Trip to Derby County stirs up poignant memories for fans of Tranmere Rovers and Johnny King
EVEN the most successful football managers can’t be sure of choosing the manner of their departure or the venue for the farewell appearance.
Years of work and achievement that establish a manager’s place in the history books or in the hearts of supporters can nevertheless come to an end in unlikely locations or in unfamiliar and unhappy circumstances.
Bob Paisley, who set new records for success at domestic and European level with Liverpool, failed to record a victory in any of his last seven games in charge at Anfield. He bowed into retirement with a 2-1 defeat to Watford in the ramshackle surroundings of Vicarage Road on May 14, 1983.
Paisley’s fade-out, it should be said, had nothing to do with the failing of his powers but the fact that Liverpool had secured the 1982/83 title with more than a month of the season to spare and coasted through the last half dozen games.
Brian Clough, the architect of championship winning teams at Derby County and Nottingham Forest in the 1970s, a double European Cup winner and the most charismatic manager in the English game at his peak, suffered relegation in his final season at the City Ground in 1992/93.
All of which explains why Tranmere fans of a certain age will be haunted by some poignant memories when they travel to the FA Cup third round tie at Derby County this weekend.
When they last made the journey to Derby, back in April 1996, it was to witness the end of an era in Rovers history – Johnny King’s final game as manager.
A few days after a 6-2 defeat in the pouring rain at the Baseball Ground, the most successful Tranmere manager of all time was relieved of his duties and pushed upstairs into a director of football role.
King collected a salary until the end of his contract but he was denied any involvement in first-team affairs.
He found the role soul destroying.
The “rocket ride to the Moon” as King called Rovers’ rise from the foot of the old fourth division to hammer on the door of the Premier League, ended in a personal crash landing.
As much as King’s successor John Aldridge became a popular manager with supporters, many fans could not forgive the club’s chairman at the time, Frank Corfe, for ending King’s nine years in charge on a knee-jerk decision.
Tranmere languished in the bottom half of the First Division (now known as the Championship) in April 1996 after reaching the play-offs in the previous three seasons and climbing two divisions between 1989 and 1991.
It was a remarkable piece of work and the Wirral public loved King for the style in which the success was achieved.
Ronnie Moore, Tranmere’s manager today and assistant to King at the time, was not alone in remarking that his boss had been sacked for having one poor season out of nine.
Aldridge, although responsible for fashioning a famous cup fighting team who brought down a succession of Premier League giants between 1999 and 2001, could not, in the end, hold back the inevitable decline in the strength of the squad that followed a substantial cut in the budget for players at Prenton Park. Tranmere were relegated in 2001, a few months after beating Everton 3-0 in the FA Cup at Goodison.
Controlling shareholder Peter Johnson’s decision to buy Everton in 1994 effectively cut off the funding that had enabled King to sign players of international calibre such as Aldridge, Pat Nevin, Gary Stevens and Liam O’Brien.
Just as significantly, Tranmere were less able to resist the offers for their better players that King had been able to fend off when Johnson’s investment could satisfy the concerns of the bank manager.
King’s journey to the fateful match at Derby effectively began at the start of the previous season, 1994/95, when the impact of Johnson’s cross-river journey to Everton began to bite.
A 1-0 win at Middlesbrough in December 94 was a notable result in a campaign that took Tranmere to the First Division play-offs for a third season in succession.
Middlesbrough boasted a budget of £5million at the time, compared to Tranmere’s £1million.
“Middlesbrough kill us financially,” King said at the time . “We have to wave a magic wand, work on our youth development and look under every stone.
“Losing Peter (Johnson) was a big jolt. He was a man with a lot of clout and now I have not got that. That clout meant I used to be able to say, ‘No way, we are not selling him’. Now we have to think about it. We sold Ian Nolan for £1.5m (to Sheffield Wednesday) and we did not want him to go. But it was a good price. It means we are not desperate to sell again.”
“We need to get in the Premier to get our crowds high enough to finance things,” King said. “There is room for three clubs on Merseyside.”
Tranmere did not get to test the strength of King’s optimism. They’ve been a third tier club since the relegation of 2001. Many would argue Rovers are at a level where they sensibly belong.
Nevertheless, the current League One season holds out the tantalising prospect of Tranmere claiming a place in the Championship, more than two decades on from their last promotion.
Moore, working with a budget close to the £1million King had to play with in 94/95, has put together a squad doing well enough to defy football’s financial gravity over the first half of the campaign.
Not so much a rocket ride to the Moon as a rocket ride on a no-frills airline.
Johnny King would approve.