By Ryan Ferguson
The history of Tranmere Rovers is littered with eccentric icons. From Stan Sayer, a bullish forward who tutored Dixie Dean, through to Ian Goodison, a defiant warrior who oozed charisma, this club has been a magnet for colourful characters. Yet, in terms of sheer incongruity, one man stands above the rest: Bruce Osterman, the American lawyer who owned the club during its lowest ebb.
To understand the man, you have to appreciate the times. In the mid-1970s and early-80s, Tranmere lived a hand-to-mouth existence, with financial problems lurking around every corner. Just to keep the club afloat, directors were forced to sell key players and scrape the barrel for other money-spinning initiatives. The Mersey Clipper pub was sold. The club built an indoor sports centre and agreed its first shirt sponsorship deal. A round of celebrity dinners proved popular. But, with attendances sagging below 3,000, there was a serious and recurring strain on resources.
One year, things got so bad that Rovers had to purchase a plain blue kit from a sports store because there was no market incentive for a manufacturer to get involved. In 1981, the club only managed to survive in the Football League after being re-elected. A takeover bid by US-based investor Billy McAteer failed, as chairman Gerry Gould to announced that Rovers would close in three weeks’ time. “We’re flogging a dead horse,” he said rather grimly.
Loyal supporters tried everything to keep the club alive. From selling Rovers-themed scratch-cards to collecting donations in buckets, the effort was noble. Tony Kramer, a London businessman, became interested in buying the club, to the point where he promised lavish spending on players such as George Best should his bid be successful. However, though the board was desperate to find a buyer to stave off closure, it was unwilling to negotiate with Kramer, whose plans seemed deeply unrealistic. He withdrew from the process, and Tranmere managed to survive only with last-ditch help from fans and a £200,000 loan from Wirral Council.
Around about this time, in 1983, former Rovers player Ken Bracewell was coaching the San Francisco Scots of the North American Soccer League. After one training session, he was approached by an enthusiastic onlooker, who was keen to learn more about a game he loved on a participatory level. That onlooker was Bruce Osterman, a well known attorney in the city.
Before long, Osterman and Bracewell began discussing the strength of various football leagues around the world. Bracewell told him England had the most amount of professional clubs, and Osterman’s interest was duly piqued. He was fascinated by purchasing a club, more to satisfy his hobby than make money, and Bracewell was soon tasked with finding a suitable option. At the time, English football was in a dire financial position, so numerous clubs were up for sale, but Bracewell didn’t get very far in negotiations. Then, he settled on Tranmere, for whom he played between 1959-1961. A deal was swiftly agreed.
On 20th July 1984, Osterman rocked up at Prenton Park and promptly bought the club. Thus, Tranmere Rovers became the first English team to have an American owner. With Bracewell overseeing the day-to-day operation, Osterman vowed to “do a Watford” and take Rovers up through the divisions. While that seemed highly improbable, the initial reaction from fans was fairly positive. The San Franciscan spoke well, and his initial investment of £120,000 kept the club alive when otherwise it may have died.
“I didn’t come here to just stay in the fourth division,” said Osterman in a Northern Echos documentary. “Having said that, I have limited resources. I’m not a multi, multi millionaire. This is an investment of the heart. I love this game.”
Indeed, Osterman was a successful lawyer, rather than a businessman of serious renown. Born in 1942, he graduated from the University of Washington Law School in 1966, before entering the world of insurance claims. While rich in a personal sense, his wealth simply didn’t correlate with the business plan required at Tranmere.
Osterman visited Birkenhead infrequently. Yet, when he was in town, the owner loved to train with his players. He was especially enamoured of the goalkeeping position, and worked hard to master the technique. This led to friction with manager Bryan Hamilton, who left in acrimonious circumstances in 1985. Osterman hired the flamboyant Frank Worthington as player-manager, and tasked him with playing an entertaining brand of attacking football.
This was all very novel. A bubble of interest surrounded Rovers, with television cameras and journalists flocking to Prenton Park, if not necessarily fans. However, Osterman didn’t really understand all the fuss. “It’s no more mad than investing £1 million in a racing yacht,” he said of his Tranmere involvement. “Everybody has their own horses and yachts and things like that, and they do strange things. But this is not strange. I put thirty people to work with my investment, and they earn their livelihood because of me. So, in that sense, I think it’s a little more noble than racing the seas with some boat the sinks because its keel falls off.”
Ah, the symbolism. Within a matter of months, Rovers began to sink, under the weight of a poor business model. Osterman’s initial investment was essentially swallowed by excessive contracts given to new staff, rather than allocated for the maintenance of Prenton Park or the signing of better players. Tranmere basically existed under a benefactor model, but that benefactor was neither exceedingly wealthy nor totally aware of English football’s complex culture. As Osterman began chasing his money, things got truly nasty.
When training with the players proved an expensive hobby, and the failing business struggled to yield any return, Osterman turned to selling assets as an exit strategy. Obviously, Prenton Park was the most viable option, and the owner conceived a plan to sell its land to a development company, which would in turn hand it over to the Tesco supermarket chain. Osterman put all his eggs in this one basket, hoping that the £4 million sale price would clear mounting debts, repay his initial investment, and build a new stadium. Aside from its financial improbability, that plan showed no understanding of how much Prenton Park meant to Rovers fans, who had called it home for over seventy years. At best, it was an extremely risky proposition. At worst, it was wilful tampering with the future of Tranmere Rovers for personal gain.
Four directors resigned in protest at the plans, which were rejected at a council meeting. Osterman failed to earmark a site for a potential new stadium, as his vision was exposed as self-serving and untethered to any realistic foundation. Despite his threats to close the club down if the plans were stymied, Osterman was defeated by the council. In turn, the development company demanded its money back, and Osterman attempted to wind Tranmere up, while speaking to potential investors.
In 1987, to prevent the situation spiralling into an even worse mess, George Higham, a local director, obtained an Administration Order under the new Insolvency Act, stripping Osterman and his directors of power before they could do any further damage. “I was betrayed like Jesus at the last supper,” Osterman complained, but if it wasn’t for Higham, we likely wouldn’t even have a club to support today.
Rovers were the first Football League club to enter administration. The wage bill was cut by widespread redundancies, from the boardroom to the dugout. Company cars were repossessed, and resources were pruned to the absolute bare essentials. Ronnie Moore, a senior player, was placed in charge, as the club survived on a £100,000 donation from director Norman Wilson. He stashed the cash in a bank account to which Osterman was never granted access.
On 20th March 1987, the debacle ended, when Osterman’s 260,000 shares were bought by Peter Johnson, a swashbuckling local entrepreneur. Under his aegis, Rovers managed to keep the relegation wolves at bay, before flying through the leagues at a revamped Prenton Park. Tranmere never looked back.
As for Osterman? Well, according to Internet reports, he seemingly returned to San Francisco, where he continues to practice law from a third floor office. Whether he still has any connections to football is unknown. Indeed, any connections to Tranmere Rovers were severed years ago.
Now, his chaotic and quite unbelievable reign at Prenton Park has been consigned to history. And that’s where it belongs, a bad memory from a desperate era.
- Tranmere Rovers, The Complete Record by Steve Wilson, Gilbert Upton and Peter Bishop
- Northern Echos documentary, via YouTube
- The official website of Bruce Osterman Law Offices
- Liverpool Echo article on Peter Johnson’s reign at Tranmere