By Ryan Ferguson
Though it may be difficult to imagine now, Wirral had two Football League clubs between 1923 and 1951. New Brighton AFC and Tranmere Rovers operated just five miles apart on the hard-working peninsula in a golden age of football. They fought for the attention and loyalty of Wirral’s growing population, as fascinating derby matches rivalled many across Britain for passion.
Whenever the two teams met, huge crowds were attracted, with the thronging masses often spilling over from the grandstand onto the pitch. The atmosphere was typically vociferous yet good-natured; the games frantic and high-scoring. Wirral folk came to adore their famous football rivalry, viewing it as a fine showcase of the borough’s skill and resolve.
Tranmere, of course, were the more established club, having been formed as Belmont FC in 1884. Spawned at the confluence of two local cricket teams eager to adopt football, Tranmere climbed the ladder through a series of regional competitions such as the West Lancashire League and The Combination. Teams like Port Sunlight, Rock Ferry and Wirral Railway provided local opposition, but by 1921 Rovers had usurped bitter rivals Birkenhead FC as Wirral’s foremost football power. That impressive footprint earned Rovers a place in the Football League’s freshly established Third Division North.
Just when Tranmere began to feel comfortable, along came a bunch of raw neophytes, setting up stall nearer the picturesque coast. Formed in 1921 from the ashes of bankrupt South Liverpool, New Brighton AFC played two relatively quiet seasons in the Lancashire Combination before joining a newly expanded Football League.
Coastal Wirral had long been an attractive location for football, with New Brighton Tower, a precursor club, spending three seasons in Division Two from 1898 before going out of business. That club was created by the owners of the New Brighton Tower, a 567-foot tourist attraction akin to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Eager to boost revenue during the cold winter months, they built a mammoth stadium beneath the structure. It was capable of holding at least 80,000 fans, and the original idea was to lure an established club to Wirral.
When nobody took the bait, New Brighton Tower FC was formed from the residue of grand ambition. A team of costly former internationals was assembled, and they competed well with the forebears of Arsenal and Manchester United, among others. Tranmere only ever played the Tower reserves in friendlies and Liverpool Senior Cup ties, before fan apathy saw the coastal club fold.
In sharp contrast, New Brighton AFC benefited from greater support, as locals flocked to their modest Sandheys Park home in strong numbers. The club – initially distinguished by white jerseys as opposed to Tranmere’s blue – was actually based on Rake Lane in Wallasey, just over a mile from the famous New Brighton promenade. Despite its Tower being reduced to a ballroom in 1921, the area was very popular with tourists who enjoyed Wirral’s fine beaches and amusement parks. But football would also burnish New Brighton’s cultural identity, especially when Tranmere were the opposition.
When Rovers travelled to New Brighton for Wirral’s first competitive Football League derby match in October 1923, a raucous crowd of 13,112 awaited. The game was rather anticlimactic, ending in a dour 0-0 draw, but a wonderful time was had by all, and a classic rivalry was born.
The two teams met again just seven days later, this time at Prenton Park before 15,416 excited spectators. In this age of awakening professionalism, clubs fought for every penny to survive. Few fans were turned away, leading to dozens of onlookers spilling over from the cramped terraces onto the muddy sidelines. Clad in top hats and snazzy suites befitting the era, the passionate horde witnessed New Brighton triumph over Tranmere, 2-1, adding fresh drama to the gathering feud.
In fact, it would take Tranmere almost three years to finally beat the local enemy. Even with a young Dixie Dean leading the line, Rovers lost each of the five derby encounters between 1924 and 1926, including a tense Cheshire Senior Cup Final and a frustrating Boxing Day tussle in front of 15,173 merry Wirralians.
By the time New Brighton ventured down to Prenton Park on 4th September 1926, a sense of resentment pervaded among Tranmere fans, who wanted nothing more than to beat their nemesis and put an end to the sorry losing streak. A phenomenal crowd of 16,047 filled the archaic stadium to bursting, intent on cheering Rovers to victory. At the seventh time of asking, Tranmere finally delivered, winning 4-1 in the most one-sided derby yet.
The result was something of a tipping point in the fixture’s history. Tranmere proceeded to win three of the next five matches, thanks in no small part to the goals of Pongo Waring, a future star for Aston Villa and England. In 1927 and ’28, Waring scored the winning goal in successive derbies, tilting the balance of power in Rovers’ favour.
During the festive period of 1929, Tranmere and New Brighton played a remarkable Christmas Day-Boxing Day doubleheader. Rovers won 3-1 at Prenton Park on Christmas Day, before losing 3-0 at Sandheys Park just 24 hours later. In total, 15,444 people enjoyed the Yuletide extravaganza, which imbued the Wirral derby with a fresh sense of prestige.
In subsequent years, Tranmere were transformed into a powerful team with designs on promotion. Rovers benefited greatly from the clinical forward line of Jack Kennedy, Fred Watts and Ernie Dixon. In 1930-31, the trio combined to score 93 goals, a Football League record for three teammates. By comparison, New Brighton lacked cutting edge, a juxtaposition illustrated by Tranmere winning five and losing just one of the eight derby matches between 1930-33.
Yet New Brighton continued to fight through the mid-1930s, as interest soared in Wirral’s football showcase. Attendances regularly topped 10,000 whenever the two sides met, representing a sharp departure from the Depression-Era norm. As both clubs cautiously eyed promotion, the matches became tighter than ever, with four consecutive encounters settled by a single goal between 1933-35.
In 1936, Tranmere were pushed to the next level by a returning hero: Pongo Waring. Then a distinguished international, Waring rejoined his hometown club and proceeded to fire Rovers up a table that included local rivals New Brighton, Chester, Wrexham, Southport and Crewe. With Pongo leading the line, Tranmere were unstoppable in 1937-38, beating all comers, including New Brighton home and away, to finally achieve promotion as champions of Division Three North.
Tranmere spent just one season in Division Two, but the suspension of Football League play during World War II led to an eight-year hiatus in senior meetings with New Brighton, who changed to a red and white striped kit hoping for a change in fortune. The two clubs did play low-key friendly matches, often to raise funds for the war effort and boost local morale, but people yearned for the intensity to return.
The Football League finally resumed play in 1946. However, Sandheys Park was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing, and the local council needed to build extra housing on the plot. This forced New Brighton to use the Tower Athletic Ground of their doomed predecessors. Nevertheless, when Tranmere visited for the first real derby in almost a decade, 14,291 fans were on hand, shattering the previous record attendance for a league game at the stadium. For good measure, New Brighton ran out 2-1 victors in their new maroon strip, inspiring hope for a brighter future.
The Wirral derby thrived in the post-war boom years, as free and prosperous citizens flocked to football matches like never before. In 1947, for instance, Tranmere beat New Brighton 1-0 at Prenton Park before 17,359 hedonistic onlookers. A year later, 16,336 traipsed to Birkenhead to watch the coastal visitors steal a 1-0 win. Never had so many people been so thoroughly fascinated by Wirral football.
Yet despite surging fan interest, New Brighton struggled on the pitch. They competed well against Tranmere, with local pride at stake, but accruing much-needed points against Third Division North opposition became an increasingly arduous task. The Rakers – so named because their home ground bordered Rake Lane – finished 18th in 1947, before sinking to the very bottom of the League and requiring re-election a year later. They rebounded to finish 17th in 1949 and 14th in 1950, but many sensed a sorry demise around the corner, as a stoic band of volunteers struggled to keep the wolf from the door.
The axe ultimately fell following the 1950-51 season. After yet another kit change, New Brighton finished bottom once more, and the club was voted out of the Football League after 28 years. The final League derby held on Wirral, played on 20th January 1951, attracted 12,253 fans to Prenton Park, with Tranmere and New Brighton producing a battle for the ages. Rovers won 4-3, emerging victorious from a swashbuckling contest that put another nail in the New Brighton coffin.
It’s interesting to note that Tranmere suffered a dip in attendance despite having the peninsula to themselves thereafter. In 1950-51, average attendance was 9,869 for league games at Prenton Park. That fell to 7,567 a year later, and 5,374 by 1954. The club could no longer bank on huge gates for the derby matches, and winning the hearts of New Brighton fans was more difficult than many would imagine. Rovers didn’t average 10,000 through the turnstiles again until 1957, long after elite football had departed the Wirral coast.
After being replaced in the Football League by Workington, New Brighton slumped into the Lancashire Combination before falling into the amateur Cheshire County League in 1965. They did enjoy one final FA Cup run, though, as they played in nine rounds during the 1956-57 competition, a record that still survives. The non-leaguers managed to beat Stockport, Derby and Torquay, among others, en route to a 9-0 thrashing by Burnley.
Still, New Brighton fell into a gloomy state of disrepair. By the early-1980s, the club had been forced into a much smaller ground in Hoylake, and was routinely chased by the Inland Revenue over unpaid dues. Destitute and confined to leagues of regional amateurism, New Brighton AFC was ultimately disbanded in 1983, closing the book on 62 years of history. A phoenix club surfaced in 1993, playing mainly in the West Cheshire League, but the old lustre could never be restored. That final version of the club folded in 2012, ending an extraordinary saga.
Ultimately, Tranmere and New Brighton played 40 matches in the Football League, with Rovers winning 19 times and the Rakers emerging victorious on 13 occasions. In total, 114 goals were scored in the 40 contests, which drew a combined attendance of 437,799, or an average of 10,944 per game.
It was incredibly fun while it lasted, with two successful Football League teams putting Wirral on the map during a golden epoch for sport. Nowadays, the closest thing to a Wirral derby comes when Tranmere send their reserves to Heswall or Cammell Laird for pre-season friendlies or Senior Cup ties.
Of course, the power of Liverpool and Everton nestled across the river basically extinguishes the notion of a second Wirral club blooming to fruition, but the past certainly provides food for thought. Perhaps New Brighton will one day rise again, energising a peninsula that once knew and loved them so well. And Tranmere will be waiting, ready to resume one of the most sequestered rivalries English football has to offer.
*An earlier version of this article was published in Lake Magazine. Thanks to Jon, the Editor, for allowing us to republish it.