By Ryan Ferguson
The vaunted Highbury clock ticked towards infamy.
With moments remaining in the second round of the 1973 League Cup, Arsenal, the princely hosts, trailed to Tranmere Rovers, the third division scrappers. A crowd of 20,337 grew restless, as groans and jeers trickled forth from the North Bank.
Gunners fans expected a thumping victory, but a strike from Eddie Loyden put Rovers ahead after twenty-nine minutes and the hosts could hardly muster a response. In the dying embers, John Radford had a golden opportunity to equalise, but Tranmere keeper Dickie Johnson produced a fine save, preserving the most incredible scoreline. Referee Ray Toseland blew his whistle shortly thereafter, confirming a wonderful moment in the history of football.
Tranmere Rovers, so long mired in obscurity, had toppled the illustrious Arsenal, a powerhouse that completed a league and cup double just eighteen months earlier. At first, the crowd was stunned, as if unable to compute perhaps the darkest defeat ever recorded at the palatial old ground. Then, Arsenal fans rose as one, and began to clap the Tranmere players, congratulating them on the finest result in the club’s lifespan. They understood the magnitude of what had just occurred.
Many years later, when Highbury was sadly demolished as Arsenal moved to a monolithic new stadium, the tale of that warm October night gained fresh exposure. As historians trawled through the record books, it was revealed that Tranmere was the only British club to have a 100% winning record in games played at Highbury. Moreover, Arsenal only lost fifteen of ninety-eight League Cup ties played at the ground, further accentuating Rovers’ achievement, which came against a strong team in the days before large squads and mass rotation.
However you dice it, this was a monumental moment in the history of Tranmere Rovers, and a pretty impactful one for Arsenal, too. The result caused consternation among Gunners fans who sought change, while also putting Birkenhead back on the football map. It was a convergence of time, place and destiny that will never be replicated, so all we can do is look back and cherish the details. Let’s enjoy the full story.
In every respect, the game was a mismatch. Amongst his galaxy of stars, Arsenal manager Bertie Mee had Bob Wilson, a fine goalkeeper; Alan Ball, a midfield maestro who starred for England; and Ray Kennedy, a serial winner at the highest level. By contrast, Tranmere had an honest squad of raw local youngsters and weary journeymen. Former Liverpool great Ron Yeats was the player-manager at 36-years old, while homegrown players like Ronnie Moore, Ray Mathias and Mark Palios stood out from the crowd.
Rovers were second in the third division thanks to a strong defence, but Arsenal had every right to expect a comfortable victory. The Gunners were enduring a fairly ordinary season, but they still possessed the quality to outmanoeuvre lower league opposition. Four days before the fateful tie, Tranmere lost at home to Halifax Town while Arsenal were defeated by Everton at Goodison Park. Nevertheless, Rovers chairman Bill Bothwell just wanted his side to avoid humiliation in the capital. His dreams would be realised, and then some.
Tranmere wore white shirts, blue shorts and white socks on that Tuesday night at Highbury. Arsenal looked resplendent in their famous red shirts with white sleeves, white shorts and red socks. The scene itself must have been mesmeric, as loyal Rovers fans had the privilege of watching their club take on a juggernaut of English football in one of its most evocative amphitheatres. The prospect of Tranmere winning barely registered on the radar.
The game began in a predictable manner, with Arsenal dominating territory in a mode of justified arrogance. However, the free-flowing football later indoctrinated by Arsène Wenger was still decades away, and Arsenal employed too many long balls against Rovers. Cult figure Charlie George didn’t figure for the hosts, and the towering Yeats dealt easily with the Route One assault, as did a 20-year old Ronnie Moore, his central defensive partner. Tranmere were accustomed to aerial battles in the lower leagues, so Arsenal’s approach played into their hands. Rovers were therefore relatively comfortable in the early going, as the Gunners misfired.
A central pillar of Yeats’ strategy was to stifle Ball, the midfield conduit through which most of Arsenal’s play flowed. The Rovers boss had witnessed several European teams attempt to shackle Ian St John and Roger Hunt of Liverpool, and he elected to use a similar man-marking system at Highbury. The most important job fell to Palios, a combative player renowned for carrying out his duties with diligence. Then studying economics en route to a career in business and with the FA before buying Tranmere, Mark didn’t give Ball a moment to breathe, nullifying his effectiveness and forcing Arsenal to go long, where Rovers had the advantage. Palios was booked after barely sixty seconds for a hefty challenge on Ball, and a battle between the pair became an interesting subplot throughout the game.
The plan worked a treat, but even Yeats and his players could scarcely have predicted what happened midway through the first half, when one of the most famous goals in Tranmere’s history fired the Superwhites in front. Hughie McAuley, a winger from Bootle, skipped down the flank before crossing for Loyden, a workmanlike striker who Rovers signed from Chester for £7,000. Six yards out, Loyden took one touch to control the ball before crashing it beyond Wilson and into the net. In the one legendary photo of his goal, Loyden is infamously obscured behind two Arsenal players, namely Peter Simpson and Bob McNab. Nevertheless, Loyden’s place in Tranmere folklore was duly cemented, even though he only played sixty-nine times for the club.
In the second half, Arsenal mounted a resurgence, and Johnson was called upon for some vital saves, but Rovers were never totally uncomfortable. Rather, the Tranmere side was committed to a gameplan and hungry to take full advantage of the opportunity to make history. Due to the obvious gulf in resources, Rovers still required an off day from Arsenal in order to succeed, and that’s just what they got. Ball was stretchered off after eighty minutes thanks to another heavy collision, before Radford was thwarted at the last. Loyden even had two further chances on the break, but Tranmere settled for a pristine 1-0 triumph.
After the toil and excitement, the goal and the barrage, the result and the standing ovation, Rovers travelled back to Merseyside via train. Chairman Bothwell and a contingent of fans greeted the squad on its return home, as photos were taken for posterity.
Of course, Arsenal lost the 1969 League Cup final to third division Swindon, and ignominy awaited at Wrexham in 1992, but Tranmere’s triumph was different. It took place at Highbury, that revered fortress, and it was almost totally at odds with what came before and after.
Just four days later, Tranmere returned to London and lost to Charlton in the league. Rovers didn’t secure another win for three weeks after the Arsenal triumph, while the Gunners eventually finished tenth in the first division. Tranmere lost to Wolves following a replay in the next round of the League Cup, before finishing sixteenth in the third division. Yeats was replaced by Johnny King a year later, as Rovers retreated into the fourth tier.
That game between Tranmere and Arsenal was different to anything else both clubs had previously experienced. It had a deep affect on both fanbases, as Roverites enjoyed a rare glimmer of glory and Gooners viewed it as a harbinger of a gloomy period in the club’s history.
Nick Hornby didn’t devote much space to the game in Fever Pitch, his seminal opus on a lifetime supporting Arsenal, but it did warrant a brief mention:
“I had discovered after the Swindon game that loyalty, at least in football terms, was not a moral choice like bravery or kindness; it was more like a wart or a hump, something you were stuck with… There have been many times over the last twenty-three years when I have pored over the small print of my contract looking for a way out, but there isn’t one. Each humiliating defeat (Swindon, Tranmere, York, Walsall, Rotherham, Wrexham) must be borne with patience, fortitude and forbearance; there is simply nothing that can be done, and that is a realisation that can make you simply squirm with frustration.”
As Tranmere fans, we know all about frustration. In fact, we probably personify it at this point. But those bright moments in our unique history will always provide sustenance, and they should remind us of all that once was great and could soon be again.