By Ryan Ferguson
In recent years, as we’ve been exposed to non-league stadia, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for Prenton Park. In contrast to the rudimentary grounds at this level, its beauty is obvious, its meaning more apparent. Our magnificent home distinguishes us. It shows what we once were and what we could be again. And while no points are awarded for stadium capacity, the 16,789 seats of Prenton Park illustrate the terrific potential buried deep inside Tranmere Rovers Football Club.
When opposing teams come to Birkenhead in the National League, they’re usually amazed. After all, the five smallest grounds in this division could fit inside one Prenton Park. More importantly, the stadium has been updated a lot recently, from new suites and seats and stores to fantastic statues and gates funded by supporters themselves. Mark and Nicola Palios are brilliant custodians of Prenton Park, while the Trust is a keen organ of progress for the ground. Right now, a strong sense of pride pervades on Borough Road, as Tranmere’s ancient home is modernised without sacrificing its distinct identity.
Nowadays, the soulless bowl is king. So many clubs have built new stadiums in a generic mould that maximises revenue while suppressing tradition. At Tranmere, we increasingly enjoy the best of both worlds: a quirky ground steeped in history that can also harness the club’s commercial ambitions and sustain football at a much higher level.
In short, Prenton Park has a beguiling history, but also a bright future.
First, let’s explore that history. There is inherent value, though largely sentimental, in having the same address for over a century. The current Prenton Park has been open since 1912. The Prenton Park name, however, has been used by Tranmere Rovers since 1895, when a former home was christened by Liverpool Echo readers. This makes it one of the oldest and most traditional venues in English football.
In a world of Ricoh Arenas and World of Smile Stadiums, Prenton Park hearkens back to a bygone age, in name and appearance alike. Of course, we’d all love the Cowshed to still have its iconic roof, but at least our ground has four separate stands, each providing a different experience of the match. At least our roots remain intact.
When I get the bus to Prenton Park, thousands of people have made that same journey for decades. Similarly, as I’m about to crash through the rusty turnstiles, the same rush of excitement has been felt by innumerable others in the exact same spot throughout the club’s history. People watching Pongo Waring certainly didn’t print their tickets at home and then have them scanned prior to kick-off, but there’s an exhilarating symmetry to the matchday experience regardless of era.
The same slab of sacred turf has captivated people for 104 years. Dixie Dean learned his craft on that pitch. Steve Coppell and Roy McFarland received their first opportunities there, like so many others. Johnny King composed a beautiful football symphony there. It’s where Koumas roamed and Hume sparkled. It’s where Aldridge poached and Muir shimmied. And, yes, it’s where Kithson Bain blessed us with his presence and Bruce Osterman planned to build a supermarket.
That’s Tranmere. The line is blurred between success and despair, happiness and agony. That notion is weaved into the fabric of Prenton Park, a playground of childhood dreams and a burial ground of adolescent faith. But, above all else, Prenton Park is a crucible of hope. Ceaseless hope.
The Kop looms as a hulking monument to that relentless ambition. That one stand alone is capable of seating 5,696, or more than eleven whole grounds in the National League; two in League Two; and two in League One. Detractors will say it’s foolish to love a stand and will ridicule it for being sparsely populated, but they fail to see the point. At least Tranmere Rovers have the means to grow even bigger. When occasion calls, we’re able to cram more into one stand than a lot of clubs can into their entire stadiums, creating a wall of fierce noise and a passionate environment like few others in the lower leagues.
Of course, those stands have been washed with tears of gloom and euphoria alike. When Barlow swept home the winner and grown men began to weep. When Welling United walked one into the net and young kids questioned their biweekly excursions to the god-forsaken place. Yet, in the end, we always go back, traipsing towards the shrine like hopeless worshippers. We always return.
You see, like most football grounds, Prenton Park provides an outlet for society. It’s an oasis in the hectic desert of modern life; a place where we can slip away for a few hours, drink lager from plastic beakers and be part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s onions resting on a distant grill and floodlights burning through the night. It’s rolling waves of noise and guttural roars of encouragement. It’s buying a new scarf and ambling up those stairs as a kid, into the theatre of working class dreams.
It’s Birkenhead. Real, proud and aspirational to the core, no matter what anyone else says or thinks.
What once was wood is now concrete, and plastic rests where metal once stood, but the spirit of Prenton Park has remained unchanged since George V was King. When you love the history of something so much, it can be scary to consider its future. There’s plenty I would like to see – how about a Welcome to Prenton Park, Home of Tranmere Rovers sign in big neon letters on the Kop’s Borough Road exterior? – but the most important thing for me is retaining the traditional name and working to fill the ground more regularly.
Prenton Park is the 53rd biggest ground in England. Depending on your viewpoint, that’s a source of pride or a mundane fact to be overlooked. But, to me, it’s a decent barometer of our stature in the game and a source of motivation to reclaim that position.
Our home is a fine repository of memories, but also a very stable foundation from which to build. Hopefully it can be a launching pad in years ahead, as the latent potential of Tranmere Rovers pours forth.