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The life and times of Johnny King, Tranmere Rovers' greatest icon

In the eighty years between 1938 and 2018, Tranmere Rovers won exactly zero promotions that did not involve Johnny King as a player or manager. Such was his metamorphic impact at Prenton Park, and such was his influence, above and beyond any man, in delivering success to an otherwise disaster-prone club.

A respected midfielder during his playing days, King had two spells as Rovers boss, the second of which came to define the club as we know it. From the brink of extinction, the gaffer hauled Tranmere up through the divisions, right to the Premier League precipice. He filled the trophy cabinet. He won promotions. He even guided Tranmere into Europe for the first time. He taught this humble club to crawl, walk and dream, all with a breath-taking charisma.

“Some managers spend weeks on complicated tactical plans and formations,” King once said of his methodology. “We just sign good players and let them play.”

An unmistakable humanity defined the Tranmere revival under his tutelage. Firstly, John King was a thoroughly decent person, an off-the-cuff philosopher and a fearless football romantic. That he chose Tranmere Rovers as the beneficiary of his genius is the greatest gift we have ever received.

The playing days of Johnny King at Tranmere and Everton

King was born in April 1938 and his family soon traded West London suburbia for the southern outskirts of Liverpool. John grew up in Halewood, at the extremities of Merseyside, a sharp paradox from his Marleybone roots. He developed a passion for football at an early age and eventually emerged through the ranks at Everton in the 1950s.

A tough wing-half, John made his top flight debut in 1957 and proceeded to record 49 appearances across three seasons at Goodison Park. His lone goal for Everton came in a 3-2 victory over Leeds United in 1958. King then had a brief stint with Bournemouth before joining Tranmere, back on Merseyside, in the fourth division.

John spent eight seasons as a Rovers player, captaining the team to great acclaim. He made 242 appearances, scored five goals, and played an influential role in securing promotion out of the fourth tier under Dave Russell in 1967. That was Tranmere’s first promotion in 29 years, and King led iconic celebrations in the Prenton Park bathtub, popping champagne in exultant fashion.

Launching the Deadly Submarine - Johnny King's first spell as Tranmere Rovers manager

Rovers earned a special place in King’s heart. Like so many people before and since, once touched by the majesty of Tranmere Rovers, his outlook was forever altered. John finished his playing career with Port Vale and Wigan Athletic before returning to Birkenhead as manager in April 1975. At the age of 37, the infectious King landed his dream job, replacing Ron Yeats in the hot seat at Prenton Park.

“Tranmere Rovers may never be able to compete with Liverpool or Everton,” said King. “They’re big liners like the Queen Mary. But I see Tranmere as a deadly submarine, attacking them silently from beneath with a torpedo.”

In his first full season at the helm, King led Tranmere to promotion from the fourth tier, their first promotion in nine years, back when John was captain. He then stabilised the club in Division Three, achieving mid-table finishes in consecutive seasons. However, following an arduous 1978-79 campaign, Rovers slid back into the basement, initial relegation compounded by a difficult run of form that cost King his job in September 1980.

New boss Bryan Hamilton was unable to prevent Rovers from finishing in the re-election zone, but the club was granted a reprieve, maintaining their Football League status in a topsy-turvy era.

How Johnny King learned his craft as manager of Northwich Victoria and Caernarfon Town

King moved to Rochdale as a coach before taking the reins at Northwich Victoria in 1981. Maturing as a tactician, he took Vics to Wembley in consecutive seasons, winning the FA Trophy in 1984. Northwich also hoisted the Cheshire Senior Cup that year, completing a rare double. It was obvious that Johnny King had a knack for getting the best out of meagre resources.

A spell in charge of Caernarfron Town further enhanced his growing reputation. King steered his Northern Premier League side to the FA Cup third round proper, defeating Stockport County and York City, full-blooded League clubs, along the way before losing to Barnsley in a replay. King was hot managerial property, and Tranmere struck lucky in landing his signature for the third time.

Peter Johnson, Johnny King and a trip to the moon with Tranmere Rovers

Local entrepreneur Peter Johnson took control of Rovers in 1987, providing stability following the debt-ridden carnage wrought by Bruce Osterman. Johnson modernised the club with impressive ambition, demanding improvements in commerce and player development. He introduced a new club crest, a sharper home kit, and a fully functioning academy spearheaded by Warwick Rimmer. A manager was needed to embody the new culture and oversee expansion. Johnny King was the ideal figurehead.

On his first day back in command, Prenton Park was crumbling, the squad was devoid of match-winning talent, and relegation into non-league oblivion seemed inevitable. The Football League abolished its re-election policy in 1986, and Tranmere looked set to become the first club to suffer automatic relegation to the Conference, that squalor of humiliating amateurism.

King masterminded an unlikely recovery, however, as Tranmere beat Exeter City in the final game of the 1986-87 season to maintain their Football League status against all odds. Gary Williams scored an immortal goal before a cramped audience at Prenton Park, allowing the greatest epoch in the club’s meandering history to begin in earnest.

“I can’t promise anyone success,” King said of his Tranmere project, “but I can promise them a trip to the moon.”

And thus the tone was set. King got the best out of Ian Muir, a journeyman striker he inherited, while shopping for an ideal partner up front. Wrexham target man Jim Steel, a notable contributor to their European conquests against Porto and Roma, was King’s first choice, and he became a legendary foil for Muir.

Chris Malkin, a former high street bank clerk, became a pivotal tool in the Tranmere arsenal, while winger Johnny Morrissey treaded similar ground to his boss in swapping the Everton fringes for the Tranmere frontline.

Goalkeeper Eric Nixon was lured from Manchester City, another giant piece of the jigsaw, with Jim Harvey poached from Bristol City. The first fruits of Tranmere’s revived youth system added fine balance to an impressive squad as a crop headlined by Kenny Irons, Tony Thomas and Shaun Garnett was ushered into the senior fold.

Ultimately, Johnny King took an island of misfit toys and created a sporting nirvana in Birkenhead. Cast-offs, rejects and under-appreciated nomads found a home at Prenton Park, coalescing into the finest team Tranmere Rovers had ever assembled.

King became the first man ever to lead the club out at Wembley in 1988, doing so by invitation to the Football League Centenary Tournament. Tranmere beat Wimbledon and Newcastle at the national stadium before succumbing to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest on penalties in the semi-final following a hearty 2-2 draw.

The rocket ride continued in 1989 as Rovers won automatic promotion from the fourth tier. They also drew 2-2 with Tottenham Hotspur that season, thwarting Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne and company to restore pride in the Tranmere crest, so recently forlorn.

The next two seasons, 1989-90 and 1990-91, saw Rovers visit Wembley twice in a week on two separate occasions, taking their overall tally to five appearances at the home of football under King.

In 1990, goals from Muir and Steel beat Bristol Rovers in the Leyland DAF Cup final, delivering Tranmere’s first ever Wembley trophy before a crowd of 48,402. Seven days later, though, Neil Warnock’s Notts County got the better of Rovers in the third division playoff final, a 2-0 defeat dampening Wirral enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, 1991 offered a sweet reverse of those events. Tranmere lost to Birmingham, 3-2, in the Leyland DAF Cup final but recovered to beat Bolton in extra-time of the playoff showcase six days later. Malkin struck a famous winner, firing Rovers into the second division with a forward roll of joy. Tranmere had not competed at such a high level since 1939. It was all a bit surreal.

How Johnny King led the greatest era in Tranmere Rovers history

In retrospect, we are often guilty of grouping those seasons together as one giant splodge of success, but each campaign was comprised of several very nuanced, very impressive accomplishments. Tranmere unleashed some truly remarkable performances, beating major clubs with irresistible swagger. The Wirral public fell in love with football again, harnessing incredibly momentum as Rovers drove towards their destiny.

Success in the Leyland DAF Cup saw Tranmere qualify for European competition, albeit the much-derided Anglo-Italian Cup, a tournament defined by astonishing chaos. It gave Rovers the opportunity to compete against some beguiling clubs, however, as calcio came to Birkenhead.

Once a small club anchored to the lower leagues, Tranmere were soon gallivanting around Italy, playing against clubs like Pisa and future stars like Oliver Bierhoff and Christian Vieri. Such was the scale of King’s renaissance.

Prior to the 1991-92 campaign, Tranmere pulled off one of the greatest transfers in world football history, luring potent goalscorer John Aldridge back to Merseyside from a brief sojourn with Real Sociedad. King added Pat Nevin to the mix soon thereafter, beating Galatasaray and Celtic to the signature of another international star.

“Building a football team is like baking a cake,” King said of Rovers’ recruitment policy. “If you get the ingredients right, it rises perfectly in the oven and tastes great. But if you get the ingredients wrong, it will go flat and stodgy and become inedible.”

Continuing with that poetic analogy, in the mid-1990s, Tranmere resembled a gorgeous chocolate brownie swiped from under your chin at the vital moment. They tantalised and teased, knocking on the Premier League door, but could not deliver that ultimate promotion.

“A football season is like a long sea voyage,” King explained. “Sometimes the wind is in your favour and you can make good headway. But equally, there will be times when you are becalmed. That’s when you have to stick to your course, believe in your crew, and then hoist the sails when the wind changes so you can take advantage of it.”

In three successive seasons, King steered his deadly submarine into the second division playoffs. In three successive seasons, Tranmere lost in agonising fashion, somehow missing out on a place in the Premier League. Swindon, Leicester and Reading each trumped Rovers at the semi-final stage as dreams of top tier opulence died a slow and painful death.

Johnny King and the genesis of Tranmere's love affair with cup competitions

Subduing the pain, Tranmere embarked on a monumental League Cup run in 1993-94, beating Oxford, Grimsby and Oldham to earn a quarter-final clash with Nottingham Forest. Rovers triumphed in a Prenton Park replay, progressing to face Aston Villa in a semi-final for the ages.

Dalian Atkinson nicked a stoppage time goal for Villa in the first leg, which finished 3-1 to Tranmere before 17,140 agog spectators at Prenton Park. He then notched an 87th minute strike in the second encounter, forcing extra-time amid a 4-4 deadlock. Villa won on penalties thanks to the slimy heroics of goalkeeper Mark Bosnich, who should have been sent off in normal time for an emphatic foul on Aldridge.

In essence, Tranmere Rovers fell a few penalty kicks and a perhaps one refereeing blunder short of a League Cup final against the indomitable Manchester United. Featuring Kanchelskis and Keane, Ince and Giggs, Hughes and Cantona, United had already secured a place in the Champions League, so Villa qualified for the UEFA Cup by default. They faced Internazionale in the first round and Trabzonspor in the second, bending the rules to deny Tranmere a trip to the San Siro.

From the ashes of despair and the pits of anonymity, Johnny King led Tranmere to the cusp of global recognition. From worrying about Exeter and Halifax, he encouraged Rovers fans to dream of playing Manchester United and Inter Milan. It never quite happened, but such is the bittersweet paradox of life in Birkenhead, life as a Tranmere fan.

King’s Rovers frightened the establishment and struck fear into the land’s grandest clubs. Once an inconsequential afterthought playing before crowds of less than 2,000, Tranmere were back on the map, an utter nuisance to the biggest and the best.

The legendary legacy of Johnny King at Tranmere Rovers

In April 1996, director Frank Corfe showed an itchy trigger finger in command, coaxing King into a Director of Football role and offering the managerial gig to Aldridge. King was only 58, and Aldo was still an effective striker. The move struck many as premature. It didn’t make total sense, as few things did in the next two decades at Prenton Park. Tranmere’s window of opportunity slammed shut, and they are yet to scale those lofty heights again.

Rovers dedicated a stand to King in 2002, while supporters funded a bronze statue of their hero in 2014. Sadly, Johnny endured a long battle with illness later in life, passing peacefully in his sleep surrounded by family on 30th March 2016, aged 77.

Tranmere found themselves in the fifth division by that point, a sad requiem to those halcyon days. Nevertheless, tributes poured in from across the world of football, with major clubs and significant personalities offering praise for King as a manager and a man. The statue at Prenton Park was swamped with scarfs and flowers, shirts and candles. People queued long into the night to pay their respects and sign a book of condolence, later passed to King’s beloved family.

Our club had never encountered such an emotional event, nor the landmark passing of such a transformative icon. In many ways, Johnny King was Tranmere Rovers, in heart, soul and personality. Our world is poorer for his absence, but our history is richer for his presence.

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