How Manchester United helped save Tranmere Rovers in the 1980s

On Sunday, Manchester United visit Prenton Park to take on Tranmere Rovers in the FA Cup fourth round. Some Rovers supporters may be keen to stoke the infamous enmity between Manchester and Merseyside, but a peek at the history books reveals a far more compassionate story.

The clubs have only met once before at senior level, back in 1976, but an intriguing history lies beneath the surface. Manchester United played a pivotal role in supporting Tranmere during their darkest hours of need, and that contribution should be celebrated this weekend. 

Banquets, bankruptcy and George Best: Tranmere Rovers in the 1980s

The year was 1982. Tranmere chairman Gerry Gould announced that the club was bankrupt and would close within two weeks unless it found emergency funding. The efforts of Ray Stubbs, a young commercial manager, were swallowed by mounting debts and growing apathy. Average attendances slumped below 2,000 at Prenton Park as Wirral fell out of love with football.

A potential takeover by Billy McAteer, a Birkenhead-born American tycoon, fell through, leaving the club in peril. London businessman Tony Kramer circled like a shark, promising to bring George Best to Tranmere should his suspicious bid be accepted. Senior power-brokers questioned his motives and refused to agree a deal, stepping into a bleak future rather than betray the club’s core values.

Tranmere general manager Jack Butterfield joked that Rovers should fold their football team and focus on the celebrity dinners that became a staple at Prenton Park. Indeed, those monthly banquets were arguably the most marketable and profitable aspects of the club, as appearances by stars such as Stan Mortensen kept the club afloat.

Prenton Park itself fell into a state of disrepair, a microcosm of the club’s fortunes in division four. Sections of the ground were closed for safety reasons, while lower league hooliganism deterred families from attending matches.

Managed by Bryan Hamilton, a former Northern Ireland international, Tranmere became an engrossing topic for filmmakers, if not for fans. The film crew of Forty Minutes, a popular documentary series, followed the club internally amid the crisis. It was a precursor to the Netflix series’ of today, albeit without Pep Guardiola pontificating on his own neurotic genius.

How Manchester United helped save Tranmere Rovers

While certain members of the Tranmere board seemed resigned to the club’s disastrous fate, a loyal fan named John Holsgrove refused to give up. A chartered accountant, Holsgrove was chairman of the Tranmere Rovers Supporters’ Association, and he established a fund that ultimately saved the club.

Persuaded by Holsgrove and his tireless campaigning, the wider football community pitched in to help Tranmere as the sands of time ebbed away. Wolverhampton Wanderers were the first to offer support, appearing in an exhibition game. Liverpool did something similar, while a group of Watford fans sent a £400 donation.

Of course, this will be a pertinent discovery for most Rovers fans, fresh from last night’s heroic triumph over the Hornets to confirm the impending tie with United. Indeed, such a link was repeated almost forty years ago, when the Red Devils followed Watford’s contribution to Tranmere history with one of their own. Then managed by Ron Atkinson, Manchester United wanted to help Tranmere, and that is exactly what they did.

Why Tranmere Rovers got their own centenary wrong

In a bizarre plot twist, Rovers were also celebrating their centenary in 1982. Well, they were celebrating what they believed to be their centenary, which in actual fact was not due for another two years. It seemed unlikely that Tranmere would reach that milestone, so why not throw a premature party?

Until the 1990s, it was accepted wisdom that Tranmere Rovers was formed in 1882. However, club historians of the time, led by Gilbert Upton and Peter Bishop, later unearthed evidence that distinguished the Tranmere Rovers we love from another team of the same name.

A local cricket club launched a football team called Tranmere Rovers in 1882, but they played just one season under that moniker, scrapping in the mud of what later became Mersey Park. Midway through that campaign, at the cricket club’s annual general meeting, it was decided that the Rovers adjunct would be dropped from their title. They duly played as Tranmere until 1888 before fizzling out.

By that point, another Tranmere Rovers – the one we know today – was already in existence. James Hannay McGaul, one-time president of the aforementioned cricket club, liked the name’s majesty and suggested its implementation when the boys of Belmont FC in Birkenhead asked for his strategic support. That was in 1885, but Belmont was formed a year earlier, making 1984 Rovers’ true centenary, not 1982.

Tranmere Rovers vs Manchester United at Prenton Park, 1982

Nevertheless, all those decades later, a civic reception was arranged at the Williamson Art Gallery. The club issued official merchandise inscribed with centenary branding. A few commemorative plates are still knocking about on eBay, if you are into that kind of thing. Get them now before the price doubles.

Still, anything that lures Manchester United to Birkenhead is worthy of respect, even if misremembering one’s own birthday is part of the strategy. Undoubtedly, misaligning their own centenary celebrations by two whole years is perhaps the most Tranmere thing ever, but at least Big Ron fell for it.

The showcase match was scheduled for 6th December 1982, but thick fog led to a postponement. Graciously, United came back two days later, determined to deliver on their promise, and played the game in front of 5,164 spectators. Somehow, Tranmere won 2-0. Nobody knows how.

“The most important thing of all is that the truly great Manchester United wanted to help – and did help – a club with its own historic background, but who were – and still are – in serious financial trouble,” wrote Butterfield in a special programme, sold for 20p. “For that admirable gesture, everyone here is full of gratitude to chief executive Martin Edwards, his fellow directors, and to Ron Atkinson, his staff and players.”

The resurrection of Tranmere Rovers

Six years before their goodwill trip, United entertained Tranmere at Old Trafford in a League Cup tie. Rovers were stuffed 5-0 before 37,586 at Old Trafford, with Tranmere academy graduate Steve Coppell facing his former club. Mark Palios, Rovers’ present owner, played that night, while United were impressed with Ronnie Moore, who they subsequently tried to sign. Tranmere received £9,000 in their share of the gate receipts, but it did little to ease the encroaching crisis.

Following the emergency friendly at Prenton Park, Manchester United went on to win the FA Cup in 1983. They also finished third in the league. Meanwhile, proceeds from the money-spinning exhibitions helped Tranmere bridge a chasm until Wirral Council loaned them £200,000, prolonging their existence into another century.

And thus, we see how the generosity and class of Manchester United made a lasting impact in the fortunes and mere survival of Tranmere Rovers. Right now, Birkenhead is rightfully excited about the impending arrival of England’s most illustrious football club, and old Prenton Park will be filled to bursting once again. For a moment on Sunday, I just hope we can all take a minute to display our gratitude. Do not go over the top, by any means, but at least consider the magic of occasions like this and how they may never have happened without bygone acts of kindness from the largest club in the land.


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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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