Tranmere's Greatest Rivals?
How an unlikely team could be considered Tranmere's greatest rivals.
Posted: 14/06/17 | Updated 06/03/19
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2017. Information correct at the time of posting may no longer be so.
At its heart, football is a rivalry-driven sport, with communities created and divided around partisan loyalties to specific clubs. People who live in separate worlds come together in the same stands, on the same day, for the same purpose — to lend their voice in the quest to shout down the opposition. In cities and towns across the country, indeed across the planet, that support becomes even more vociferous when the opposition is considered a 'rival'.
Rivalries come in many forms. Intracity rivalries pit two (or more) clubs against each other to determine local dominance. Intercity rivalries see two clubs from different towns or cities collide over a plethora of other issues, from county affiliation to on-field success. Some rivalries simply evolve from a consistent opposition, presumably adhering to the adage “familiarity breeds contempt”. For most rivalries, however, there is a much deeper complexity borne throughout the varying histories and backgrounds within the football community.
Ask a Tranmere fan who their greatest rival is and the answer will likely come from a select group of teams. Whilst there is undoubtedly a social rivalry between the two Liverpool clubs, Liverpool and Everton, and Tranmere Rovers, the contrasting on-field fortunes of the three clubs would preclude any genuine rivalry from forming. Yes, days such as the 0-3 victory over Everton in 2001 are amongst the Club's greatest achievements, but one day out of a 133-year history does not a rivalry make.
For fans of a certain vintage, perhaps New Brighton would earn a mention due to the close proximity of the two clubs. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the age spectrum, fans brought up during the post-Wembley 2000 era will likely cite Oldham Athletic as the Club's biggest rivals, with goals such as Charlie Barnett's winner amongst the highlights.
However, for the most part, the answers that will likely be received will boil down to just three clubs; Chester, Wrexham and Bolton Wanderers. Indeed, ask yourself who you believe to be Tranmere's biggest rival. Is it a club other than those previously mentioned? If it isn't, allow me to throw one more name into the conversation — Hartlepool United.
I know it sounds crazy but please afford me the time to explain such a left-field candidate.
Longevity and Familiarity
Every football season will produce a short-term rivalry as teams' on-field performances cause them to collide with other clubs in a similar position to their own. For example, in 2016-17, Tranmere became entangled with Forest Green Rovers and Lincoln City in the battle for promotion. These clubs were not traditional rivals with Rovers before this battle and only time will tell as to whether they will meet again in the future.
For a true footballing rivalry to be established, it must endure the ups and downs of a relationship between clubs that can only be witnessed over a sustained period. It is the 'longevity factor' that first brings Hartlepool United into contention for being Tranmere's greatest rival.
Before the formation of Division Three North and South in 1921, clubs outside of the Football League plied their trade in various regional alternatives, meaning clubs very rarely played sides outside of their locality. The introduction of the Third Division North saw Tranmere Rovers and Hartlepools United (Hartlepool an 's' at this point) become founder members of the newly-expanded lower leagues. Of the more traditional rivals, only Wrexham can say that they too were present at the start Tranmere's Football League journey.
Whilst Tranmere were locking horns with Hartlepool and Wrexham in the League as far back as 1921, they did not come across Chester for a further decade (1931) nor Oldham Athletic until 1935. Tranmere's first league meetings with Bolton Wanderers did not come until 1971, a staggering 50 years after Rovers first entered the Football League.
On its individual merits, the date of first League meeting provides only half the story. The other factor to consider relates to the 'familiarity' element of a rivalry, that is how often after the first meeting did the two clubs continue to play against each other? This is the second area in which Hartlepool United should be considered serious contenders for the 'greatest rival' moniker.
Owing to World War Two, and the subsequent suspension of domestic league football, there have been 89 full seasons contested in English football since Tranmere joined the Football League in 1921. During those 89 seasons, Tranmere have been in the same league as Bolton on just 11 occasions, Chester 36, Oldham 37 and Wrexham a much-greater 53. Tranmere have shared a division with Hartlepool United in 58 of the 89 seasons since 1921, making it a more 'familiar' contest than any of those against the more obvious rivals. The fixture has been played, in the league, more than five times as frequently as league matches between Tranmere and Bolton and almost twice as often as league matches with Chester and Oldham. Again, it is only Wrexham who come close to Hartlepool in this regard.
One counterargument to this narrative could be the importance of 'moments' in football, events that change the course of a club's history. The most obvious of these moments come in the form of promotions, relegations and high-stakes matches in the cup that add to the aura of a rivalry.
In this context, moments such as Chris Malkin's goal in the 1991 Third Division Play-off final against Bolton Wanderers or the stunning 1-5 away win at Wrexham under Brian Little become natural talking points, 'evidence' that the rivalry with 'X' is the biggest in the Club's history.
It is here that I ask you to take a minute and think of as many iconic moments from the Club's history as you can. Who did we play? What where we fighting over? I will now look at some of the moments that I feel will be most widely recognised:
Tranmere Rovers Join The Football League (1921-22)
As previously discussed, both Tranmere and Hartlepool were founder-members of Division Three North in 1921, a pivotal event in the history of both clubs. The first 5 years of membership were always going to be key as Rovers attempted to establish themselves in the newly-expanded, semi-national ranks. During this 'settling' phase, Tranmere finished within 1 place of Hartlepool in 3 of their first 5 seasons in the Football League. In the battle to establish themselves, both clubs endured remarkably similar starts.
Tranmere Rovers Win Their First League Title And First Football League Promotion (1937-38)
Fast-forward to the 1937-38 season and Tranmere won their first, and to date only, Football League divisional title, Jim Knowles' men ending the season atop the Third Division North thanks, in part, to the sensational form of Thomas 'Pongo' Waring who ended the season with 22 goals in 40 games.
Undoubtedly a key moment in the Club's history, this season saw Rovers get the better of most of their traditional rivals. Wrexham finished 10th in their seventeenth consecutive season playing against Tranmere, with Chester finishing 9th in their seventh consecutive season playing against Rovers and Oldham finishing a close 4th, just 5 points shy of Tranmere in only their third consecutive season as opposition. Although not a successful season for Hartlepool, finishing 20th out of 22 teams, it was their seventeenth consecutive season in the same league as Rovers, a feat only matched by Wrexham. Tranmere did, however, also knock Hartlepool out of the 1937-38 FA Cup, winning 3-1 at Prenton Park on 11th December 1937 just one week after beating Hartlepool 4-0 in the league, again at Prenton Park, on the 4th December 1937.
Tranmere Suffer Their First Football League Relegation (1938-39)
Having waited 17 years to achieve a first promotion into Division Two, Tranmere took the first available opportunity to record a relegation in the 1938-39 season (relegation from the bottom tier was not automatic until the end of re-election in 1986). Clearly unnerved by the lack of matches with rivals Chester, Wrexham, Oldham and of course Hartlepool United, Rovers ended the campaign bottom of Division Two on just 17 points, amongst the worst performances ever seen in the English second tier. Hartlepool, meanwhile, were playing in the Third Division North alongside most of Tranmere's traditional rivals, so in that regard are no worse off in the 'greatest rival' race than any of the other clubs involved.
Post-Second World War Reality (1946-47)
Given the 1939-40 season was abandoned due to the outbreak of World War Two, national football did not resume until the 1946-47 season, at which point the 1939-40 fixture list was implemented. As with most of the clubs in the country, Rovers sadly lost some players and ex-players during the conflict. Ernest Davies, Stanley Holbrook Docking, Stanley Douglas Duff, Stanley Herbert Gooding, Kenneth Haimes, John Kearns, Gerald Stanley Roberts, Gordon Rosenthal and John George 'Jack' Watson all lost their lives between the final whistle of the final game of 1939 and the first whistle of the first game of 1946.
At such a time of turmoil, Tranmere were also trying to stabilise on the field. They were 'freshly' relegated, renewing rivalries with Wrexham, Chester, Oldham and Hartlepool once again. Drawing parallels to the two clubs' respective maiden seasons in the Football League, Rovers would finish 3, 1 and 5 places away from Hartlepool in the remaining seasons of the 1940's. In the same period, the average gap between Tranmere and the other clubs in the rivalry race was significantly greater than that of Tranmere and Hartlepool.
Tranmere Become Founder-Members Of The National Division Three (1958-59)
The creation of national third and fourth tiers in the Football League saw Tranmere separated from their familiar rivals Oldham, Chester and Hartlepool as only Wrexham qualified for the national Division Three alongside Rovers.
With Tranmere getting the better of Wrexham in the 1959-60 relegation battle, Rovers would find themselves in a league without any of their traditional rivals for the first time since the 1938-39 season during the 1960-61 campaign. They were, however, relegated at the end of that season and would renew rivalries with the usual suspects the following year.
The formation of national levels in place of regional North and South divisions meant that there was a far greater churn of clubs between the bottom two tiers. Out of 10 seasons starting during the 1960's, Tranmere would spend just 4 in the same division as Oldham and Wrexham and 6 in the same division as Chester. They would, however, compete in the same league as Hartlepool 7 times during that decade. When Tranmere were promoted at the end of the 1966-67, they finished just 4 places and 7 points ahead of 8th-placed Hartlepool. The following season, 1967-68, Hartlepool were promoted too.
Tranmere Survive After Beating Exeter City (1986-87)
Between the end of that season and the end of the 1986-87 season, Rovers would cross paths with Bolton twice, Oldham 5 times, Chester 7 times and Wrexham 11 times. In comparison, they would be in the same league as Hartlepool on 10 occasions, including eight consecutive years between 1979-80 and 1986-87.
A decade in which Tranmere encountered seemingly endless off-field drama, including the reign of Bruce Osterman as Chairman, the 1980's were undoubtedly the low watermark in Rovers' long and proud history. Starting the decade under the guidance of John King, the Club clearly struggled as the off-pitch distractions made their way onto the field of play.
Following John King's departure after just 9 matches of the 1980-81 season, Bryan Hamilton took over as manager and led the team to 21st place, only re-election staving off the non-League abyss. Hamilton stayed until a 2-1 defeat away at Rochdale on 2nd February 1985 saw Ray Mathias take charge for the remainder of the 1984-85 season. Frank Worthington and then Ronnie Moore took the helm until a 1-1 draw at Wrexham on the penultimate day of the 1986-87 season meant Tranmere had to beat Exeter City on the final day to secure their Football League status. They turned to previous manager John King to resurrect the Club's fortunes, a Gary Williams header securing a 1-0 victory that ensured the Club would be in the Football League the following year.
What is the relevance of the above information? Well, this is considered by many fans to be the ultimate low point in the Club's history. People remember the situation and remember the opposition on the final day. But what they may not remember is the role Hartlepool United played in the relegation battle that season.
Whilst Chester, Oldham and Bolton were plying their trade in higher divisions, Wrexham were enjoying the heady heights of 9th position in the Division Four table. If any of Tranmere's rivals can be used to emphasise the struggles of the 1980's, it's Hartlepool. Not only did they end the campaign a mere 2 places and 1 point ahead of Rovers in the relegation battle, they also came agonisingly close to helping set the record-low crowd at Prenton Park of 843 spectators. The reason they didn't officially set the record? The game was abandoned due to floodlight failure!
The 'Trip To The Moon' (1988-89)
With the Club securely in the Fourth Division, John King and new owner Peter Johnson set about taking Tranmere to heights not seen since the 1930's. This meant that rivalries with clubs such as Chester and Hartlepool were set aside as they were replaced with a first real rivalry with Bolton Wanderers. Between 1988-89 and 1999-2000, Tranmere were in the same league as Chester on just 2 occasions and as Oldham just 3. They did not compete in the same league as Wrexham or Hartlepool during this time, yet were in the same division as Bolton in 7 of 11 seasons.
This rivalry is fondly remembered as the dawning of a new era, a time when matches with Liverpool and Everton looked more likely than a return to the traditional rivalries of old. In 1991, Tranmere took then record gate receipts of £70,077 in a 1-0 pre-season win against Liverpool in front of a Prenton Park crowd of 14,246, just four-and-a-half years after the 843 Hartlepool 'attendance'.
As Rovers tried, and tried, and tried to gain promotion from the second tier, they were consistently miles ahead of their traditional rivals. A newly-formed rivalry with Bolton was supplemented by short-term rivalries with the likes of Leicester City, Swindon Town and Reading but these were unfamiliar bedfellows for a club used to the bottom tiers of the English Pyramid.
In terms of moments, the 1990's provided most of the Club's greatest achievements. A highest-ever league position of 4th in the second tier came during a decade of second tier football. Headline-grabbing cup runs saw Rovers thrust into the spotlight with memorable victories over the likes of Everton and Leeds United. The Club's first, and only, major cup final saw them come agonisingly close to lifting the League Cup in 2000. All of the above, and more, will stay in the minds of those who witnessed them, however in terms of rivalries it could be argued this era was somewhat lacking in consistency.
Tranmere Are Relegated Out Of The Second Division (2000-01)
Following a period of previously unknown success, Tranmere found themselves relegated back to the third tier in 2001. This brought the league fixtures with Oldham and Wrexham back into the equation for the 2001-02 season, although the Welsh outfit's 23rd-place finish that year saw them relegated into the fourth tier for the 2002-03 campaign.
The then record-equalling 80 points under Ray Mathias saw Tranmere finish just 2 points behind Oldham regardless of the fact that Rovers won more matches over the course of the season. (Oldham won 22, Tranmere 23).
Missing out on the play-offs meant Tranmere would resume rivalries with newly-promoted Wrexham and Hartlepool United from the 2003-04 campaign, meaning only Chester and Bolton were missing from the traditional line-up of rivals. Hartlepool confounded expectations that season, finishing the year in the final play-off position, 2 places and 6 points ahead of Tranmere, whilst Wrexham (13th) and Oldham (15th) were some way behind.
Tranmere Reach League One Play-offs (2004-05)
One season after the resumption of hostilities between the two clubs, Tranmere and Hartlepool would become even more intertwined as they competed for promotion to the second tier. For much of the season, Rovers were fighting it out at the very top of the League One table with Luton Town and Hull City, posting a memorable 1-5 victory over Wrexham along the way. As it happened, Tranmere would fall short of automatic promotion whilst Wrexham were again relegated and Oldham finished just 2 places above the drop-zone.
The season would be defined by the rivalry with Hartlepool United, who became Tranmere's semi-final opponents in the League One Play-offs. A poor 2-0 away defeat meant Rovers would head back to Prenton Park with it all to do and, in the face of such adversity, produced one of the greatest performances I've personally witnessed from a Tranmere side. In what must be one of the most one-sided matches of all time, only Dimitrios Konstantopoulos in the Hartlepool goal kept the score respectable. As it turned out, even the literal and figurative giant in the United penalty area could not stop Ryan Taylor and David Beresford from levelling the tie on aggregate and, after a period of extra time, the tie went to penalties.
As Ian Sharps' penalty miss consigned Rovers to League One for a minimum of a further year, the sight of the Hartlepool United players celebrating a trip to the Millennium Stadium (Wembley was being rebuilt) on the pitch at Prenton Park served only to add salt to an open wound. Not only had Tranmere finished the season 3 places and 8 points ahead of Hartlepool, they had also beaten them on 3 of the 4 occasions the sides had met that year by an aggregate score of 5-3. We'd finished the 2002-03 season on 80 points and hadn't even reached the play-offs, yet Hartlepool had finished the 2003-04 campaign on 73 points and had, and now here they were, reaching the play-offs on just 71 points knocking us out of the semi-finals after we'd finished 3rd on 79 points!
That night, 17th May 2005, became the night that the rivalry between Tranmere Rovers and Hartlepool United reignited with a vengeance.
Tranmere Survive Relegation To League Two On The Final Day (2009-10)
Hartlepool's play-off final defeat to Sheffield Wednesday ensured Rovers would get the chance for revenge in 2005-06. With both clubs struggling to replicate the form of the previous campaign, a relegation battle ensued. In head-to-head matches, the two clubs could not be separated as both league fixtures ended in 0-0 draws, yet in the grand scheme of the season, Rovers would get their revenge. Tranmere ended the 2005-06 season on 54 points, safely in 18th position. Conversely, Hartlepool were relegated to League Two after finishing the year 3 places and 4 points below Tranmere.
Three seasons under Club legend Ronnie Moore saw Rovers knocking on the door of the League One play-offs, however an 88th minute Cliff Byrne equaliser away at Scunthorpe on the final day of the 2008-09 season saw Tranmere miss out on the play-offs and Moore controversially lost his job shortly afterwards.
Moving forward to the 2009-10 season and another relegation battle saw Tranmere survive on the final day. After the disastrous appointment of John Barnes ended in a predictably-farcical manner with just 2 wins in the opening 11 league games, Les Parry became the architect of an unlikely escape act after a 0-3 away win at Stockport County.
From a personal perspective, I could remember who we beat on that day to secure our 19th position. I could remember who finished in 21st position, Gillingham the unlucky club on that occasion. Owing to a points deduction for fielding an ineligible player, the side that finished in 20th place and provided the buffer between Tranmere and the trapdoor? Hartlepool United.
Tranmere Are Relegated From League One (2013-14)
A period of continued struggle against relegation saw Les Parry relieved of his post as Tranmere manager on 4th March 2012, with Ronnie Moore returning to the dugout. An initial impact saw Rovers pull clear of danger, posting a respectable 12th-place finish on 56 points, above the sides in 13th and 14th by virtue of a superior goal difference. The team in 13th? Yes, Hartlepool United finished one place and one goal below Rovers.
The momentum of that campaign saw Tranmere top the League One table from August 2012 until January 2013, spearheaded by the goals of Jake Cassidy and Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro, alongside the midfield duo of James Wallace and Liam Palmer. When 3 of those players suffered injury and Cassidy returned to his parent club Wolverhampton Wanderers, Tranmere's dreams of promotion were cruelly snatched away and the season petered-out into a disappointing 11th-place finish. Not quite as disappointing as Hartlepool, however, who finished 23rd and were relegated at the end of the season.
With the negative momentum carrying over in an identical fashion to the positive momentum the previous season, Tranmere's disappointments would continue to mount up. A poor start to the season saw Rovers languishing around the relegation zone in March 2014. After Ronnie Moore was sacked in April 2014 for a breach of FA betting rules, John McMahon was unable to prevent Rovers' relegation to League Two, the loose rivalry with Oldham Athletic brought to a close as a result.
Tranmere Are Relegated From The Football League (2014-15)
The consequences of relegation were huge. John McMahon left, replaced by the rookie manager Rob Edwards. Desirable players such as 20-goal striker Ryan Lowe and young centre-back Ash Taylor left for Bury and Aberdeen respectively. Loan players such as Everton's Matthew Pennington, so often the only real quality in the side, returned to their parent clubs. And, most significantly, owner and Chairman Peter Johnson sold the Club to former Tranmere midfielder Mark Palios and his wife Nicola.
New owners, a new manager and a new squad were not enough to stop old problems continuing. In fact, they became much worse. The appointment of Edwards proved to be equally as disastrous as the similarly-risky appointment of John Barnes 5 years prior, with the inexperienced manager sacked after just 2 wins in 12 league matches. On 13th October 2014, Edwards left the Club bottom of the entire Football League, a position they had taken from Hartlepool United, who themselves had replaced Colin Cooper with Paul Murray just 9 days earlier.
A decade removed from their battle for promotion to the second tier, Tranmere and Hartlepool now found themselves locked in a fight-to-the-death to remain a part of the Football League. For Hartlepool, it was a battle against a second relegation in three years, whilst Rovers were attempting to prevent successive relegations from League One to the National League.
The man tasked with this job was Micky Adams and he had an initial impact. Indeed, under Adams Tranmere rose to the heights of 17th and the relegation battle appeared to be behind them as the Club approached the January transfer window. In stark contrast, Hartlepool continued to be cut adrift, by now sinking to the very foot of the table and staring relegation in the face before Christmas had come and gone. In turmoil, Murray was also sacked as they sought a third manager of the season in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. Enter Ronnie Moore.
Whilst Hartlepool under Moore would go on to achieve the 'Great Escape', Tranmere would drop below them, ending the campaign bottom of the table and relegated out of the Football League after a 94-year tenure alongside Cheltenham Town. 2 places and 6 points separated Tranmere and Hartlepool, as the North-East club gained a modicum of revenge during the role-reversal of the 2009-10 League One relegation struggle.
We've so far established that for a footballing rivalry to develop, there needs to be a repetition of the fixture over the course of time and the clubs involved must have an influence over key moments in each other's history. There is, however, a further element to a rivalry — personal tension.
In any good rivalry, there are moments when the match on the field is as much about the circus surrounding the game as the match itself. For any number of reasons, the fixture takes on an added importance over and above the 90-minute score.
In that sense, there will be multiple examples throughout Tranmere's history of clubs who get under the skins of the SWA and stoke feelings and tensions that most other clubs cannot. For some, Sam Allardyce's comments and actions as Bolton manager will hit a raw nerve. For others, memories of the actions of Chester and Wrexham fans both inside and outside the stadiums involved will prove troublesome. The floodlights at Swindon, the 'penalty' against Aston Villa or the Ronnie Moore factor at Oldham all fanned the flames of rivalry for some members of the SWA.
From my perspective, however, no club creates such a tension as Hartlepool United. It is very much personal. They cut down the heroes of a generation, with the likes of Hume, Dadi, Ryan Taylor and John Achterberg put to the sword in the Club's only Football League play-off appearance in the 21st Century.
Not content with preventing our progress, they were actively involved in sending us further down the ladder as we both stumbled around the basement of League One. They toppled first, we quickly followed and the process repeated itself at the bottom of League Two. The fact that they survived and we went down in 2014-15 would have been hard enough to stomach given the respective positions of the two sides at the turn of 2015.
However, it became almost unbearable to see Ronnie Moore, a man who had achieved so much with Tranmere and whose sacking was the likely cause of us being in League Two in the first place, deal the blow that ended our fight. In 2013 he was plotting our rise to the Championship and by 2015, he was plotting our Football League exit. The issue was further soured by the contribution of Jordan Hugill to the Hartlepool cause, a player who had a limited impact at Prenton Park yet went on to help Hartlepool relegate us.
Unable to go to the match that finally confirmed our relegation, Plymouth Argyle away, I listened to the inevitable happen on the radio. Switching the television on and hearing the news that we'd lost our Football League status would have been hard enough, yet the fact that the remainder of the season would involve Jeff Stelling, a prominent Hartlepool United fan, celebrating their safety added a further level to the humiliation.
Make no mistake, with Hartlepool United, it's personal.
The Rivalry Continues
One positive to the relegation into the National League was the re-introduction to the calendar of fixtures with Chester and Wrexham after 24 years and 10 years respectively. A lot had changed in the time between fixtures, with Wrexham hitting financial difficulties and Chester City folding, reforming as Chester FC and fighting their way back to the National League.
These rivalries have added further depth as Tranmere have failed to achieve promotion to the Football League. We've played Wrexham 7 times in 2 years and Chester 4 times. Our squad consists of players who used to play for Wrexham and Chester, Connor Jennings a former Wrexham captain and Jay Harris having represented both.
For some, however, the rivalries with these clubs are already wearing thin. Over-zealous policing, inconsiderate television scheduling and a lack of league competitiveness have seen crowds for these games fall year on year. On the other hand, they still provide some of the highlights of the season at this level and losing a local game against Southport from the 2017-18 calendar is a real shame.
The 2016-17 promotion and relegation results mean we will once again cross paths with Hartlepool United next season. If, as all Tranmere fans will hope, Rovers secure promotion to the Football League in May 2018, we will have had to go through Hartlepool along the way. The personal nature of the rivalry has already continued with their signing of Jake Cassidy, yet another a symbol of better times at Prenton Park, and a reminder of the Ronnie Moore link between the clubs.
A rivalry is subjective and different people will consider different clubs as 'rivals'. For me, Hartlepool top the list. They were present when we entered the Football League and they actively ensured our departure. They were there when we tried to rebuild after the Second World War and they shared in our hardships during the 1980's. Although our paths briefly diverged throughout the 1990's (the only decade post-1920 in which we have not shared a league with Hartlepool), they were there to hinder our post-2001 recuperation by preventing our participation in the play-offs in 2003-04 and cutting it short a year later.
When Les Parry was trying to prevent our fall into the basement division, Hartlepool were right there trying to ensure it happened. When we finally fell into League Two, they were the only 'rival' present to greet us. As the non-League trapdoor swung open, guided by a Tranmere legend, it was them who kicked us through it and slammed the door. And now, events have conspired ensure that any prospective Tranmere promotion journey must travel through the Victoria Park calling point as Hartlepool, in conjunction with others, seek to prevent our upwards momentum.
Earlier, I asked you to think about who you felt was Tranmere's greatest rival. Whether you chose Wrexham, Chester, Bolton, Oldham or another club, hopefully Hartlepool will now enter the conversation.