By Ryan Ferguson
In recent years, finding a natural rival for Tranmere has been troublesome. Chester and Wrexham are perhaps our most intense foes, but even those encounters are far from perfect. To be frank, we’ve got bigger fish to fry than Chester. And why should we be overly bothered with Wrexham when they’re more concerned with Chester?
Of course, there is Liverpool and Everton, but they operate in a different universe. New Brighton were fierce rivals on the Wirral once upon a time, but that chapter is sadly closed. A tense feud with Bolton emerged in the nineties, but we haven’t occupied the same division for years, and have since suffered periods where Crewe, Bury and Oldham represented our chief grudge matches. Yet over a century ago, there was no doubt who Tranmere Rovers despised most. That would be Birkenhead FC, the renegade club that almost put Rovers out of business in a rash of betrayal.
The breakaway club was formed from a pool of discontent. Tranmere Rovers was founded by young cricketers who shared a Wesleyan faith. Playing football was meant to be a hobby, and many original members resented the march towards greater organisation. In 1897, Tranmere turned semi-professional and joined The Combination, a very distinguished league that featured the reserve sides of some high profile clubs. Some Rovers players got paid, in addition to working their normal jobs. Others didn’t agree with the club’s direction and began dispersing to different amateur clubs in the region.
This war between contrasting pillars of progress and stagnation, reform and tradition, threatened to tear Tranmere Rovers apart. Prior to the 1899-00 season, many remaining players voiced their discontent over a variety of issues, notably the conditions at the old Prenton Park on Temple Road. When local rivals Rock Ferry went out of business, a certain contingent lobbied president James Hannay McGaul to take over their Bedford Park ground and move Tranmere into it. The first great guardian of Rovers, McGaul had purchased the first goalposts and balls for the club, and he knew its conscience like few others. Tranmere would not be moving, he declared. The fanbase they had built deserved better than that.
Mo Wilson, once a trusted treasurer, was a dissenting voice in the Rovers hierarchy. He didn’t like mandates to cut costs, and some say he fed the resentment among Tranmere players. Perhaps with his inducement, twelve squad members signed a letter stating their intent to leave Rovers and form an enemy club. Here’s the correspondence in full:
“Dear Mo, referring to the applications the team made to you in the early part of the month to organise another club and if possible to secure the Rock Ferry ground, and your answer that you would prefer to get it for the Rovers if they could be induced to take it, the undersigned, having heard of your efforts, now wish to place you in a position to act, failing the Rovers falling in with the offer you have been able to obtain for them, and desire that you will form another club, secure the Rock Ferry ground, and endeavour to secure membership of The Combination, one and all agreeing to stand by you. We trust you will undertake this and can assure you that we shall make every effort to make it a brilliant success. Believe us, yours faithfully.”
With that, the most severe act of betrayal in the history of Tranmere Rovers was set in motion. Seduced by Wilson’s vision of a club placed more conveniently near Rock Ferry train station, every single player except one left Tranmere to create their own team. That one player, Billy Davidson, is arguably the most loyal man ever to grace the sacred shirt. He even travelled from Lancashire every weekend to play for Tranmere. His commitment should never be forgotten.
On 27th July 1899, in a meeting at the Bedford Hotel, Birkenhead FC was officially ratified. Cruelly, the club was ushered into The Combination as McGaul was forced to withdraw his virtually non-existent Tranmere squad. Naturally, Birkenhead chose to wear red shirts, in stark contrast to the blue of Rovers. A quintessential football rivalry was born, and it would be the making of Tranmere as a club of ceaseless spirit.
“Like a building which may be modernised or renovated in any way, the foundation of the club still stands,” wrote the Birkenhead News of a daunting resuscitation project. “And, in Mr J H McGaul, TC, they have a pillar of strength. So long as he supports the club, it will not fail. He is full of hope for a successful future.”
Indeed, rather than killing it, this grand deceit was a Big Bang moment for Tranmere Rovers. Facing incredible adversity, McGaul summoned bravery and creativity to keep the club afloat. With just weeks to go before the season began, he begged, borrowed and occasionally stole players to fill the Tranmere squad. Rovers were replanted in the Lancashire Alliance, a painful but necessary step back.
That 1899-00 campaign was fairly unspectacular, but it did include the first ever meeting of Birkenhead’s warring football factions. On 3rd March 1900, Birkenhead FC hosted Tranmere Rovers before 1,000 fans at Bedford Park. The Cheshire Senior Cup game had been rearranged amid February snow, and Birkenhead ran out 1-0 victors, to the pain of anyone associated with the true Tranmere Rovers.
Nevertheless, McGaul was busy off the field, tinkering and recruiting to make Tranmere a force again. Rovers were strong enough to rejoin The Combination after one season, which meant regular league games against their new rivals. By this point, Birkenhead moved location for the first time in what would be a nomadic existence, setting up residence at the Engineer’s Parade Ground on Chester Street.
On 29th September 1900, Tranmere beat Birkenhead 2-1 in the first ever league match between the clubs. Birkenhead visited the old Prenton Park for the first time in December of that year, as locals displayed a keen interest. “Saturday will be a red-letter day to the habitués of Prenton Park, when their great Combination rival Birkenhead pay their first visit to the Rovers’ enclosure,” wrote one News reporter. To the delight of all, Tranmere won 1-0, completing the double over their enemies. Rovers also finished above Birkenhead in the table, a real fillip for McGaul and company.
The rivalry became a real highlight of Wirral’s sporting calendar. According to the record books, Tranmere and Birkenhead played many games on Christmas Day over the years, and the upstart villains were often victorious. A deep dislike fermented as Birkenhead finished above Rovers in three successive seasons. Nevertheless, it’s quite amazing that both clubs put their differences aside in 1902 to play a charity match that raised funds for the Ibrox Disaster Fund following a stand collapse as Scotland entertained England.
In 1903-04, Birkenhead were Combination champions. Though the Football League was obviously supreme, this was the first ‘major’ league title for either club. Tranmere finished fourth, and also lost to The Birks in a Liverpool & District Shield semi-final. There was growing frustration among fans and directors because Tranmere was clearly the bigger and more supported club, but their raw neophyte rivals were threatening to become more successful.
Fortunately, the wheels began to come off for Birkenhead FC right after their moment of ultimate glory. Inept book-keeping and poor crowds led to money problems, and their ability to attract key players waned. Indeed, several of the original deserters came rushing back to Tranmere. One notable returnee was Jack Lee, who later made amends for his disloyalty by unearthing Dixie Dean as Rovers’ chief scout. Ultimately, Birkenhead never made much of a dent in Rovers’ core support. Tranmere enjoyed more fortune in the derby games, and eventually rose to the top.
When Rovers won The Combination title in 1908, it represented more than a trophy. It was a triumph of reason over irrationality, principle over greed. James Hannay McGaul had rebuilt his beloved club from the ashes of despair, and boy was he going to celebrate. Tranmere hired the Woodside Hotel and indulged in a lavish celebratory banquet. There was piano music and champagne, trophy presentations and speeches. It was the finest hour our club had ever enjoyed to that point.
“He need hardly say that he was delighted to be in the position he was as president of the Rovers club,” wrote the News of McGaul. “More than once had they tried to capture the handsome trophy which was before him, but at last they had succeeded. There was little doubt that their team deserved the medals which were due to them, and although it had been a keen fight, the laurels were all the more welcome on that account.
“Football was a mighty struggle, and he thought that in no other game was restraint on a man’s temper so great. The hard knocks received were enough to try the tempers of most players, but he was pleased to say that with practically no exceptions, their team had always played the game in a thorough, sportsmanlike-manner.
“He had always advocated playing the ball in preference to the man, and he was sure that , in the end, it was the best policy and one which would be admitted by every lover of fair-play, as low-down tactics were only indulged in by players who in the end came off second best. He had the greatest pleasure in presenting the medals and a photograph of the team to each of the players, whom he hoped would receive a hearty reception.”
It’s perhaps a stretch to call this a triumph of good over evil, but it certainly had a major impact on the future of Tranmere Rovers. Looking crisis in the eye, then endeavouring to rebuild in a grand vision, took ample nerve and guts. Conducting business with real morals, and refusing to sacrifice our soul for instant glory, set a precedent by which we must still abide. By meeting the darkest deception and still refusing to alter his outlook, McGaul created a legacy, a mystique and a grandeur that is still buried deep in the soul of this club. It cannot be measured in trophies and championships. It’s just a thorough decency.
Such was Rovers’ class, they even allowed Birkenhead to use the old Prenton Park for a game as their rivals struggled to survive. Tranmere also arranged a friendly against Bolton for Birkenhead, hoping to raise funds and keep them afloat. After such a tumultuous relationship, it’s quite stunning how Tranmere was able to turn the other cheek and even become a model neighbour. All these years later, it makes me exceedingly proud.
Birkenhead survived a few more seasons, jumping from ground to ground and trying to make ends meet. But a sensational 8-3 thrashing at the hands of Tranmere in November 1909 put the club in an untenable position. The Birks only managed one more game before resigning from the league and fizzling out of existence. “At last, after many years battling against fate, the inevitable has happened and Birkenhead’s one time team of all talents is no more,” read the News.
Tranmere had emerged victorious.
In total, Rovers played 39 games against Birkenhead FC, winning 20, losing 11 and drawing 8. Yet to be honest, those numbers are inconsequential. What mattered most was the manner in which Tranmere dealt with the ultimate adversity, and the way in which the people of Birkenhead continued to love their Rovers above all else. Later feuds with New Brighton would establish Tranmere as Wirral’s team, but this episode secured their position as kings of Birkenhead. And that status was never threatened again.
– Tranmere Rovers, The Complete Record by Gilbert Upton, Steve Wilson and Peter Bishop
– Tranmere Rovers, 1881-1921 by Gilbert Upton
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