Despite three play-off semi-final defeats on the trot, the early 1990s were heady times for Merseyside’s third team, as Karl Sturgeon recalled in WSC 274, December 2009
30 April ~ “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 1980s turned to the 1990s something happened. Those giant cruiseliners 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 1960s and initially managed the club in the late 1970s, 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 League 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 reasserting itself.
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. Karl Sturgeon