The full story of Tranmere 6-6 Newcastle, 1991 ZDS Cup
When the League Cup second round draw paired Tranmere with Newcastle earlier this month, many fans were reminded of an infamous 6-6 draw between the clubs in 1991. Eventually won by Rovers on penalties, that outrageous tie came in the Zenith Data Systems Cup, a short-lived experiment doomed to irrelevance. Little is known about the match beyond the garish headlines, though, so a Planet Prentonia deep dive is required ahead of Wednesday’s clash.
First of all, what on earth was the Zenith Data Systems Cup? Well, it was a branded incarnation of the Full Members’ Cup – a moribund competition created in 1985 to provide midweek football while English clubs were banned from UEFA competitions following the Heysel Stadium disaster. Previously sponsored by Italian sportswear brand Simod, naming rights were transferred to Zenith Data Systems (ZDS), an American electronics firm, in 1989.
Ostensibly, the ZDS Cup plugged a gap that did not need plugging. Under its auspices, first and second division clubs endured drab affairs at sparsely populated stadiums until cooler heads prevailed. Tranmere debut in the 1991-92 iteration after ending a 52-year hiatus from the second tier. Diehard Roverites were intrigued by the ZDS Cup, but even the visit of Newcastle, a traditional powerhouse, failed to stoke genuine excitement.
In truth, Tranmere fans were becoming accustomed to such illustrious company. After all, Rovers beat Gazza’s Newcastle 2-0 at Wembley in the 1988 Football League Centenary Tournament, and by 1991 they occupied the same division as the Magpies. More pertinently, Rovers beat the Toon 3-2 in Birkenhead less than a month before the ZDS Cup tie, imbuing the ranks with added confidence.
While Rovers enjoyed their zenith (excuse the pun), Newcastle tumbled towards their nadir, and the strange middle ground was sponsored by ZDS. Boardroom squabbles at St James’ Park pushed Newcastle to near-extinction, and a young squad failed to gel under the eccentric management of Ossie Ardiles.
The situation was so dire, in fact, that some pundits wondered whether Newcastle would ever make it back to Birkenhead following the September league game. “Assuming that Newcastle have not gone to the wall before this evening,” wrote Alan Nixon in an editorial for Tranmere’s matchday programme. “It makes the possible revenue from the Zenith Data Systems Cup that bit more relevant.”
Oh how times change.
Tranmere 6-6 Newcastle – As it happened
No pots of gold were found in Wirral, though, as 4,056 tortured souls gathered under the Prenton Park floodlights on a wild Tuesday night in October. Decades later, ten times that amount claimed to have been in attendance, as 12 goals, two hat-tricks and one random mountain bike added an illustrious footnote to the Tranmere almanac.
The match was broadcast live on Sky Sports, then a nascent channel searching for an identity. Some say it was the first game shown live by Sky on these shores, but I cannot confirm those whispers. Regardless, it was certainly one of the first live Sky matches, with Peter Brackley and Ron Atkinson on commentary. It was definitely the first time Tranmere ever played live on television, and many people watched the game in pubs or at home – a relatively novel concept back then.
Ardiles used the tie to blood more Newcastle youngsters, but it was Micky Quinn, an old stager, who opened the scoring after just three minutes; the scouser deflecting a Lee Clark effort beyond Eric Nixon in the Tranmere goal. Rovers responded quickly, though, with a vintage equaliser straight from Johnny King’s sophisticated playbook – Johnny Morrissey crossing for John Aldridge to set up Neil McNab, who slammed home. Aldo notched a goal of his own shortly thereafter, latching onto a woeful pass-back to finish with aplomb. However, barely five minutes later, Quinn – once a Tranmere youth player – struck again, pouncing on a rebound to level the score at 2-2.
After half-time, Newcastle regained the lead when Gavin Peacock beat Nixon to a sumptuous through ball from midfield conductor Liam O’Brien. Peacock lofted the ball over Nixon and into the top corner, putting the Magpies 3-2 ahead with twenty-five minutes remaining. The advantage was short-lived, however, as Tranmere’s Jim Steel capped more intricate wing play by thumping home a loose ball as it squirmed through the penalty area. An unheralded contributor to Rovers’ ascent, Steel retired to become a policeman following the 1991-92 season, and this was one of his final peaks in the famous white shirt.
The game finished 3-3, but further absurdity awaited in extra-time. Two goals in two minutes – from Aldridge and Dave Martindale – gave Tranmere a 5-3 advantage, but Newcastle refused to give in. Clark made it 5-4 after 104 minutes, before Peacock equalised yet again. And when Quinn converted a penalty on 118 minutes, clinching his hat-trick, United looked to have killed the tie. Fans traipsed to the exit in suitable agitation, only for Rovers to win a 124th minute penalty of their own when Aldridge was shoved to the ground. The gunslinger picked himself up and dispatched the penalty with a signature shuffle, nudging the score to 6-6 and necessitating a shootout. On Sky, Big Ron could barely articulate the carnage.
In the shootout, defender Dave Higgins missed for Tranmere, but Nixon saved from Clark and Quinn hit the post. As such, when Nixon thwarted O’Brien with a smart save down to his left, Rovers were victorious – finally, eventually, mercifully. Wild celebrations gave way to a bizarre post-match ceremony in which Nixon – somehow named Man of the Match despite shipping six goals – was presented with a mountain bike by Sky. To this day, nobody knows why. Oh, and Aldo is still fuming at the injustice, too. Meanwhile, Ardiles confronted referee John Key, complaining that excessive stoppage time allowed Aldo to score the decisive equaliser. But such whining fell on deaf ears as Tranmere continued their bizarre ZDS Cup quest.
The legacy of Tranmere 6-6 Newcastle, English football’s craziest game
More than anything, the ludicrous 6-6 draw was an outgrowth of the respective managers – King and Ardiles. King’s Tranmere passed and moved with panache, while Ardiles’ Newcastle flailed in a rudderless malaise. The resultant chemical reaction produced one of the wildest, most chaotic matches in English football history – the two mercurial managers unleashing a gung-ho duel for the ages.
“What can you say about Tuesday’s game with Newcastle?” King wrote in his programme notes for a game against Southend a few days later. “I’m still shellshocked! I’ve never seen anything like that as a manager. The only game that compares was Spurs’ 10-4 victory over Everton in the fifties, which I played in, and that was all one way. From my point of view, it was ‘X’ certificate, schoolboy stuff. My sides have never given away goals like that – certainly we should never have allowed them back into it at 5-3. It was a nightmare for me! But in the end we had to thank Eric Nixon for a brilliant penalty save to take us through to a tie with Grimsby.”
Rovers’ goals glut continued against the Mariners, who received a 5-1 pasting as Aldo bagged yet another hat-trick. Middlesbrough were then dismissed in the third round, before Tranmere lost to Nottingham Forest, the eventual winners, in the area semi-final.
Meanwhile, up in Newcastle, Ardiles was sacked by February 1992. Kevin Keegan was chosen as a lightning rod replacement, and his infectious enthusiasm helped the Toon avoid relegation. Remarkably, Tranmere and Newcastle shared five further goals – taking the combined season tally to 22 – early in Keegan’s reign. Aldridge claimed a brace and Morrissey notched the third in a 3-2 Rovers win at St James’ Park. Indeed, powered by Aldo’s 37 goals, Tranmere eventually finished 14th, above Newcastle, en route to a sustained spell in the second tier.
Much has happened to both clubs in the intervening years, of course. Six relegations. Five promotions. One Saudi takeover. The Full Members’ Cup was discontinued in 1992; Liam O’Brien joined Tranmere from Newcastle for £350,000 in 1994; and ZDS merged with Packard Bell in 1996. Rovers and Newcastle have met three times in the interim, but their last tussle – a 3-2 FA Cup quarter-final win for United – came 22 years ago. We will finally get another sprinkle of that intermittent magic on Wednesday night. The Sky cameras will be there once again. Ossie Ardiles probably will not. Eric Nixon may even show up on his bike. Oh, and somebody please bring an abacus. It will probably be needed.
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