier later in 2001. They’ve been there ever since.
Peter Johnson is back involved with Tranmere and this summer he again delved into Merseyside’s football past, appointing John Barnes as manager. Johnson had dismissed the previous boss, Ronnie Moore, because he was worried about falling attendances, but this time bringing in an ex-Liverpool man didn’t help. Barnes was sacked in October, with Rovers 22nd and with the worst goal difference in the country. The Johnson era is drawing to a close, he’s made no secret of wanting to sell up and over the summer the club was listed on eBay, to the amusement of the papers. Perhaps the fascination with Liverpool and Everton will end with it.
From WSC 274 December 2009
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