By Ryan Ferguson
Aaron Cresswell is now a household name known around the world. The West Ham full-back has been phenomenal in his first two Premier League seasons, winning the admiration of thousands and piquing the interest of millions more. Such is the celebrity-spawning nature of contemporary football, scores of people, from every creed and continent, have subsequently rushed to buy claret and blue shirts bearing his name. Inadvertently, I may have started the trend. I own one of the aforementioned garments, only mine is a Tranmere Rovers away strip from the 2010/11 campaign.
That’s right: I idolised Aaron Cresswell before it became popular, before it became fashionable, before it qualified you as a card-carrying hipster. The wonderfully inventive left-back graduated through the youth system of my beloved Rovers and proved to be a beacon of light in an otherwise murky era. Together with Dale Jennings, the electric wonderkid who eventually earned a move to Bayern Munich, Cresswell terrorised League One during one of my more obsessive periods of support; the Dynamic Duo making it fun to follow Tranmere again, and transforming otherwise mundane matches into exciting displays of raw, homegrown, exhilarating talent.
Cresswell had, and continues to have, a left foot that could unblock drains, open tins of tuna, perhaps even play the cello. I fondly remember his devastating set pieces, which would simply bamboozle opposition defences. Aaron would whip and swerve and curl and bend the ball, caressing it with beautiful, evocative technique, all without sacrificing pinpoint accuracy. His deliveries would fairly careen into the penalty area, leaving complete devastation in their wake. There was just so much shape, silk and personality to everything he did on the pitch.
Where the world now sees a swashbuckling Premier League star, I just see another humble, local lad done good. Aaron is the latest in a long lineage of tremendously gifted footballers to journey from the Tranmere youth system to Premier League notoriety. In this regard, he follows the same path traversed by Rovers alumni such as Jason Koumas, Ryan Taylor and Alan Mahon. Just like his forebears, Cresswell worked hard to get to the top, but never forgot his roots. He was polite. He represented the club with pride. And he always had time for the fans. Ultimately, he was a good kid, which makes his meteoric rise and continued success all the more special.
However, life wasn’t always so rosy for Cresswell, who dealt with the heartache of rejection by Liverpool at the age of 15. A scouser born and raised, Aaron was a fervent Red as a child, even attending games with his father. He jumped at a dream opportunity to serve an apprenticeship at Anfield in his early teenage years. However, that dream spiralled into a daunting nightmare in 2005, when Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier failed to see any professional potential in Cresswell, who was released into a bleak world of uncertainty.
“When you’re 15 and get released by your boyhood club, it’s heartbreaking,” Cresswell opined in an interview with the Telegraph. “I thought it might not work out.”
Fortunately for Cresswell and all parties concerned, the tireless work of one man insured he would get a second chance. That one man was Warwick Rimmer, the immensely perceptive talent evaluator who, for a long spell, essentially doubled as the entire scouting network of Tranmere Rovers.
At Rimmer’s behest, the humble Wirral club made a habit of pouncing on promising players who never made the grade across the Mersey. Rimmer’s modus operandi, which ultimately raised more than £15 million in transfer fees for Tranmere and effectively kept the club in existence, involved scouring the region and studying these players, so that when the next Jason Koumas or Iain Hume or Steve Simonsen fell from the larger net of the more industrial fishermen, Rovers, like opportunistic, rudimentary anglers, were ready to pounce. Cresswell was happy to take the bait and, after careful nurturing in the Prenton pond, was later released back into the ocean as a much stronger, brighter and resilient fish.
In the Tranmere youth team, he was integral to a heralded group of homegrown players that went on to make more than 600 senior appearances. Craig Curran, a prodigious goalscorer in the junior ranks, went on to score a stupendous 36-minute hat-trick for the senior side at the age of eighteen, breaking an 83-year old record set by Dixie Dean in 1924. Ash Taylor, a natural leader, eventually earned a move to Scotland, and has featured regularly for Aberdeen ever since. Danny Holmes, a no-nonsense grafter, was another local lad who represented Rovers with unbridled passion on a weekly basis.
Yet it was the alert, agile, adventurous left-back who went the furthest, rising to the very top courtesy of immense self-belief and an insatiable hunger for progress.
After three years of steady matriculation, Cresswell was granted his first professional contract prior to the 2008/09 season, watermarking his graduation from the youth team. On 1st November 2008, then-Rovers boss Ronnie Moore gave Aaron his full league debut in a 1-0 defeat to MK Dons. In the subsequent two seasons, the youngster was unfortunately forced to share playing time with two exceptional veterans: the workmanlike Andy Taylor, who won a Player of the Year accolade, and the mercurial Zoumana Bakayogo, who, with searing speed and vibrant positivity, became a cult figure at Prenton Park.
However, Cresswell maintained a positive attitude and, when selected, played with a thirst and aptitude no manager could ignore. In April 2009, he scored his first professional goal in a 2-0 Tranmere win over Bristol Rovers, and, a fortnight later, saw his perpetual evolution rewarded with a two-year contract extension, alongside fellow prospect Terry Gornell. He would have to wait until the last year of that deal to become the first choice left-back but, boy, did he make the most of the opportunity when it arose.
During the 2010/11 season, Cresswell set the world on fire. Keeping Bakayogo out of the team with performances of eye-catching sophistication, he played almost 50 games, and formed the aforementioned tandem with Dale Jennings that piqued the interest of scouts all over the world. Together, the duo created utter pandemonium in opposition defences. Jennings scored some of the most incredible goals Prenton Park has ever seen, including one famous effort which saw him gallop from inside his own half of the field, slalom past five or six Plymouth defenders, and slot home an emphatic finish. Similarly, Cresswell found his shooting boots, smashing home a wondrous free-kick away to Dagenham, and unleashing a 35-yard fizzing cannon ball into the top corner at Leyton Orient. He always did enjoy playing in London.
Rovers manager Les Parry fought hard to keep Jennings and Cresswell. He offered contract extension to both, but remained realistic at heart. The sale of at least one player for a significant transfer fee every eighteen months was etched into the Tranmere budget, and Parry knew more than most how vital it was for the club to secure much-needed funds. Thus, in the summer of 2010, Jennings, who pipped Southampton’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the League 1 Apprentice of the Year Award, moved to Bayern Munich for a fee which could have eventually escalated to £1.7 million. Cresswell, meanwhile, was pursued by a slew of Championship clubs, and eventually left for Ipswich Town, who were forced by a tribunal to pay £240,000 up front, followed by a further £45,000 for every 15 appearances the left-back subsequently made. Rovers also secured a 20% sell-on clause, which netted them a drip-fed £750,000 once Cresswell was sold to West Ham in 2014.
I can still recall the crushing disappointment of losing two of my all-time favourite Tranmere players in the same summer. In a financial sense, selling Cresswell and Jennings was the correct move. The resultant income filled what otherwise would have been a monumental black hole in the club’s accounts. However, as a fan who wants to be enthralled, intrigued and excited, the loss of two scintillating young stars was soul destroying. When we had Cresswell and Jennings wreaking havoc down the left flank and gaining international acclaim, it made the heart of any Rovers fan swell. These were our boys, from our youth system, lifting our club to relative success. However, since they left, we’ve had to endure perhaps the most banal and depressing stretch in the club’s history. There was no longer any joy, any youthful spontaneity, in the play of Tranmere Rovers, which was deeply saddening.
Of course, Cresswell went on to flourish in Suffolk, playing 132 of the scheduled 138 league games over three seasons, winning the 2011/12 Supporters’ Player of the Year Award, and allaying any fears about his ability to step up in class by becoming arguably the most coveted prospect in the most competitive second division anywhere in the world. Aaron’s continual progress mirrored that of Ipswich during his time at Portman Road, with finishes of 15th, 14th and 9th under Paul Jewell and, later, Mick McCarthy, slowly encouraging fans to embrace a new generation of Tractor Boys.
In particular, the usually acerbic McCarthy was a huge Cresswell advocate, branding his burgeoning star as the finest left-back the second tier had to offer. That notion was imbued with greater credence following the 2013/14 campaign, when Cresswell was voted into the Championship Team of the Year by his fellow professionals. There seemed to be a near inexorable momentum gathering behind Aaron, whose assertive, polished and headline-grabbing performances instigated a clamour among Premier League clubs eager for his signature. West Brom seemingly led the chase from the start, only for West Ham to emerge victorious with a late, and somewhat surprising, bid in excess of £3.5 million. Cresswell signed a lucrative 5-year contract with the Hammers, completing his monumental journey from the Tranmere foothills to the Premier League zenith.
At the very outset, I wondered whether Aaron would struggle at such an elite level. After all, he had gone from regularly playing the likes of Carlisle, Crewe and Walsall to Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in less than six years; from marking mortal journeymen to sharing the pitch with an array of the planet’s most accomplished footballers. We were ever so slightly worried about the prospect of him facing Eden Hazard or Alexis Sanchez or Angel Di Maria. It was all so mystical.
Yet Aaron settled in perfectly from the very start, winning the starting left-back berth with a fine pre-season, and never looking back. West Ham enjoyed a fairytale start to his first campaign, riding high in the European places, and Cresswell played an integral part. They eventually finished 12th, but have taken another step forward this term under Slaven Bilic, to the point where European qualification remains a realistic possibility.
Cresswell has been confident, enthusiastic and, above all else, a star performer for the Irons. Last summer, he was rewarded with a new five-year contract, which will keep him at West Ham until 2020. Now, pundits and fans alike are beginning to tout Cresswell for a possible England call-up. Without doubt, he’s been the most consistently excellent English left-back this term, outperforming Leighton Baines, Luke Shaw and Kieron Gibbs, so his international fate will likely be determined by Roy Hodgson’s squad-construction philosophy. Does he favour in-form players no matter what team they play for, or only seriously consider those playing for the more glamorous clubs? If it’s the former, Aaron Cresswell should, without question, be an England player.
If he does receive a call-up, Aaron will be the first Tranmere youth team graduate to earn an England cap since Steve Coppell in the late-1970s and early-80s. Hopefully, moving forward, he’ll be able to maintain his splendid form and possibly achieve even more. One day, we may see Aaron Cresswell playing in the revamped Olympic Stadium, thriving in the Champions League, or even starring at a World Cup. He may join an even bigger club, or go on to compete with the ghosts of Dixie Dean and Pongo Waring for the title of Tranmere’s most successful homegrown talent of all-time. But no matter what happens, or where the game takes him, I’ll always wish him well, because he was always an honest lad who worked hard for his breaks in life.
Enjoy the ride, Crezza. You deserve it.