WE LIVE in exciting times at Prenton Park.
WE LIVE in exciting times at Prenton Park.
Tranmere have been at the top of the League One table for most of the season, manager Ronnie Moore has built a team playing attractive, winning football and the people of Wirral are coming through the turnstiles in increasing numbers to watch them. The gate for the last home game – more than 7,700 – was the best for 18 months.
Meanwhile Wirral Council has just given outline planning permission for Tranmere to build a new training complex on the site of the Woodchurch Leisure Centre, using some of the proceeds from the sale of the Ingleborough Road training ground for housing development.
It could be argued we are witnessing the kind of harmony between the local football club, the local population and the local authority that demonstrates how the old game can be a unifying force in the community like no other.
John Holsgrove, had he still been alive, would surely smile in satisfaction at the relative good health of his hometown club and the strength of the support.
The quietly spoken chartered accountant from Birkenhead was the unlikely figurehead in a group of people who, 30 years ago this month, refused to accept that Tranmere should be allowed to die of neglect.
They launched the Save the Rovers Fund at a time when members of the club’s board of directors were ready to give up the fight and allow Tranmere to fold. The Wirral public had been giving a strong impression of not caring. Rovers were the worst supported club in the country at the time, pulling in crowds of barely 1500 for home games.
Chairman Gerry Gould, an accountant, famously declared “we’re flogging a dead horse” as Tranmere entered a three-week countdown to extinction.
Holsgrove, who was chairman of the Tranmere Rovers supporters Association, could not accept the diagnosis. “When I heard the news the club was to fold in a few weeks I was stunned,” Holsgrove told the Daily Post at the time. “None of us who are doing this can even think about what life might be like without Tranmere Rovers.”
The Save the Rovers Fund did what it said on the tin, even though the sums of money the volunteers raised were comparatively modest. Holsgrove and his co-trustees proved to be particularly adept at pricking consciences.
Their success, argues Tranmere historian Peter Bishop, was in alerting a seemingly apathetic Wirral public to the danger of losing their Football League club and in prompting other bodies, notably Wirral Council, to act in support.
Bishop, co-author of ‘Tranmere Rovers – the complete record’ said: “The Save the Rovers Fund alerted people to how serious the problem was and got the fans behind the campaign to keep the club afloat. They were very effective at getting their message across and that’s what brought offers of help coming in.
“First there was Wolverhampton Wanderers and then Manchester United sending teams to play at Prenton Park to raise money. That prompted Liverpool and Everton to do the same.
“Wirral Council’s offer of a loan of £200,000 was the turning point because that was a large enough amount of money for the club to plan properly for the future.
“If the fans had not shown their support for the Save the Rovers Fund, then the club might well have folded.”
Tranmere’s slide into financial difficulties was caused by falling gates and mounting debts during the early 1980s.
Gould signalled at the end of October 1982 that the club was approaching a crisis point. The crisis looked to have been averted when Billy McAteer arrived on the scene.
A member of the well-known Birkenhead boxing family, McAteer had moved to the USA during the late 1950s and set up a successful business in electrical contracting, employing 150 people.
McAteer planned to inject cash into the club. However, inside two weeks the deal broke down for technical and legal reasons that made it impossible for McAteer to pursue his attempts to rescue Rovers.
Gould told Tranmere’s annual meeting on November 11: “I regret to announce that it looks as if it is the end of Tranmere Rovers. It is a very sad day for me and everyone else involved at Prenton Park. There has been a lot of heartache and effort. Regrettably we have failed.”
The Save the Rovers Fund stepped into the fight. Bishop recalled: “So many people turned up at the first meeting that it had to be switched from a function room at Prenton Park to the Main Stand. I think around 600 people were there.
“That’s when we first realised there really was support out there for the club. John Holsgrove spoke and so did several other people. The hat was passed around. The job was to spread the message and raise as much money as we could to keep the club ticking over. The following weekend I spent the day doing a street collection in Birkenhead precinct.”
As the campaign gained momentum and the small donations poured in, Holsgrove could see the tide was turning.
“It seems we have raised morale in the area and people think it is something worth supporting,” Holsgrove said on December 4. “I’ve always had faith in the people of Wirral and thought there was dormant support for the club. It just needed sparking off. One of the hardest jobs was to convince people that support was there. But I felt we would get it if we went out to the people and looked for it.”
On December 6 Tranmere reached agreement with Wirral Council on a £200,000 loan at a reduced rate of interest. The loan guaranteed Tranmere would be able to fulfil their Fourth Division fixtures for the remainder of the season. The loan was secured against a stadium and the land at Prenton Park.
John Hale, Wirral council’s deputy leader and chairman of the finance subcommittee said: “We don’t want Tranmere Rovers to be the first club in 20 years to be wound up. We are not entering the risk business with taxpayers money. It’s now up to Tranmere Rovers to sort out their problems.”
Tranmere did sort themselves out, for a time at least. However, a takeover by American businessman Bruce Osterman in 1984 wasn’t a success and three years later Tranmere became the first Football League club to go into administration. They found long-term security after Birkenhead-born businessman Peter Johnson bought control of the club in 1987.
Peter Bishop said: “If the Save the Rovers Fund had not galvanised public support in 1982, Tranmere might have gone under because the board and any potential buyers would have reached the conclusion that not enough fans were interested in having a football club on the Wirral.
“There was another crisis in 1987 but the last 25 years under Peter Johnson’s ownership have been stable.
“Some people complain that Peter Johnson has not invested fresh money into the club for more than 10 years. But you only have to look at what happens to our neighbours Chester and Wrexham to see what might have been in store for Tranmere without Peter Johnson.”