By Ryan Ferguson
When contemplating the distinctive philosophy of Tranmere Rovers, one image immediately springs to mind: a fast winger scurrying down the flank, twisting and turning before delivering a deadly cross. The identity of that player has changed through the decades, from Adam Mekki to Dale Jennings to Paul Hall, Andy Parkinson, Johnny Morrissey and Pat Nevin. But the tradition of fine wing play at Prenton Park is far more historic than most people realise. And it all began with a talented teenager from Birkenhead.
Ellis Rimmer was born on 2nd January 1907. The son of a butcher from Park Road North, Rimmer grew up on Morley Avenue, where his talents for sport and music were first nurtured. It was a blessed time for Birkenhead. The great Dixie Dean was born less than three weeks after Rimmer, while Pongo Waring was just three months old when Ellis entered the world. All three grew up within walking distance of each other, and all three went on to play for Tranmere Rovers and England.
From an early age, Rimmer was a great jazz pianist. His mother, Edith, made him practice for hours each day before Ellis could play football in the street. According to legend, Rimmer played a cinema organ in Birkenhead during his formative years, while public performances became commonplace as he matured. Nevertheless, football was always his greatest passion, and Ellis was determined to forge a career from the game.
His ability first became apparent at Upper Brassey Street, a local school. With considerable pace and imagination, the skinny youngster scored regularly, and selection for Birkenhead Schoolboys was a foregone conclusion. In a fascinating quirk, Rimmer played alongside Dean in that Schoolboys team, as two future superstars of the British game bestrode the regional circuit as precocious kids.
Birkenhead was fertile ground for football genius, and Tranmere Rovers acted as a conduit for humble youngsters to circumnavigate the globe. Dean was snapped up before he could seriously consider a life on the railway, whereas Rimmer took a more arduous route to stardom. Ellis worked his way up through the amateur ranks, with spells at Parkside, Northern Nomads and Whitchurch before he piqued the interest of Tranmere aged 17.
On 1st December 1923, Dean made his debut for Rovers reserves against Whitchurch, and Rimmer lined up against him. Dixie’s talent was obvious, but Tranmere secretary Bert Cooke enjoyed Rimmer’s performance, too. Rovers’ scouts were ordered to follow him, and Ellis was later brought in for a trial at Prenton Park. A few goals convinced Tranmere to take a punt on this lively outside-left. Rimmer didn’t disappoint.
In another engrossing twist, Ellis and Dixie made their first team débuts on the same day: 13th September 1924. Rovers travelled to Doncaster in Division Three North, and the exciting teenage tandem was thrown in at the deep end. Neither player managed to score as Tranmere lost 2-0, but it was still a date, a game and a moment that resonates through English football history.
On 25th October, Rimmer made his home debut and was an accessory to one of Dean’s most legendary performances in a Rovers shirt. Dixie scored the first of many Football League hat-tricks, and Tranmere edged Hartlepools United 4-3 in a thriller on Borough Road. In this game and many others, Rimmer was a willing foil for Dean, using trickery and skill to provide an endless stream of goalscoring opportunities for the master.
Rovers fans were accustomed to rather mundane journeymen plodding up and down the wing, so Rimmer was a salve for sore eyes. With dashing speed, keen imagination and inexorable daring, this raw youngster electrified the lower leagues. More than that, he brought swagger to Prenton Park, usually a domain of workmanlike efficiency.
Ellis endured a prolonged wait to find the scoresheet himself, but the moment finally arrived away to Durham City on 18th March 1925 as Tranmere won 3-0. Yet despite the efforts of two prodigious colts, it was a difficult season for Rovers, who survived in the Football League only after re-election. Amid the slump, Dean was sold to Everton, leaving Rimmer as the brightest star in the Tranmere galaxy.
There’s no record of Rimmer playing for Tranmere in the 1925-26 campaign, but he did return against Southport in December 1926. He was a regular goalscorer through the remainder of that season, and outstanding performances made Ellis the next logical asset to be sold by Cooke, who used transfer fees to balance the books at Prenton Park.
Rimmer was a mainstay in the 1927-28 team alongside Waring, but the likelihood of a move grew with each week. Finally, on 16th February, one day after a 3-2 win over Accrington, Rovers sold Rimmer to Sheffield Wednesday for over £2,000. Waring was sold to Aston Villa in the same week, as two Prenton pups were unleashed into the big, bad world of First Division football. Cooke was satisfied with the remuneration, even if some fans didn’t appreciate his business model.
In total, Rimmer scored 22 goals in 66 games for Tranmere. But by introducing exciting wing play to Prenton Park, his contribution was far greater. He helped codify the identity of Tranmere Rovers during the embryonic stages of its life in the Football League. Though future managers didn’t reference it explicitly, the Dean-Rimmer-Waring trident helped shape a desire for positive, attacking football among Rovers fans. That yearning was passed down through the generations, coalescing into a certain expectation of how this football club should play. Almost by proxy, that seeped into the atmosphere and culture at Prenton Park, cajoling coaches into embracing the tradition, with varying degrees of success.
When Rimmer arrived at Hillsborough, Wednesday were mired in a relegation battle, seven points adrift of safety. Yet in the final ten games, The Owls picked up 17 of a possible 20 points, avoiding the drop by the slimmest of margins. It was the original Great Escape, and a launching pad to future glory. Ellis Rimmer was at the centre of it all.
In 1928-29, Wednesday were crowned champions of England for the third time. The following year, they repeated the trick, beating Derby to the title by ten points. Late in the 1929-30 campaign, Rimmer was selected by England for a British Home Championship tie with Scotland. He scored twice on debut as the Three Lions won 5-2. A star was duly born.
Early in the new decade, Ellis scored 24 and then 23 goals in successive seasons, a remarkable ratio from the wing. His meteoric rise culminated in a historic FA Cup run in 1934-35. Aged 28, Rimmer scored in every round, including two in the final against West Brom, as Wednesday won the famous old trophy. To this day, only 12 players have ever managed that extraordinary feat, and Rimmer was the first non-striker to accomplish it.
The final itself was one for the ages. With 93,204 in attendance, the scoreline stood at 2-2 with five minutes remaining, only for Rimmer to score a brace in heroic fashion, sending the Wednesday fans into raptures. This British Pathe film shows the full highlights from that remarkable day, providing a wonderful insight into Rimmer’s inimitable style of play.
Wednesday were the toast of England, and Rimmer was their star man having scored 26 goals in 1934-35. Whereas modern celebrities tour the chat show circuit amid success, Rimmer was in high demand among theatres following his FA Cup triumph. His jazz piano show took on a life of its own, and Ellis even performed at the Empire Theatre around this time.
Rimmer was edged out of the Wednesday team by 1938. However, he spent a decade at Hillsborough, playing 418 games and scoring 140 goals. Only four players have scored more in the blue and white stripes, while Rimmer almost cracks the top ten in appearances, too.
Ellis only won four England caps, but his final international appearance came alongside Dixie Dean, his old mate, against Spain at Highbury in 1931. England won 7-1, with both former Tranmere players setting up goals. It was a neat moment of symbolism.
Ellis had a brief spell with Ipswich before retiring to look after his business ventures. He ran several pubs, first in Sheffield and then back on Merseyside, and also set up a bookmakers at one point. Rimmer died from an unexpected heart attack in Southport on 16th March 1965. He was just 58 years of age.
Long after his death, the Rimmer family continued to influence the fortunes of Tranmere Rovers. Warwick Rimmer, a nephew of Ellis, was born in 1941, and he later revolutionised the youth system at Prenton Park. When Peter Johnson saved the club from the ruinous grasp of Bruce Osterman in the 1980s, one of his first projects involved resuscitating the academy. Warwick was hand-picked to spearhead the revival, and he developed countless stars for Tranmere, sending many on the same path to fame as his uncle and earning the club more than £14 million in transfer fees.
Now, all these years later, Ellis deserves to be remembered, just as Warwick has been. When we discuss the greatest players ever to represent Tranmere, a few names are bound to crop up. Aldridge. Muir. Dean. Yet in terms of career success, from humble roots to widespread fame, Ellis Rimmer rivals many of them. Perhaps more importantly, his impact in changing the ethos of Tranmere Rovers enabled future generations to succeed. Ellis blazed a trail, and his achievements should remain an inspiration to anyone from Birkenhead.