By Ryan Ferguson
I wasn’t old enough to watch the swashbuckling teams of Johnny King, but his legacy touched me just as it touched everybody associated with Tranmere Rovers. It was stories of scintillating football, passed down through the generations. It was a chapter in the history book, informing of greatness. It was videos and images and quotes, so cherished by Rovers fans across the land. Quite simply, Johnny King placed an indelible mark on the history of our club; a mark that will never be forgotten, even as years pass and eras fade away.
The news of King’s passing at the age of 77 was a hammer blow to us all. Yet, while sadness is natural, we should take this opportunity to celebrate his monumental achievements at Tranmere Rovers.
King had two spells as Rovers’ boss, the second of which came to define the club as we know it. From the brink of extinction, the gaffer hauled Tranmere up through the divisions, to the Premier League precipice. He filled the trophy cabinet. He won promotions. He even guided Tranmere into Europe for the first time. Ultimately, he taught this humble club to crawl, walk and dream, all with a breathtaking charisma.
To fully appreciate King’s impact on the Wirral, a simple comparison is needed. When he took over for his most famous spell as boss, in 1987, Tranmere languished in Fourth Division squalor. Peter Johnson had saved the club from administration following the disastrous reign of Bruce Osterman, but a decade of neglect was palpable. Prenton Park was crumbling. The squad was devoid of match-winning talent. Relegation into non-league oblivion seemed inevitable. However, King masterminded an unlikely recovery, as Tranmere beat Exeter City to maintain their Football League status, then proceeded to plot the greatest epoch in the club’s meandering history.
By the time he was ‘moved upstairs’ in 1996, Rovers had won two promotions and the Leyland DAF Cup. Wembley became a second home, as King used Johnson’s money to construct a remarkable squad. Once a small club anchored to the lower leagues, Tranmere were soon gallivanting around Italy, playing against clubs like Pisa and future stars like Oliver Bierhoff and Christian Vieri. International heroes such as Pat Nevin and John Aldridge suddenly wore that old white shirt, as King worked minor miracles. Rovers petrified huge clubs, reaching the League Cup semi-final, only to be stifled by woeful refereeing.
Of course, Rovers couldn’t quite break through to the Promised Land, as three successive playoff campaigns ended in heartache, but King’s status as a club icon was secured. Indeed, one could argue that he did more than any single person, even the great Bert Cooke, to mould Tranmere Rovers towards widespread renown. King secured the highest finish in Rovers’ history, and left a squad of exceptional quality. He mixed silky flair players with homegrown products, as the club thrived. When he left, Prenton Park had been transformed into a palatial stadium capable of seating more than 16,000. Attendances soared. Pride swirled. Hope permeated the heart. From difficult beginnings, Tranmere Rovers became a sleeping juggernaut under his command. The transformation was startling.
But today, we should forget about trophies and stadiums, records and promotions. We should remember the man, so unique to our game. Johnny King was truly beloved, by fans, players and executives alike. The outpouring of affection since the tragic news demonstrates that. He was a gentleman, a philosopher, and a football romantic. We’re just lucky he chose Tranmere Rovers as the beneficiary of his genius.
Rest in peace, Mr Tranmere.
Your toil will never be forgotten.