How Ellis Rimmer brought style to Tranmere Rovers
When contemplating the distinctive philosophy of Tranmere Rovers, one image immediately springs to mind: a fast winger scurrying down the flank, twisting and turning before delivering a deadly cross.
The identity of that player has changed through the decades, from Adam Mekki, Dale Jennings and Paul Hall to Andy Parkinson, Johnny Morrissey and Pat Nevin. The tradition of fine wing play at Prenton Park is far more historic than most people realise, and it all began with a talented teenager from Birkenhead.
Who was Ellis Rimmer? Introducing Birkenhead's forgotten football legend
Ellis Rimmer was born on 2nd January 1907. The son of a butcher from Park Road North, Rimmer grew up on Morley Avenue, where his talents for sport and music were first nurtured. It was a blessed time for Birkenhead. The great Dixie Dean was born less than three weeks after Rimmer, while Pongo Waring was just three months old when Ellis entered the world. All three grew up within walking distance of each other, and all three went on to play for Tranmere Rovers and England.
From an early age, Rimmer was a great jazz pianist. His mother, Edith, made him practice for hours each day before Ellis could play football in the street. According to legend, Rimmer played a cinema organ in Birkenhead during his formative years, while public performances became commonplace as he matured. Nevertheless, football was always his greatest passion, and Ellis was determined to forge a career in the game.
His ability first became apparent at Upper Brassey Street, a local school. With considerable pace and astounding imagination, the skinny youngster scored regularly and selection for Birkenhead Schoolboys was a foregone conclusion.
In a fascinating quirk, Rimmer played alongside Dean in that Schoolboys team, as two future superstars of the British game bestrode the anonymous fields of Wirral as precocious kids. Has there ever been a more talented team of schoolboys in world football? Perhaps not.
Tranmere Rovers, Birkenhead and the superstar pipeline
Birkenhead was fertile ground for football genius, and Tranmere Rovers acted as a conduit for humble youngsters to circumnavigate the globe. Dean was snapped up before he could seriously consider a life on the railway, whereas Rimmer took a more arduous route to stardom. Ellis worked his way through the amateur ranks with spells at Parkside, Northern Nomads and Whitchurch before he piqued the interest of Tranmere aged 17.
On 1st December 1923, Dean made his debut for Rovers reserves against Whitchurch, and Rimmer lined up against him. Dixie’s talent was obvious, but Tranmere secretary Bert Cooke enjoyed Rimmer’s performance, too. Rovers’ scouts were ordered to follow Rimmer, and Ellis was later brought in for a trial at Prenton Park. A few goals convinced Tranmere to take a punt on this lively outside-left. Rimmer didn’t disappoint.
Ellis and Dixie made their first team debuts eight months apart. On 13th September 1924, they lined up in the same Tranmere team for the first time, as Rovers travelled to Doncaster in Division Three North. Neither player managed to score as Tranmere lost 2-0, but it was still a date, a game and a moment that resonates through English football history.
Five weeks later, Rimmer made his home debut and was an accessory to one of Dean’s most legendary performances in a Rovers shirt. Dixie scored the first of many Football League hat-tricks as Tranmere edged Hartlepools United 4-3 in a thriller on Borough Road. Rimmer was a willing foil for Dean, using trickery and skill to provide an endless stream of goalscoring opportunities for the master.
Unto that point, Rovers fans were accustomed to rather mundane journeymen plodding up and down the wing, so Rimmer was a salve for sore eyes. With dashing speed, keen ingenuity and inexorable daring, this raw youngster electrified the lower leagues. More importantly, he brought swagger to Prenton Park, usually a domain of workmanlike efficiency.
How Tranmere Rovers prepared Ellis Rimmer for stardom
Ellis endured a prolonged wait to find the scoresheet himself, but the moment finally arrived away to Durham City on 18th March 1925 as Tranmere won 3-0. Despite the efforts of their two prodigious colts, it was a difficult season for Rovers, who survived in the Football League only after re-election. Amid the slump, Dean was sold to Everton, leaving Rimmer as the brightest star in the Tranmere galaxy.
There’s strangely no record of Rimmer playing for Tranmere in the 1925-26 campaign, but he did return against Southport in December 1926. He was a regular goalscorer through the remainder of that season, and outstanding performances made Ellis the next logical asset to be sold by Cooke, who used his fine production line to balance the books at Prenton Park.
Rimmer was a mainstay in the 1927-28 team alongside Waring, but the likelihood of a move grew with each week. Finally, on 16th February, one day after a 3-2 win over Accrington, Rovers sold Rimmer to Sheffield Wednesday for over £2,000. Waring was sold to Aston Villa in the same week, as two Prenton pups were unleashed into the big, bad world of First Division football. Cooke was satisfied with the remuneration, even if some fans didn’t appreciate his business model.
Rimmer scored 22 goals in 66 games for Tranmere, but by introducing exciting wing play to Prenton Park, his contribution was far greater than mere numbers. Rimmer helped codify the identity of Tranmere Rovers during the embryonic stages of its life in the Football League. Though future managers didn’t always reference it explicitly, the Dean-Rimmer-Waring trident helped shape a desire for positive, attacking football among Rovers fans.
That yearning was passed down through the generations, coalescing into a certain expectation of how this football club should play. Almost by proxy, that seeped into the atmosphere and culture at Prenton Park, cajoling coaches to embrace the tradition, with varying degrees of conformance and success.
Ellis Rimmer and the rise of Sheffield Wednesday
When Rimmer arrived at Hillsborough, Wednesday were mired in a relegation battle, seven points adrift of safety. Yet in the final ten games, The Owls picked up 17 points from a possible 20, avoiding the drop by the slimmest of margins. It was the original great escape and a launching pad to future glory. Ellis Rimmer was at the centre of it all.
In 1928-29, Wednesday were crowned champions of England for the third time. The following year, they repeated the trick, beating Derby to the title by ten points. Rarely had a footballer from Birkenhead scaled such heights. Scarcely had a Tranmere product achieved such success.
In April 1930, Rimmer was selected by England for a British Home Championship tie with Scotland. He scored twice on debut as the Three Lions won 5-2. A star was duly born.
Ellis Rimmer and the few players who have scored in every round of the FA Cup
Early in the new decade, Ellis scored 24 and then 23 goals in successive seasons, a remarkable ratio from the wing. His meteoric rise culminated in a historic FA Cup run in 1934-35. Aged 28, Rimmer scored in every round, including two in the final against West Brom, as Wednesday won the famous old trophy. To this day, only 12 players have ever managed that extraordinary feat, and Rimmer was the first non-striker to accomplish it.
The final itself was one for the ages. With 93,204 in attendance, the scoreline stood at 2-2 with five minutes remaining, only for Rimmer to score a brace in heroic fashion, sending the Sheffield fans into raptures.
Wednesday were the toast of England, and Rimmer was their star man having scored 26 goals in 1934-35. Whereas modern celebrities tour the chat show circuit amid success, Rimmer was in high demand among theatres following his FA Cup triumph. His jazz piano show took on a life of its own, and Ellis even performed at the Empire Theatre.
The legacy of Ellis Rimmer at Tranmere Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday
Rimmer was edged out of the Wednesday team by 1938, but he spent a decade at Hillsborough, playing 418 games and scoring 140 goals. Only four players have scored more in the blue and white stripes, while Rimmer almost cracks the top ten in appearances, too.
Ellis won only four England caps, but his final international appearance came alongside Dixie Dean, his old mate, as the Three Lions beat Spain 7-1 at Highbury in 1931. Dean found the scoresheet and Rimmer provided several assists in the drubbing. It was a neat moment of symbolism for Birkenhead.
Ellis had a brief spell with Ipswich before retiring to look after his business ventures. He ran several pubs, first in Sheffield and then back on Merseyside, and also set up a bookmakers at one point. Rimmer died from an unexpected heart attack in Southport on 16th March 1965. He was just 58 years of age.
Warwick Rimmer and the family tradition of Tranmere Rovers
Long after his death, the Rimmer family continued to influence the fortunes of Tranmere Rovers. Warwick Rimmer, a nephew of Ellis, was born in 1941, and he later revolutionised the youth system at Prenton Park.
When Peter Johnson saved the club from the ruinous grasp of Bruce Osterman in the 1980s, one of his first projects involved resuscitating the academy. Warwick was handpicked to spearhead the revival, and he developed countless stars for Tranmere, sending many on the same path to fame as his uncle and earning the club more than £14 million in transfer fees.
When we discuss the greatest players ever to represent Tranmere, a few names are bound to crop up – Aldridge, Muir, Dean, Goodison. Perhaps some of the players unearthed by Warwick Rimmer should also be considered. Yet in terms of career success, from humble roots to widespread glory, Ellis Rimmer outperforms many of them, without a fraction of the fame.
His impact in changing the ethos of Tranmere Rovers enabled future generations to succeed. Ellis blazed a trail, and his achievements should remain an inspiration to anyone from Birkenhead.