By Ryan Ferguson
When I first walked into Prenton Park on a cold September night in 2001, holding my Dad’s hand, the scene was overpowering. The floodlights burned my 6-year old eyes. The scent of hot dogs simmered on a distant grill. The hum of a large crowd warmed the heart. From our perch on the Kop, then packed with vocal diehards, the verdant pitch unfurled with majestic poetry. Yet the whole scene centred around one master painter, one inspired artist. He had long, black sideburns and oodles of charisma. Whenever he got the ball, an audible bolt of excitement would cascade through the old ground, bringing people to their feet in amazement. I was instantly amazed by this superstar, this Jason Koumas. He became my first Tranmere idol.
Jase would glide about the pitch, never so much running as floating effortlessly, almost gracefully, across the turf. In possession, he’d hover low to the ground, burrowing his way past defenders in the most lyrical fashion imaginable. So silky and skilful, Koumas could slither his way through an entire team, often coasting in off the flank to bend a sumptuous shot into the corner. He was nominally a central midfielder, but a succession of managers wisely unleashed him into a free-flowing playmaker role.
In many years of fandom since that first encounter, I’ve never seen such a natural genius, such a cool rock star, wear the white shirt of Tranmere Rovers. Sure, we’ve had some good players down the years, perhaps even some great ones. But Jason was different. Jason was special. He had the rare ability to electrify ten thousand people without even trying; the capacity to spark spasms of joy doing something he viewed as easy. With a sweet shimmy or a fantastic flick, Jason would make us dream, make us shout. But to him, it was just so normal, so routine. He was just playing footy with his mates. What was all the fuss about?
Koumas was born in Wrexham, enemy territory, on 25th September 1979. The son of a Greek Cypriot chip shop owner, Jason was nevertheless raised in Leasowe on the Wirral, just a fifteen minute drive from Prenton Park, where his name would eventually be sung in exultant tones. Koumas played for local teams during his school years, and his sublime natural talent attracted scouts from Liverpool, who ushered him into the Anfield academy aged nine.
He was in the same team as Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen with the Reds, and some even contend that Jason was considered the best prospect at that time. In his autobiography, Gerrard writes of fond memories playing alongside Koumas as a kid:
“Michael, Jason and I knew there would be half-an-hour at the end of five-a-side. ‘All those in Liverpool tops this end,’ Dave Shannon would shout, ‘and all the rest put bibs on.’ Kids wore all types of tops. But me, Michael and Jason came prepared: we agreed in advance which strip to wear. Come the five-a-sides, we were always in the same team. ‘Right,’ Michael said, ‘let’s all wear the Liverpool away kit next week.’ Jason and I made sure we came in with the right Liverpool top on. If my extensive collection of strips did not contain the proposed outfit, I’d be on Mum and Dad’s case in the car all the way back home. ‘Mum, Dad, I must have this kit. If I don’t, Jason and Michael will be on a different team. Please?’ Poor Mum and Dad. I pressured them badly. I sat in the back of the car and explained the humiliation if I didn’t have the right kit. Mum and Dad usually relented and got me sorted. Thank God. The thought of letting Michael or Jason down made me almost sick.”
Naturally, that Liverpool junior team thrashed opponents, and the star trident seemed destined to earn professional contracts together. Yet while Gerrard and Owen went on to enjoy illustrious careers at Anfield, Koumas never played a single minute for the senior side. Jason wanted to be the playmaker, pulling the strings from a central berth. However, that clashed with the plan of Liverpool coaches, who often played him on the wing. When YTS forms were offered, Koumas turned them down, and instead joined Tranmere on a three-year contract in 1997, aged eighteen. Liverpool’s loss was our gain, as legendary scout Warwick Rimmer pulled off his greatest coup. Before long, a hero would emerge on Prenton Road West.
At this juncture, the mainstream media typically focuses on what might have been for Jason Koumas, as if joining Tranmere Rovers was some great tragedy. The modern press is overwhelmingly centred around the Premier League, and scorn is reserved for any player who defies the machine to join a club perceived as smaller. Of course Koumas may have enjoyed a life of greater fame and fortune playing for Liverpool. That’s obvious. But at that time, he felt Tranmere was the right place for him, and that deserves respect. Yes, experts can lament what they see as a lack of drive, fight or ambition, but spare a thought for us, the diehard fans begging for a hero. Liverpool can’t catch all the big fish. Even the humble fisherman has his day.
Koumas made his Rovers debut in 1998 for manager John Aldridge. From the start, he was a transformative force. With inimitable flamboyance, he teased second division defences and honed his reputation, which grew as Tranmere embarked on an era of incredible cup giant-killings. Rovers shocked the football world in reaching the 2000 League Cup final, before enjoying a monumental FA Cup run the following season. Portsmouth were swept aside, then Mersey neighbours Everton were defeated 3-0 at Goodison Park. Koumas was instrumental in arguably the single greatest result in Rovers’ history, scoring a wonderful goal and providing an assist for Steve Yates. Further heroics against Southampton followed, with Tranmere surging back from a 3-0 deficit to win, setting up a quarter-final clash against Liverpool.
Here’s another extract from Gerrard’s book on that memorable game:
“Tranmere v Liverpool was a scrap between neighbours, so Gérard Houllier threw all his home-grown players into the fight: me, Michael, Carra, Robbie, Danny and Wrighty. An FA Cup quarter-final at an inhospitable ground like Prenton Park against opponents who wanted to carve us up was no place for foreigners like Patrick Berger. Us English lads understood what was at stake, the local pride as well as a ticket to the semis. Me, Michael and Carra had grown up aware of the amazing tradition of the FA Cup, its love of upsets. We were determined not to feel the underdog’s bite. The whole country would have pissed itself had we lost…
Wound up by Aldo and their fans, Rovers came flying at us. All that stuff in the papers about them launching everything at us was true. Tranmere didn’t disappoint. Looking into the eyes of Aldo’s players at kick-off, I saw the fire burning within each of them. Their existence depended on beating Liverpool. Brilliant. This was my kind of game. A good old English scrap on a shite pitch with only the strong-headed surviving…
My direct opponent that day was Jason Koumas, my old mate from the Vernon Sangster Sports Centre. His departure from Liverpool had been strange. Apparently, he wasn’t happy with the way Steve Highway and Hughie McAuley used him in the younger teams. Jason wanted to be pulling the strings in central midfield but they played him out wide so he disappeared to Tranmere. He progressed really quickly there, and it was good to see him again. We always got on well. Not that I showed any mercy. I always enjoyed playing against Jason because I always got the better of him. He doesn’t like the physical side. Boot Jason early and he fades.”
Fortunately for Rovers, not many lower league defenders could get close enough to Koumas to boot him. Although Liverpool ran out 4-2 victors in the quarter-final, a crowd of 16,342 was treated to a hearty performance at Prenton Park. Tranmere gave their all, but were simply outgunned by their millionaire rivals. It was another tale of what might have been, as second tier Wycombe Wanderers awaited in the semis.
Rovers were likely distracted by the cup exploits and relegation followed in May, as Aldridge stepped aside. Koumas was clearly capable of playing at a much higher level, and Tranmere fans didn’t really expect him to linger in the third division for long. Premier League clubs were circling like sharks, but Koumas completed another season on Wirral, for which I’m eternally grateful.
While I only saw Jason in his Rovers prime for a relatively short spell, he authored memories that will last a lifetime. My fondest Koumas moment was his stunning thirty yard free-kick in the 5-0 home demolition of Wrexham in 2001. It was one of my very first games, and the sight of that old Mitre ball arcing away from the despairing goalkeeper and into the roof of the Cowshed end net will stay with me forever. Stuey Barlow scored a hat-trick that night, his second in three days, as that swaggering Tranmere team made an everlasting impression on me. I was hooked, and life would never be the same again.
Koumas, the straw that stirred the drink, the emperor of Prenton Park, eventually departed for West Bromwich Albion in August 2002. Rovers received a club record fee of £2.25 million, paid in several instalments. There was also a sell-on clause, which paid handsomely when Koumas moved on to Wigan Athletic for £5.3 million in 2007. Always a maverick, Jason was beloved by West Brom fans, and his performances were very good in the Premier League. However, he clashed with manager Bryan Robson, who questioned the work ethic and defensive appetite of his star before placing him on the transfer list.
Obviously, there is a tinge of sadness here. Ultimately, 96 Premier League appearances and 6 Premier League goals, coupled with 34 international caps and 10 international goals, represents a poor return from the greatest natural ability I’ve ever seen in a local footballer. West Bromwich Albion should’ve been a mere stepping stone for Jason, onto a giant like Arsenal or Tottenham or even Manchester United. He had all the required items in his toolbox. Alas, he ended up at Cardiff, then back home with one of the worst Tranmere squads in history between 2013-15.
In some respects, it was difficult to watch Jason play once he returned. The club was mired in crisis, and his strained attempts at rekindling the glory days offered a sobering reminder of how far we had fallen. Rovers were relegated in successive seasons, out of the Football League after ninety-four years. While it was fun to have a breathing legend wear that shirt again, rather like Juan Roman Riquelme at Boca Juniors, it hurt to see Jason join a rare group to experience three different relegations with Tranmere.
Down the years, many people have said and written many things about Jason Koumas. Some called him lazy and lamented his penchant for self-destruction. Others said he was a laconic enigma, like Cantona or Berbatov. Detractors pointed to the skipped training sessions with Wales and the incessant parties. Supporters spoke of the skill, the flair, and the memories he created at whim.
Without doubt, his enormous potential was never realised, but there was another side to Jason and his story that is often overlooked. He had Tranmere coursing through his veins, and illuminated our modern history without even trying. His talent was never fully unleashed, but as Rovers fans we were privileged to witness the few glimpses of genius he did provide.
“I can’t thank the fans enough,” he said upon retiring last year. “They’ve been unbelievable with me since the day I made my debut as a kid to the past two seasons I was back at the club. I love them.”
The feeling was mutual, Jase, and it always will be.
You will always be my first Tranmere hero.