Champions! The iconic Tranmere Rovers team of 1937-38
When Tranmere Rovers last won a league title, Adolf Hitler was Time magazine’s Man of the Year, oil had just been discovered in Saudi Arabia, and electric photocopiers hit the open market for the first time.
Closer to home, the first direct rail services from West Kirby and New Brighton to Liverpool Central became operational, while news of Rovers’ championship was conveyed by newspaper and radio, far removed from our modern sphere of tweets and snaps and vlogs.
The year was 1938. Tranmere won the Third Division North by two points from Doncaster in second place. The club had previously developed a reputation for clutching failure from the jaws of success, somehow blowing their chances when promotion seemed inevitable.
However, 1937-38 was the most blissfully anachronistic Tranmere season that ever came to pass, as Rovers finally found the formula en route to their lone Football League title of all time. Wirral is still awaiting its next taste of championship champagne.
How an Elstree Studios film extra led Tranmere Rovers to glory in the 1930s
Sure, Tranmere have been promoted many times in the ensuing eight decades, automatically and via the playoffs. They’ve reached cup finals and frequented Wembley. But attaining the goal that logically befits every football team at the start of every season – finishing above all other clubs in the league – has eluded Rovers with almost comical repetitiveness, regardless of the level at which they compete.
The only man who has ever been able to rip a hole in the failure-time continuum by managing Tranmere to a championship had no formal background in professional football. Jim Knowles was a film extra working out of Elstree Studios before taking up a secretary role with Tranmere. When turmoil led to Bert Cooke’s acrimonious departure, Knowles’ infectious energy distinguished him as an ideal conduit between pitch and boardroom.
Former England international Jack Carr initially replaced Cooke as manager, but the ambitious Knowles was seen as the heir apparent. When Robert Fletcher became Rovers chairman in 1936, he appointed Knowles as manager despite his total lack of playing experience, intoxicated by the youngster’s enthusiasm for the game.
The immediate results were inauspicious as Tranmere narrowly avoided the need for re-election to the Football League in 1936-37. That serves to make the following campaign even more remarkable as Rovers were catapulted to the greatest achievement in their history to that point.
How Tranmere won their lone Football League championship
Assisted by Jimmy Moreton, a stalwart who played almost 500 times for Tranmere, Knowles masterminded an extraordinary effort from his charges, who developed a sense of destiny as the season unfurled. The team was hardworking and pleasingly belligerent, grinding out results at an impressive rate. Pongo Waring, a returning hero, led the line aged 31, five years after his last England appearance. His regular goals were complimented by those of George Flowers and Ronnie Dellow, who contributed fine performances in the shadows.
Rovers won seven games in a row through November and December, establishing their credentials near the summit. Loyal supporters had seen it all before, however, and the Birkenhead populace required more convincing after profound collapses in 1934-35 and 1935-36. The scars were still raw, the doubt still fresh. Something special was needed. Something special arrived.
Tranmere did the double over local rivals Wrexham and New Brighton, while a 7-2 thumping of Southport in April encouraged fans to believe once again. Two sagacious victories over Lincoln, sandwiched between a 1-0 triumph over Hull, left Tranmere top of the table heading into the final round of matches, two points ahead of Doncaster, who just happened to form the opposition for that final game in Yorkshire.
Tranmere needed just a point to win the title. Doncaster needed to win. We all know what the quintessential outcome would be: a stalemate until the closing stages, allowing tension and excitement to build, before a last-gasp Doncaster winner to break Birkonian hearts. Not this time. Not this team. Tranmere stood firm for once. They somehow got over the line.
Ronnie Dellow scored for Tranmere in a historic 1-1 draw. A crowd of 14,249 was present at Bell Vue, with the Wirral contingent celebrating wildly at full-time. Hundreds of thousands of people have identified as Tranmere fans throughout the club’s lifespan, from 1884 until the present day, but how many could accurately claim that they were present in the ground when a Rovers captain actually lifted a Football League championship of any description? Two thousand, maybe? Even less, perhaps? That’s a mind-blowing revelation.
Far more people gathered in Hamilton Square to welcome the victorious heroes back to Birkenhead. The team travelled by train from Yorkshire, no doubt dabbling in the accoutrements of champion life, before enjoying a civic reception at the town hall, attended by more than 50,000 revellers. A lavish banquet and presentation followed in a party for the ages.
Tranmere Rovers and the penchant for self-destruction in football
Just three years earlier, the club’s reputation was in tatters following Cooke’s improper conduct. Luke Lees, a former director, contended that Cooke was implicit in expense fraud among senior executives at the club, issuing reimbursements for business trips he knew to be fictional. Cooke was also implicated in the financial inducement of officials at other clubs, hoping to engineer lower transfer fees or eliminate them entirely.
In a kneejerk reaction to the scandal that engulfed them, the Tranmere board sacked Cooke before being deposed themselves in July 1935. The FA launched an enquiry into the club, and the entire board was suspended from football for twelve months upon its conclusion.
While the club’s brand was damaged severely, Rovers somehow managed to maintain their Football League status, unlike Leeds City, who were involved in similar transgressions in 1919.
Wirral FA chairman Edward Chase was installed as de facto chairman in Cooke’s absence, essentially acting as an agent of cultural change on behalf of the game’s lawmakers, tasked with exhuming the dodgy dealings and underhand strategies. Fletcher eventually took control as the next proper chairman at Prenton Park, and he appointed the fresh-faced Knowles as manager, a masterstroke that turned Tranmere’s grim nadir into a scarcely believable zenith.
Things fell apart soon thereafter, however, heightening the sense of startling otherness that accompanied the championship season. Waring was allowed to join Accrington, leaving Rovers vulnerable for their assault on the second tier. Perhaps Knowles’ lack of experience finally caught up with Tranmere, who authored what remains the worst season in second division history. Rovers conceded 99 goals and accumulated just 17 points, finishing 14 adrift of safety.
The club simply wasn’t ready to compete against the likes of Nottingham Forest, Newcastle, West Brom, Tottenham, Manchester City and Sheffield Wednesday. Relegation was swiftly confirmed and Tranmere didn’t return to the second division for over half a century.
Nevertheless, that 1937-38 team still occupies a sacrosanct place in the pantheon of Tranmere mythology. At most other clubs, such an ancient squad would be long forgotten, buried under a mountain of trophies and accolades and changes. But not here. Not at Prenton Park. The legacy of that team is still writ large in the record books, still etched deep in the blood. It will remain so until we finally win a league title - any league title – once again. It will remain so until we plough beyond the playoffs and acquire the coldblooded instinct of champions.