Result: Tranmere Rovers 2-0 Exeter City (EFL League 2)
Venue: Prenton Park (Saturday 3rd November 2018, 3pm)
I’d already visited Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park, but that game was in the Cheshire Senior Cup and, as such, I always felt as though it was one I couldn’t really count (first team games only at regular grounds being a rule of mine now). So when I found myself with an empty weekend and not looking to travel all that far, I felt it looked like a perfect storm was forming on the banks of the River Mersey. Back to Birkenhead I would be headed and for Rovers’ home clash with fellow League 2 high-riders Exeter City.
With the never-ending RMT strikes still taking their toll on the local rail system up North, I was forced into an earlier than ideal start, though this did mean a quicker service to Liverpool Lime Street was in service, so I guess there was some silver lining to be found within the mayhem. Having arrived in Merseyside, a quick trip down into the depths of the station’s Merseyrail system platforms had me on my way under the river and into Cheshire (I hope that gives me some brownie points with the locals!), the short trip to Birkenhead Park station taking just 15 minutes. With the time being way too early for beer, especially with regards to my 11am self-imposed acceptable start-time, I decided to pay a visit to the park which supplies the station with its name. There was a fair amount to see too, including some discarded pumpkins, a man mowing a cricket pitch and some joggers. Exciting just doesn’t cover it.
Having spent a good 40 minutes exploring the town’s large greenery, I passed the grand (no joke this time) pillared entrance to the park, the time was slowly ticking towards eleven and so the DRINK – said in Father Jack voice – was on the horizon. As such, I looked for somewhere to begin my tour, though these looked to be very few and far between at that hour and so I chose to err on the safe side and opted to pay a visit to the Wetherspoons first. The Spoons here goes by the name of the Brass Balance, though my visit wouldn’t be too smooth as my ordered Baltika would turn into a Bud as it was served. Not one to care too much, I took said bottle and settled in to begin the final bits of my Sunderland blog from my previous week. Oh, and I’d get that extra Baltika back later on.
From there it was off towards the river and the ferry terminal, with the Liverpool skyline looming over the Mersey as I entered my second stop-off of the day: Gallagher’s. This pub is a brilliant little place, filled with an assortment of maritime paraphernalia all over the ceilings and walls including a story of a legend of H.M.S. Birkenhead’s ‘heroic’ (bar the gunpoint bit) act which lends its name to the “Birkenhead Drill” – the “Women & children first” call came to be on the ship for the first of only two occasions for it to have taken place. A pint of Hop House here came in at the decently priced £3.80 before I finished up and popped next door to the River View where I opted for a pint of Coors (£3.30) whilst watching the start of the Bournemouth-Manchester United game aside a window, shockingly, overlooking the river. After around twenty minutes of the game had been played, I began to work my way back towards the ground, which still stood a good mile-and-a-half or so away. Of course, this trek would be getting broken up along the way and after crossing a bridge over what seemed to be a long gone railway line, I came upon the interestingly named Swinging Arm. Despite the visions of what sort of things within may have inspired such a name, the place was actually very musically driven and a pint of the Spanish Palax Craft Lager came in at just the £3.45. It was bloody good too.
Birkenhead is a town on the west bank of the Wirral peninsula, historically in Cheshire. Its name likely derives from the Old English ‘bircen’ meaning ‘birch tree’ and probably means headland overgrown with birch, with regards to the many trees which grew on the headland that jutted out at Woodside and not the Birket stream which enters the Mersey nearby. Ferry “services” began operating from Birkenhead in 1150 for the Benedictine monks who’d built the Birkenhead Priory which would later be visited by King Edward I and was later granted further rights in a 1330 charted by Edward III. Distanced from the Industrial Revolution in Liverpool, Birkenhead retained its agricultural status through to the advent of the steam ferry services which introduced something like the service which runs today in 1817, along with services to Ireland and Isle of Man, and five years later the paddle steamer Royal Mail would begin operating between Liverpool and the Woodside terminal Maritime business continued to grow and shipbuilding began on the peninsula from 1829 following on from an initial iron works built by William Laird in 1824. This eventually grew to become Cammell Laird with the likes of HMS Ark Royal, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Birkenhead itself being constructed on the site, as well as the submarine HMS Thetis which sank in sea trials in Liverpool Bay prior to being raised and commissioned as HMS Thunderbolt. Sadly, this would later be lost in action with the loss of its full crew.
The Mersey Railway tunnel opened towards the end of the 19th century, becoming the world’s first tunnel under a tidal estuary, providing direct rail access to the city across the water and this was later joined by the Queensway road tunnel (1934) and this opened the peninsula up to development, due to it providing easier access. Previously, Birkenhead became home to the first street tramway in Britain, which was later electrified in 1901, prior to its closure, though a heritage line still remains with a pair of trams brought over from Hong Kong along with a maintained original. With growing links, the area began to become more industrialised and urbanised, with the town growing from just 110 inhabitants in 1801 to almost 111,000 inside a century, with an influx of workers and settlers from Ireland, Wales and other parts of Cheshire. However, the 20th century would signal a period of decline and a reduction in port activity. A few side notes saw Birkenhead Park become the first publicly funded park in Britain and it is home to a Greek-style Grand Entrance, modelled on the Temple of Illysus in Athens, an ornate ‘Swiss Bridge’ and a ‘Roman Boathouse’ as well as two lakes. Hamilton Square contains the most Grade I listed buildings in one place outside of Trafalgar Square, including the Birkenhead Town Hall (on the site of the original Birkenhead Market which saw Michael Marks of M&S open up a penny bazaar), whilst scenes for the film Chariots of Fire were shot at Woodside, substituting for 1920’s Dover. Its priory remains standing too….
After a brief visit to the peninsula’s oldest building, the Birkenhead Priory, I continued heading for the Glen Affric Brewery in an otherwise unspectacular warehouse estate by the side of a busy intersection. However, inside the warehouse bearing the brewery’s name is a “tap” bar with a decent selection of its own stuff brewed on site, all equipment is located by the side of the tables, with the benched areas being home to vintage Nintendo game consoles too. A bit of a throwback to my youth for sure there! It was quite fun watching it go through its demo runs and seeing the vintage classics loaded upon it, but it was soon time to up sticks once again and set my sights on my final planned pre-match stop, the Sportsman’s Arms, which was eventually reached a good 15 minutes later having walked through a few side-streets and encountering a rather steep hill from outta nowhere. Dark Fruits would be my choice of refresher here whilst I watched the final throes of the match and Marcus Rashford grabbing us the three points. At least I wasn’t alone in exclaiming “YES!!!” or I may have been in some bother….
A short walk later had me at Prenton Park where, having a few extra minutes in hand, completed a lap of the ground before opting to head into the first of the cash turnstiles I came across, completely forgetting my best-laid plan to take a place in the Kop. Instead, I ended up right on half-way, so I couldn’t be too aggrieved! After a quick visit to the food bar for some chips (more like potato wedges really) it was off to pitchside ahead of the game, which was only a few minutes away. Having again got to my seat in time for the minute’s silence – this being a dual one, with it also serving to remember the victims of Leicester’s helicopter accident – it was soon time to get into the match. First, Prenton Park is a decent ground with the all-seater, one-tiered Kop stand behind the left-hand goal (from my point of view) largely dominating the ground, with only the Main Stand opposite my seat being anything close, and having something of a hint of age about it, giving the ground some extra character. Both the right-hand Cowshed End, housing the away fans today (and that appears to slope away to one side due to its seating arrangements and not due to drink) and the Johnny King Stand – named after the club’s most successful manager – that I was in are both fairly small affairs, though are easily capable, the latter running the length of the pitch. That’s the ground described in short and this is the story of Tranmere Rovers….
Initially formed as Belmont Football Club in 1884, upon the merger of two cricket clubs’ footballing arms – Lyndhurst Wanderers and Belmont, the club played, largely, only friendly matches through to 1888 due to a lack of a league, though did enter the Liverpool and District Challenge Cup in 1886. They would play their initial matches at Steeles Lane in Birkenhead before changing their name to Tranmere Rovers prior to the beginning of their second season in existence (a previous Tranmere Rovers side had existed as an offshoot of the cricket club of the same name in 1881-’82, though this side was unrelated to the current club) and would later purchase Tranmere Rugby Club’s Ravenshaws Field in 1887, renaming it as the first ‘Prenton Park’, 25 years before Tranmere would move into their current home. Entering their first league – the West Lancashire League – in 1889, the club would spend eight years here prior to switching to the stronger Combination in 1897, winning the title in 1908. Two years later, Tranmere would join the Lancashire Combination and 1912 saw them make the move to the current Prenton Park home, complete with 800-seater stand. A further two seasons later, the club would lift the Lancashire Combination title and they would remain in the league through to the First World War, whereupon Tranmere did continue to remain active throughout the conflict, though players were criticised for avoiding active service, despite working in the local shipyards.
After Leeds City Reserves were ousted from the Central League in 1919, Tranmere were able to take their spot and this timing proved a further blessing as after just the one campaign there, four clubs were invited to join the newly formed Third Division North of the Football League as founder members. They duly accepted and won their first league clash 4-1 at home to Crewe Alexandra. 1924 saw Dixie Dean make his debut for Rovers and he went on to net 27 goals in 30 matches before moving to Everton where he would make his name, with further local players would follow in his footsteps up the leagues. In 1934, an FA Cup tie pitted Rovers against Liverpool at Anfield in a game watched by just a tick over 61,000 fans, Tranmere would latterly achieve a place in goal-scoring history, as they defeated Oldham Athletic 13-4 on Boxing Day of 1935, with the game’s 17 goals remaining the highest aggregate scored in one Football League game. Bunny Bell netted nine in that game. During the same period, Rovers would compete in the Welsh Cup and reached the final twice, losing to Bristol City in the 1934 final after a replay first time around, before defeating Chester one-nil in the next season, the club’s first silverware as a Football League Club.
Rovers would win their first League title in 1938, lifting the Division Three North championship and promotion to Division Two for the first time and this remains their first and only League title to date. Success didn’t immediately follow either, with Tranmere relegated at the end of the next season. Post-WWII, Tranmere re-joined the League and again took their spot in Division 3 North. They would remain here until the restructure of 1958 with Tranmere’s 11th placed finish seeing them achieve a high enough spot to remain in the newly nationalised Third Division. The final match, against Wrexham attracted a crowd of 19,615, which remains a record at Prenton Park for a league match.
In 1961, Rovers skipper Harold Bell left the club, having not missed a game from the first game post-war through to 1955 when he was eventually dropped from the side, a total of 459 consecutive games which also remains a record. His influenced was missed, as Tranmere were relegated that same year to Division 4, and the club switched up their kit from blue shirts, white shorts to all white, to distinguish themselves from Everton. 1967 saw them return to Division 3 and the following season saw the club reach the FA Cup Fifth Round for the first time, ahead of a game in that competition three years later achieving a club record attendance at Prenton Park of over 24,000 for a tie vs Stoke City. 1972 saw Ron Yeats join the club and his links to Liverpool saw the likes of Ian St. John join the club as well as Bill Shankly in a consultancy role. This team would go on to record one of the most memorable Tranmere results as they won one-nil at First Division side Arsenal in the League Cup. However, things soon went awry and 1975 saw them return to Division 4 once again, though they would be here for just one season, with promotion immediately won the following year.
After another drop back to Division 4, many poor seasons would follow, with Rovers rarely troubling the top-half of the table, though after a resurgence in the latter part of the 1980’s (including a first appearance at Wembley in the League Centenary Tournament), 1989 would see them recover up the division to the runners-up spot and the rise back up to the Third Division once again. They missed out in the following year’s play-offs, having had a strong season, losing in the Final at Wembley to Notts County, just a week after lifting the league’s Trophy at the same venue with a 2-1 win over Bristol Rovers, and they would have play-off success the next season, with wins over Brentford and Bolton Wanderers seeing the club in Division 2 for the first time since the 1930’s, though lost out in their second consecutive League Trophy final. After Division Two became Division One upon the formation of the Premier League in 1992, and with John Aldridge beginning his decade-long spell at the club (going on to net 170 goals for the SWA and becoming Tranmere’s first – and only to date – player to score at a World Cup), Tranmere went on to reach the play-offs for the next three successive seasons, missing out on promotion to the Premier League in each of 1993, 1994 and 1995, and ’94 saw further disappointment as they went out in the League Cup semi-finals to Aston Villa on penalties.
Prenton Park was reconstructed and re-opened in 1995 but financial constraints took a-hold over the millennium season, though they did reach the Sixth Round of the FA Cup and reached the 2000 League Cup Final, losing out to Leicester City by 2-1 in the last game played at the ‘old’ Wembley. The all-white kit was re-introduced ahead of the next season but despite success in the cups (including a 3-0 win over Everton), the club were relegated to Division 2 ending a decade-long spell in Division 1. The play-offs were reached in 2005, but the campaign was unsuccessful and despite going close to reaching them again, they never would. Just avoiding the drop to the now-named ‘League Two’ in 2010, 2013 saw manager Ronnie Moore sacked after admitting breaching betting rules and the season would eventually end with Rovers relegated to League Two for 2014-’15. Further disappointment was to follow immediately, as Tranmere dropped out of the League in 2015 ending their 94-year stay.
A poor start to their non-league life in the Conference followed, though a resurgence saw the club just miss-out on the play-offs and after double disappointment in 2017 saw Rovers lose out in the FA Trophy semis and miss out on promotion in the play-off final to the extra-green Forest Green in, despite a runners-up spot and 95 points being achieved, last season saw the club eventually return to League football as they recovered from another sluggish start to again reach the play-offs where they overcame Ebbsfleet United in the semis before overcoming Boreham Wood 2-1 in the Final at the ‘new’ Wembley and they have bucked the trend of the last few years in starting a season strongly, sitting towards the right half of the table.
We got underway with Exeter forcing a couple of fairly comfortable stops out of the home ‘keeper Scott Davies, before Connor Jennings responded for the hosts, with his low shot being kept out by Davies’ opposite number James Hamon. The first-half hour came and went with the game still all-square in deadlock but on 31 minutes it was finally broken from a Paul Mullin cross – Mullin himself had gone close minutes before, his delivery being guided into the net by James Norwood, despite the Hamon seeming to get a good piece of the ball on its way into the net. Be that as it may, it was another game closer to a calendar year without a nil-nil. Just the three weeks to go!
Outside of a few blocked shots, Norwood going close to adding a second to both his and his team’s tally, very little happened in terms of real action in the remaining fifteen minutes or so of the first half as Tranmere headed in with their slender advantage still intact at the break. Half-time saw little in the way of action, so let’s get straight on with the action! Again, it was City who would fashion the first chance of the half, Matt Jay this time forcing Davies into action to maintain his clean sheet for the time being at least.
After Jennings and Jay had traded chances for their respective sides, Tranmere would grab that vital second goal and it was Norwood who would grab it, showing some real striker’s instinct in the process. After the impressive Larnell Cole had seen his rasping drive from a good 25 yards beat Hamon only to unluckily smash into the post, Norwood responded well to be in the right place at the right time to slot the rebound home and send the fans in the Kop behind the goal into brief delirium. That looked to be that in truth, as Exeter were pretty disappointing overall and their display was summed up by Dean Moxey receiving a second yellow card within 15 minutes to receive his marching orders for (I think I remember) handball.
From there it was a pretty routine quest for Rovers to see out the final twenty minutes or so, though they also looked to take advantage of their extra man and add one or two more strikes to their scoring sheet. However, Hamon was in no mood to let any more past and kept out efforts from each of Johnny Smith, Jennings and the hat-trick chasing Norwood. Lee Martin would go close for the visitors as the game ran down, keeping Davies alert to the end, but that would be that and it was a big three points for Tranmere in this top(ish) of the table clash. Not a bad return so far for the SWA. As for me, that’s two games and no goals this season for Exeter, so maybe I have something to do with it?
Post-match, I took in a swift visit to the ground neighbouring, and appropriately named, Prenton Park for a quick Dark Fruits (£3.10), before heading off and up to Rock Ferry station where I’d pay a visit to the two station neighbouring hostelries, namely the, again fittingly named, Rock Station (Coors £2.7/95) prior to popping over the road to the Bedford where a Rekorderlig Mixed Berry came in at a decent £3.20 ahead of the train back into the lower reaches of Lime Street. Arriving with a good 40 minutes to spare ahead of my train back, I thought I’d grab that Baltika I’d missed out on earlier in the station’s Spoons, whereupon I would be rewarded for my day’s good deed, giving up a table for a group of guys and girls who’d come into the packed place, meaning a free one was on them, despite my protestations to the contrary. Ah well, if you can’t beat them!!
So that ended another trip and it was good to truly get Prenton Park done. The game was decent, Birkenhead is too for a few and all else went smoothly, so can’t have too many complaints, especially with a nice early return home being secured (i.e. before 8pm), a distinct rarity these days. Anyway, it’s back onto the FA Cup trail next (this just gone as it is) weekend and a visit to a club who are just experiencing their first season in non-league, having replaced this very club for this season. Twisted….
Value For Money: 6