Cross-Border Conquests: Tranmere in the Welsh Cup
If Tranmere opened a museum, it would be full of strange and wonderful items. Pennants gifted by opponents in the Anglo-Italian Cup. England caps won by Dixie Dean and others. Boots worn by Elkanah Onyeali, the first black footballer signed by a Merseyside club. Yet perhaps the most peculiar exhibit would be the Welsh Cup, which Rovers won in 1935.
Only ten English clubs have ever won the third-oldest national competition in world football, and just four of them still exist in their original form. This adds another twist to the beguiling tale of Tranmere Rovers. A twist we should explore in greater detail.
The Welsh Cup was first contested in 1877-88. After witnessing the success of new nationwide competitions in England and Scotland, the power-brokers of Welsh football sanctioned their own tournament, hoping to grow the game significantly. In the early days, football was mainly confined to North Wales, with rugby enjoying substantial support in the southern heartland. That trend was reflected in early Welsh Cup results, as Wrexham triumphed with great regularity.
The perceived lack of interest or ability among southern teams swiftly led to English participation. Many clubs within reasonable range of the Welsh border were invited to enter, giving the competition more rounds and greater intrigue. Shrewsbury Town were obvious cross-border participants, but Northwich Victoria, Oswestry White Star and Wellington Town (later Telford United) also enjoyed varying degrees of success in the embryonic Welsh Cup.
Given the proximity of Wirral to Wales, Tranmere were likely invited to participate on numerous occasions, but Rovers didn’t listen until the 1906-07 campaign. Their first Welsh Cup tie was played on 12th January 1907, away to Rhyl. Rovers were ushered in at the third round stage, before promptly losing 2-0. Not the most auspicious start, to say the least.
A year later, Tranmere were knocked out by Chester in a third round replay. The 1908-09 edition wasn’t much better, as Rovers beat Saltney in a preliminary tie before Whitchurch thwarted them. Birkenhead FC, Rovers’ great rivals, also entered the Welsh Cup around this time. Judging by early results, neither club appeared likely to bring the regal silver trophy to Wirral, and interest in the competition soon waned.
Tranmere appeared in numerous tournaments during this era, and prioritising matches became an issue. Rovers debuted in the Lancashire Combination in 1910-11, and that certainly took precedence. But the FA Cup was also a great way of making money, and regional competitions like the Cheshire Senior Cup remained active. Throw in the Liverpool Senior Cup, the Wirral Senior Cup, and the Birkenhead Hospitals Cup, and Rovers were playing close to 50 games per season. There was little time for the Welsh Cup, despite it being a sequestered jewel in the crown of British football.
The competition was suspended between 1915-19 due to World War I. When it resumed, Tranmere intended to give it another go. Excluding league play, the Welsh Cup was arguably the most significant trophy Tranmere could realistically win. In the great rush to Football League expansion, regional tournaments lost some of their lustre, while the newfound quality of teams like Cardiff City and Swansea Town added another dimension to the Welsh game. Rovers looked set to renew their participation, but a late switch to the Central League wreaked havoc with the fixture list and they weren’t included in the draw.
At this point, around 1920, the prospect of joining the Football League besotted Tranmere decision-makers. Manager-secretary Bert Cooke pursued that goal with relentless energy, improving facilities at Prenton Park, expanding the club’s recruitment purview and extolling the virtues of Birkenhead to League officials at any given opportunity. Once again, the Welsh Cup faded into the subconscious, as Tranmere burrowed towards their destiny.
As the strongest teams in Wales, Cardiff and Swansea were founder members of the new Third Division in 1920. Wrexham were elected to the offshoot Third Division North a year later, along with Tranmere, which chairman WG Hardie claimed was the first club to be considered due to its fine reputation.
Over the next decade, Rovers pumped all their resources into the constant quest for Football League survival. Each season, the bottom two clubs required re-election, and that process wasn’t the foregone conclusion it would later become. Tranmere flirted with the process on several occasions, and survived its vagaries in 1924-25, before growing into a solid League entity.
By 1932, Rovers were sufficiently stable to begin taking cup competitions seriously again. After 24 years, Tranmere returned to the Welsh Cup, where Cardiff gave them a rude awakening in round seven. Rovers lost 4-2, but their interest in cup football was piqued anew.
The following season, 1933-34, was the first of many great cup campaigns for Tranmere Rovers. An FA Cup run saw Tranmere face Liverpool before 61,036 at Anfield. Rovers also won the Liverpool Senior Cup for the first time, defeating local rivals New Brighton 4-1 in the final. Back in the Welsh Cup, Tranmere beat Southport and Newport before thumping Bangor 6-1 in a thrilling semi-final. Interest mounted throughout the season, and there was a brilliant sense of anticipation for the final.
Bristol City provided the opposition at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground. A crowd of 4,922 attended just the third all-English final in Welsh Cup history. Rovers were slight favourites having finished seventh in Division Three North compared to City’s dismal showing in the southern equivalent. A winner could not be found, as the tense contest ended 1-1. However, Bristol dominated the replay at Chester’s Sealand Road, triumphing 3-0 to become just the second English winners in a 26-year span.
The Robins chose not to defend their crown in 1934-35, which gave Tranmere a great opportunity. With a goal-laden team, Rovers put five past Flint in round six, before facing the works team of Lovell’s sweet factory for a place in the semi-finals. Tranmere won 6-5 after extra-time, then dispatched Shrewsbury to secure a rendezvous with fierce rivals Chester in the final.
Anarchy threatened to break out before Tranmere could play the big game, however. Cooke was sacked days before the contest over alleged financial impropriety. Meanwhile, Rovers found themselves in a wretched run of form having lost eight of their final 13 league games to miss out on promotion. Until mid-February, Tranmere had only lost three league matches all season, putting them in a handsome position. But then they collapsed in the most stunning way imaginable. After being early pace-setters, Rovers finished sixth, which didn’t help morale going into the highly-anticipated cup final.
On 4th May 1935, over 2,000 fans made the trip from Birkenhead to Sealand Road, where 10,000 crammed in for the illustrious showcase. Playing at home, Chester had an obvious advantage, and they played with terrific momentum. But Tranmere goalkeeper and captain, Welsh international Bert Gray, stood firm and kept Rovers in the game. According to newspaper reports, Chester were denied three or four goals thanks to wonderful Gray saves. That gave Tranmere a foundation from which to snatch victory at the death.
With seven minutes remaining, Billy Woodward scored the crucial goal after beating the Chester goalie to the ball. One can only imagine the jubilant scenes from the travelling horde of Rovers fans, who urged their boys across the finish line to a historic 1-0 win. It was a game for the ages, and Gray was fittingly chosen to hoist the famous old trophy, which was presented by Col. Llewellyn Williams of the Welsh FA. Tranmere fans sang all the way back to Birkenhead, jubilant that their club had become only the seventh from England to win this secluded honour.
Rovers planned to defend their title in 1935-36, and they were drawn against Crewe in the sixth round. However, records show that Tranmere were scratched from the competition, with little detail provided on the reasoning. Perhaps new manager Jack Carr didn’t care for the competition. Perhaps the new board thought it a burden as Rovers sought that elusive promotion. Or perhaps a been there, done that mentality seeped through. Whatever the rationale, Tranmere never played another game in the Welsh Cup. They went out as champions.
It’s difficult to quantify the importance or meaning of this accomplishment. As Tranmere fans, we’re very proud of our unique identity as the club of Birkenhead and Wirral, which is most definitely in England. A heated rivalry with Wrexham makes our relationship with Wales even more complicated. Moreover, it’s difficult to weigh the significance of the Welsh Cup in general. To some extent, our success in it was a simple quirk of geography. It’s not as if Chelsea or Tottenham or Newcastle could enter. And do we really want to get worked up about anything Chester have won three times? Not really.
Yet this remains an eccentric chapter in our history. Across world football, the group of clubs that have won the main domestic trophy of a country other than their own is pretty exclusive. Tranmere Rovers belongs to that group, no matter how controversial or insignificant the achievement may now appear. I, for one, remain proud of that accomplishment. It’s just a shame there was no European Cup Winners’ Cup when Billy Woodward scored his famous goal.