By Ryan Ferguson
The top tier of English football has a beguiling history. Thousands of players from dozens of countries have added flavour to a movement that began in 1888. Yet, although the game has now been swamped by megawatt millionaires, the three greatest scoring seasons in first division history were authored by rough kids unearthed in Birkenhead by Tranmere Rovers. Everybody knows about Dixie Dean, who scored 60 league goals for Everton in 1927-28 and 44 just four seasons later. But the tale of Pongo Waring, owner of the second most prolific scoring season ever, is far less familiar. It’s time that was addressed.
Thomas ‘Pongo’ Waring was born on 12th October 1906 at 4 Chapel Place in Higher Tranmere. That address no longer exists, but it was nestled into the Church Road area, almost within shouting distance of Prenton Park, where his extraordinary career began. The third of four children to Henry Arthur and Charlotte Waring, Tom was born three months before William Ralph Dean, that other footballing savant of Birkenhead. Tom was baptised at St Catherine’s Church, and the Waring family home was at 15 Walker Place, a ten minute walk from the home of Tranmere Rovers. In every way, they were working class, just like you and I. That’s what makes the remarkable rise even more compelling.
Henry Arthur was a plasterer by trade, but his son seemed destined for greater things from an early age. Tom loved football, and playing on the mean, cobbled streets of Birkenhead honed his skills. He appeared for a number of junior teams in the local area, before catching the eye of legendary Rovers scout Jack Lee – who also discovered Dean a few years later – while playing for Tranmere Celtic in 1926. In those days of the fleeting youth system at Prenton Park, Lee offered a place for Waring in the Tranmere reserves, in addition to a casual job helping out on matchdays. Waring accepted the proposal and soon began his journey to professional stardom.
The tall striker scored 34 goals for the reserves in one season. He also assisted the ground staff preparing Prenton Park for first team games. During those contests in the nascent Third Division North, Waring would sell cigarettes and chocolate to fans in the stands, further enhancing his reputation for hard work and perhaps even earning some pocket money to take home. That wouldn’t be an issue by 1927, as manager Bert Cooke promoted Waring to the Tranmere first team.
His debut in professional football came on 29th August 1927, away to Rotherham United. Four days later at Durham City, Waring scored two goals as Tranmere won 3-1. That set the scene nicely for his first home game, a local derby with fierce rivals Wrexham. Tom didn’t score in that encounter, attended by 8,677 at Prenton Park, but Rovers did win 2-1 thanks to a winner from Ellis Rimmer, another local youngster destined for greatness. The path to glory began to open up.
Around this time, 21-year old Tom Waring acquired a new nickname that still echoes in the annals of history. As with Dixie, a few different theories emerge regarding the Pongo moniker. One slightly unsavoury tale is that Waring had a very loose approach to personal hygiene, hence the pong. Another, thankfully more plausible explanation is that his fondness for practical jokes was likened to a famous cartoon dog of the age, known as Pongo. Whatever its origin, the nickname stuck, becoming one of the most evocative in football history.
Pongo scored in the next two matches following the Wrexham clash. He also notched the winner away to peninsula rivals New Brighton, as Rovers triumphed 1-0 before 9,228. Having grown up on the Wirral, Waring knew just how passionate that joust for bagging rights could be. Games between Tranmere and New Brighton rivalled any local derby in the lower leagues at that time, so it must have been splendid for a Birkenhead boy to score the decisive goal for Rovers. It certainly made Pongo a firm favourite on the terraces, populated by many friends and family members, one would presume.
The phenomenon continued to grow as Waring bagged a hat-trick at home to Wigan Borough in December. To the astonishment of all, he doubled that output against Durham City a month later, scoring six times as Rovers won 11-1. Pongo was serenaded with cheers around Prenton Park, and the local press was gushing in its praise of a phenomenal achievement. Waring’s double hat-trick remained a Tranmere record for goals in a single game until Bunny Bell managed nine against Oldham in 1935. A legend was born.
In his first season, Waring scored 23 goals in 24 appearances for Tranmere, who struck 105 league goals as a team in just 42 games, by far the most at that level. Rovers finished fifth in the table, however, as people feared the club didn’t yearn for promotion quite enough.
Nevertheless, scouts once again flocked along that well-worn path to Prenton Park, by now a burgeoning conveyor belt of elite talent. When Tranmere sold Dean to local rivals Everton, there was a backlash from fans who questioned the ambition and motives of club personnel. Accordingly, Cooke was determined to sell Waring outside the local market, and for that reason he ignored the serious advances of Liverpool. Interest was also shown by Arsenal, Bolton and Manchester United, as Tranmere’s reputation for developing quality players gave potential buyers greater confidence in their approach.
Finally, on 13th February 1928, just 168 days after his Rovers debut, Tranmere sold Pongo Waring to Aston Villa for £4,700. No Third Division club had ever received that much for a player. The fee even dwarfed what Rovers recouped by selling Dean. From a position of retrospect, perhaps only Dale Jennings moving to Bayern Munich at the age of 19 can match Waring’s meteoric rise from Prenton pup to heralded wonderkid. A lot was expected. Even more was delivered.
To welcome Pongo, Aston Villa arranged a reserve game against local rivals Birmingham City. A crowd of 23,000 turned up, mainly to see the new star attraction. Predictably, he rose to the occasion, scoring another trademark hat-trick to delight the masses. Waring went on to score 7 goals in 13 reserve appearances, before breaking into the Villa first team for good. He also got a job at the Hercules Motor and Cycle Company in Aston, boosting his income at a time when footballers weren’t afforded an especially soft landing upon retirement.
The 1927-28 season was a momentous one in English football. That year, Dean scored 60 league goals, a total once considered absurd. However, it was also a great season in the tapestry of Tranmere Rovers, for Waring joined Dixie in the top flight, giving Birkenhead two fine exports at the very top of football. A third, Rimmer, joined them after leaving Tranmere for Sheffield Wednesday. There must have been something in the water back then, or at least a certain amount of genius in the evaluation skills of Lee and Cooke, who put Tranmere Rovers on the map with legendary dealings.
On April 21st 1928, Dean’s Everton hosted Waring’s Villa before 39,825 at Goodison Park. Pongo scored one, but Dean notched two as Everton ran out 3-2 winners. While claiming vicarious victory can be idiotic, this was undoubtedly a proud moment for Tranmere and Birkenhead. Without the town instilling certain values in those players, and without this humble club plucking them from obscurity and giving them a chance to succeed, the world may never have known their names. And while cynical points can be made about Tranmere being unable to keep these brilliant players, it’s still a source of pride that two of the finest forwards from football’s gilded age were first nurtured by our club.
Waring scored 32 goals in 42 games as Villa finished a narrow third in 1928-29, his first full season. The following year, he managed just 11 goals in 23 games, but developed a strong rapport with the fans. According to legend, Pongo had special seats at the Holte pub that were reserved in perpetuity. He enjoy a few pints after games there, mingling with the supporters who sung his name with pride. Indeed, Waring was not your usual buttoned-down footballer. By all accounts, he was a cheeky chappy who spoke his mind, and that occasionally got him into trouble. He loved a beer, and that occasionally came before training in his priorities. After all, you can take the lad out of Birkenhead, but you can’t take Birkenhead out of the lad.
In 1930-31, Pongo authored one of the greatest individual seasons in English football history. As Villa finished second, Waring scored 50 goals in just 40 appearances, including cup competitions. His tally of 49 league goals remains the closest anyone has ever come to breaking Dean’s record. No Aston Villa player has even approached that total since, while their entire team managed just 27 league goals last season. In his most magical campaign, Pongo averaged a goal every 72 minutes. Few defenders could stifle his blend of brute strength and deceptive poise. He was a force to be reckoned with.
The local press dubbed him The Birkenhead Bombardier; Aston Villa fans lauded him as a hero; and the subsequent momentum saw Waring make his England debut. It came on 14th May 1931, during an end-of-season tour. France were the opponents, and their Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir was the backdrop. England lost 5-2, but Pongo scored in the seventy-first minute, completing his rags to riches story. One can only imagine the beer flowing back home in Birkenhead, where he still frequented pubs. It must have been a scene of unbridled jubilation.
Two days later, Waring played again as England beat Belgium 4-1 in Brussels. A few months hence, he scored two as England thumped Ireland in a Home International. This exposure gave him confidence to enjoy another prolific season, as 30 goals in 38 games further enhanced his glowing reputation. As the campaign drew to a close, England beat Scotland 3-0 at Wembley, where 92,810 delirious fans set a new Wembley attendance record. Of course, Pongo opened the scoring, rising to the occasion as only he could. It was a moment he probably dreamed of when playing on the narrow streets of Birkenhead. It was a moment without equal.
Strangely, this was the final cap Pongo Waring ever won for England. Villa experienced a decline around this time, and younger players were given opportunities on the national stage. Still, the romantic in me is pained that, despite being in and around the squad at similar times, the three trailblazing products of Tranmere Rovers – Waring, Dean and Rimmer – never played for England in the same game. Dean and Rimmer did, but never all three. How enchanting it would have been to see an England forward line developed entirely in Wirral by our humble Rovers.
Unfortunately, the second half of Waring’s career was blighted by intermittent episodes of poor behaviour and questionable attitudes. A telling picture is painted by former Villa captain Billy Walker in his autobiography:
“There were no rules for Pongo. Nobody knew what time he would turn up for training – ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock, it made no odds. Nobody on the staff could do anything with him, although I think I can claim, as the captain in his days, to be the only person able to handle him. He was a funny lad indeed. We started the weeks training on Tuesday mornings and every Tuesday he followed a habit which he could never break: he would go around all the refreshment bars on the grounds and finish off the lemonade. Then he would start a little of his training, but seldom lasted very long.”
This is a fairly worrying interpretation which conjures dark images of Pongo finishing the dregs of other people’s drinks. Whether Walker was generous in calling it ‘lemonade,’ nobody can be sure. Similarly, there is little hope of corroborating these claims now. However, Waring lived a very colourful life and often overstepped the mark, such as when he was suspended by the FA on multiple occasions, once for jumping into the crowd at Villa Park to confront a heckler. Trouble visited again when he was found playing in the Birkenhead League for fun despite being a professional.
Finally, in 1935, Aston Villa sold Pongo Waring, who was still a beloved figure among fans. The club was relegated to the second division, and adjustments had to be made. Therefore, after 167 goals and 10 hat-tricks in 226 appearances, Pongo joined Barnsley, thus beginning a nomadic slide towards retirement. A brief spell with Wolves followed, as personal problems mounted. One story covered in detail by the national press was Waring’s trouble paying child maintenance bills, although this isn’t the time or place to delve into such matters.
In October 1936, aged 30, Pongo Waring returned a hero to Tranmere Rovers. Birkenhead was his spiritual home. It was where he belonged. Local fans gave him a huge welcome, and he quickly transformed the fortunes of Rovers on the pitch. In 25 games to finish the 1936-37 season, Pongo notched 15 goals, giving supporters renewed reason to believe. Then, in the following campaign, he fired 22 more goals to haul Tranmere and Birkenhead into the second division for the first time ever. Rovers won the title by two points from Doncaster after drawing with them on the final day. This is still the last time Tranmere won a league title of any description.
In many ways, this was the fairytale ending for Pongo, who could have rode off into the sunset having brought glory to his hometown club. But things didn’t play out like that, and a far gloomier conclusion took centre stage. Waring continued to find trouble, notably for fighting a policeman on a bus in 1937 and struggling to pay income tax arrears. Early in the new season, Pongo was found to be essentially bankrupt, even after such an illustrious career. His skills had also eroded, to the point where Tranmere let him join Accrington Stanley despite scoring five goals in nine games.
Rovers fell apart in his absence, securing just 17 points from 42 league games. Tranmere were simply outclassed by a raft of huge clubs that comprised the second tier. In fact, no team had ever produced a worse showing in that division than Rovers.
Meanwhile, Pongo continued to find trouble, earning a fine from Accrington after one particularly rowdy train ride home from an away game. He later played for clubs like Bath City, Ellesmere Port Town, Graysons, Birkenhead Docks and New Brighton, largely without success. Pongo still loved the game, but he chased the adulation and joy so abundant in his prime. Frequently, it just wasn’t there any more, just like his skill.
It’s difficult to piece together his later years away from football, as urban legend obscures fact. Some say he dabbled as a plasterer and settled back on Church Road. Many claim he watched Tranmere from the Paddock as a fan, enjoying a laugh with friends. Others tell homespun stories of poverty and even homelessness, which again cannot be confirmed. But what we do know is that Pongo Waring was a fantastic goalscorer who made Birkenhead proud. He bestowed upon Tranmere Rovers a certain prestige, and his impact in the earliest days of Prenton Park should never be forgotten.