Today, we have a guest post from Sam Robinson, a Sports Journalism graduate from the University of Central Lancashire. A passionate Tranmere fan, Sam has been published by The Guardian and many other outlets, in addition to spending time within the media departments of Accrington Stanley, Notts County and Tranmere. His piece focuses on five crucial games of Johnny King’s reign as Rovers manager. Please enjoy the article, and follow Sam on Twitter, @SRobinsonMedia, to access more of his work.
There is a statue outside Prenton Park which was paid for by the supporters and offers tribute to the best manager in the history of Tranmere Rovers Football Club. It is of John King, a man to whom so many owe so much and whose passing brings sadness but plenty of fond memories, too.
So often heroes are acknowledged posthumously so there is a sense of relief that the great man was able to see how much he meant to the people of Tranmere Rovers as he became immortalised outside of his footballing home before he passed away. There was no man more deserving of such an honour.
It was during King’s second spell as manager that a generation of Tranmere fans enjoyed some of the best days of their lives thanks to the manager and the teams he built through shrewd judgment, an exceptional eye for talent, and immeasurable charisma.
Established internationals like John Aldridge, Pat Nevin and Liam O’Brien were persuaded to grace the turf at Prenton Park, excelling under King’s tutelage and insistence of playing football on the front foot. The academy was just as reliable as a source for talent with Shaun Garnett, Tony Thomas, Kenny Irons and many more all making the grade during King’s time as manager, with Warwick Rimmer a key part of that.
King took the club from the foot of the Fourth Division to the precipice of the Premier League. Three successive defeats in the Division One play-offs could not taint King’s legacy; he had achieved too much for that to be possible.
In total, King managed Tranmere for almost 15 years, taking in close to 700 games. Here are five of the most important and historic from that time.
1) Tranmere 1-0 Exeter City, Prenton Park, 8th May 1987
In 1987, Tranmere were in a perilous predicament. The tyrannical American owner Bruce Osterman had racked up huge debts and almost run the club into the ground, but there was still life in the Wirral side for King to work his magic with.
Incoming Chairman Peter Johnson turned to King with the long-term future of the club at risk and the threat of relegation to non-league football a serious possibility. It was his second spell in charge and the first half-dozen results back at Prenton Park yielded just three points. Yet the Whites entered their Friday night finale with Exeter City knowing that a win would be enough to retain their place in the Fourth Division.
The pressure was on but King spoke in a reassuringly calm manner ahead of the game: “We have to play it down,” he said. “They have got to go and play football; they don’t want to be up in the rafters. I’ve got to keep their feet on the floor. They have to go out there and do their job professionally.”
That relaxation transmitted itself to his starting eleven, which thrived on the occasion and saved Tranmere from relegation, a huge achievement in the circumstances at the time.
The key moment arrived when Ian Muir collected a long throw before twisting the blood of his marker, working enough space to clip a cross to the back post where Gary Williams powered home one of the most famous goals in the history of the club in front of the Cowshed.
It was enough to seal victory in front of 6,983, who had little idea that this result would set the ball rolling for an unbelievable journey – a “rocket ride to the moon” as King so famously said.
2) Tranmere 2-1 Bristol Rovers, Wembley, 20th May 1990
A fraction over three years after saving the club from oblivion, King had the honour of leading his side out at Wembley in the final of the 1990 Leyland DAF Trophy against Bristol Rovers, who had done the double over Tranmere in the league earlier in the campaign as they romped to the Third Division title.
Undeterred by their previous losses against the Pirates, King’s men went about their task with a ruthless efficiency. Nearly ten minutes had elapsed when the ball fell to the predatory Muir, Tranmere’s record goalscorer, who acrobatically arrowed a shot across the goalkeeper and into the bottom corner from sixteen yards to put the Whites ahead.
Early in the second half, Bristol Rovers equalised as Devon White slammed a fierce shot past Eric Nixon via the underside of the crossbar, but King’s men were not to be denied, winning the game through Jim Steel.
The targetman, once described as the Maypole that his strike partners danced around, took centre stage as the hero of the day, heading in Muir’s cross from a couple of yards out to add silverware to the promotion from the previous season.
Tangible reward for King’s success was the least the maverick deserved.
3) Tranmere Rovers 1-0 Bolton Wanderers, Wembley, 1st June 1991
Whilst Tranmere had been successful at Wembley against Bristol Rovers, they could not repeat the feat a week later against Neil Warnock’s Notts County, losing 2-0 to the Magpies in the Third Division play-off final.
A year later, they were back at the famous footballing arena to try and go one better and win promotion for the second time in three seasons with Bolton Wanderers the opposition on this occasion.
A nervy contest ended 0-0 after 90 minutes and, when Bolton won a corner, it looked like there would be danger for Tranmere but, in typical fashion, King’s side broke at speed and struck the decisive blow.
Shaun Garnett’s header found Dave Higgins, who slipped the ball to Tony Thomas. The full-back played Johnny Morrissey down the line and the winger’s pass set Ged Brannan racing through on goal. The shot was saved by the goalkeeper but fell for Chris Malkin, who steered his shot into the bottom corner to catapault Tranmere into the second tier for the first time in half a century.
It was the culmination of a remarkable story for the striker, who was working at Barclays Bank when he was signed from local non-league outfit Stork AFC. He was not the only one, as defenders Steve Vickers and Dave Higgins became regulars in the team after being recruited from the non-league circuit. Between them the trio would go on to make more than 1,000 appearances for Tranmere, a credit to King’s ability to spot talent in the unlikeliest of places.
His Trip to the Moon continued apace following his “greatest moment in football” and only had one more stop to go before reaching the top.
4) Pisa Sporting Club 0-1 Tranmere, Arena Garibaldi, 8th December 1992
King was used to making history with Tranmere and did so again with his troops in the Anglo-Italian Cup at the Arena Garibaldi against Pisa Sporting Club in December 1992.
The conditions for football on that night in Italy were far from ideal, as Tranmere Rovers: The Complete Record notes: “If English referee Ian Borritt had not taken into consideration the 250 travelling supporters, it is almost certain the match would have been postponed following 24 hours of incessant rain that drenched not only the pitch but also our supporters.”
Nevertheless, the rain did little to dampen the spirits of those who had made the 1,175-mile trip from Birkenhead to the city of the Leaning Tower, as Kenny Irons went around the keeper and scored the only goal of the game to give Tranmere a first away win in European football.
Incidentally, Pisa fielded a young striker named Christian Vieri that night. He would go on to become one of the most fearsome goalscorers in Europe, but on that fateful night, he was up against Mark Hughes, Steve Mungall and Dave Higgins, and quite frankly never stood a chance!
5)Tranmere 3-1 Aston Villa, Prenton Park, 16th February 1994
“I wouldn’t want to be associated with negative football,” King once said. “I always liked to have a bit of style in my teams.”
That was never more evident than the night his side put Premier League outfit Aston Villa to the sword with a scintillating attacking display that the fans at Prenton Park had become accustomed to during King’s time as manager.
But this wasn’t just any game, this was a League Cup semi-final, and this was his team at their swashbuckling best, pairing incisive football with devastating finishing.
Ian Nolan latched onto Pat Nevin’s smart reverse-pass and thundered an effort beyond the desperate grasp of Mark Bosnich to open the scoring, before defender Mark Hughes showed his class to perfectly judge a lob and send the ball into the far corner to spark pandemonium in the stands for the majority of the 17,140 in attendance.
The night got even better as Kenny Irons played a defence-splitting pass which allowed the deadly John Aldridge a sight of goal. The outcome was inevitable, though it took two attempts as the prolific marksman hit the post with his first shot, converting the rebound for a 3-0 lead.
A controversial last-minute goal from Dalian Atkinson was the only blot on the copybook for that night and would go on to be a key part of this two-legged affair, but this was still one of King’s finest nights at the helm of Tranmere – and there were plenty of them.
Many thanks to Sam for this brilliant article. For many fans, it will make for an emotional trip down memory lane.