By Ryan Ferguson
If James Hannay McGaul was the godfather of Tranmere Rovers, Bert Cooke was undoubtedly its first great architect and moderniser.
Cooke became Rovers manager in 1912 and stayed at Prenton Park until 1935, the longest reign in the club’s history. Through wars and economic depression, this stern chap took Tranmere from rudimentary beginnings and steered them into the Football League, setting Wirral’s pre-eminent football club on a course for prosperity.
Yet Cooke’s influence at Prenton Park was far greater than mere trophies in a cabinet, simple numbers on a payroll. His discovery and eventual sale of future stars became a business model by which Rovers abide to this day, while much of his tactical philosophy became ingrained in the club’s DNA. For instance, Cooke was the first Tranmere manager to really utilise wingers, and his belief in young players set a precedent that still holds sway in Birkenhead.
In essence, Bert Cooke was more than a football manager. He was arguably the most influential figure in the nascent Tranmere Rovers story, to be considered alongside Johnny King, Dave Russell and John Aldridge as the greatest boss ever to hold court on Borough Road. Without him, the club we adore may simply have died, a ruin of fiscal chaos rather than a sequestered jewel of English football. For that alone, we owe him dearly.
Herbert Michael Cooke was born in Birkenhead in 1882, two years before Belmont FC, the forebear to Tranmere Rovers, came into being. Thirty years later, Cooke assumed control at the newly-built Prenton Park, becoming Rovers manager in August 1912. To that point, Tranmere had endured a fairly nondescript existence, meandering through regional amateur leagues like one big missed opportunity. However, Cooke saw the club’s new ground as a platform on which to build, and his life was quickly consumed by a dream to lead Rovers into the Football League.
With attendances hovering between 5,000 and 8,000 early in his reign, Cooke had the raw materials to fashion a strong club. Nonetheless, his vision was precise, his ambition wild, and Tranmere Rovers would scale profound heights under his tutelage.
It took a few years for Cooke to stamp his philosophy on the club, but Rovers won the Lancashire Combination in 1914, fuelled by thirty-two goals from Welshman Stan Rowlands, who became the first player to represent his nation while playing for Tranmere.
Rowlands’ emergence into stardom, and Rovers’ new-found taste for silverware, were tantalising glimpses of Cooke’s managerial ability. However, just as a new sporting dawn seemed set to rise over Wirral, its journey was upended by the drumbeats of war. As British forces engaged in World War I, the Football League suspended operations between 1915 and 1919. In the absence of competitive matches, Tranmere played against local sides for the benefit of war-related charities, but all the while, Cooke was plotting the club’s next big expansion.
It finally arrived once the war concluded, when Leeds City, the dominant pre-war club from that metropolis, became embroiled in a scandal relating to a breach of the maximum wage policy. A financial crisis engulfed City, who were expelled from the Football League eight games into the 1919/20 campaign. The club’s reserve side was also removed from the Central League, and following a brief negotiation, it was decided that Tranmere would take its place, assuming Leeds’ playing record. This was a huge step forward for Cooke and Rovers, who would compete against the reserve teams of Liverpool, Everton, Manchester City and Preston North End, among others. Such quality opposition undoubtedly helped Tranmere, who also won the Cheshire Senior Cup in 1919, rounding out a terrific season.
When the Football League expanded in 1921 with the creation of a regional Third Division, all senior teams in the mixed Central League were ushered into the fold. This was a tremendous gift for Tranmere, who would stay in the League for ninety-three unbroken years, but Cooke worked mighty hard to modernise his club and enable it to experience such remarkable longevity against all the odds.
In their first ever League game, Rovers beat Crewe Alexandra 4-1 at Prenton Park on 27th August 1921, as Cooke saw his dream morph into reality. Always a dapper dresser, the manager wore a three-piece suit, flat cap, pocket watch and cravat for the iconic team photograph on that day. Often considered a taciturn and austere figure, Bert even managed a knowing half-smile for the occasion. After all, Tranmere Rovers, his pride and joy, were finally on the map.
In order to survive in the Football League, the club required a greater sense of professionalism and creativity. As the secretary-manager, Cooke became a serial wheeler and dealer, robbing from Peter to pay Paul and keep Tranmere afloat. In 1923, he signed George Moorhouse, who later packed up and moved to New York before captaining the USA at World Cups in 1930 and ’34 after gaining American citizenship. Moorhouse was thus the first Englishman ever to appear at the World Cup, a tremendous coup for Rovers.
Cooke was also the first Tranmere boss to sign players from southern clubs with any conviction or regularity. Stan Sayer, a bullish forward, was one notable arrival; the veteran joining from Millwall and helping to broaden Rovers’ horizons beyond regional talent.
Nonetheless, Cooke also put local kids to great use, with the more experienced imports helping to tutor raw youngsters. For instance, Sayer was a keen mentor for William Ralph Dean, a hulking lad from Birkenhead who soon became one of the most legendary goalscorers in the game’s history. Known to all as Dixie, the curly-haired Goliath made his Tranmere debut in 1924, aged 16. He scored 27 goals in 30 games, combining brute force with balletic subtlety, before transferring to Everton for the princely sum of £3,000.
Selling Dean across the Mersey was akin to the Boston Red Sox trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920. It was a begrudging financial necessity, but one that altered the course of sporting history forever. Who knows what Tranmere may have achieved if Dean had stayed at Prenton Park and hauled them through the leagues? However, Cooke was nothing if not pragmatic, and the deal made too much financial sense to turn down.
The Rovers boss initially promised Dean a 10% cut of his transfer fee, but only coughed up £30 once the deal was confirmed. Dixie donated that fee to Birkenhead General Hospital, but felt slighted, and later branded Cooke a “soft soaper, until he finishes with you.”
Indeed, Cooke was ruthless, believing nobody but himself was bigger than the club, and leaving no tactic, fair or foul, unturned in his mission to establish Tranmere as a genuine force of English football.
On the field, Cooke also began the great tradition of dazzling wing play at Prenton Park, with Ellis Rimmer, another local product, embodying the flamboyance to which Rovers aspired. Rimmer, the uncle of future chief scout Warwick, played only 61 league games for Tranmere, but managed to score twenty goals from his wide berth before moving to Sheffield Wednesday for £3,000 in 1928. Rimmer helped the Hillsborough outfit win the First Division and FA Cup (scoring in every round), in addition to earning four England caps, representing another roaring success for Cooke.
Rimmer left a legacy of dynamic, pacey wing play that stretched into the new millennium. In the mid-90s, legendary manager Johnny King relied heavily on wingers such as Pat Nevin and Johnny Morrissey, explaining that, “When the artist has outlined his picture, he likes to start adding colour. That’s what the wide players do.” Accordingly, the influence of Bert Cooke, in outlining the doctrine of Tranmere Rovers football, cannot be overstated. Indeed, it can be viewed as a competent guideline even to this day, as the Superwhites languish at arguably the lowest ebb of their history.
In bygone times, Cooke always ensured that a vision for long-term sustainability was in place, something sorely lacking recently. To that end, he often sold Rovers’ best players, such as Dean, Rimmer, Pongo Waring and Bill ‘Nibbler’ Ridding, before reconstructing on the fly.
For instance, in 1930/31, tasked with rebuilding his team following a raft of high-profile departures, Cooke assembled a forward line of Jack Kennedy, Fred Watts and Ernie Dixon, who combined to score 93 goals, still a Football League record for a trio of teammate forwards in a single season. This heralded a new era for Tranmere, who continued to bob along respectably near the summit of Division Three North.
A year later, Cooke led Rovers into battle against the mighty Chelsea, as 13,300 flocked to Prenton Park for a prestigious FA Cup tie. Goals from Watts and Dixon earned Tranmere a plucky 2-2 draw, and a replay before 35,402 at Stamford Bridge, which was eventually lost 5-3. Nonetheless, Rovers gained vital exposure, and a further cup tie against Liverpool in 1934 continued that phenomenon. The game was switched from Birkenhead to Anfield to accommodate a larger crowd, and that’s just what they got, as 61,036 poured through the turnstiles for a feisty Merseyside derby. Liverpool ran out 3-1 victors, but this was a historic occasion for Rovers. Indeed, it was technically their largest ever crowd for a ‘home’ game, with the gate receipts of £4,007 pleasing Cooke immensely.
In 1934, Tranmere enjoyed a long run in the Welsh Cup, but lost to Bristol City in the final. Unperturbed, Cooke’s men went one better in ’35, beating local rivals Chester City at Sealand Road to win a piece of significant silverware. Rovers remain just one of ten English teams ever to hoist that trophy, which is always an intriguing trivia question.
For all his wonderful work at Prenton Park, Bert Cooke was never able to steer Tranmere into the second tier. He came close on a number of occasions, most notably in 1935, but the team’s form would typically collapse amid media rumours that they didn’t want to go up. On the contrary, most analysts would argue that Cooke’s endless pursuit of small advantages spoke to his burning desire for success, and that such suggestions were a deliberate attempt to smear the divisive boss.
In this regard, Cooke went too far in 1935, and eventually departed Prenton Park in acrimonious circumstances. The FA launched an enquiry into illegal payments he made to directors at the club, alongside suggestions of bribes to officials at other teams to induce certain players to sign with Tranmere. The embattled board sacked Cooke on 30th April 1935, before being dismissed themselves at an extraordinary General Meeting soon thereafter. Following the FA probe, Rovers chairman Herbert Roberts was suspended for twelve months, as much of what Cooke had built was dragged through the mud.
Meanwhile, Cooke refused to cooperate with the FA, and was thus suspended indefinitely from involvement in football. He never worked in the game again, but did frequent Prenton Park as a spectator, quite remarkably.
Cooke died on the Wirral in April 1959, aged 76. Tranmere drew 0-0 away to Norwich City that day before 26,594. In happier times, Bert had dreamed of such occasions, such fame for his hometown club.
He taught Rovers to walk, and nourished the club as it learned to fight for itself. But, rather like Dr Jekyll, Mr Cooke was eventually overwhelmed by his own creation. After going so far, his vision was obscured, his motives questionable. Perhaps Bert just stayed around too long, inviting trouble.
Yet, no matter how you feel about his shadier business deals, Cooke’s legacy as the first great builder of Tranmere Rovers is unquestioned.
Without him, the club we love may well have died before we were even born. For that, he deserves, and receives, our utmost admiration.