By Ryan Ferguson
Though it’s often overlooked by mainstream pundits, the Tranmere youth system has a remarkable history. For over a century, Rovers have mined the rugged terrain of Merseyside, unearthing diamonds in the rough, polishing them up, and gifting them to the football world.
Of course, selling players has always been a necessity for the club, which has used transfer fees to survive in bygone times. Yet there’s always a sense of pride when one of our youth products does well.
In light of Aaron Cresswell making his England debut, let’s take a closer look at his journey, and that of seven other players who were schooled in Birkenhead before representing England.
The great William Ralph Dean was discovered by Tranmere on the mean streets of Birkenhead. Instead of following his father onto the local railway, Dean began playing for Rovers reserves, before blazing a trail through Division Three North. Opposing fans applauded his acts of destruction, and the powerful striker eventually outgrew Prenton Park. He became immortal at Everton, where he scored a record 60 league goals in 1927-28.
1. Dixie Dean
Tranmere career: 1923-25
England career: 1927-32
Dean made his England debut against Wales at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham. He scored twice in a 3-3 draw. Dixie was a regular scorer for his country, and he even notched two hat-tricks at international level. However, many felt that he was never fully embraced by England and, despite impressive statistics, Dean never quite translated his mystique at club level to the bigger stage.
Our comprehensive biography explores the life of Dixie in greater detail, with particular focus on his time in Birkenhead with Tranmere.
Born and raised in Morley Avenue, Birkenhead, Ellis Rimmer was the first great winger produced by Tranmere. With searing pace and an eye for goal, the teenager earned rave reviews for his performances at Prenton Park. After scoring 20 goals in 62 appearances for Tranmere, Rimmer was sold to Sheffield Wednesday for £3,000.
2. Ellis Rimmer
Tranmere career: 1924-28
England career: 1930-31
With the Yorkshire giants, his considerable potential was fulfilled. Ellis won two First Division titles with Wednesday, then a towering force of the English game. He also played a key role in their successful FA Cup campaign of 1934-35, scoring in every round, including two in the final before 93,204 at Wembley.
His England debut also came at the national stadium, with Rimmer scoring twice against Scotland. He struggled for regular opportunities with England, however, and only won three more caps over the next twenty months.
Rimmer ran a pub in Birkenhead after retiring. Years later, his nephew, a certain Warwick Rimmer, revolutionised the youth system at Tranmere. How’s that for poetic symmetry?
Another Birkenhead boy, Waring sold chocolate and cigarettes at Prenton Park to earn some pocket money during his formative years. However, his talent with the ball was unmistakeable, and young Pongo was eventually signed to a professional contract by Rovers. After tearing up the lower leagues, he was sold to Aston Villa for a record fee. He continued to score freely, and even established the record for most goals in a season by a Villa player.
3. Pongo Waring
Tranmere career: 1926-28; 1936-38
England career: 1931-32
Pongo made his England debut away to France during an end-of-season tour. Although England lost 5-2, Waring did score, to the delight of friends and relatives back on Wirral. His finest moment in an England shirt came against Scotland in a 1932 Home International match. A crowd of 92,180 flooded Wembley, setting a new attendance record. Pongo opened the scoring with a powerful shot, and the hosts ran out 3-0 winners. Sadly, this was also the last cap Waring ever won.
For more information on the life and times of Pongo Waring – including the origins of that nickname – enjoy our loving tribute.
This one is a bit tricky, because Laurie Hughes never actually played in the Football League for Tranmere Rovers. Nevertheless, he did cut his teeth at Prenton Park during the years of World War II, when organised football was suspended.
4. Laurie Hughes
Tranmere career: 1942-43
England career: 1950
A tough-tackling centre-half, Hughes was first rejected by Liverpool, who considered him too small. He then made 26 appearances for Tranmere during the 1942-43 campaign, which comprised of friendlies against local opposition. Hughes even turned out for Rovers against Manchester United and Manchester City, before Liverpool snapped him up in a sudden change of heart.
Laurie played over 300 games for the Anfield side over a 17-year period. And although his time at Tranmere was a brief historical footnote, he became the first player schooled at Prenton Park to represent England at the World Cup finals. His debut came in the Maracanã of Rio de Janeiro, as the Three Lions defeated Chile in a group game at the 1950 tournament.
Hughes also started the following game, in which an amateur American team humiliated England with a shock 1-0 victory. One final cap came against Spain, but Hughes’ international career started and finished within eight days. Remarkable stuff.
A wing-half from Crosby, Wheeler played in the amateur ranks at Carlton before piquing the interest of Tranmere in 1946. He was then forced to wait two years for his professional debut, which eventually came in a 2-1 Rovers defeat against Hull City in 1948. Johnny was just 20-years old at the time, and he went on to make 106 appearances for Tranmere over three seasons.
5. Johnny Wheeler
Tranmere career: 1946-51
England career: 1954
Bolton signed Wheeler in 1951, and he spent five years at Burnden Park. His lone international cap came in a British Home Championship match against Northern Ireland. Goals from Johnny Haynes and Don Revie were enough to hand England a 2-0 victory in Belfast, but Wheeler was never selected again.
Johnny spent seven years at Liverpool before returning to the amateur circuit with New Brighton in 1963. In total, he played close to 500 Football League games, and is forever part of the chosen few who represented this great country, no matter how brief that adventure was.
One of the most elegant defenders ever to represent England, Roy McFarland was born in Liverpool before earning his spurs across the Mersey in Wirral. Roy signed for Tranmere in 1966, and his quality was obvious for all to see. With regal superiority, McFarland controlled the backline as Rovers enjoyed one of the best defensive records in Division Four. In the end, too many draws cost Tranmere a shot at promotion, but McFarland was destined for a higher level anyway.
6. Roy McFarland
Tranmere career: 1966-67
England career: 1971-76
A few days into the 1967-68 season, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor lured McFarland to Derby County, then a second tier outfit with designs on the precipice of English football. Clough trawled the lower leagues for undiscovered talent, and at a cost of just £24,000, McFarland was one of his greatest finds.
Roy spent fourteen years at the Baseball Ground, playing over 400 games and winning two First Division titles with the Rams. McFarland also won 28 England caps, which some say was a poor return on his enormous potential.
Unfortunately, England never qualified for the World Cup finals during McFarland’s career, but he did face some of the finest players in world football, representing Tranmere with pride.
A throwback to Rimmer in the lineage of great Tranmere wingers, Coppell was known for industrious work rate and a certain amount of flair. Born in Liverpool, Steve always put education before football. But when he began working towards a degree at Liverpool University, Rovers swooped in to secure Coppell on a contract that made concessions for study time.
7. Steve Coppell
Tranmere career: 1973-75
England career: 1977-83
Steve made a handful of appearances in 1973-74, but the following season really put him in the spotlight. Coppell only played in 36 games through half a campaign, but he scored 11 goals in the process. Tranmere were relegated once the season finished, but by that time their latest star was long gone. Manchester United signed Coppell for £60,000, and the rest is history.
Steve spent eight years at Old Trafford, playing more than 300 games and winning the FA Cup in 1977. That year, he also received the first of 42 England caps, beginning a very respectable international career.
Coppell scored seven goals for his country, but a horrific knee injury in 1982 blunted his performance at the World Cup finals. The nippy winger never quite recovered, and retirement beckoned in 1983, before Coppell embarked on a successful managerial career.
Thirty-four years passed between England appearances by a Tranmere youth product, but Aaron Cresswell deserved his opportunity more than most. Released by Liverpool as a youngster, Aaron fell into the net of Warwick Rimmer and Glyn Salmon at Tranmere. A magical left foot distinguished him, but Cresswell was never heralded as a great star. He just worked harder than anybody else to improve his game.
8. Aaron Cresswell
Tranmere career: 2008-11
England career: 2016-
Early in his senior career at Prenton Park, Aaron shared left-back duties with Zoumana Bakayogo, a beloved cult hero on Wirral. Cresswell eventually won out, and his performances improved on a weekly basis. With fellow youth graduate Dale Jennings, he formed a stupendous left flank partnership that had scouts flocking to Birkenhead. Ipswich Town eventually signed Cresswell, who continued to improve in Suffolk.
A £3.25 million move to West Ham came in 2014, and the step up in class didn’t bother Aaron. Mature performances in the Premier League earned him many individual awards, before Gareth Southgate finally handed him an England debut last night.
Aged 26, Cresswell’s meteoric rise entered a new strata when he came on as a 79th minute substitute against Spain at Wembley. Replacing Danny Rose with England 2-0 up, Aaron was unfortunate to see the visitors snatch a draw at the death. Nevertheless, nobody can ever take that cap away from him. And nobody can ever deny that, without Tranmere Rovers, it would not have been possible.
For more on Cresswell’s inspirational journey, enjoy our dedicated feature.
In total, players schooled by Tranmere Rovers have won 100 caps and scored 24 goals for England. Nobody has ever represented the Three Lions while still on the books at Prenton Park, but those are impressive numbers for a so-called small club supposedly nestled in the shadows of Liverpool and Everton.
Aside from youth graduates, many other players have appeared for both Rovers and England. From Vince Matthews, Alan A’Court, Frank Worthington and Gordon West to Joe Hart, Gary Stevens and Michael Ricketts, there’s a certain amount of international pedigree at Prenton Park.
Perhaps outsiders should accord us greater respect in this regard. We’re not just any old lower league club. We’re Tranmere Rovers, and I’m proud of our history.