By Ryan Ferguson
As the January transfer window rounds into view, our newspapers are full of rumoured deals involving obscene amounts of cash. In the modern age, even average players seem to cost around £10 million, as the football economy is distorted by astronomical revenues. Yet, for clubs like Tranmere, the transfer market is a very different place, where patience and guile are required to survive. Our history of purchasing players is rather sequestered, but nevertheless worthy of closer inspection. Let’s take a trip through the record books.
In the earliest days of their existence, Tranmere Rovers didn’t pay transfer fees. The club occasionally lured players from rival teams by offering a greater wage, but the squad was otherwise settled. Rovers were formed by a close-knit group of cricketing friends, and that identity stood firm for many years. The club faced financial problems on several occasions, with only the generosity of president James Hannay McGaul keeping it afloat. There was little room for costly recruitment.
On the path to professionalism, Tranmere faced many hurdles. A revolt before the 1899-90 season saw many Rovers players form a new club, Birkenhead FC. There were constant squabbles over land for new grounds, and agreeing on a league in which to participate brought its own challenges. However, that indestructible spirit shone through, and Tranmere kicked on. By 1921, Rovers was a limited company charging admission for thousands of fans to watch Football League games at Prenton Park. Cash flow improved. Organisation was streamlined under secretary-manager Bert Cooke. Growth was unmistakeable.
From this foundation, signing players for actual money was a natural progression. In this regard, Cooke broadened his horizons, scouring the south of England for the first time. As a general rule, Tranmere had recruited locally until that point, with plenty of homegrown players emerging from the ranks. Yet in Stan Sayer, a hardened centre-forward at Millwall, Cooke found the ideal candidate for Rovers’ first significant purchase. A £25 fee was agreed in 1922, and the 27-year old trundled north to much acclaim.
Legend suggests that Sayer enjoyed a pint and cigarette in the Prenton before games. Nevertheless, it didn’t affect his performance, as the fearless striker notched 33 goals in 87 appearances for Tranmere. Yet without question, his biggest impact was in mentoring a raw colt by the name of William Ralph Dean.
When the young phenom was ready to join the Tranmere first team, Sayer moved to a wider position to accommodate him. In a selfless manner, Stan moulded his game to suit Dean, providing many assists and imparting years of wisdom. He played an integral role in developing the immortal Dixie.
When Dean joined Everton in 1925, Cooke was criticised by some fans who couldn’t understand his logic. Perhaps looking to placate the baying mob, Rovers searched the market for an adequate replacement, settling upon Fred Marquis, once a lethal finisher with Preston North End. After clearing debts with the £3,000 Dean fee, Tranmere signed his successor for £300, a new club record. Marquis enjoyed a fair amount of success on Merseyside, scoring 33 goals in 74 appearances, but expecting him to fill such mammoth shoes was always a non-starter.
Four years passed before Rovers broke their record transfer fee again. But when it eventually happened, in 1929, Dean was tenuously connected once again. Sammy Meston, a tricky winger who made one appearance alongside Dixie for an Everton team that won the first division championship, was signed for £350. He enjoyed three productive seasons on the Wirral, scoring 31 goals in 115 games, before returning south upon retirement to concentrate on his bookmakers business.
At this point, Tranmere were more concerned with selling great players than procuring them. That’s a sad but factual realisation. Star centre-half Vince Matthews was sold to Bolton in 1925. Pongo Waring and Ellis Rimmer were sold in 1928. Bill Ridding joined Manchester City in 1930. Under the guise of Cooke, Rovers’ pragmatic stature as a selling club was burnished. Football’s distinct food chain became ever clearer, and despite exceptional scouting and development, Tranmere languished near the bottom.
Of course, Rovers still dabbled in the market, but their crumple zone was minimal. Wing half Dickie Dale was bought from West Brom for £400 in 1932. He only made ten appearances in an unsuccessful stay. Two years later, Bill McDonald arrived from Manchester United for £750. A lively inside-right, he notched 20 goals for the club but was otherwise rather forgettable.
Finally, in 1937, Tranmere executed their greatest coup yet when Waring returned from Wolverhampton Wanderers for £900. A rough Birkenhead diamond mined and polished by Rovers, Pongo enjoyed phenomenal success with Aston Villa and even won several England caps. But after a troublesome period, he returned to Tranmere, hoping to lead his beloved club to promotion. That dream was achieved in 1938, and Waring left surprisingly the following season.
By that point, Rovers had smashed through the £1,000 barrier for the first time. Stan Docking, an inside-left from Newcastle, was acquired for a touch over that amount as Tranmere sought reinforcements for their first season in the second tier. Docking made just 31 appearances, scoring seven goals, as Rovers were swiftly relegated back to their natural habitat.
It would take 14 years for Tranmere to break its record transfer fee again. World War II created tremendous uncertainty, and few clubs spent heavily in this period. Football League play was suspended, and the nation was generally focused on other matters, understandably.
When Rovers did begin searching for quality additions again in 1952, manager Ernie Blackburn pulled off a fine deal for Cyril Done, a strong centre-forward who enjoyed some very successful seasons with Liverpool. Tranmere bought Done for £4,000, and he contributed 75 goals over two and a half campaigns. Done is still 12th on Rovers’ list of all-time top goalscorers. He was a passionate charity worker after retiring, and sadly died on the very same day as Bobby Moore in 1993.
Graham Barnett, another inside-forward, became Tranmere’s first £5,000 player in 1960, but a much more intriguing transfer happened a year later. New manager Walter Galbraith enjoyed a strong friendship with Don Revie, the legendary boss of Leeds United. Early in his Rovers tenure, Galbraith asked his friend for help supplementing his Tranmere defence. According to legend, Revie offered him a pick of two Leeds players: Jackie McGugan or Jack Charlton. Galbraith picked McGugan, signed a cheque for £12,150, and the rest is history. Oh, what might have been.
Six months after Charlton won the World Cup with England, Tranmere signed George Hudson, a centre-forward from Northampton, for £15,000. Without setting the world alight, Hudson was a decent addition to a squad that eventually won promotion under trailblazing manager Dave Russell. George only made 63 appearances for Tranmere, scoring 22 goals, before moving to Altrincham. He later worked at the Daily Mail printing press in Manchester.
Tranmere didn’t improve their record fee until 1978. The club faced a difficult period in the seventies, as dwindling attendances back in the fourth division made money tight. Still, young manager Johnny King showed his penchant for completing audacious transfers with the £20,000 arrival of Hugh McAuley, a winger from Charlton. McAuley enjoyed a loan spell at Prenton Park earlier in his career, and was happy to return. Nevertheless, he managed to appear in just 43 games, scant reward for the club’s record outlay. He later became a prominent youth coach at Liverpool, overseeing the development of Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, among others.
In subsequent years, Tranmere struggled in the ruinous grasp of Bruce Osterman, English football’s first American owner. The San Francisco lawyer had little cash and even less business acumen. When things turned sour, he threatened to disband Tranmere and build a supermarket where Prenton Park stood. Unsurprisingly, the club didn’t spend heavily on players during this time. Rovers couldn’t even convince a known brand to manufacture their kit!
It wasn’t until Peter Johnson rescued the club in 1987 that its lustre was restored. Early in his tenure, Johnson ordered a widespread revitalisation project at Tranmere, with a new club badge, kit, shop and youth department being created. Prenton Park was repaired. King returned as manager. Capital was injected.
Once Rovers maintained their Football League status in desperate circumstances against Exeter in 1987, the grand rebuild gathered pace. King and Johnson broke the club’s record transfer fee twice in one year, signing Jim Harvey from Bristol City for £25,000 and Jim Steel from Wrexham for £50,000. The former became a linchpin to King’s dynasty, a ball-playing midfield supremo who set the tone of Tranmere excellence. The latter became a potent target man who scored many important goals for Rovers. In 1988, King added another crucial cog to his Deadly Submarine. Eric Nixon, an imperious goalkeeper, was recruited from Manchester City for £60,000, a new Rovers record. This influential trio made 911 appearances for Tranmere, driving the club towards its finest glory.
Rovers won promotion from Division Four in 1989, and the Leyland DAF Trophy followed in 1990. Neil McNab, a £125,000 recruit from Manchester City, played an important role in this transformation. The combative midfielder added real pedigree to the Tranmere team, but Rovers lost to Notts County in the Third Division playoff final a week after their Trophy success. The following season, Tranmere went one better, defeating Bolton at Wembley to reach the second tier. That piqued ambition around Birkenhead, and inspired arguably the greatest transfer ever executed by a club outside the top division.
John Aldridge was homesick. His move to Real Sociedad had been an unmitigated success, in terms of goals, but he hated being so far away from his family. A Daily Post article about his Basque struggles alerted King and Johnson to the possibility of poaching the legendary Liverpool goalscorer, and Tranmere moved quickly to beat all competitors.
With burning ambitions to reach the first division, Johnson was aggressive in negotiations, and Rovers eventually reeled in their biggest ever fish for £250,000, half the original asking price. In hindsight, this was one of the most incredible bargains of all-time. The second division could not handle Aldridge, who scored 174 goals in 294 games for Tranmere. That’s one goal every 1.6 games. Absolutely astonishing.
Johnson wasn’t holding back, and a year after signing Aldo, Tranmere beat Galatasaray to the £300,000 signature of Pat Nevin, another high profile star. That record was beaten to sign Tommy Coyne from Celtic for £350,000 in 1993, and Shaun Teale from Aston Villa for £450,000 in 1995. To this day, many fans are left to wonder just how Rovers didn’t manage to reach the Premier League with such a sensational squad. They lost in the second division playoffs three times, and infamously lost in a League Cup semi-final, before problems began to mount.
When Aldridge took over as manager in 1996, the cupboard was pretty bare. The Teale deal included many unforeseen clauses that made the outlay swell out of proportion. That left Aldridge to pick from the scrapheap of discarded veterans, a practice he loathed. Few Tranmere managers since have enjoyed a luxury budget. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we currently reside in the non-league.
It seems quite absurd that, in a world where Paul Pogba cost Manchester United £89 million, our record transfer fee hasn’t changed for 21 years. Though it’s a rather strange point, our £450,000 record would have been the world record in 1968, a real barometer of football’s rapid evolution.
Nevertheless, I have every faith that we’ll see a record transfer at Tranmere in the not too distant future. The present owners have the desire, vision and guts to pull it off, and we’ve already witnessed their all-out pursuit of success at Prenton Park. Deals for players like Ben Tollitt show serious ambition. Micky Mellon knows his way around the transfer market, too. So once we’re back in the Football League, I can certainly foresee some historic transfers. Perhaps we’ll even see Tranmere sign a million pound player. I’m sure Stan Sayer would have drank to that.
Many thanks to Jason Canovas and an anonymous donor, our latest supporters on GoFundMe.