By Ryan Ferguson
In the annals of Tranmere history, many records seem attainable. Rovers set a new standard for away form last season, while 2016 saw them gather more points than in any other calendar year. Nevertheless, a few hallowed records are unlikely to be touched. It’s difficult to see anyone surpassing Harold Bell’s mark of 741 appearances, for instance, and beating the record home attendance of 24,424 would require an expanded stadium.
Yet some of the most incredible Rovers records belong to one man, Mr Robert ‘Bunny’ Bell, especially his triple hat-trick in one historic match. That must be the most unassailable of all Tranmere achievements. It also must be one of the most overlooked.
Bell was born in Birkenhead on 10th April 1911. He played for Carlton, a local team, before joining Tranmere in 1930. A diminutive striker with serious pace, Robert acquired the nickname ‘Bunny’ early in his career, and it stood the test of time. Lean and clinically decisive in the box, Bell also worked as a shipping clerk throughout his tenure with Rovers. But it was on the field at Prenton Park where he etched his name in footballing folklore.
In 1931-32, Bunny scored 12 league goals as Tranmere competed atop Division Three North. The following season, he upped his tally to 17, before jumping into historic territory in 1933-34. During that campaign, Bell scored 40 goals in league and cup, establishing a new single-season record for a Tranmere player. It would stand untouched for the next 58 years, until John Aldridge also notched 40 in 1991-92, his debut season at Prenton Park.
Bell also scored six hat-tricks during that magical campaign, another record unlikely to be broken. Throughout his Rovers career, Bunny completed 13 hat-tricks, more than any other player to wear the Tranmere shirt. In total, Bell scored 116 goals in 130 appearances for Tranmere. He’s still the club’s third-highest goalscorer of all-time, and it took 55 years for anyone to surpass him on that list.
But despite such impressive longevity, Bunny remains synonymous with one particular game, and perhaps rightly so, for it was a game unlike any other.
On Christmas Day 1935, Tranmere travelled to Oldham as league leaders. Unfortunately, the form book was flipped on its head as Rovers were soundly beaten 4-1. As per tradition, the two teams reconvened on Boxing Day, this time at Prenton Park, to renew hostilities. This gave Tranmere an immediate opportunity to avenge their first league defeat in over two months. And boy did they grasp it.
A bumper crowd of 11,456 crammed into Prenton Park for the occasion. The masses were treated to a goal almost instantly, as lively outside-left Fred Urmson put Tranmere ahead after just two minutes. When Bell tapped home a rebound after seven minutes, doubling Rovers’ lead, there was little to foretell a historic afternoon ahead. But soon the floodgates opened, and Tranmere ran riot against a crumbling Oldham defence.
Willie MacDonald lobbed the keeper after eleven minutes, making it 3-0. Billy Woodward added another just three minutes later. Then Bell was found by Urmson with sixteen minutes elapsed, and the predatory striker fired Rovers into a sublime 5-0 lead. His first hat-trick was completed after eighteen minutes, with Urmson once again providing the assist. Oldham found themselves 6-0 down with well over an hour still to play. The denizens of Prenton Park enjoyed every minute of it, chanting and clapping delightedly.
The visitors managed to regroup and keep Rovers at bay for fifteen minutes, but Bell soon notched his fourth when tricky work from Urmson saw the ball cannon off Bunny and trickle over the line.
Norman Brunskill pulled one back for Oldham, making it 7-1, only for Bell to round off the first half scoring with a towering header from a sweet Billy Eden cross. At the break, Tranmere had eight, Bell had five, and a race to immortality was well and truly on.
Oldham’s capitulation continued immediately after the restart, with Bell completing his second hat-trick after 46 minutes. Woodward then snatched another, before Davies scored for Oldham to make the score 10-2.
With just over twenty minutes remaining, Bell equalled the Football League record for goals in a game, held jointly by Ted Drake of Arsenal and Arthur Whitehurst of Bradford. Rovers seemingly took a step back, as Oldham scored twice to push the score to 11-4. But word soon spread through the cosy old ground that Bunny had a rare chance to establish a new scoring record, and the Birkenhead throng urged Tranmere forward.
On 73 minutes, Rovers were awarded a penalty following an Oldham handball. This was Bell’s chance. History beckoned, but the striker screwed his kick wide, to the astonishment of all. A certain amount of tension built inside the ground, as time seeped away. Then, with but three minutes remaining, Bunny raced clear, one-on-one with the goalkeeper. The crowd roared him on, giddy and expectant. Bell finished with aplomb, becoming the first man ever to score eight goals in a Football League game and sparking pandemonium inside Prenton Park. During the chaotic celebrations, a fence collapsed in one stand and several people were unfortunately injured.
In the final seconds, Bell added yet another goal, heading home another Eden cross to become the first player to score a triple hat-trick in English football. Pockets of the crowd spilled onto the playing surface, and Bunny was carried back to the dressing room on the shoulders of awestruck supporters. Bell was a king amongst men on the greatest day of his sporting life.
The final score was 13-4 to Tranmere. Those 17 combined goals in one game remains a Football League record. Considering the thousands upon thousands of fixtures played before and since, that’s something I’m immensely proud of. In a span of 48 hours, Tranmere and Oldham combined to score 22 goals. Oh how those defenders must have drank over the Yuletide period!
Unfortunately, Bell’s goal record lasted just four months, until Joe Payne of Luton managed 10 in one match. There are stories about him claiming a dubious goal, but it’s impossible to verify such claims.
Major clubs began trailing Bunny after his remarkable scoring exploits, and he eventually moved to Everton in March 1936 for £1,000 and Archie Clarke in part-exchange. Tranmere’s promotion hopes swiftly dissipated, as just two wins from the final 12 matches saw them finish five points adrift of champions Chesterfield.
Bell played infrequently for Everton, but he did usually score when called upon. The outbreak of World War II effectively ended his career, however, and he never again scaled the inimitable heights of that famous Boxing Day on Borough Road, when he managed 18-minute, 13-minute and 22-minute hat-tricks all in the same game.
In 1985, some fifty years after his miraculous feat, Bunny was invited back to Prenton Park as a special guest. Then aged 74, Bell was accompanied by his grandson onto the field, where manager Frank Worthington presented him with an inscribed silver salver. Tranmere also gifted the match ball from that sacred day to Bunny, who held it aloft to exultant cheers. Quite how that ball was preserved for half a century, across numerous different regimes, is beyond me, but it now sits proudly in the Town Paddock bar named after Bell.
Bunny died on Christmas Day 1988, aged 77. However, his unique contribution to Tranmere Rovers – indeed, to English football – will live on forever. By way of comparison, Max Power was our top league scorer in 2014-15 with seven goals. At his unbelievable zenith, Bell notched that many inside 70 minutes of one game.
Throughout the history of Football League play, a team has scored thirteen goals only three times. That Tranmere Rovers is one should make you feel proud. And that Robert ‘Bunny’ Bell grabbed nine of them should inspire you to shout his name from the rooftops. On his day of days, there was nobody quite like him.
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