By Ryan Ferguson
The peak moment in the long history of Tranmere Rovers came at 16.32 on Sunday 27th February, 2000. At that precise moment, a ball caressed a net at Wembley Stadium, propelled by the left boot of Dave Kelly, a Superwhite captain. Behind the goal, thousands upon thousands celebrated in a sea of jubilation, as Rovers drew level in the League Cup final. Just thirteen minutes remained, and Leicester were on the ropes, a Goliath dazed quite literally by the force of David’s attack.
Of course, we all know what happened next. Leicester scored four minutes later and somehow held on amid a deluge of late Rovers pressure. From that fleeting zenith, Tranmere tumbled mercilessly through the divisions, and now languish in the fifth tier, far removed from the glory of yesteryear.
But what if it had been different? What if Kelly’s goal was a catalyst for success, an event that enabled the club to soar rather than slip through the ensuing decades? We’ve all fantasised about it, but now I’m going to commit those dreams to an article.
Without further adieu, here’s an alternative ending to our only major cup final, and a romantic reimagining of the years that followed:
With eighty-one minutes elapsed at Wembley, Leicester won a corner, which was attacked viciously by Matt Elliott, their bald and sinister captain. Joe Murphy, our fresh-faced goalkeeper, was beaten by the header, but Reuben Hazell was fortunately standing at the back post, and somehow managed to hack it off the line to preserve the 1-1 scoreline.
From there, the game settled into a frantic rhythm, as time seeped away. As the board was raised to indicate four minutes of additional time, Alan Mahon heaved a free-kick forward from his own half, deep into the Leicester box. Kelly scampered to retrieve it near the byline, and managed to stand the ball up beautifully, desperately, achingly, for Scott Taylor, arriving at the far post. The white dot floated in the tense Wembley air, looming like a gift of destiny, begging to be buried. Six yards out, Taylor timed his jump immaculately, rose above his marker majestically, and pounded a header towards goal. Suspense gripped a nation, as 74,313 people held their breath in the ancient, hallowed stadium, waiting for the ball to land. Then, amid a sudden explosion of colour and noise, it crashed off the underside of the crossbar and flew dramatically into the net beyond a helpless Tim Flowers. Tranmere had the lead, as their enormous army of fans wept tears of joy.
Against all the odds, Rovers held on heroically as Leicester bombarded Murphy’s goal. When Gareth Roberts hacked one last Robbie Savage shot away from goal, the referee blew his whistle, confirming the greatest Tranmere miracle of all-time. Players dropped to their knees in exhausted euphoria, before ambling up the sacred steps to receive their winners’ medals. Kelly hoisted the cup, glistening like the Holy Grail. Aldo paraded it in front of the fans, so gleeful and proud. Martin O’Neill didn’t know where to put his face.
The following day, 60,000 people gathered at Birkenhead Town Hall for a victory parade. Les Parry gave a rip-roaring speech, while Taylor was granted the Freedom of Wirral. After so many years, and so much toil, Tranmere Rovers had a major trophy in the cabinet, and the peninsula embraced its premier sports club like never before.
Aldo spent big on transfers in the offseason, preparing Rovers for their maiden voyage in the UEFA Cup. A first round tie against Red Star Belgrade drew a sellout crowd to Prenton Park, and Tranmere delivered an enchanting performance, winning 2-0 before eking out a 1-1 draw in Serbia. Wisla Kraków were dispatched in the second round, setting up a monumental clash with Feyenoord.
Rovers took 4,000 fans to Rotterdam and they watched in stunned disbelief as Taylor cancelled out a Jon Dahl Tomasson goal, dragging the Dutch giants back to Birkenhead on level terms. In the second leg, Tranmere rode their luck for vast portions of the game, but managed to keep a clean sheet, before a young Jason Koumas whipped a late free-kick into the top corner beneath the Kop, sending the home fans into raptures, and the Superwhites sailing into the fourth round, where Roma lay in waiting.
The mercurial Francesco Totti dominated proceedings in the first leg, as Rovers lost 1-0 at home. However, the trip to Rome provided the most magical night in the club’s history, with goals from Taylor and Wayne Allison illuminating the Stadio Olimpico and confirming a quarter-final date with the mighty Barcelona.
Little Tranmere Rovers, our hometown pride, welcomed the Catalan colossus for the first leg. Aldo made sure the pitch was nice and bobbly, more fit for Nick Henry’s workmanlike scampering than Pep Guardiola’s assured passing. Nonetheless, beneath the beaming lights of downtown Birkenhead, the game settled into a familiar rhythm, as Barca played some exquisite stuff. Patrick Kluivert put the visitors ahead after sixteen minutes, only for Marc Overmars and Rivaldo to create a three-goal deficit heading back to the Nou Camp, that sacrosanct shrine of football. Barca added three more goals in the second leg, through Phillip Cocu, Frank de Boer and Rivaldo again, but Stuey Barlow nicked one for Tranmere, a remarkable memento from a dazzling trip to the moon.
Though eventually outclassed by the brilliance of Barcelona, Rovers were spurred domestically by their continental odyssey. Automatic promotion was secured into the Premier League, and a new, global fanbase created a strong budget. Prenton Park was subsequently expanded to 30,000 seats to appease thousands on a season ticket waiting list, and Tranmere became a model of mid-table consistency well into the 2010s.
Leicester, on the other hand, were relegated three times in fourteen years, and somehow ended up with the club physio as manager, a discount bargain store as shirt sponsor, and eighty-five different loan players being used in a three-year span. Fans would lament how, just over a decade ago, they were on the brink of ultimate glory, only for the dream to crumble.
For one day, in that fateful League Cup final, they were on an equal footing with Tranmere Rovers. Now, they’re worlds apart, with bitter memories clouding the horizon.