By Ryan Ferguson
I never had the pleasure of watching Ian Muir play for Tranmere. His final game for Rovers came in March 1995, when I was just five months old. Yet like anyone with an interest in the club’s history, I have a deep respect and admiration for what the silky striker accomplished at Prenton Park.
I grew up on endless stories from my dad about Muir’s peerless ability with his back to goal. I later read about his ascent to score more goals for Tranmere than any other man, and watched clips of his masterful finishing online. I also met him once, about three or four years ago, and was fortunate to get his autograph on a programme from the Bristol Rovers cup final in which he so famously scored.
On that day, Ian seemed genuinely shocked by the deep love Tranmere fans still harbour for him, but also by the way it spans generations that weren’t even around during his peak. That shows the true impact of his toil, the real legacy of his talent. He carved a permanent place in the folklore of this club. And no matter how unassuming his persona, he will always be considered Tranmere Rovers royalty.
In many ways, such a designation was highly unlikely. Born in Coventry on 5th May 1963, Ian played for England at schoolboy level and was ushered into the youth team at Queens Park Rangers, but the early years of his career were frustratingly nomadic. He never really settled at QPR, who loaned him to Burnley. Further stints with Birmingham, Brighton and Swindon brought little success, and by 1985, Ian Muir was a 22-year old striker with just 11 appearances and 3 goals to show from five years in the professional game.
Enter Frank Worthington, the former England international then in his first summer as player-manager of Tranmere Rovers. A maverick at heart, Worthington played with incredible flamboyance throughout his career, and many believe that extroverted style cost him many caps under disciplinarians like Don Revie. Perhaps those experiences helped Worthington spot a real player in need of a genuine opportunity. Perhaps he saw the natural talent hidden away deep inside Ian Muir, and perhaps he liked his chances of unleashing it.
However it came about, Rovers signed Muir on a free transfer and inserted him straight into the team. His arrival was the single greatest thing to happen at Prenton Park during the disastrous reign of American owner Bruce Osterman. From inauspicious beginnings, Muir became arguably the most beloved player ever to wear the white of Tranmere Rovers.
Nevertheless, early on, there was little reason to believe he would rewrite the history books of our proud club. The diminutive striker managed just three goals in his first 15 games, leading many to consider him more of a linking forward rather than a thoroughbred goalscorer. But with perseverance and belief, Muir rose like a phoenix to author an entire chapter in the Tranmere annals. With a little nurturing from Worthington and the loyal fans, his fine inner talent shone bright, and when he was finished, many years later, that plucky old club beside the Mersey had been transformed into a growing force of English football.
Arguably the first glimpse of true brilliance from Muir came in late October 1985, when Rovers beat Peterborough 7-0. Muir scored four of the goals in a virtuoso display. Everything clicked on that Tuesday night, but a crowd of just 1,318 witnessed a prophetic occasion at Prenton Park. Though times would get even tougher for Tranmere, then perpetually battling relegation out of the Football League, there was a player within the ranks capable of lifting them to glory. It would just take a bit of time to happen.
Muir scored 15 goals in 1985-86 as Tranmere finished 19th in Division Four. The following season was even more arduous, as former Rovers captain Johnny King took over the managerial reins. Muir notched 22 goals in a turbulent campaign, but Tranmere entered the final game at home to Exeter facing the prospect of life in the non-league. Only a 1-0 victory before a bumper crowd of 6,983 preserved Rovers’ Football League status. Though often overlooked, Muir produced some sublime individual magic to twist, turn and cross for Gary Williams to head home that fabled goal.
It was a harbinger of brighter days to come.
Ian’s journey of annual improvement continued in 1987-88 as he scored 29 goals. Tranmere also took a step forward, finishing mid-table and avoiding the need for last day heroics. Late in that season, Rovers visited Wembley for the first time to partake in the Football League Centenary Tournament. Wimbledon were defeated first, before Newcastle were swatted aside 2-0 in the quarter-final as Muir slotted home a killer penalty. Ian also scored twice in the semi-final against Nottingham Forest, but they fought back to force a penalty shootout. Unfortunately, Muir missed the decisive spot kick, yet few were discouraged by Rovers’ incredible passage through the competition.
Tranmere used the experience as a launching pad, and automatic promotion out of the fourth tier was secured in 1989. Muir scored 29 goals, including a header on the final day against Crewe, as a 1-1 draw saw both clubs promoted before 15,286 in Birkenhead. Johnny King’s famous trip to the moon was fully operational, and the smart striker he inherited played a major role.
In terms of appearance, Muir was small, with a low centre of gravity that helped him scurry about the pitch. He was often likened to a lower league Kenny Dalglish, but such lazy comparisons belittle his own individuality. In fact, Muir grew up admiring Stan Bowles, and he went about his task in a similarly skilful manner. Ian didn’t have stunning flat-line speed, but he was exceptionally agile. He played in fast motion, with razor sharp reflexes around the penalty area. And he possessed a total awareness of positioning, both his and that of teammates.
Then there was the finishing. Muir mastered all different types of finishes, from cute half-volleys and sumptuous dinks to curled shots and opportunistic tap-ins. Watching back most of his goals, there’s almost a giddy excitement in his countenance just before he pulls the trigger; a split second of opportunity where he just knows that the net is going to bulge, and everyone else is powerless to stop it.
He just had that Midas touch in front of goal, where even minimal chances from acute angles seemed to go in for him when they wouldn’t for anyone else. In the box, Muir was thoughtless and sagacious all at the same time. The way he skipped gleefully about the pitch after each goal leaves an indelible mark, too. He loved playing, and scoring, for Tranmere Rovers. What more can you want?
Muir was also a fine reactionary on the pitch. His play was often instinctive and improvisational. He channelled the optimism of a street footballer, and that’s why his partnership with target man Jim Steel worked so well, as Muir anticipated flick-ons and knock-downs with apparent ease.
Ian equalled Bunny Bell‘s all-time club record for goals in 1989-90, as Rovers powered on to visit Wembley twice in a week. First, Bristol Rovers were beaten in the Leyland DAF Trophy final, as Muir scored a sublime volley and Steel added a trademark header. But then, in the subsequent playoff final, Notts County were too good in securing a 2-0 victory.
A year later, Rovers once again booked two trips to Wembley in the space of a week. Unfortunately, Muir missed both the Leyland DAF defeat to Birmingham and the playoff triumph over Bolton after sustaining a knee ligament injury against Chester in late March. He still managed to score 21 goals in an abbreviated campaign, but recovering from such an ailment could be far more troublesome in those days, and many say he was never the same player again.
Muir missed almost a year of action, and when he finally returned, the ecosystem had been altered at Prenton Park. Now in the second tier, Rovers began flexing their muscles in pursuit of the Promised Land. Superstars like John Aldridge and Pat Nevin came aboard, as Tranmere took the next step. With his 30th birthday fast approaching, Muir found his playing time reduced considerably. Aldridge scored 40 goals in his first Tranmere season, equalling an ancient club record for most strikes in a campaign, and a new era beckoned.
Ian managed just 16 goals between 1991-92 and 1993-94. In one of the great missed opportunities of Tranmere history, Muir and Aldridge never quite clicked as a deadly duo. Nevertheless, Muir played a part in helping Rovers qualify for the second tier playoffs in consecutive years. Unfortunately, defeats to Swindon and Leicester scuppered any hope of reaching the Premier League.
Tranmere made the playoffs for a third straight year in 1995, losing to Reading, but Muir had already played his final game for the club by then. He managed 10 goals in his final season, a mini renaissance, taking his total to 180 in 393 appearances. But in a symbolic changing of the guard, his final game in the white shirt came on the same day a redeveloped Prenton Park opened for business.
It was time to think about the future.
After an unsuccessful return to Birmingham, Muir turned out for Darlington before plying his trade in Hong Kong with Sing Tao and Happy Valley. He returned to England in 1998 to play for Nuneaton Borough and Stratford Town before eventually retiring.
Since leaving the game, Muir has maintained a low profile. He has applied for the Tranmere manager’s job on several occasions, most notably when John Barnes was given the role, but has otherwise remained in the shadows.
Yet, to a whole generation of Rovers fans, Ian Muir will always be the most beloved of heroes. Aldridge was respected like few others. Goodison touched the heart more than most. But Ian Muir was different. There was a mystical quality that made him so lovable, an elusive spirit that always left people wanting more.
Sometimes, entire epochs can be defined by a single silhouette. For Tranmere Roves in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a few images still burn strong. There’s a heaving Cowshed, swaying with Friday night glee. There’s Johnny King encouraging his well-drilled style of play. And then there’s Ian Muir, controlling the ball, ferrying it wide to Johnny Morrissey, then peeling off to dispatch the inevitable cross at the far post.
It was so simple, so reliable. Sweet Tranmere clockwork.
It was Ian Muir, the soul of an era, and his impact will last forever.
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