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Tranmere, Tito and a random tour of Yugoslavia

The ballad of Tranmere Rovers facing foreign opposition was sequestered for many years. Few mainstream football fans know that calcio came to Birkenhead in the 1990s as Rovers played in the Anglo-Italian Cup. Fewer still are aware that Tranmere played Viktoria Berlin in 1959, while only those who have read my book are likely to recall that Rovers faced a Czech Army XI during World War II.

There is a certain intrigue to these stories and a randomness that defies explanation. However, the ultimate inexplicable excursion in Tranmere Rovers history happened in May 1976, when general manager Dave Russell arranged an impromptu trip to Yugoslavia, then governed by Tito, a stern communist ruler.

Quite why Russell had a hankering for Rijeka on the Adriatic coast is lost to the passage of time, but a small part of Wirral decamped to present day Croatia, basking in the glow of a most confounding expedition. The journey would not have been possible without Audrey Evans, a legendary volunteer who has been involved with the Tranmere Rovers supporters’ club for fifty years.

Famous for feeding the Super White Army chicken soup on long journeys, Audrey attended her first Rovers match in 1947 and she fondly recalls local derby matches against New Brighton. Audrey has organised coach travel to practically every Tranmere away game for half a century, and she continues to provide that invaluable service into her ninth decade. There are few greater icons of Rovers folklore.

“Dave Russell contacted me and asked if I would get a few supporters to make up the numbers when he was hiring a plane to take the team out to Yugoslavia,” Audrey says of her most obscure adventure. “Being a private trip, he had to cover the cost, and that’s how I got involved, getting supporters’ club members to fill up the plane.”

Audrey often arranged summer holidays for supporters’ club members, booking coach travel to Devon, Scotland and other domestic resorts for offseason get-togethers. Yet even such an integral organ of club operations cannot recall why Russell wanted to visit Yugoslavia, a socialist republic encompassing present day Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia. My extensive research drew a blank when trying to decipher the inspiration, purpose or rationale for the trip, but the historic details surrounding the tour itself are phenomenally beguiling.

“We travelled down by coach to Luton airport,” Audrey explains. “Hardings Coaches kindly sponsored the coach, then we flew into Pula and stayed locally. In those days, you didn’t really travel very far, so it was quite an experience.”

 

 Tranmere fans on tour in Yugoslavia. (Photo credit: Denise Sands)

The culture shock must have been extraordinary. Under the aegis of Tito, dubbed a benevolent dictator, a range of diverse countries coexisted under the auspices of an omnipotent federation. Ethnic and religious traditions were subdued by Yugoslav forces, who stitched 100,000 square miles of eastern European terrain into one state containing six distinct republics.

Each republic managed its own operations but deferred to the overarching tutelage of Tito, whose market socialism made Yugoslavia one of the freer communist nations. Croatia was one of the most prominent republics, and Tito’s willingness to deal with countries from the east and west made it accessible for British holidaymakers. Dave Russell was evidently enthralled. 

Today, Pula is an urbanised city at Croatia’s southern tip. A hidden jewel, it boasts a plethora of Roman architecture and a prodigious winemaking heritage of impressive renown. Populated mainly by Italians after World War II, the city is duly bilingual, with Croatian and Italian holding sway.

Rather bizarrely, Russell booked a Pontins hotel in Poreč for the travelling Tranmere party. Around 60 players, staff and fans made the trip, mingling together around the pool and in local bars. Johnny King was in his first spell as Rovers manager, and a team headlined by Ronnie Moore and Ray Mathias had just secured automatic promotion from the fourth tier.

Perhaps the trip to Croatia was a reward for a glorious season, one final pissup in the sun before the offseason arrived. Whatever the genesis, I managed to track down a few supporters who were among the ravelling number. Les and Denise Sands, a married couple of diehard Tranmere fans, have fond memories of their trip to Yugoslavia, and they kindly shared insights and photographs during my research.

“Gordon West was the life and soul of the party with his poolside antics and general joking around,” recalls Les, who attended his first Tranmere game in 1961. “There were often party games in the evening and Gordon even dressed up in drag!

“Ray Stubbs lost his St Christopher medallion on the beach and, despite everyone searching, we never found it. When Stubbsy hosted an eventat Prenton Park years later, he was aghast when we showed him the poolside group photo!”

 Players and fans mingle in Yugoslavia. (Photo credit: Denise Sands)

West and Stubbs, the veteran and the youngster, formed a comedic double act that brought the trip to life. An Everton stalwart who won three England caps, West came out of retirement to play for Tranmere, while the Wallasey-born Stubbs later gained fame as a BBC broadcaster.

By all accounts, a great deal of alcohol was consumed in the making of this intimately Tranmere mockumentary. Accordingly, nobody kept an accurate record of matches played on the Yugoslavian trip, and few people can recall the scorelines. 

One game that did stick out, however, was a contest against NHK Rijeka, a quality side that competed with Partizan, Red Star Belgrade, Hajduk Split, Dinamo Zagreb and other powerhouses in the Yugoslav First League.

From their Pontins hotel, the Tranmere party travelled 60 miles along the scenic coast to play Rijeka, arriving at the Stadion Kantrida, nestled on the Adriatic shore, carved into the steep cliffs and discarded remnants of an old quarry.

NHK Rijeka vs Tranmere Rovers, May 1976, Stadion Kantrida. (Photo credit: Denise Sands) 

“We approached the ground but then we seemed to lose it again as we parked up,” says Les. Indeed, the scenic home of HNK Rijeka was included in FourFourTwo’s ranking of the world’s twelve most beautiful football stadiums in 2015.

Built in 1913, renovated a number of times, and capable of seating 25,000 in the baking heat, the stadium provided a stunning backdrop for a most unusual fixture. Sales of Audrey’s chicken soup plummeted in the sun.

Tranmere lost to Rijeka, but the exact scoreline has proven difficult to unearth. Les says the hosts changed their entire team at half-time, while Audrey recalls the sense of local indifference to Rovers’ presence.

“I remember seeing a poster for the match, and because nobody had ever heard of Tranmere, it had Liverpool in bigger letters,” says Audrey. “It was as if Rijeka were playing Liverpool, or at least a team from Liverpool. I suppose in their eyes, we weren’t very big.”

An iconic team photo of Tranmere Rovers in Croatia. (Photo credit: Denise Sands)

Despite the apparent insouciance of local fans, word did spread that a professional English club was in town, and the hotel staff soon challenged Tranmere to a match. Russell wanted no part of it, warning his players not to risk injury playing against amateurs without a referee. However, after much goading from their hosts, a gaggle of Rovers players gave in and set about schooling the locals in rudimentary fashion.

“A game was played on the hard surface hockey court at the hotel complex,” says Les. “It soon became apparent that the waiters were not going to take any prisoners. After Russ Allen was injured, Gordon West took it upon himself to play a more aggressive Nobby Stiles role. Needless to say, the game didn’t last too much longer. Johnny King managed to get Russ on the mend with some of his Moreton shore treatment, otherwise known as paddling in the sea!”

In that regard, the travelling party rarely ventured out of the hotel, and there were few notable encounters with the tense political climate of 1970s Yugoslavia. “The hotel was a full sporting complex with running track, football pitches, hockey and tennis courts,” says Les. “We wondered why so many people were wearing tracksuits, but it was because workers from a local chocolate factory were on a free holiday, the stipulation being that they had to partake in sport from 6am until 10am, hence the rallying klaxon every morning.”

The state placed sport in a prominent position, viewing it as a convenient tool through which to demonstrate the Yugoslav project’s viability. The national football team reached two European Championship finals and a World Cup semi-final in the 1960s, asserting power and earning respect. Meanwhile, Yugoslavia hosted Euro 1976 in Belgrade and Zagreb a few weeks after Tranmere’s visit.

The travelling Super White Army in Yugoslavia. (Photo credit: Denise Sands)

Alas, no formal bond between Tranmere Rovers and HNK Rijeka was ever consummated. Despite sharing white and blue colours, the clubs have grown apart ever since that abnormal meeting more than forty years ago. Today, very little is known about the scant connection, and the likelihood of replicating such a trip is infinitesimal in the modern age of hyper health and safety regulation.

Following the death of Tito in 1980, the respective republics gained greater untrammelled autonomy, rehashing ancient disharmony. Amid a cultural vacuum, unresolved political and economic crises sparked inter-ethnic wars as the ecology of Yugoslavia lacked a discernible focal point. Where Tito managed to quell nationalist differences for the communal good, the lack of leadership in his absence created a philosophical impasse that tore Yugoslavia apart.

Naturally, the Yugoslav First League also folded amid the turmoil, and it was replaced by domestic splinter leagues in each of the respective countries. Nowadays, NHK Rijeka compete in Prva HNL, the top flight of Croatian football. They are just one of four clubs to win the Croatian championship, doing so in 2016-17. A famous win over AC Milan followed in the Europa League, putting Rijeka on the football map.

In some far off romantic future, Rijeka and Tranmere may meet again, perhaps in a reunion friendly or maybe even in a more formal competition. In the relentless campaign for a foreign pre-season tour, a few potential destinations are often proferred. Eindhoven is popular, for example, as is Germany.

Yet in the interest of poetic symmetry, I would like to suggest Rijeka, or at the very least Croatia, as a possible hotspot. Maybe we could even invite NHK here to Prenton Park, because there is nothing like a two-legged tie spanning four decades of turmoil, eh?

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Many thanks to Les Sands, Denise Sands and Audrey Evans for their brilliant contributions to my research.

All photographs of the Yugoslavia trip included in this article belong to Denise Sands, who has very kindly allowed me to use them.

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