By Ryan Ferguson
In his opus Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby proffered a fairly valid question: “What the hell is buried in the subconscious of people who go to Leyland DAF Trophy games?”
There are a few possible answers. Masochism; a need to escape the visiting in-laws; or a hopeless reliance upon the travails of a local football club to moderate ones mood.
Twenty-two years after Hornby posed his life-questioning teaser, and eight years since the arcane competition was re-branded for an eighth time as the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, one fact remains incorrigible: tortured souls, extending whatever rationale, still flock to watch it’s largely meaningless fixtures. Not many, admittedly. But some.
I’m among the dwindling number. This tournament, paralleled with my ardent love for Tranmere Rovers, has hauled me, with an aching magnetism, to some of the nations seediest joints on some of the coldest nights in memory. In 2011, I spent my seventeenth birthday traipsing to Accrington for a second round encounter that was abandoned after a thirty-eighth minute concussion to a Stanley defender before, three weeks later, making the semi-regrettable trek to see Rovers crumble to a last-second defeat at Chesterfield just when the Wembley arches came within binocular range.
However, on the first Tuesday in October in 2014, a bleak and miserable affair on Wirral, even I struggled to conjure a reasonable, sane and adult reason for attending Tranmere, ranked 90th in the Football League, versus Carlisle, ranked 91st. After a prolonged bout of soul searching, I unearthed a tenuous justification of sorts: I would attend this most heart-stoppingly abysmal match to sit in the Cowshed for the first time in thirteen death-defying years watching Tranmere.
To the uninitiated, this may sound like a galling humiliation. I imagine many readers, particularly the wine and cheese cracker types who tend to stay home of an evening to watch Emmerdale, are furnished with a horrific mental image of fans rolling about in mud and hay, fighting off the advances of assorted cattle, whilst watching two god awful teams joust for supremacy. Whilst this may be a fitting description of the actual football match, I regrettably inform you that supporter amenities were of an altogether more orderly fashion. No actual cows. No actual shed. No actual paraphernalia native to the keeping of cows or the functionality of sheds.
Rather, the Cowshed, now more of a metallic shell, is a grandstand at Prenton Park, the home of my beloved Rovers. Once home to the loudest, rowdiest, most rambunctious fans our humble club could muster, it holds an almost mythical significance to supporters of a certain ilk and era. To many mawkish Tranmere fans, the Cowshed, at least spiritually, is a monument to former glories, a symbol of where we’ve been, an Elysian Fields of hope and confidence. It’s home.
The stand was first constructed in time for the 1931/32 season, a rather bemusing five-span triangular roof covering a previously open terrace on Prenton Road West, the very street which still houses the modern incarnation to this day. The enclosure was affectionately dubbed the Cowshed because, quite literally, that’s what it resembled, and many of the parts actually came from such a structure.
A central feature of the early stadium, this beloved stand remained a true hub of activity even as the gargantuan Main Stand rose from the ashes like a dominant phoenix. The original roof was replaced by a three-span alternative in the 70s and refurbished terracing followed soon thereafter, but, in its ability to attract like-minded football diehards and foster an unshakable sense of civic pride, the Cowshed remained largely unchanged for six decades.
However, in the mid-1990s, an enthusiastic local entrepreneur named Peter Johnson achieved what the Nazis couldn’t: flattening the Cowshed and moving Tranmere fans from their cramped, cosy, comfortable fiefdom.
Johnson, then a young man positively frothing with ambition, engineered a true halcyon period in Rovers’ history, taking the Superwhites from the squalor of fourth division administration to the very precipice of the embryonic Premier League. In ’92, ’93 and ’94, Tranmere, managed by the inimitable Johnny King, reached the second division playoffs, practically brushing up against the plain glass window guarding the Promised Land. It seemed only a matter of time that Rovers, dubbed the Deadly Submarine to the ocean liners of Liverpool and Everton, would join the elite, and Johnson wanted a ground to fit the bill.
Accordingly, he sanctioned a huge redevelopment of Prenton Park, including a new Cowshed, shorn of the evocative roof, furnished with over 2,400 plastic seats, and bearing an electronic scoreboard for the contemporary audience. Johnson didn’t stop there. Next, he oversaw the building of a grand, almost palatial edifice behind the adjacent goal. It was made of the finest material, contained the most splendid contemporary facilities, and provided a completely unobstructed view to some 5,600 spectators.
If the old Cowshed was a tribute to where Tranmere had come from, the Bebington Kop, in all its roaring majesty, was undoubtedly a signal of intent as to where they were heading next.
Naturally, fans felt the best stand in the stadium shouldn’t be handed over to visiting supporters. At least not entirely. Thus, the Kop was initially split down its imposing middle, and housed both home and away acolytes. Occasionally, when juggernaut clubs such as Sunderland and Middlesbrough rolled into town, it was their exclusive abode, making for a raucous atmosphere yet an almost lopsided appearance.
This flexible arrangement remained in place for a number of years until, in the 1999/2000 season, Tranmere, managed by former goalscoring demigod John Aldridge, conspired to somehow haul themselves past Blackpool, Coventry, Oxford, Barnsley and the aforementioned Boro en route to a League Cup semi-final with fierce rivals Bolton. A poached goal from Clint Hill in the first leg, played at the Reebok, gifted Rovers a scarcely believable lead heading into the home second leg, for which tickets were demanded by the Wirral public with rare desire.
Quickly, officials decided that the Kop would host home fans only for this historic encounter, seeking to bank the yearning fans together and create a wall of noise and passion that would drive Tranmere to Wembley. It worked a treat. The stand morphed into a gyrating mass of human emotion, with rolling waves of guttural encouragement washing down on the favoured sons. Nick Henry caught a volley sweeter than any in his life, almost bursting the net beneath it, before a young Alan Mahon swiped home a penalty and Dave Kelly rounded out the fantasy.
Prenton Park had nary witnessed such a night. The Kop was duly christened and, following a convincing campaign, became the home end in time to start the 2001/02 season, my first as a match-going, seven-year old fan. Thus, I’ve only ever known the Cowshed as an away end, save for the blissful anecdotes told by my father, for whom it was a second home during the Friday Night Football revolution in the early-90s.
Accordingly, when the opportunity finally arose to enter the Cowshed, albeit for a game of lacklustre proportions, I was giddy with anticipation. I clanked through the turnstile, eyed the most unfamiliar cranny of this most familiar church, and ambled up the steps, entering the shrine from a novel angle. I then proceeded to stand on hallowed ground. Where my Dad once stood, and his Dad before him. Where hundreds once huddled in the dire 1980s. Where thousands once thronged to watch the great escape.
It was Tuesday night in 2014 but, if you squinted hard enough and avoided the fanboys with meticulous quiffs attached to iPhones like the needy to intravenous drips, it was possible to summon within the poetic mind a Friday night in ’92. At long last, I felt I’d seen it all, experienced it all, and was ushered into an altogether more sequestered pantheon of Tranmere fans.
I felt a sense of belonging, to my era and, more importantly, to that long gone.