By Ryan Ferguson
Who is the most well-known Tranmere player of the past twenty years? Jason Koumas has a strong case. So does Iain Hume. Perhaps even Jason McAteer, Ryan Taylor or Joe Hart. But judging by his immortal place in the pop culture of football, Dave Challinor must also warrant consideration.
With prodigious throwing ability, the reliable defender shot to fame and played a significant role in a golden era of cup football on Wirral. From raw beginnings, he became the king of the flingers, capable of reaching the penalty area with throw-ins from anywhere inside the opposition half.
In many ways, his was a highly unlikely story. A story worth telling again, for those who experienced it firsthand and those who never had the privilege.
Challinor was born in Chester in October 1975. As a kid, he followed Tranmere to Wembley four times in various playoff and Leyland DAF Cup finals. Then, during his late teenage years, Rovers found him playing centre-half for Bromborough Pool in the West Cheshire League. Dave planned to study sports science at Loughborough University, but deferred his entry when Tranmere offered him a permanent contract.
With established veterans like Shaun Garnett and John McGreal ahead of him, Challinor had to bide his time in the youth team and reserves. However, his senior debut came in 1997, at home to Stoke City before 9,127. It wasn’t long before a secret weapon made the young defender indispensable.
Challinor was a successful javelin thrower in school, and that ability to hurl objects a long way would be his passport to semi-stardom. Tranmere operated on a tightening budget, as manager John Aldridge was forced to eke maximum return from dwindling resources. Wheeling and dealing in the transfer market was one way of surviving, but the gaffer was also keen to find marginal gains from within. Challinor’s throwing ability presented an intriguing opportunity.
With specific instruction from the coaching staff and hours spent on the training field, Challinor honed his technique. Aldridge was obsessed with the penalty area, both as a player and manager. That’s where he lived. His teams were encouraged to manipulate the percentages, go straight for the jugular, and ask questions of the opposition. It was all about exerting pressure and daring the other team to break. A humongous throw-in was an ideal weapon to have in that arsenal.
During the 1997-98 campaign, Challinor became a regular for Rovers, who finished 14th in the second tier but enjoyed a strong run to the FA Cup Fifth Round. Newcastle eventually beat Tranmere at St James’ Park, but cup heroics would become fairly routine for the Superwhites in subsequent campaigns. Challinor played a pivotal role in that mesmeric fairytale.
But before he could lead Rovers to widespread acclaim, Dave enjoyed personal success. In a special challenge held at Prenton Park in 1998, he recorded a throw of 46.34 metres, or 152 feet, that was verified by officials from the Guinness Book of Records. With his monumental effort, Challinor broke the world record for the longest football throw-in, previously held by Andy Legg of Swansea and Cardiff fame.
The exhibition and record stoked Challinor’s reputation. Newspapers were keen to interview him. Television and radio programmes followed suit. Dave earned a place in the game’s folklore, but somehow managed to stay grounded and focused. That’s a credit to his exemplary professionalism.
The length of Challinor’s throw wasn’t its only exciting feature. He was able to impart wicked spin on the ball, while the speed and trajectory of its arrival made goalkeepers panic and defenders wince. Aldridge christened it The Exocet, akin to the anti-ship missile. And he had a series of tactics to further embed Challinor into the Rovers gameplan.
Every ball boy and girl at Prenton Park carried a towel during matches, allowing Challinor to wipe away moisture and find a better grip. The sight of him drying the ball, sometimes even under his shirt, before running up through those convenient gaps in the advertising boards and hurling a throw into the box was truly iconic. Wayne Allison was usually the main target, with Dave Kelly gambling on the knock-downs. An entire generation of fans grew up with this theatre. It reaped incredible rewards, too.
In 1999-2000, Tranmere authored one of the greatest seasons of cup football ever experienced by a club outside the top tier. West Ham, Sunderland and Fulham were defeated in the FA Cup, only for Newcastle to thwart out progress at the quarter-final stage. But a week later, Rovers were at Wembley in their first major final, having beaten Blackpool, Coventry, Oxford, Barnsley, Middlesbrough and Bolton in a pulsating League Cup campaign.
Challinor was instrumental in several of those giant-killings, providing direct assists or applying general pressure with his long throws. After the Newcastle game, Bobby Robson remarked that they were more difficult to defend than crosses from David Beckham, sparking debate as to whether Tranmere possessed one of the most effective singular weapons in world football.
As the hubbub peaked, detractors began to assemble, taking swipes at Challinor and Tranmere. Barnsley made substitutes warm-up in Challinor’s path, obstructing his range. Sam Allardyce hated the long throw so much that, prior to the famous League Cup semi-final with Bolton, he moved the advertising boards closer to the Reebok Stadium pitch and lobbied the match officials to confiscate all towels at Prenton Park.
Tranmere had the last laugh, beating Bolton fair and square by an emphatic 4-0 aggregate scoreline. The most iconic goal in that tie, Nick Henry’s sweet volley at Prenton Park, came after Bolton failed to clear a Challinor throw. It was sweet poetic justice, as Tranmere marched on to Wembley.
Before the final, an edict came down from on high. “The fourth official will be informed that towels must not be used in the final,” said a League spokesman, throwing Rovers’ most obvious plan into disputed territory. But Tranmere gave a terrific account of themselves anyway, fighting back to equalise against Leicester before succumbing to a narrow defeat.
There was more to that team and that era than Dave Challinor launching balls across a muddy field and hoping for the best. Rovers had some exceptional players with stunning ability. Koumas glided past defenders. Alan Mahon picked locks like few outside the Premiership. Clint Hill was one of the brightest defensive prospects in the game. Challinor was always keen to highlight the skill of his teammates, and rightly so. He just gave Tranmere a different dimension. A dimension no other team possessed.
In a similar regard, the ability to throw a ball further than anybody else often overshadowed Dave’s other skills as a footballer. He was a committed defender with considerable agility who read the game well. And while there was always a ripple of excitement around Prenton Park as he jogged over to take a throw-in, there was often thunderous applause for a last-ditch tackle or courageous block, too.
Tranmere enjoyed another fine season of cup football in 2000-01, as Portsmouth, Everton and Southampton were defeated heroically in the FA Cup to arrange a tie with Liverpool. Unfortunately, Rovers lost 4-2 and that signalled the end of an era in many respects. Relegation from the second division followed soon thereafter, and players began to leave. Challinor was sold to Stockport for £120,000 as new manager Dave Watson eyed a different philosophy. The times were changing.
Challinor also spent time at Bury and Colwyn Bay, where he became manager in 2010. While becoming a qualified physiotherapist, Dave steered Colwyn Bay into the Conference North. A move to AFC Fylde followed in 2011, and that club has soared into the limelight under Challinor’s command, winning multiple promotions and building a fine new stadium.
In recent years, we’ve seen several challenges to the long-throw crown. Rory Delap shot to fame with Stoke City, while a teacher named Danny Brooks broke Challinor’s record in 2010. In the modern age, grainy video footage from around the world tends to crop up occasionally, with people claiming ownership of a 50-metre throw or something similar. But no matter where the record goes from here, the original phenomenon will always belong to a stoic defender from Tranmere Rovers.
“That lad throws the ball further than I go on holiday,” Ron Atkinson once said of Dave Challinor. That sentiment, and that phenomenal skill, defined an entire epoch at Prenton Park. It was a time, a player and a strategy that will never be forgotten. It was outrageously good fun, and that’s all that really matters.
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