How Dave Russell modernised Tranmere Rovers

In October 2016, Micky Mellon left his role as manager of League One Shrewsbury to join non-league Tranmere Rovers. A proud Scot, Mellon dropped two divisions to take charge of a club close to his heart, eyeing the enormous potential he experienced as a player at Prenton Park.

Tranmere subsequently enjoyed a renaissance under his command, ending years of failure with rare forward momentum. Many fans would have been oblivious as they plotted routes to Wembley and sipped victory champagne, but history was repeating itself on Wirral. This had happened before.

Who was Scottish football pioneer Dave Russell?

More than half a century earlier, in the 1960s, another fiery Scot instigated the original awakening of modern football in Birkenhead. Dave Russell swapped second division Bury for fourth division Tranmere in 1961, backing his skills to craft marginal gains from meagre resources. Russell enjoyed an intriguing reclamation project, and the task of halting almost three decades of stagnation at Prenton Park excited him greatly.

Russell and Mellon are two of just four men to manage Tranmere Rovers to a promotion from any league. The similarities between them are startling, and that bodes incredibly well for our future.

Before creating a fine legacy in the dugout, Russell enjoyed a promising playing career that was cruelly upended by the drumbeats of World War II. Born in Dundee in April 1914, Russell represented the Dark Blues of his hometown before moving to East Fife, where he was part of the team that won the Scottish Cup in 1938.

East Fife played Kilmarnock in an atypical final that was settled in a replay before 92,716 at Hampden Park. The Fifers won 4-2, becoming the first club outside the Old Firm to lift the famous trophy in nine years. Russell played in both final games in the old right-half position, impressing onlookers with his tenacious style. The war swallowed a bright career, though, as Russell joined the RAF.

How Dave Russell revolutionised Danish football

Stationed at Cosford, near Wolverhampton, Russell excelled in the forces, becoming a physical training instructor under the guidance of Walter Winterbottom, who later managed the England national team. Those experiences seemingly encouraged Russell towards the coaching arena, and the Danish FA offered him an enticing position coinciding with the 1948 Olympics in London.

Russell managed the Danish side at those Games, masterminding victories over Egypt and Italy en route to third-place finish. Denmark beat Great Britain 5-3 in the bronze medal match before 50,000 at Wembley, a major coup for Russell.

Unsurprisingly, a number of Danish clubs expressed interest in Russell’s managerial services and he briefly joined Odense Boldklub in the early 1950s before returning to the UK as assistant to Johnny McNeil, manager of Bury. Russell took charge at Gigg Lane himself in 1953, kickstarting a managerial career that lasted almost twenty seasons.

Why Dave Russell dropped two divisions to leave Bury for Tranmere Rovers

A veritable powerhouse of pre-war football in England, Bury won the FA Cup in 1900 and 1903. A mainstay of the top tier, they finished as high as fourth in 1926, creating a miasma of expectation that still accompanied the club when Russell assumed control.

Bury was a second division entity by that point, regularly fighting for survival when Football League play resumed following World War II. Sufficient funding has been a recurring problem throughout the club’s history, and Russell was an early victim of such budgetary chaos.

Bury were relegated into the third tier for the first time in 1957, but Russell learned a lot from the experience. It helped fashion his philosophy, which became synonymous with conjuring extraordinary results from decidedly ordinary resources.

The Scottish FA appreciated that skill and approached Russell regarding their managerial vacancy prior to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Russell was the leading candidate, ahead of the great Matt Busby, even receiving a formal invitation from the SFA. However, Bury refused to release him for international matches, even on a part-time basis, blocking any potential collaboration.

Russell won the third division title with Bury in 1961 before departing for Tranmere in December of the following season. He replaced Walter Galbraith, another Scot, in the dugout at Prenton Park. Galbraith oversaw Rovers’ fall into the Football League basement, while an ignominious FA Cup defeat to non-league Gateshead effectively ended his Tranmere reign.

How Dave Russell introduced an all-white kit at Tranmere Rovers

Contrary to his austere roots in Scotland, Russell was something of a showman, an experimenter, a daredevil who thought outside the box. He was one of football’s great mavericks. Prior to his arrival, Tranmere had always played in a blue kit, but Russell introduced an all-white strip to distinguish Rovers from Everton across the water.

This can be seen as the genesis of Tranmere’s awakening as the ‘deadly submarine,’ a club of resounding individuality in the face of imposing challenges. Russell appreciated the vast potential of Tranmere Rovers, and he scattered the seeds that later bloomed impressively.

What inspired Russell to introduce an all-white kit? Perhaps it was the classy Real Madrid or the fearless Leeds United. Nobody knows for sure. Nevertheless, this was a pivotal decision in the club’s history, an immortal change that gave rise to The Superwhites, Rovers’ identity fit for the future.

The legendary innovations of Dave Russell at Tranmere Rovers

Russell also developed a more vibrant club crest, foreseeing the omnipotence of marketing in modern football. With the arrival of floodlights at Prenton Park in 1958, Russell played a leading role in the creation of Friday Night Football, whereby Tranmere played home games on a Friday evening in hope of attracting fans of Liverpool and Everton, who typically played on Saturdays.

Friday Night Football became synonymous with the Johnny King era, as John Aldridge and Pat Nevin plied their trade at Prenton Park throughout the 1990s, but the flame was lit by Dave Russell more than three decades earlier.

Under Russell’s ambitious aegis, Tranmere flew to their first ever away game in 1963. When they eventually arrived in Exeter, the 5-0 defeat was less than ideal, but it didn’t dampen Russell’s enthusiasm. He continued to plot and tinker, scheme and experiment. He sought even the most marginal advantages over his opponents, doing everything to help his team win.

More than anybody since Bert Cooke, Russell possessed the necessary vision to burnish the Tranmere Rovers brand, encouraging the club to realise the enormous potential contained within Merseyside’s large catchment area and football intelligence. He was a pivotal figure in the creation and development of Tranmere’s vaunted youth system, which has since produced close to £20 million in transfer revenue, a vital lifeline in lower league football.

Roy McFarland and Steve Coppell graduated from Russell’s embryonic youth system. They went on to earn 70 England caps between them, starring for Derby County and Manchester United, respectively. Meanwhile, Jim Cumbes, a towering goalkeeper, made his Rovers debut under Russell before enjoying a successful career in both football and cricket.

In nurturing homegrown talent then converting it into a future-proofing commodity, Russell once again held tremendous influence over the future DNA of this football club. Tranmere replicated that formula on innumerable occasions in the decades to come, relying on it for survival and sustenance.

You could argue that, from aesthetic and resource perspectives, he did more than any man to fashion the philosophy, values and ethos of Tranmere Rovers as we know them today. But his impact wasn’t just visual, nor was it just in laying the foundations for future success. Rovers also played very well under Russell, who wrapped the club in a cloak of positivity.

The exponential rise of Tranmere Rovers under Dave Russell

Tranmere finished eighth in his first full season, 1962-63, but gained national affection after drawing 2-2 with Chelsea in an iconic FA Cup tie before 17,162 at Prenton Park.

A seventh-place finish in 1964 was followed by more sustained promotion charges in subsequent years as Russell steered the club towards uncharted territory.

Rovers won 27 games in 1964-65, the most they have ever managed in a Football League season. Fuelled by the goals of Barry Dyson, an energetic forward, and featuring the combative King in midfield, Tranmere finished fifth, one point adrift of automatic promotion.

Twelve months later, the margin of failure was even slimmer. Despite scoring 93 goals, Rovers finished fifth again, thanks to the Football League’s archaic use of goal ratio as a tiebreaker. Tranmere and Colchester both ended the campaign with 56 points, but Rovers’ goal ratio was 0.08 worse than The U’s. The word heartbreak doesn’t do it justice.

Russell finally cracked the code a year later, steering Tranmere back into the third division despite winning less matches than in either of the two previous seasons. Much of the promotion-winning squad was assembled cheaply by Russell, who cajoled phenomenal performances from otherwise disregarded journeymen like George Yardley and John Manning.

The promotion of 1967 was only the second in Rovers’ history to that point. The first came in 1938, and Russell’s triumph therefore ended a barren spell of 29 years. Many decades later, in keeping with the aforementioned symmetry, Micky Mellon’s playoff success of 2018 concluded a draught of 27 years at Prenton Park. These men were cut from the same cloth.

Back in the third tier, Russell continued to oversee the exponential growth of Tranmere Rovers. A revamped Prenton Park, possessed of concrete foundations, more comfortable amenities and additional turnstiles, was able to host 20,996 in February 1968 for an FA Cup fourth round replay with Coventry City. Tranmere won 2-0 with goals from Yardley and George Hudson, earning a date with Everton at Goodison Park.

Rovers didn’t manage to trouble their mighty neighbours, losing by two unanswered goals, but Russell lead them into battle before 61,982 spectators, the largest crowd that had ever assembled for a Tranmere Rovers match to that point in time. His vision had been realised. His decision to drop down and manage Tranmere had been vindicated. Rovers were dining at the top table.

Dave Russell, Sean Fallon, Jock Stein and the Lisbon Lions of Celtic

Russell also played an influential role within the Scottish Football Association, specifically with regard to its coaching curriculum. Dave developed and delivered coaching courses, sharing his expertise with future generations.

During one famous session, he expounded profusely on the virtues of a 4-2-4 formation, noting how Brazil used it to great effect. One passionate note-taker that day was Sean Fallon, assistant to Jock Stein when Celtic won the European Cup in 1967.

The formation they used to beat Internazionale in the Lisbon final? Why, 4-2-4, of course. Such was the insurrectionist spirit and innovative tinkering of Tranmere Rovers in the 1960s.

The passing of a flame - from Dave Russell to Johnny King at Tranmere Rovers

Russell had a similar influence on Johnny King, his captain for large spells at Tranmere. Russell stepped aside in 1969, becoming the club’s general manager, and King, his chief on-field lieutenant, became Rovers manager six years later. King resuscitated many of the values and ideas that Russell had inculcated in Birkenhead.

Johnny took the flame that Russell lit and promptly turned it into a roaring inferno, the apprentice outshining the teacher through charisma and silverware. There’s no telling where Tranmere Rovers may be without these men.

Russell left the club for good in 1978. He enjoyed a great affinity with Birkenhead, where he settled and eventually died in June 2000, aged 86. A few months before his passing, Tranmere played against Leicester City in the League Cup final, attended by 74,313.

It took thirty-two years, but the record attendance for Rovers match, hitherto authored by Russell at Goodison Park, was finally broken. The old Scot would have been proud, just as he would have been to witness Mellon’s renaissance in the new millennium.


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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Planet Prentonia: The Real Story of Tranmere Rovers, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!

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