Shelbourne, Rangers and the UEFA Cup tie at Prenton Park, Tranmere

As the coronavirus pandemic swept through Europe this summer, UEFA faced a complex dilemma with regard to the staging of Champions League and Europa League knockout matches. The governing body eventually opted for neutral venues, solving a logistical nightmare by hosting games in Portugal and Germany, respectively. Those NBA-style bubbles got me thinking about the entire concept of neutrality in sport, and my mind - a Tranmere Rovers association machine - became fixated with the role Prenton Park played in one infamous European match 22 years ago.

I have long derived pathetic pleasure in lecturing football philistines about Rovers’ exploits in the Anglo-Italian Cup. Most outsiders are utterly befuddled to discover that calcio once came to Birkenhead, with Christian Vieri and Oliver Bierhoff twinkling beneath the Prentonian floodlights. However, our fabled ground has even staged a UEFA match, quite remarkably, and that is another wrinkle of Tranmere Rovers pop culture I have always wanted to explore.

Sadly, the hapless heroes of our sporting peninsula did not participate in that match, held in 1998. However, our stadium – then a shiny hub in the citadel of Premier League ambition – became a magnet for mayhem when Glasgow Rangers were paired with Shelbourne in the UEFA Cup qualifying rounds. At the confluence of police paranoia and sectarian tension, Birkenhead filled a breach and inserted itself into yet more drama.

Why did Rangers play Shelbourne at a neutral venue?

When it comes to Scotland and Ireland, things are complicated – to say the least. Far more qualified scholars than I have dedicated entire careers to chronicling, analysing and dissecting the incessant chafe between Orangeism and Irish Republicanism, between Protestants and Catholics, between Rangers and Celtic, and between monarchy and autonomy. I do not have the knowledge, nor the inclination, to take sides, nor to attempt a half-baked explanation. Suffice it to say that ancient grudges exist on either side, and a miasma of disharmony permeates the entire debate.

Accordingly, when Rangers – an organ of Protestant pride – have played in Ireland – a nation of Catholic faith – trouble has invariably followed, perpetrated by minorities on both sides of the divide. In the 1970s and 1980s, Rangers played Bohemians in Dublin, with violent clashes marring spectacular matches. National flags were burned and a huge police presences were summarily overwhelmed, resulting in injuries and arrests before, during and after the games. 

A decade later, those wounds were reopened by the prospect of Rangers returning to Dublin to face Shelbourne, a semi-professional club of humble resources. Local policymakers and community groups expressed widespread consternation about the tie, which looked set to coincide with the July marching season, always a time of heightened sectarian sensitivity regardless of sporting fixture lists. 

Despite extensive discussions, Shelbourne only conceded defeat a week before the first leg was scheduled to take place at Tolka Park, their rudimentary abode catering for 3,600 spectators. The rush to find a suitable alternative was most assuredly on, and few options were devoid of pitfalls.

Why was Prenton Park chosen to host the Rangers-Shelbourne UEFA Cup tie?

A series of crisis meetings were held, giving rise to a frenzied brainstorm of potential neutral sites that could stage the controversial encounter. Elland Road was an early forerunner, but Leeds United were not interested. Goodison Park and Anfield were also considered, but Liverpool’s own complicated history with sectarianism was deemed an unwise gamble. Even Brunton Park was eventually kiboshed, with the relative proximity of Carlisle to Glasgow causing concern among security officials.

At the eleventh hour, when far more efficient ideas had already been eliminated, Prenton Park began to titillate the self-appointed diplomats. Admittedly, Birkenhead was very close to Liverpool – indeed, it was still Merseyside, with all the bewildering genealogy that entails – but it seemed somehow less emotionally invested in sectarian virtue signalling. It seemed slightly more impartial, many felt, and besides, Tranmere chairman Frank Corfe was keen to showcase the sparkling stadium recently reconstructed with help from his eponymous construction materials firm.

In addition, though often overlooked in historical retellings of this event, Tranmere actually played Shelbourne in Dublin in 1996. Then managed by Éire icon John Aldridge, and featuring Republic of Ireland internationals Liam O’Brien and Alan Mahon in midfield, Rovers often frequented the emerald isle for a pre-season piss-up, with a few friendlies thrown in for good measure. Aldo’s men beat Shelbourne, 2-1, before 689 at Tolka Park, while lasting connections were obviously made.

Accordingly, when contemplating potential allies across the Irish Sea, Shelbourne eventually turned to Tranmere, whose visit was fresh in the memory. Upon Corfe’s invitation, representatives of the club, along with those from Rangers, UEFA, Merseyside Police and the Football Association of Ireland, were summoned to Birkenhead for secret talks. For two days, the various factions thrashed out their differences, agreeing on a cohesive – if not entirely faultless – plan to host the first leg contest in Wirral. “Our pitch is in excellent shape,” said Corfe. “And we are happy to stage the match.”

How did people react to Rangers and Shelbourne playing in England?

Cognisant of losing up to £30,000 by moving the tie, Shelbourne director Colm Murphy struck a conciliatory tone while thanking all parties for their efforts. “We are greatly indebted to Tranmere Rovers and Merseyside Police for facilitating the staging of this most important tie,” said Murphy. “It is a regret that we could not stage it in Dublin, but we do acknowledge the support and cooperation from numerous sources over the past few days.”

In turn, Rangers chief executive Bob Brannan praised the way Shelbourne handled a sensitive issue. “We were more anxious for the safety of our fans travelling to and through Ireland rather than about them misbehaving,” he said. “Shelbourne have been very keen to protect us and have had every respect in the way they have treated us in this situation.”

Still, dissenting voices did emerge, mostly from within the local community around Prenton Park. Labour councillor Walter Smith, a former Wirral mayor, wrote to Corfe articulating his concerns about potential drunkenness and disorder. “Dublin has decided it could be dangerous to play the match there,” wrote Smith. “So why should Birkenhead and my local residents have to endure the possibility of potential mayhem on their doorsteps? An 8pm kick-off is perfect timing for any hooligan element to indulge in alcohol and get tanked up. The decision disappoints me when Tranmere Rovers has tried hard to be a local community facility.”

Superintendent Paul Forrester of Merseyside Police was tasked with overseeing security at Prenton Park for the controversial fixture. Forrester played a key role in the distribution of tickets, especially among Rangers fans, and he devised strategic access routes in and out of Birkenhead for the travelling hordes. “Public safety at Prenton Park is our prime concern for the match,” said Forrester at the time. In theory, that sounded logical. Yet in practice, it was incredibly difficult to deliver.

With regard to logistics, RTÉ Television, Ireland’s state broadcaster, pulled out of televising the match once it was moved to England. Eurosport stepped in at the last possible moment, beaming the game to an intrigued audience throughout the continent. To my knowledge, this remains the only time Primark has ever had a visible advertising hoarding at a televised UEFA match. Bromborough Paints, too. There was even a board for the Pyramids shopping centre, then a newly-opened elixir rather than a badly rundown eyesore. Premium television had never seen anything like it. 

Welcome to Prenton Park, the neutral venue that wooed UEFA

Opened in 1912, Prenton Park has been defined by incessant metamorphosis. Once a ramshackle hub of wood and concrete, the ground welcomed 24,424 rabid spectators for a Tranmere FA Cup tie against Stoke City in 1972, but its capacity was reduced to 16,587 during a mid-1990s renovation encouraged by the Taylor Report into British stadium regulations.

Though it may seem fanciful now, during that era, Rovers had realistic dreams of playing in Europe themselves, not merely hosting UEFA games as a neutral venue. In addition to their frolics in the aforementioned Anglo-Italian Cup, Tranmere pushed for promotion to the nascent Premier League, losing three consecutive playoff semi-finals in the second tier under legendary manager Johnny King. The new Prenton Park was built to UEFA standards, and that remained a distant goal of the ambitious regime.

To that end, in 1994, Tranmere reached the League Cup semi-final, where they faced Aston Villa. After 90 minutes in the first leg at Prenton Park, Rovers led 3-0, only for Dalian Atkinson to snatch a vital conciliation goal for the visitors. Even after 87 minutes of the second leg, Tranmere maintained a 4-3 aggregate advantage, only for Atkinson to score again, sending the tie to extra-time. Rovers eventually lost on penalties, and Villa went on to lift the cup against Manchester United, securing a place in the UEFA Cup, where they faced Internazionale and Trabzonspor. That could so easily have been Tranmere. 

Furthermore, barely two seasons after hosting the Rangers-Shelbourne match, Rovers went one better and reached the League Cup final, equalising against Leicester City with 13 minutes remaining only to lose in agonising fashion before 74,313 at Wembley. Leicester then played Red Star Belgrade in the UEFA Cup as reward for their triumph, another kick in the teeth for Tranmere. Alas, Rovers are still yet to play in a UEFA match, but their hosting of Rangers and Shelbourne still resides in an altogether more quirky pantheon of European football trivia.

Around 7,000 Rangers fans made the trip from Glasgow to Birkenhead, where they were housed in the gigantic Kop stand at Prenton Park, bedecked in union jacks. A smattering of Bears also sat in the Borough Road stand, while the 700-strong contingent from Dublin resided in the Cowshed, having arrived overnight on six coaches via Holyhead Port. Interestingly, Tranmere season ticket holders were also afforded an opportunity to attend the match, and they were seated in the Main Stand and adjoining paddocks.

A history of Tranmere Rovers in Ireland

In a comedic twist of fate, the Tranmere first team just happened to be on the island of Ireland while Shelbourne and Rangers were competing at Prenton Park. Indeed, somewhat bizarrely, Tranmere played at Tolka Park – of all places – just three days before the UEFA Cup tie in Birkenhead, drawing 1-1 with Shamrock Rovers. Then, just hours before Shelbourne and Rangers took the field, Tranmere beat Newry Town, 2-1, at The Showgrounds in County Down, Northern Ireland. Sometimes, you just cannot make this shit up.

One presumes the Tranmere lads watched the Shelbourne-Rangers tie on Eurosport, sipping a few pints of Guinness. They then travelled into the Republic to play Drogheda United at the abysmally-named Hunky Dory’s Park. Rovers ran out 3-1 victors, ending their Irish excursion with a positive result before the regular season began.

Digging deeper, it is a little known fact that Tranmere have actually played 26 matches on the island of Ireland throughout their history. Their first visit came in 1951, and they have returned frequently since the 1980s, playing a number of different clubs. One blockbuster match against Linfield in 1981 ended in a 5-5 draw at Midgely Park, although few were on hand to witness the remarkable contest.

To this day, then, Tranmere enjoy an affectionate following in Ireland. There is an official supporters’ club in the country, and it has done fantastic work for a number of years bringing people together. Rovers last visited Ireland in 2016 for a 4-day training camp and behind-closed-doors friendly against MK Dons. There have often been rumours of a more formal trip in the future, and that would certainly be welcomed on both sides of the Irish Sea. 

When Dick Advocaat came to Birkenhead for his first game as Rangers manager

Returning to the main theme of this article, the Shelbourne tie came at a time of upheaval for Rangers. Longstanding manager Walter Smith was replaced by Dutch impresario Dick Advocaat in the dugout over the summer of 1998, while key players like Ally McCoist, Richard Gough and Andy Goram left Ibrox for pastures new. 

Advocaat arrived with an illustrious reputation, having previously managed the Netherlands’ national team to a quarter-final berth at the 1994 World Cup. A subsequent stint with PSV saw the mercurial boss build a title-winning squad around Jaap Stam, Phillip Cocu and Luc Nilis, only for Rangers to come calling with a fat chequebook and ambitious dreams.

Chairman David Murray seemed intent on luring a marquee manager to Ibrox, and Terry Venables was initially touted as a favourite to replace Smith. Sven-Göran Eriksson and Marcelo Lippi were also mentioned in dispatches, but Advocaat was viewed as an ideal figurehead for a Rangers revolution, and he duly became the first foreign manager in the club’s history.

The Shelbourne match was Advocaat’s first in the Rangers hot seat, as the whacky poetry of world football saw an esteemed veteran of games at the Nou Camp, Amsterdam Arena, De Kuip and Wembley rattle along the old dirt road to Prenton Park, Tranmere. Advocaat even wore an extravagant cream trench for the occasion, gracing the hallowed turf with continental panache.

Remembering Rangers’ Dutch revolution of the late-1990s

Granted a liberal budget, Advocaat broke Rangers’ record transfer fee three times in a month, and his recruitment policy focused heavily on Dutch imports. Steady defender Arthur Numan arrived from PSV for £4.5 million. Marauding left-back Giovanni van Bronckhorst joined from Feyenoord for a similar fee. Meanwhile, famed winger Andrei Kanchelskis joined from Fiorentina, adding a splash of quality to the squad.

In total, Advocaat spent £30 million in that summer transfer window, either side of the Shelbourne tie, keen to compete at home and in Europe. Prenton Park duly became the first testing ground for a fascinating revolution, as Rangers lined up with Antti Niemi in goal; Sergio Porrini, Lorenzo Amoruso, Gordan Petrić and van Bronckhorst in defence; Gennaro Gattuso, Barry Ferguson, Jonas Thern and Jörg Albertz in midfield; and David Graham and Gordon Durie in attack.

Of course, such nonchalant spending eventually led to Rangers’ demise when a business model centred on debt finally collapsed in the 2010s. However, at the time, theirs was a beguiling project, and the club harboured genuine ambitions of competing in the upper echelons of European football. Smith built a formidable dynasty, winning nine Scottish league titles in a row with stars like Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup, but Advocaat wanted to write his own chapter in the Ibrox annals, and it began beside the Mersey in rugged Birkenhead.

How Shelbourne took a 3-0 lead against Rangers

However, barely seven minutes into his reign, The Little General faced a crisis when Shelbourne, the plucky underdogs, took a shock lead at Prenton Park. Wearing an all-red strip, the Irishmen came forward with reckless abandon, forcing balls into the penalty area and feeding disquiet among the Rangers backline. One Shelbourne cross was nodded into his own net by Porrini, as thunder cloaked Advocaat’s face.

Shortly before half-time, Shelbourne doubled their advantage when Rangers – playing in their famous blue shirts, white shorts and black socks – failed to deal with a corner beneath the Kop. Mark Rutherford, a gangly winger, danced through the indecision to lash home an improbable goal, raising eyebrows across the continent. Prenton Park lay silent, save for a faint murmur of jubilant Shelbourne fans singing The Fields of Athenry.

Seemingly incensed, Advocaat shuffled his pack at half-time, substituting Gattuso and Graham for Gabriel Amato and Jonatan Johansson, respectively. Amato was another star buy during the summer, costing Rangers £4.2 million, and the former Boca Juniors and River Plate striker transformed the contest entirely, destroying Shelbourne with a maverick’s verve.

Still, things got worse before they got better for Rangers. With 58 minutes elapsed, Shelbourne sprang a surprise counterattack that left Pat Morley through on goal with just Niemi to beat. Somewhat incredibly, the journeyman striker clipped the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper and into the net, down beneath the incredulous Shelbourne fans. Just like that, their faltering heroes were 3-0 up against Glasgow Rangers. For some, a sweeter dream could not be conjured.

When Rangers scored five goals in 24 minutes to produce a stunning UEFA Cup comeback

The joy did not last long, however. Almost immediately, Rangers won a penalty when a harried Shelbourne defender handled the ball nervously. Albertz dispatched the spot-kick, pulling the score back to 3-1, as smatterings of encouragement rained down from the travelling Rangers horde.

To their eternal credit, Shelbourne held out for another 12 minutes before the floodgates were forced wide open. Amato rammed home a 72nd minute goal, sparking delirium in the boisterous crowd, and suddenly Prenton Park was transformed into a cauldron of vociferous yearning. The occasion came alive, with thousands newly captivated by a proper football match unfurling before them. Once insouciant towards the Irish minnows, Rangers fans beckoned their team forward, sucking the ball towards goal.

On 74 minutes, van Bronckhorst showed his class with a breathtaking raid into the Shelbourne half. After playing a smart one-two around a dazed defence, the Dutchman wandered into the box, fizzing and twinkling, before tucking the ball home right-footed. Pandemonium engulfed the old ground on Borough Road, and van Bronckhorst celebrated with panache near the corner flag.

Freshly level at 3-3, Rangers were further galvanised, and Amato headed home a cross on 82 minutes, firing his new club ahead. Three minutes later, Albertz slotted home another penalty as Shelbourne tired. The game eventually finished 5-3 to Rangers, whose second half tirade still ranks among the most dominant – if overlooked – in UEFA Cup history.

Still, despite eventually losing, Shelbourne manager Dermot Keely was philosophical - and decidedly comedic - after the match. "I saw Dick Advocaat sitting with his head in his hands at 3-0," the part-time gaffer demurred. "That alone was worth the admission fee."

How violence marred the Rangers-Shelbourne tie at Prenton Park

Despite the scintillating on-field drama, more newspaper column inches were devoted to hooligan skirmishes before and after the match, somewhat predictably. Before kick-off, rumours spread of mass inebriation and mounting disorder among Rangers fans in particular. Separating fact from fiction is still difficult to do all these years later.

“Trouble flared at 7.20pm in the Mersey Clipper pub adjacent to Prenton Park, where Rangers supporters had been drinking since noon,” reported the Wirral Globe. “There were no locals in the pub, and violence erupted when a Rangers fan threw a beer bottle at a fellow supporter. The pub then became a battlefield.

“Items were ripped off the walls and beer glasses were thrown, amounting to over £400 in damage. Uniformed police were called but were forced out by flying beer bottles. Terrified staff fled to the roof, while riot police intervened and cleared the pub in seconds.

“There was also trouble outside the ground, with drunken Rangers supporters throwing beer bottles at police horses, and in the Main Stand, which was supposed to be neutral, with Rangers’ supporters’ passions running high.”

Eleven people were eventually arrested at the game, including eight Rangers supporters, and an official probe was launched by UEFA. Rangers were eventually fined 25,000 Swiss francs and warned about the future conduct of their fans. “The small minority who participated in the incident outside a Merseyside public house have brought shame upon themselves and the club,” said Brannan. However, over the years, counterarguments have emerged as to what actually happened in Birkenhead that day, and they should be heard in the interest of full disclosure.

Some say a jovial atmosphere turned sour when locals put provocative Irish anthems on the Clipper jukebox, which was subsequently ripped from the wall. Others say the police were needlessly heavy-handed, spoiling for a fight when the fans just wanted to enjoy their trip.

“There was no problem at all with the Irish supporters, but we had a group of around 150 Rangers fans who arrived drunk and were drinking all day,” said PC Tom Gunn, the football intelligence officer of Tranmere Rovers, by contrast. “They threw beer bottles at the Shelbourne team coach when it arrived, and at the end of the match, they were escorted out of Merseyside.” 

One legendary folktale among Rangers fans depicts a police horse inside the pub, attempting to keep order amid total carnage. Meanwhile, some observers recall a supporter falling - perhaps even fatally, according to some unconfirmed whispers - from a roof inside the stadium, rather worryingly. A lot of alcohol was consumed on the day, so it is incredibly difficult to corroborate such apocryphal anecdotes. Nevertheless, they make for interesting reading.

Is there an enduring link between Tranmere Rovers and Glasgow Rangers? Exploring a purported fan friendship

After the match, some Rangers fans enjoyed a buffet in Aldo’s, the social club adjoining Prenton Park. By all accounts, our visitors helped themselves to some of the decorative memorabilia, taking home framed photos of the moustachioed messiah himself. To this day, then, there are likely blokes in Glasgow who have decorated their mancaves with posters of Aldo in full Real Sociedad kit, and you can only applaud such brazen temerity.

Indeed, many Tranmere fans report enjoying great camaraderie with the Rangers contingent in Birkenhead, and attempts have been made to strengthen those ties in subsequent years. For instance, certain sections of the contemporary Rovers fanbase will be familiar with ‘The Rangers Paddock,’ a colloquial, tongue-in-cheek name ascribed to a group of Tranmere hardliners who sit in the Town Paddock at Prenton Park and have declared a simultaneous affection for Rangers. It can be difficult to ascertain the genesis of such loose, esoteric cabals, but the Shelbourne tie was undoubtedly influential in this regard.

Of course, the Scottish diaspora is huge in scale, with up to 40 million people claiming ancestry from that region. Accordingly, perhaps more than any other clubs in the world, Rangers and Celtic enjoy vicarious and residual support from around the globe. There is almost an unspoken expectation that football fans will identify with one club or the other, often on political or religious grounds. To inquire about a peer’s preference for Celtic or Rangers is to ask for data on their philosophy, ideology and socioeconomic undergirding. Even those with no direct or tangential link to Scotland feel obliged to pick a side, and micro sentiments can often have macro consequences on reputations.

My surname – Ferguson – is of Scottish origin, and my ancestry has been traced back to 1560, and the small mining town of Tranent, East Lothian, just 10 miles from Edinburgh. Some 16 generations have descended from that hub, most of which resided in Scotland. It was not until the 1880s that my forebears moved to Birkenhead via Aberdeenshire, Glasgow, Dumfries and Ayrshire. Consequently, for me, a millennial descendent of tartan-clad tribesmen, picking a diasporic football club to admire – if not to outright support – is incredibly complicated. There are so many options from which to choose, but so few logical consistencies to inform a conclusive decision.

In this regard, both Celtic and Rangers hone extensive networks of partner clubs, or at least tentative fan associations forming a wider ecosystem of commonality. For instance, depending on who you believe, Celtic have longstanding bonds with Barcelona, St Pauli, Livorno, Marseille and Boca Juniors. Meanwhile, Rangers share political and patriotic symbolism with clubs such as HSV Hamburg, Chelsea and Linfield. Things get a little convoluted with regard to Merseyside, however, which underscores the surprise of many insiders at the mere notion of Birkenhead hosting a Scots-Irish UEFA Cup tie in 1998. 

These days, it is stylish and woke to suggest poetic linkages between Celtic and Liverpool, two left-leaning clubs of the working class with similar cultures and a mutual anthem. Likewise, it can be tempting to draw comparisons between the gothic iconography of Rangers and Everton, two misunderstood clubs of distinct identity with the same coloured kit and stadiums designed by the same guy, Archibald Leitch. However, such instinctive inferences are not always correct, and there is a deeper history to the secondary support of Celtic and Rangers – indeed, of sectarianism more broadly – on Merseyside that must be investigated.

Rangers and Liverpool fans have often bonded through tragedy, supporting one another following the respective stadium disasters of Ibrox in 1971 and Hillsborough in 1989. Furthermore, Everton-Celtic half-and-half scarves were particularly popular in the 1970s, and the Toffees have traditionally recruited in a more inclusive manner than their city counterparts, belying the many myths of Anfield socialism.

Therefore, the implied chemistry between Liverpool and Celtic – chiefly authored by a biased media hungry for romantic storylines – is a fairly new phenomenon, compared with the wider arc of socio-political history. Celtic fans only adopted You’ll Never Walk Alone as a club anthem in the 1970s, while many credit the transfer of legendary striker Kenny Dalglish from Parkhead in to Anfield in 1977 as a major pivot point in the relationship.

Alas, like many prolific writers who broach such emotive subjects, I’m frequently told to ‘stick to sports,’ a vacuous trope levelled at those who are brave enough to speak freely by those who are afraid to do the same. Yet no matter how deluded your idealism, sports and politics are inseparable. In fact, sports are often the most impassioned, most accessible and most vociferous vehicles of politics, and we should not shy away from that as a bad thing. On the contrary, political virility adds to the intrigue of sports, and any attempts to whitewash that phenomenon will never receive my endorsement.

Naturally, then, I often contemplate the religious and political cosmology of Tranmere Rovers, the most beloved entity in my life. The comments section will likely implode from excessive incredulity as groupthink reticence attempts to stifle unconventional inquisitiveness, but this is a topic that must be explored because nobody else has dared to touch it.

Tranmere Rovers was founded in 1884 as Belmont FC by a bunch of young cricketers who yearned for a summer hobby. With an average age of 15, the boys were members of a Wesleyan Chapel on Whitfield Street in Tranmere, where they congregated for Sunday school classes and extracurricular clubs. James Hannay McGaul, a chapel grandee, donated the first goalposts and footballs to the kids, spurring their ambitions, and seven generations later, their bloodline is still intact, hewn in white and blue.

Wesleyanism is a Protestant movement that relies heavily on the worldview of John and Charles Wesley, evangelical brothers who led a Methodist revival in the Church of England during the 1700s. That would seem to affirm ties between Tranmere and Rangers, but making such adventurous claims 136 years down the line is indulgent at best and divisive at worst.

Moreover, in the modern age, Tranmere has become a paragon of multiculturalism, fiercely defending working class rights while greasing the wheels of social mobility for a broad range of people. In 2018, for instance, Rovers hosted an interfaith football match organised by local Christian and Muslim leaders, helping to hone synergies in the community. Meanwhile, though hardly publicised, the club also has a strong partnership with the Wirral Deen Centre, an Islamic centre on Borough Road in Birkenhead.

One unheralded yet inspiring initiative includes the provision of all-female gym sessions arranged by Tranmere for Muslim women who may otherwise have their pursuit of regular exercise impeded by the need to wear a hijab while encountering unrelated males. The club rarely shouts about these incredible projects, but its diverse and pioneering approach to such matters makes me proud to be a fan.

In this regard, Tranmere and Rangers also share a confusing juxtaposition of identity with regard to class: both clubs were founded by members of the aspiring middle class before morphing into beacons of working class pride. Rangers was formed by rowing enthusiasts, of all things, while the parents of those nascent Tranmere cricketers were clerks and businessmen, grocers and bookkeepers.

On the pitch in more recent times, a handful of players have represented both clubs, with Gary Stevens arguably the most recognisable. Paul Rideout had a brief stint at Ibrox before writing his name in Tranmere folklore, while Clint Hill and Michael O’Halloran are more recent additions to the shared pantheon. Left-half Willie Stevenson was the first man to play for both Rangers and Tranmere, and he joined the latter in 1973.

While Tranmere have never played Rangers, they have faced a number of other Scottish clubs – including Aberdeen, Motherwell, Dundee, Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle, East Fife, Falkirk, Dumbarton, St Johnstone, Dunfermline, Arbroath, East Stirling, Stirling Albion and Clyde – in exhibition and friendly matches.

Moreover, Rovers’ history is littered with heroic contributions from Scottish titans. As judged by winning percentage, three of the top five managers in Tranmere history – Walter Galbraith, Micky Mellon and Dave Russell – were Scottish. Meanwhile, a total of 24 Scots have worn the famous white jersey, from the genius of Pat Nevin to the ineptitude of Marc Laird, encompassing the tenacity of Steve Mungall, the bravery of Ron Yeats and the dominance of Jim Steel.

Accordingly, stitching together fanciful fan friendships and historic allegiances is sketchy at best and dangerous at worst. More pertinently, such behaviour is abhorrently Kopite in flavour, and Tranmere Rovers is a club of striking independence that does not rely on such second-hand blessings.

Nevertheless, there is a small, often imperceptible group of Tranmere fans that associates passionately with Rangers, whether as a direct result of the UEFA Cup tie in Birkenhead or pre-existing genealogy. The same can be said for other clubs, however, and for every Tranmere fan with a soft spot for Rangers, there is likely another Rovers idealist willing to declare synergy with Celtic. We should stick to our own path, in other words, and stop pandering to football’s elitist hierarchy.

How far did Rangers go in the 1998/99 UEFA Cup?

In contrast to the anarchy of Birkenhead, Rangers plotted a serene route past Shelbourne in the second leg, winning 2-0 before 46,906 at Ibrox. The Bears then beat PAOK, Beitar Jerusalem and Bayer Leverkusen before losing narrowly to Parma, the eventual winners, in round three. That was a vintage Parma side featuring Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Dino Baggio, Hernán Crespo and Juan Sebastián Verón, so there was no shame in defeat for Rangers. 

Indeed, Advocaat led the Gers to a domestic treble in 1998/99, including a famous league-clinching victory over Celtic at Parkhead. The poor defensive showing at Prenton Park prompted Rangers to spend a further £4 million on veteran defender Colin Hendry, who played sparingly for Advocaat but who also offered tremendous depth in an exhausting campaign. 

Advocaat lasted three seasons as Rangers manager, winning a further domestic double and taking Champions League points from Bayern Munich, PSV, Monaco and Galatasaray, among others. However, the Dutchman came back to haunt his Glaswegian friends in 2008 by guiding Zenit Saint Petersburg to victory over Rangers in a notorious UEFA Cup final. The Bears are still attempting to rekindle such prominence.

Final thoughts on the Old Firm, sectarianism and European football in Birkenhead

In closing, I just want to reiterate the secular spirit in which this article has been researched and written. I’m an atheistic centrist, which is to say I do not associate with either side in the ancient Old Firm grudge, nor do I judge those who do. I’m a writer, not a priest. I’m a journalist, not a politician. To me, the tale of Glasgow Rangers randomly arriving in Birkenhead to play a UEFA Cup match is simply a great story. I wanted to capture it in for posterity and add it to the tome of Tranmere Rovers curio growing online.

“Never write about politics or religion,” I was once told as a budding reporter in pursuit of a quiet life. Alas, in the hostile arena of association football, turbocharged with macho vitriol, never writing about Celtic or Rangers is a wise rule of thumb, too, especially in the epoch of cancel culture outrage. Many people now shy away from the kind of contentious exploration detailed in this essay, but I’m not one of them. This is a topic that interests me, and so I pursued it with gusto and vigour. You can make your own deductions from the narrative.

By its very etymological nature, sectarianism is divisive, polarising and antagonistic. The partisan interpretation of Christian dogma is such a schismatic issue, affecting billions of people around the world, that blanket answers and uniform outlooks are never likely to exist. However, if we can just drop the pretence every once in a while, and let the power of poetry run free, maybe we can carve for ourselves a happier and more inclusive existence. Maybe we can actually enjoy our passions, rather than using them as battering rams in endless quests for supremacy. Maybe we can simply appreciate a good story, and Dick Advocaat's trip to Birkenhead certainly fits the bill.


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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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Social Proof Experiments