The death of Tranmere Rovers’ legendary manager John King last week brought many touching tributes, both from followers of the Birkenhead club and football fans in general, who appreciate the scale of what King achieved at Prenton Park. Tom Simmonds is firmly in that latter camp.
Journalists love managers who are handy with a one-liner, and King certainly gave great copy. His description of his vision for Tranmere as fulfilling the role of a “deadly submarine” in comparison to the “big liners” of Liverpool and Everton on the other side of the Mersey tunnel is certainly one of the better managerial quotes in recent times. It was a vision which was realised for the best part of a decade.
A way of appreciating just how miraculous King’s work at Prenton Park was, is to look at Tranmere’s current plight. While the club are now stable and well-run again under the stewardship of former FA Chief Executive and Rovers player Mark Palios, on-pitch affairs are less encouraging.
Tranmere are clinging to the last National League play-off spot by a thread after a patchy season in which any momentum they gathered has appeared to halt as soon as it looks like some traction had occurred. Saturday’s 1-2 home defeat to Welling, a game played in the immediate aftermath of King’s death, came after Tranmere had collected 15 points from the last available 21, and gave hope to Braintree, Eastleigh and Wrexham, all lurking behind with games in hand.
This is a far cry from the successes they enjoyed under King in the late 80s and early 90s. After Chairman and food hamper tycoon Peter Johnson, who later bought Everton in the 1990s before returning to Tranmere in 2000, took them out of administration in 1987, King oversaw a charge up the lower divisions propelled by Ian Muir’s goals. This brought the Fourth Division title in 1988-89, the Leyland DAF Trophy (now the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) and a play-off final defeat to Notts County the following season before promotion to what is now the Championship was secured in 1990-91.
It was during the following three seasons King’s work came to national prominence. A superb team containing the likes of Muir, Johnny Morrissey, ‘keeper Eric Nixon and future Premier League centre back Steve Vickers, which King augmented with genuine stars such as Pat Nevin and John Aldridge reached the play-offs in each of the next three seasons, losing in the semi-finals on each occasion.
Tranmere also came within minutes of reaching the League Cup final in 1994 when they controversially lost to eventual winners Aston Villa on penalties. Villa keeper Mark Bosnich was lucky to stay on the pitch in the second leg, which Tranmere started 3-1 up from the first leg, the pivotal decision not to give Bosnich a red card in that game is described by Tranmere fan Frank Hamilton as “one which Rovers fans still bang on about to this day. Scandalous!”
King departed in 1996, handing the managerial reins to Aldridge. While flirtations with the Premier League were over by this time, a series of cup successes, including the League Cup final appearance in 2000 denied to King in 1994 (they lost 2-1 to Leicester).
While a one-dimensional reading of the history books shows King’s Tranmere as being a team who fell short of the game’s biggest stages, that they even got anywhere close to them is astonishing in itself, and testifies to the great skill with which King lovingly built his side.
What King will forever be remembered as, is a man who not only made the people he represented dream, he also made little pieces of that dream a reality (“a trip to the moon”, in King’s words), and made their lives better with what was within his gift. That, frankly, is the pinnacle of achievement for anybody working in any walk of life.