Prenton pipeline: A history of the Tranmere Rovers youth system
Many aspects of Tranmere Rovers inspire pride. The club is a force for good in the community, for instance, providing opportunities to disadvantaged families and an outlet for people of all descriptions. With glittering alumni, the youth system is a vital cog in this mission, and Rovers fans should be extremely satisfied with its reputation within the football ecosystem.
For many years, the youth department has been a pivotal source of players and revenue for Tranmere, while also enriching the lives of its members. Rovers have always placed great emphasis on young, local talent, and developing it has generated crucial funds to keep the club afloat. Fans also love cheering for a homegrown player, which adds to the romance.
Yet, aside from the economic and emotional benefits, Tranmere’s belief in youth serves a very humane purpose, too. In many respects, the club acts as a portal through which raw teenagers can travel on to superstardom. Throughout their history, Rovers have developed superstars from harsh and humble beginnings. They’ve plucked crude talents from anonymity, polished their ability on the field, and sent them off into the world as adults capable of reaching for the stars. But more than that, Tranmere Rovers also tends to develop mature and intelligent people; good citizens who never forget their roots even as fame comes calling. That says a lot about the morals of our football club.
In many ways, Tranmere was founded in this vision of youth. The club was formed by young, middle-class cricketers in 1884. The first squad had an average age of just fifteen. In those earliest days, Rovers had to steal players from other teams and cobble together a lineup for matchday. With competition from Birkenhead FC, and few rules governing transfers, Tranmere executives such as James McGaul, Alf Mayor and Jack Dodd were left to field almost anybody with a pulse. That often meant resorting to youth, although in a rather reckless manner.
In general terms, the youth system was largely a construct of modern football, a necessity born of the desire to make money and grow businesses. As the game soared in popularity, chairmen slowly awoke to the commercial possibilities inherent in football. In time, that meant charging admission, selling merchandise and auctioning off players. Once a marketplace developed, a steady supply of assets was required, and dedicated youth teams began springing up to that end. Previously, football was more of a rugged pastime, played by big bad men with a few kids fighting for their lives in the deep end. But early in the twentieth century, things began to change, and Tranmere followed the trend.
Rovers became a limited company in 1911, and a more professional infrastructure was slowly installed. McGaul yearned to see his beloved club enter the Football League, so Tranmere began acting like one. A new ground was built, as Rovers moved to the current Prenton Park in 1912. Fans were charged for entry, and encouraged to buy a match programme, launched in 1913. The programme carried adverts for the Argyle Theatre, speaking to a new desire to generate revenue in more imaginative ways.
Tranmere entered the Central League in 1919, stepping up in class to play the reserve sides of Liverpool and Everton, among others. Rovers entered a reserve team of their own into the Lancashire Combination, laying the groundwork for a feeder side of sorts.
The first real star of that reserve team was one William Ralph Dean, a strapping centre forward spotted by Tranmere scout Jack Lee and signed from Pensby Institute in 1923. Dean was a young kid from the mean streets of Birkenhead North. His father drove a train and William was serving an apprenticeship on the Wirral Line. Known as Dixie by local friends, the lad possessed outrageous talent on the football pitch, and Tranmere was the first club to see it.
Dean was just sixteen years old when he signed for Rovers. Therefore, in a move that should be revered across the football world, Tranmere decided to protect him from the often ruthless senior game. In hindsight, they easily could have thrown him straight into the fire, perhaps stunting the growth of a boy who would grow into perhaps the finest goalscorer England ever witnessed. Rather, Tranmere developed Dixie, to use the modern parlance. A spell in the second team, less prone to crunching tackles, was a great first step that enabled Dean to grow in his own time.
Dixie was eventually unleashed at Prenton Park as Rovers’ youngest ever player, and he quickly rose to prominence as the finest teenage talent in the land. Watching his frequent hat-tricks and standing ovations at away games, clubs like Newcastle and Preston salivated over Dean, but Tranmere wouldn’t sell. Finally, a record £3,000 bid from Everton was accepted in 1925, and the rest, as they say, is history. The finest player ever to grace the famous shirt of Tranmere moved on, to become a record-breaking legend almost without equal.
Although the process could be quite messy, Rovers found that they enjoyed selling players for large sums of cash. The Dean fee helped extinguish debt and set Tranmere on a new footing. Bert Cooke was keen to replicate the process, and he had the assets to do so.
The next great Tranmere youth product was Ellis Rimmer, a dazzling winger who played with Dean for Birkenhead Schoolboys. Rimmer was poached by Rovers from amateur club Whitchurch, and he also matriculated in the reserves. Born in Birkenhead, Rimmer made his first team debut in 1924, aged just seventeen. He proceeded to score twenty-two goals in sixty-six games for Tranmere, gaining rave reviews and starting the club’s continued obsession with great wingers.
In February 1928, Rimmer was sold to first division Sheffield Wednesday for £3,000. He won two league titles with the Yorkshire club, in addition to representing England, just like Dean. Rimmer is also one of just twelve men to score in every round of an FA Cup run, which he achieved in 1934/35 as Wednesday won the famous competition. The boy did good.
Tom ‘Pongo’ Waring was another Rovers product who played for England and rewrote the record books. A gentle kid from Birkenhead, Waring caught the eye of Jack Lee playing locally. The Rovers scout gave Pongo a shot with the reserve team, and the seventeen-year old also helped out around Prenton Park on matchdays, repairing the grass and selling cigarettes in the crowd. Waring graduated to the senior team in 1927, and his goalscoring exploits became legendary. Pongo scored twenty-four goals in twenty-seven games, including six as Tranmere beat Durham 11-1. A bid came in from Liverpool, but Rovers extracted more value when Aston Villa paid £4,700 for his services.
Waring scored 159 goals for Villa. To this day, only five men have managed more. Pongo still holds the single-season record of fifty by a Villain, and his ashes were scattered in front of the Holte End in 1980. Waring did return home to Tranmere, though, and his exploits helped Rovers win the Third Division North in 1938. He wasn’t the last youth product to return to Prenton Park, although he is still the last to win any sort of league title with Tranmere.
Rimmer and Waring were sold in the same week, but the pipeline kept trickling in Birkenhead. Bill ‘Nibbler’ Ridding was next off the conveyor belt; the Heswall-born striker scoring thirteen goals in nineteen games before joining Manchester City for £3,500 in 1930. Ridding later played for Manchester United, before managing Tranmere during World War II. He then steered Bolton to an FA Cup triumph, as another phenomenal career could be traced back to Prenton Park.
The grass wasn’t always greener on the other side, however. Robert ‘Bunny’ Bell discovered that when he joined Everton from Tranmere in 1936. A prolific goalscorer for Tranmere, including a Football League record nine in one game, Bell was rarely used at Goodison Park and his career petered out. His place in Tranmere history is still secure, though, and for many decades this speedy Birkenhead boy held the record for most goals by a Rovers player, both in a career and a season.
After Bell departed, Rovers’ promotion charge faltered and manager Jack Carr came under increased pressure. The boss survived until midway through the 1936/37 season, before Jim Knowles took over with Jimmy Moreton, a former Tranmere player, acting as his trainer. Having joined Rovers from Cammell Laird at an early age and played alongside Dean and Rimmer, Moreton knew the virtues of a strong youth policy, and he set about enriching it at Prenton Park.
As the first team marched into the second division, the reserves won their own league title, a positive sign for the future. But when things turned sour and Knowles resigned in 1939, Moreton took over as first team boss. Unfortunately, just three games into his first full season at the helm, war interrupted play in the Football League, disrupting any chance Moreton had of imparting his ideas. Nevertheless, he was an incredibly resourceful person, and in the ashes of ruin Jimmy saw potential for growth.
Many senior professionals enlisted in the army, leaving Tranmere with a threadbare squad in the regional leagues established to provide some regular competition during the war. Improvising, Rovers used many local youngsters to fill out the squad, giving golden opportunities to a whole new generation. Other clubs did something similar, but Tranmere were distinguishes by Moreton’s use of training camps for these young hopefuls. The manager even split his players into three different teams, based on their ability, a trailblazing move that attempted to create a youth development hierarchy for the first time.
Unfortunately, Moreton died suddenly in 1942, adding to the wartime chaos that engulfed many medium-sized football clubs. By that time, he had been replaced by Ridding as Tranmere boss, but was still an active figure at the club. Sadly, Moreton would never witness the fruits of his labour, but they were vital and voluminous. In an era of limited financial resources, many of the youngsters he discovered gave impeccable service to Tranmere. Harold Bell made 633 appearances, including 459 consecutive matches, an English football record. Harold Atkinson, Len Kieran, Ralph Millington and Percy Steel combined to play 1,276 game in phenomenal fashion. And Johnny Wheeler ventured to Bolton and then Liverpool after starting with Tranmere.
For the first time, Rovers’ senior spine was homegrown, but so was most of the squad. Now, the club wasn’t just producing headline stars to be cherry-picked by bigger clubs; it was using the youth system as an efficient way of building a first team squad. Many players came and went during this era, with John Green’s 1959 move to Blackpool netting Tranmere the princely sum of £10,000. Managerial turmoil made for constant change in the playing squad, but its flavour was typically local, with many of Moreton’s minions forming a fantastic nucleus.
Dave Russell was appointed manager in 1961, tasked with creating some stability at Prenton Park. Chairman Fred Lloyd was tired of the boom-or-bust culture that saw incredible turnover in the dugout, and he ordered Russell to focus on what had worked best in recent times by implementing a more codified youth policy. After reintroducing the famous all-white home kit, Russell did just that, soaking up the residue from bygone eras of homegrown production to launch a sustainable youth system for the first time. The next generation of Tranmere Rovers would benefit greatly from his work, as players like Alan King, Joe Pritchard, Ronnie Moore and Bobby Tynan graduated to the first team.
However, the undoubted star of this crop was Roy McFarland, a regal centre-half who made his Rovers debut in 1966. Born in Liverpool, Roy played just thirty-five times for Tranmere, but he impressed with incredible maturity and leadership. Always on the hunt for lower league bargains, Derby manager Brian Clough set his heart on McFarland as a future talisman. Tranmere accepted a £25,000 offer, and the defender went on to make almost 500 appearances for Rams. He formed the backbone of a Derby side that won two league titles, and also earned twenty-eight England caps. McFarland followed Dean, Rimmer and Waring in the pantheon of immortal greats first discovered by Tranmere Rovers.
Russell was a visionary in many ways, but he was also pragmatic. He shopped for veterans on free transfers before mixing them with the fruits of a revamped youth system. For instance, George Yardley, Kenny Beamish and Dave Hickson were signed for pennies, but they were crucial parts of a plucky Tranmere team that gained a reputation for cup giant-killings. Still, youth players continued to make an impression, with Jim Cumbes and Ray Mathias notable débutantes during this era. The former was later sold to West Brom for £34,000, while the latter eventually played more times for Tranmere than any man in history.
When Rovers beat Arsenal in 1973, Russell had long been replaced as manager, but his legacy lived on with several homegrown players contributing to a remarkable result. Mark Palios, a local psychology student, shackled the great Alan Ball as Tranmere won 1-0 at Highbury. Ron Yeats was player-manager at that point, and his relationship with Liverpool may have gotten too cosy at times, but this result was another major triumph for the Tranmere youth system. It was an inspiration, in fact.
Steve Coppell was another local student who chose to sign with Rovers while taking economics at the University of Liverpool. The talented winger had interest from several top flight clubs, but he valued Tranmere’s reputation for developing young talent. Plus, it was near to his Liverpool home, making for an ideal stepping stone. After forty-five appearances and eleven goals, Coppell piqued the interest of Manchester United, who doubled his weekly wage and gave Rovers £60,000. Coppell became a star at Old Trafford, playing over 300 games, and he even journeyed to two World Cups with England. Another success story from Birkenhead.
In the late seventies, money ran dry at Prenton Park, and Rovers were forced to sell their way out of trouble. Blackpool paid £100,000 for Tynan, while Cardiff snapped up Moore for £120,000. Tranmere slipped back into the fourth tier as Johnny King took over for the first time. Subsequently, attendances dropped below 2,000, then even further to the mid-1,000s. Rovers had to be re-elected to the Football League in 1981, to the embarrassment of all, as local success stories were few and far between. Nigel Adkins was one, however, as the Birkenhead boy kept goal for Tranmere between 1983-86, before later embarking on a career in physiotherapy and management.
Frank Worthington followed Bryan Hamilton as manager, trying to keep the wolves from the door, before things took a turn for the worse under American owner Bruce Osterman. The man from San Francisco began with good intentions, but things turned sour and he eventually tried to wind up the club and build a supermarket on Prenton Park. Only an administration order prevented him from destroying the club, before local entrepreneur Peter Johnson assumed his shares in 1987.
A shrewd businessman in the hamper trade, Johnson began revamping every facet of Tranmere. He knew a productive youth system was imperative for the club to begin generating revenue again. Similarly, an injection of local blood would give fans a reason to return to Prenton Park. Accordingly, one of the first things Johnson did as owner was change the brief of Warwick Rimmer from commercial manager to youth development officer. This move alone was the single most important step in the history of Tranmere’s youth setup.
Born in Birkenhead, Warwick was the nephew of Ellis Rimmer, so he knew all about Rovers’ youth system despite never playing for the club. He made around 600 appearances for Bolton and Crewe before embarking on a second career within the administrative side of football. At Tranmere, his task was certainly daunting, but he approached it with understated relish.
The youth system was essentially disbanded under Osterman, who stripped expenditure to the bare bones. Rimmer basically began from scratch, building a goldmine where cobwebs had gathered. In subsequent years, he would find, nurture and sell numerous players, earning over £15 million for Tranmere. To do all that, within the scouting radius of Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United, Manchester City, Crewe Alexandra and others, was simply amazing.
It’s not too dramatic to say that Rimmer’s efforts kept the club alive. He also developed several waves of prospects who contributed to the greatest successes in Tranmere history. The first batch included Shaun Garnett and Chris Malkin, who played leading roles as Wembley became Rovers’ second home in King’s more successful spell at the helm. Seeing rewards from Rimmer’s work, Johnson funded a new training ground, committed to reconstructing Prenton Park, and hired additional scouts and coaches to unearth more rough diamonds.
In 1991/92, after resurrecting the youth system on the fly, Rimmer’s side reached the FA Youth Cup quarter-final, where they were beaten only by a golden generation of Manchester United. Ryan Giggs scored both goals at Old Trafford as Tranmere were dumped out, but the experience was invaluable. Rovers even beat Liverpool at Anfield en route to the quarters, as Rimmer’s project became the envy of many larger clubs in the region.
Soon, a tidal wave of young talent flooded into the first team. Ged Brannan marshalled the midfield with poise. Danny Coyne kept goal with a maturity beyond his years. Kenny Irons became the midfield heartbeat. There was no end in sight, as John McGreal was followed by Ian Moore, Alan Rogers, Alan Mahon and Tony Thomas. Moore and Mahon were two of the most technically gifted players ever to graduate through the Tranmere ranks, and there was a genuine excitement among fans watching their progress.
With so much talent percolating in Birkenhead, Rovers, by now a second division power boasting John Aldridge and Pat Nevin, were run like a Premiership club. The stadium was redeveloped handsomely; the non-playing staff grew to record numbers; and expectations rose across the board. But when promotion wasn’t secured and gates slumped, the club began leaking cash. Johnson had a brief fling with Everton, and Frank Corfe struggled to steer the club on his own. Before long, player sales became the only viable option, which was disappointing for fans who yearned for top flight football.
Moore was sold to Nottingham Forest for £1 million. Rogers followed him for £2 million. Meanwhile, Everton paid £400,000 for Thomas and Brannan joined Manchester City for £750,000. Even a short run of success from homegrown goalkeeper Steve Simonsen resulted in a £1 million move to Everton, with clauses potentially taking the deal to £3.3 million. Huddersfield signed Irons for £500,000, and McGreal moved to Ipswich for £650,000.
In short, Tranmere became the ultimate selling club, to the anger of some.
As the millennium rounded into view, new Rovers boss Aldridge grew tired of constantly losing his best players. Aldo was still able to achieve miraculous things on a dwindling budget, though, and youth players were a big reason why.
Mahon, the precocious playmaker; Andy Parkinson, a searing winger; Dave Challinor, a long throw specialist; and Clint Hill, a ferocious defender, were instrumental as Tranmere reached the League Cup final in 2000. But when Mahon was allowed to join Sporting Club de Portugal on a free transfer, Aldridge grew convinced that his was an impossible job. Tranmere certainly could have got more out of this exceptional homegrown crop, or at least more for these incredibly talented players.
To his credit, Rimmer was able to replenish the squad on a yearly basis, as graduates filled the void of players that were sold. After Hill joined Oldham for £250,000, a new generation came through, with players like Ian Sharps and Richard Hinds earning playing time. Meanwhile, Parkinson was still around to play a role in further giant-killings, as Tranmere beat Everton 3-0 at Goodison Park before dumping Southampton out of the FA Cup with the greatest comeback of all-time.
Jason Koumas, the latest homegrown superstar, was central to those achievements. Possibly the most technically gifted player ever to wear a Rovers shirt, the Welshman was poached by Rimmer after he turned down Liverpool. Koumas surged through the system and electrified Prenton Park anew. He scored against Everton and provided a slew of assists as Tranmere became kings of the cup. Rovers had a new maverick who inspired a whole generation of fans to believe, even as the club was relegated back into the third tier. Jason was destined for a higher level, and Tranmere eventually accepted £2.25 million from West Brom for his services. Just like Pongo Waring, Koumas returned years later, although his second spell was full of pain.
In the aftermath of selling Koumas, Rovers also lost keeper Joe Murphy to West Brom. Yet another class graduated to the first team, however, headed by talented midfielders Sean Thornton and Steve Jennings. The former eventually left for Sunderland in acrimonious circumstances as Rovers received just £225,000 at a tribunal. The latter became a combative force who later left for Motherwell before returning to Prenton Park. He is currently the Tranmere captain.
In 2002, Ryan Taylor, the player Rimmer was most proud of developing, made his first team debut. The adventurous right-back became a star at Prenton Park, honing his ability from set pieces and becoming an attacking force down the flank. Taylor was later sold to Wigan for £750,000, and he served Newcastle well for many years, giving Tranmere fans a sense of pride as he performed well in the Premier League.
The next great jewel was Iain Hume, a Canadian who joined the youth ranks as a sixteen-year old in 1999. His professional debut came in 2000, and before long Hume was terrorising the lower leagues with his explosive blend of pace, vision, guts and technique. He left opposing defences in ruins, and scored some of the greatest individual goals any Tranmere player had ever mustered. Ultimately, it was disappointing that Rovers were only able to get £750,000 plus a 10% sell-on clause from Leicester when selling Hume in 2005. He was arguably the brightest prospect outside the Premier League, and Tranmere should have extracted more value from that deal. Iain did return years later, too, which was great for the fans.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning one of the first stars to really get away from Tranmere. A Rovers fan from nearby Rock Ferry, Andy Robinson had all the ability, but he wasn’t given enough time after arriving from Cammell Laird. Tranmere overlooked his enormous potential and released him prematurely. Robinson then joined Swansea, where he became a legend, before playing at a high level with Leeds United. Thankfully, he did return to Tranmere for an extended period in 2010, but there’s no telling where the club may be now if it had blended Robinson, Taylor and Hume together back then.
Chris Dagnall, a fine goal poacher, was the next major youth player to break through. He showed flashes of brilliance and was sold to Rochdale for pennies before his potential could be realised. Steve Davies, a powerful forward, carried the youth mantle thereafter, before he moved to Derby for £725,000, again settled by a tribunal.
Craig Curran was a predatory goalscorer in the youth ranks around this time, and he became the youngest Tranmere player since Dixie Dean to score a hat-trick in 2007. However, Curran was never fully appreciated, as several managers played him out of position. I always felt he had brilliant potential as a poacher, perhaps capable of notching twenty each season, but Rovers deployed him on the wing too much, and that didn’t work out. Curran always ran his socks off, and was a real gentleman with fans, so he deserved better, in all honesty. Likewise with Terry Gornell, another striker asked to play out of position too frequently.
The next batch of youth players included Danny Holmes, a passionate Tranmere fan, and Ash Taylor, a towering defender who joined the club at an early age. Taylor learned a lot next to club stalwart Ian Goodison before moving to Aberdeen in 2014.
Around that time, two other prospects began to make a serious impression down the left flank at Prenton Park: Aaron Cresswell and Dale Jennings. The former, a silky left-back with a deadly delivery from set plays, eventually moved to Ipswich before gaining global fame with West Ham. The latter provided some scintillating performances as a teenager, evoking interest from Bayern Munich, of all clubs. That most bizarre of transfers was completed for up to £1.7 million in 2011, as Tranmere’s youth system was further vindicated by approval from one of the giants of world football.
In recent years, it’s become more difficult than ever for Tranmere to produce players, however. The new Elite Player Performance Plan makes it easier for wealthy Premier League clubs to cherry-pick the best talent from smaller academies, with the aim of improving the England national team. Moreover, Tranmere’s slide out of the Football League after ninety-four years has placed academy funding under real pressure.
Nevertheless, there have still been success stories of late. Max Power, another great local lad, came through from an early age to patrol the Rovers midfield. He enjoyed a great relationship with the fans, and has gone from strength to strength since signing for Wigan. Hopefully he’s the next Tranmere youth graduate to come back home one day, in the mould of Waring, Koumas, Hume and others.
As they battled successive relegations, Tranmere preferred veteran loan players to youth. But now that the club has regrouped in the non-league, another exciting crop has emerged. Tolani Omotola and Sam Ilesanmi are the next bright hopes for a fanbase that loves its homegrown talent, while Jake Kirby, Mitch Duggan, Luke Pilling, Darren Askew and Evan Gumbs could take big steps forward this season.
Within difficult financial parameters, the Palios ownership group has tried to find creative ways of boosting the youth system. It’s something they believe very strongly in, given Mark’s background at Tranmere. Rovers have recently launched new college team initiatives, and there has been investment in better quality coaches for the youth teams. Futsal is also a major part of the curriculum now, so perhaps we’ll see the benefits of that in the quality of youth graduates moving forward.
Like with most things at the moment, it’s imperative for the youth system that Tranmere return to the Football League quickly. The additional revenue is sorely needed if the remarkable youth legacy is to continue. From a romantic historical standpoint, as well as a practical financial one, the youth setup is crucial to everything Tranmere Rovers must try to achieve in the future. For fans, nothing beats the thrill of cheering for young, local players we can relate to. And for executives, selling academy graduates is a prudent business model that has proved successful time and again.
Tranmere once had one of the most productive youth systems in Britain, and I yearn for those days again. Every small step helps along the way, but that aspiration must always guide us, as must a thorough appreciation of the legends who’ve travelled through Prenton Park on the way to superstardom. Tranmere was once an elite force in developing young talent. With a little care and passion, I’m sure it can be again.