Tranmere, Wrexham and the battle of 1958
The aftermath of World War II posed many challenges for professional football clubs. Britain endured a depleted economy, with widespread rebuilding projects being completed quickly and cheaply. It was a time of great national pride and social awakening, but parsimony reigned supreme. People didn’t have the disposable income to buy football tickets and attendances shrank across the country. Cash flow became a pervasive issue, forcing the Football League to study possible initiatives to stimulate growth.
In 1951, a white ball was introduced, replacing the traditional darkened leather. Five years later, Portsmouth and Newcastle contested the first floodlit Football League match, introducing the possibility of midweek games to generate additional revenue. All ideas for progress were seriously considered as football stumbled toward its modern enlightenment.
Why did the Football League abandon its regional structure?
Perhaps the most drastic change affected the very structure of the Football League itself, as regionalisation was scrapped in favour of a more holistic approach. From its expansion in 1921, the League had been regionalised, with Division Three comprised of North and South dividers. The champions of each regional section were duly promoted to Division Two, a national competition, en route to the promised land of top tier recognition.
The supposed financial benefits of regionalisation wrought by less travel and more frequent derby matches fizzled out after the war. Amid its austere project to revitalise post-war football, the League announced that a bona fide fourth tier would be introduced to start the 1958-59 season.
Those clubs that finished in the top twelve of each regional third division at the end of 1957-58 campaign would remain at that level, merging into a national operation, while the bottom twelve would effectively be relegated into a countrywide basement of similar constitution.
How Tranmere Rovers approached the 1957-58 season
Surviving at the third division breadline, Tranmere knew the importance of making the cut if they were to fulfil their potential in the contemporary age. The board offered a £4 bonus to every player if Rovers managed to maintain their third tier status. In a world where bread cost 4p and sugar cost 7p, that was a considerable incentive for Tranmere’s working class squad.
Peter Farrell was in his first season as player-manager at Prenton Park, still selecting himself out of necessity aged 35. Keith Williams, an Eastham-born striker, was the other leading light of a workmanlike team that struggled for momentum.
Tranmere seemed to take two steps forward and one step back throughout the campaign, bobbing perilously around the de facto relegation threshold of mid-table. Rovers enjoyed a 12-match unbeaten run between October and December, only to go six games without a win through March and April. They were consistently inconsistent.
Victory over Gateshead in the season’s penultimate game gave Tranmere hope of meeting their target. A win in the final match would see them remain in the third division, a boon for future aspirations. Wrexham, a famous old rival, provided the opposition at Prenton Park on 30th April 1958, needing just a point themselves to guarantee third division football in the new campaign. Tension pervaded.
Why are Tranmere Rovers and Wrexham rivals?
Natural rivalry has existed between England and Wales for centuries. Recurrent jousts for political and economic autonomy have bred mutual mistrust and outright hostility between the neighbouring countries. Elements of overt xenophobia have coloured the relationship for many decades, and the football stadium is unfortunately a convenient forum through which to articulate such generational enmity.
Prenton Park and the Racecourse Stadium are nestled thirty miles apart. If traffic is good, you can make the journey in forty minutes or so. Weaving down from Birkenhead, you will pass through Chester and cross the Welsh border. For the disaffected working class of two downtrodden towns, that single fact provides enough ammunition to fuel a toxic rivalry. Their football teams do the rest.
Tranmere vs Wrexham, winner takes all, 1958
A crowd of 19,615 flocked to Penton Park on that fateful night in 1958, the largest ever gathering in this parish for a Football League match. It was an otherwise nondescript Wednesday, with kick-off scheduled for 18:30 to beat the encroachment of dusk. Miners at Wrexham’s Llay Colliery were permitted to work an early shift so they could travel to Wirral in time for the ultimate grudge match. British Rail ran special services direct from Wrexham to Birkenhead, stoking the furnace anew. Never had so much been at stake in a duel of these warring factions. The atmosphere was white hot.
“It was like sitting at the hospital beside a loved one whose life was in danger,” wrote Stuart Hooton of the Birkenhead News. With synthetic relegation hanging in the balance, Prentonia was no place for the fainthearted. Giddy agitation sizzled through the night sky.
Three minutes in, dancing on the simmering waves of excitement, Tranmere were awarded a penalty when Kenny McDevitt was upended, sparking pandemonium on Borough Road. Tommy Eglington, a loyal disciple of Farrell, promptly dispatched the resultant spot-kick, sending the fans into raptures that could scarcely be contained.
Wrexham mustered a robust response, throwing everything at Tranmere in a desperate bid to salvage their third division status. The visitors hit a post, shot wide and peppered the Rovers goal, adding further drama to the occasion. However, just after an hour, Tranmere doubled their advantage against the run of play when a ricocheted clearance hit McDevitt and flew into the net fortuitously. The sainted sons were nearly there.
Bernard Evans finally scored for Wrexham in the 75th minute, setting up a grandstand finish. Leading by example, Farrell put his head on the line, knocking himself out in one particularly zealous aerial duel. His troops rallied in support, blocking and harrying their way across the finish line. Tranmere Rovers were victorious. Birkenhead remained a third division town.
The importance of third division football for Tranmere Rovers
Wrexham had to await other results before their fate was confirmed. The following day, York City managed to beat Darlington by three goals, but that wasn’t enough for the Minstermen to bridge a goal average chasm. Wrexham duly finished twelfth, grabbing the last spot in Division Three by a superior goal ratio of 0.073. The dragon breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Maintaining a foothold in the third tier enabled Tranmere to strive for modernisation, an essential concept in the coming global expansion of football. Prenton Park received its first floodlights in 1958, partly funded by donations from the Supporters Association. A crowd of 16,728 gathered for the first floodlit home game, which Rovers won 2-1 against Rochdale. The club also launched its first crest during that campaign, a basic shield adorning the players’ training tracksuits.
Tranmere were eventually relegated into the fourth division in 1961, instigating a yo-yo existence across subsequent decades. Wrexham fluctuated along a similar path, rising and falling between English football’s second and fourth tiers for the next four decades. The two clubs have met more than 100 times, often in riotous atmospheres, fighting to establish as superior their brand of lower league patriotism.
Tranmere have enjoyed incredible victories and stunning defeats against Wrexham down the years. However, no triumph was more pleasing than that of 1958, when survival was on the line before almost 20,000 fans in Birkenhead.
That win made the club aware of its own potential. It taught Tranmere that they could win the big game, win when it mattered most. We all know how transient that belief has been at Prenton Park, but this was Rovers’ first modern success. It paved the way for every dream to come.