“Never Heard Of Them”
We explore some of the more left field acquisitions in Tranmere's history.
Posted: 23/08/18 | Updated: 06/03/19
Most football transfers are relatively mundane affairs, with a player moving from club A to club B for an agreed fee, on loan or as a free agent. Occasionally, disagreements between parties will result in bitter, protracted negotiations and potential tribunals. However, the behind-the-scenes workings of a deal very rarely register with the general public. The fans on the street simply find out, through rumours and subsequent confirmations, that player X has left/joined for/from club Y.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, even a player of whom the fans have little knowledge can be recognised by their name, a performance against the team they are joining or through the reputational grapevine that is the football fandom.
As a club, Tranmere Rovers have spent over 90% of their existence in the English third tier or lower, meaning their dalliances in the world of international transfers are few and far between. Granted, there have been some notable exceptions, but for the most part, the SWA have been used to free transfers or nominal fees for domestically-based players. Almost all of these players have arrived with a familiar story — a young professional released from a club further up the pyramid, a veteran lower league stalwart looking for their next payday or an exciting prospect from one, perhaps two divisions below seeking an opportunity. For every £250,000 John Aldridge, there have been umpteen Mark Rankine, Gareth Taylor or Lucas Akins types.
Occasionally, the club will pull a surprise that will make many fans sit and think “Never heard of them”. The player will arrive with little or no experience of English football, a small or non-existent reputation and huge question marks over their suitability.
With the loan signing of Franklyn Akammadu from Italian third division side U.S. Alessandria on 21st August 2018, Tranmere boss Micky Mellon added a further name to the list of unlikely recruits at Prenton Park. Throughout history, Rovers have been willing to give anyone a chance if they possess particular skills, have reasonable wage demands or can provide an 'it' factor that would be otherwise lacking from the playing squad.
At times, these signings have proved inspired, the gamble paying handsome rewards for the Club. However, whilst you win some, you also lose some, and there is a plethora of failed experiments littered across the annals of Tranmere folklore to testify this point. Let's explore some of the most unconventional signings in the Club's history:
George Payne — Unattached, 1946
Liverpool-born George Payne served in the RAF during the Second World War. In March 1947, George signed for Tranmere Rovers, then managed by Ernie Blackburn. Sounds like a pretty reasonable transfer so far, no? Local player goes to war and comes back to play for a local side.
It's not that simple.
When Payne arrived at Prenton Park, he was twenty-six years old. Despite his age, his football experience was limited to one RAF international match during the conflict. He was a passionate boxer and decided to change courses upon his return, somewhat understandably. To compound the risk, Payne became a goalkeeper, one of the most specialised positions on the pitch and an area where any potential mistakes would surely be costly.
The risk paid off. Initially providing competition for Harold Lloyd, George went on to represent the Club on four hundred and sixty-seven occasions, holding the title of Tranmere's oldest player from 1961 until his record was broken by John Aldridge in 1998.
Ralph Millington — Neston Nomads, England, 1948
Born in Neston, Ralph Millington was a young right-half playing for local side Neston Nomads. In 1948, the final of a local cup competition was being held at Tranmere's Prenton Park stadium, with Trainer Tommy Jones in attendance.
A former manager of Tranmere, Jones had been replaced by Ernie Blackburn in 1946, but he still worked with the first team. He invited the eighteen-year-old Millington for a trial with Rovers, which saw him sign amateur forms in 1948 and a professional deal in 1950.
Plucked from the local Sunday league circuit, Ralph was converted to a central defender and went on to represent the Club three hundred and eighty-one times between 1948 and 1961, at which point he was released on a free transfer by then manager Walter Galbraith. The gamble on a young amateur had provided the Club with mainstay defender who also became captain.
Kenny McDevitt — Unity Boys Club, England, 1948
A Liverpool native, Kenny McDevitt was the cousin of the aforementioned Tranmere goalkeeping legend George Payne, who himself had signed for Rovers in 1946. Having played for local side Unity Boys Club in Liverpool for several years, McDevitt made the switch to Tranmere as an amateur in 1948.
He would spend three years representing the reserve side before finally making his first team debut away at Barrow on Boxing Day 1951. His patience was rewarded with a brilliant run in the team, making a total of two hundred and forty-nine appearances and scoring forty goals between 1951 and April 1960, when he was released from the Club.
Again, a gamble on an untested local amateur had proved to be a success story for Tranmere and McDevitt was awarded a £500 loyalty cheque at the end of the 1958-59 campaign — a very sizeable sum at the time.
Elkanah Onyeali — Unattached, 1960
Elkanah Onyeali was a Nigerian forward who arrived at Prenton Park in August 1960. A twenty-one-year-old student who had already made ten appearances and scored eleven goals for the Nigerian national team, Onyeali had moved to Merseyside to study electrical engineering.
After initial approaches to Liverpool and Everton were rebuffed, Elkanah was invited for a trial at Prenton Park. His pace and ability quickly earned him an historic contract with Tranmere Rovers, signing a deal in time to make his professional debut against Bournemouth on 3rd September 1960.
In doing so, Onyeali became Tranmere's first-ever overseas player and first-ever black player, inscribing his name in Rovers' history for the rest of time.
In total, he made just sixteen appearances for the Club, but scored an impressive nine goals during that time. He left the Club in May 1961 after new manager Walter Galbraith released him. Whilst he may not have had the contemporary staying power of some other members of this list, his legacy will endure as he will always be the first overseas and first black player to represent Tranmere.
Chris Malkin — Stork, England, 1987
When Ronnie Moore was appointed Player-Manager to replace the departed Frank Worthington, he invited a young Chris Malkin to Tranmere in an attempt to stave off relegation to non-League football.
Born in Bebington, Chris worked for Barclays Bank whilst playing local football with amateur side Stork. He was brought into the Club at one of the most perilous times in its history, with a relegation out of the Football League a real and present danger.
In time, local businessman Peter Johnson would purchase the Club and provide crucial funding for a rapid ascent up the divisions, of which Malkin played a massive role. Indeed, aside from his three-hundred and four appearances and seventy-five goals between 1987 and 1995, Chris scored the winning goal in the 1990-91 Third Division Play-off Final as Rovers beat Bolton Wanderers to return to the second tier for only the second time in their history.
By the time Malkin had left the Club in 1995, he had helped carve a place in history as one of the architects of Tranmere's greatest-ever era. Signed on a free as an unknown semi-professional bank worker, he transferred to Millwall for £400,000.
Georges Santos — Toulon, France, 1998
A no-nonsense defender, Georges Santos was born in Marseille, France. He made his professional debut for French club Toulon, making seventeen appearances in 1997-98 before travelling to England to forge a path in the Football League.
He joined John Aldridge's Tranmere Rovers in the second tier in 1998, making his debut in a 2-0 defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers on 8th August 1998. Over the course of the season, the unknown quantity from Toulon quickly stamped, mostly figuratively, his name into the psyche of the Prenton Park faithful, making forty-two appearances in 1998-99. He also collected fourteen yellow cards.
The following year, Georges would make a further twenty appearances, collecting six additional yellow cards. Surprisingly, he received just one red card in a 1-3 home defeat to Sheffield United on 30th August 1999.
He left the Club to join West Bromwich Albion in 2000.
Whilst he had neither the longevity or the accolades to make himself a true legend of Tranmere Rovers, he is undoubtedly a cult hero amongst the SWA and is certainly an icon of the period.
John Achterberg — FC Eindhoven, Netherlands, 1998
Born in Utrecht, Netherlands, goalkeeper John Achterberg spent his early career in Dutch football, playing for NAC Breda (1993-1996) and FC Eindhoven (1996-98). When Tranmere sold Steve Simonsen to Everton, John Aldridge brought Achterberg in to provide cover for Danny Coyne.
Over time, the unknown Achterberg would prove himself an outstanding goalkeeper, cementing his place as one of the Club's greatest-ever servants. His inspired display in an FA Cup quarter-final against Millwall, where he saved a late penalty, is the highlight of his time at Prenton Park, but he was another who proved to be a calculated gamble.
In total, the free transfer from FC Eindhoven would go on to make three hundred and fifty-one league outings for Tranmere between 1998 and 2009, when he was given a testimonial match against an Everton XI.
Gareth Roberts — Panionios, Greece, 1999
Wrexham native Gareth Roberts came through the academy system at Liverpool, playing alongside players such as Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher in the 1996 FA Youth Cup winning team. After five seasons at Anfield, he was released in 1999.
With former Liverpool player Ronnie Whelan managing Greek club Panionios, Roberts made the trip to Athens. After just fifteen league games, Whelan contacted former Liverpool teammate John Aldridge to inform him of Roberts' desire to return to England.
Therefore, Tranmere signed the left-back on an initial loan in August 1999. He performed so well that the move was made permanent in November 1999 and Gareth would go on to become a key player for the Club for years to come.
Playing a role in the trip to the Worthington Cup Final in 2000, Roberts made a total of three hundred and thirty-seven appearances for Rovers, scoring fourteen goals along the way.
Ian Goodison — Tivoli Gardens FC, Jamaica, 2004
It's hard to think of a time when Tranmere fans were unaware of Ian Goodison. A brilliant and reliable defender for a decade, Goodison is unquestionably one of the all-time greats at Tranmere Rovers. (He's even in the heading at the top of every page of this website, alongside another member of this list Chris Malkin).
However, when then manager Brian Little brought the Jamaican international to Prenton Park, very few people where aware of who he was. He had played for Little at Hull City between 1999 and 2002 and had represented the Reggae Boyz at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, but to your average Tranmere fan, very little was known about the enigmatic character.
Signed from Jamaican club Tivoli Gardens FC, whilst Little was familiar with his abilities, the big defender looked somewhat uncomfortable as a makeshift left-back. However, the move to centre-back changed everything and he would go on to become a Tranmere legend, with numerous personal accolades bestowed upon him throughout his tenure.
In total, he made four hundred and ten appearances and scored thirteen goals between 2004 and 2014, for which he was given a testimonial. Despite occurring just days after Rovers' relegation from the Football League in 2015, a good crowd descended upon Prenton Park to say thanks to 'Pepe' for his efforts. We may not have known him in 2004, but we'll never forget him now.
Theodore Whitmore — Seba United, Jamaica, 2004
Another one of Brian Little's Reggae Boyz connections, Jamaican Theodore Whitmore had also played for Little at Hull City between 1999 and 2002, alongside compatriot Ian Goodison. When he arrived in 2004 from Jamaican club Seba United, he too was an unknown quantity to most.
A slick and skilful midfielder, Theodore became somewhat of a cult hero, albeit not on the same level as Goodison. He too played in the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France.
His stay at Prenton Park was considerably shorter than that of Ian Goodison, representing the Club on just thirty-seven occasions between 2004 and 2006, leaving to return to Seba United in January 2006.
A fans' favourite, Whitmore was obviously unable to replicate the impact of Goodison, which is not a criticism, as very few could have. However, there were moments of brilliance, such as his role in the 1-5 demolition of rivals Wrexham, that make his signing a relatively successful roll of the dice. Short but sweet.
Kithson Bain — Ball Dogs, Grenada, 2009
Following the appointment of then Jamaica manager John Barnes at Tranmere in 2009, Rovers were in desperate need of reinforcements to a squad decimated by departures following the 2008-09 heartbreak at Scunthorpe United.
With the budget rumoured to have been slashed, there was little money to spend for a relatively inexperienced manager such as Barnes, who had no English managerial experience at all.
In an attempt to bolster his attacking options, he signed the Granada international Kithson Bain from Grenadian club Ball Dogs in 2009. A delay in the work permit process, which went to a successful appeal, delayed his debut, with Barnes talking up his new striker in the interim having seen him finish the Caribbean Cup's top scorer with six goals whilst he was Jamaica boss.
Whilst Bain did eventually make his debut in a 2-3 home defeat to Walsall, his impact was very limited. He was reduced to substitute appearances and played just ten games in total. When Barnes was replaced after a disastrous start to the 2009-10 campaign, new manager Les Parry sent Bain on loan to Kettering Town. He was released at the end of the 2009-10 season.
The decision to take a chance on the player perhaps makes sense from Barnes' perspective, having worked in the region. However, how many Tranmere fans could have told you much about him before he signed? How many could expand upon that knowledge following his departure?
The answers to those questions say it all.
Mustafa Tiryaki — Havant & Waterlooville, England, 2011
In 2018, Tranmere came within a game of sharing a league with Havant & Waterlooville for 2018-19. Thankfully, their respective promotions keep them a league apart, however in 2011, with Rovers in League One and Havant & Waterlooville in the Conference South, they were three leagues apart.
Whilst Rovers fans may now have a decent working knowledge of the upper echelons of the non-League scene, how many would have back in 2011? Because it is back then that Mustafa Tiryaki, who has Turkish heritage but was born in London, signed for Tranmere boss Les Parry following a successful trial.
The current Tranmere side may be full of players recruited from non-League, but in 2011, it was somewhat of a surprise to see a player make a jump of three divisions to represent the SWA. Having scored twenty-three goals in seventy-five appearances for the Hawks, the decision to take the risk was understandable, and Tiryaki had limited success at Prenton Park.
In total, he made thirty-five appearances and scored five goals, a reasonable return for a target man in his first Football League season. However, in March 2012, he was loaned to Cambridge United in the Conference National, playing six games and scoring once before returning to Prenton Park, where he was released at the end of the 2011-12 season.
Another cult icon, he was ultimately a gamble that paid a small dividend, but nothing spectacular.
So that's our list. Had you heard of any of these players before they signed? Did we forget anyone? Is there a player whose signing made you think “never heard of them”?
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