Updated: Feb 18, 2021
Words: Peter Kenny Jones
Prenton Park isn't much more than an Alisson long-throw away from Anfield so no wonder the Reds and Tranmere go back such a long way
What was unusual about Liverpool's pre-season friendly at Tranmere Rovers on Tuesday 10 July earlier this year, a game that the Reds won 3-2 thanks to goals from Rafael Camacho, Sheyi Ojo and Adam Lallana?
In fact, not a lot. For all the demands of the modern game, the lure of summer tours and the busy, busy schedules, the Reds always try to make a point of heading 'over the water' when possible. They did so to play Tranmere in July 2017 and July 2016, too, with plenty of star names on show and Jürgen Klopp charming the locals.
This year Liverpool Women are playing their home games at Prenton Park. Last season the Under-19s, under Steven Gerrard, competed there in the UEFA Youth League. The links between the clubs, separated by six miles of land and sea (okay, river), seem as healthy as ever.
For all that, there have only ever been four official matches between the two. After a few friendlies — either testimonials or in what was called the 'Birkenhead Hospitals Cup' — Rovers and the Reds met for the first time in a competitive game on Saturday 27 January 1934 in an FA Cup fourth-round tie.
Tranmere had been originally drawn as the home side but they requested the game be switched from the Wirral to L4 to attract more fans. An incredible 61,036 obliged — nearly double the Anfield average — and Liverpool ran out 3-1 victors in what the Echo described as an "exciting moment" in Merseyside football.
Another 50 years would pass before the clubs met competitively again, this time in the League Cup second round: goalless at Prenton Park then 4-0 at Anfield to a Liverpool side soon to travel around 2,300 miles for a European Cup first-round return- leg in Tbilisi, Georgia.
In those days Tranmere had a tabloid- sized, 'news-style' matchday programme called The Prenton, and it welcomed the two-legged format of the tie: "As far as Rovers are concerned they've got the draw they could only have dreamed about. This double-header against champions Liverpool will almost certainly set Tranmere up financially for most of the season."
In the Rovers team that Wednesday 29 August 1979 was veteran winger Steve Peplow, a former Anfield apprentice who'd made three senior appearances for the Reds ten years earlier — the first against West Ham at Anfield in the first game shown in colour by the BBC's Match of the Day. In goal was Dickie Johnson, Huyton-born and — like skipper Ray Mathias — a lifelong Liverpool fan. He told the programme: "This has got to be the highlight of my career."
Elsewhere in the issue Ray Stubbs, then Tranmere's commercial manager before going on to become a TV presenter, roll- called the ex-Reds who'd joined Rovers in recent years. Ron Yeats, player-manager from 1971-74; fellow Scots Willie Stevenson, Tommy Lawrence, Ian St John and Bobby Graham; and Kit Fagan, son of legendary Liverpool trainer Joe.
Three-and-a-half years later, with Rovers in the old Fourth Division and perilously close to going under, a near full-strength Reds team returned for a fund-raising friendly on Monday 10 January 1983.
This time the matchday programme was a single, double-sided sheet of A4 paper with the following thank-you message:
"It is not every day of the week that something like this happens to Tranmere Rovers. That is why such a fabulous offer by the Liverpool FC chairman, directors and manager Bob Paisley to play here is really and truly appreciated by us all, including our supporters.
"What the attendance will be is anyone's guess because in these times of high unemployment and shortage of cash after the Christmas spending spree and the cup ties last Saturday it is difficult to judge [for the record over 6,000 were there].
"But we do know that the ones who do come along will enjoy a happy occasion with, we hope, pleasant memories."
These were the days when Tranmere regularly played their home games on Friday nights, so as not to clash with Liverpool or Everton home fixtures and thereby entice Reds and Blues across the Mersey to watch some decent lower-league football.
Fast-forward to March 2001 and a televised, hugely entertaining FA Cup quarter-final, Gerard Houllier's Reds beating John Aldridge's Whites 4-2 en route to the second trophy of a treble that season.
The clubs have never met competitively since and perhaps this has contributed to their cordial relationship. Despite the geographical proximity there is no real rivalry to speak of, Tranmere's time in the lower leagues thwarting hopes of regular engagements.
Rovers fans consider Chester and Wrexham as the teams they most like to beat, although Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce had some tasty encounters with Aldridge's Tranmere in the late 1990s.
Aldo, more than anyone, is the common denominator between Reds and Rovers. After two unforgettable seasons scoring a half-century of league goals for his beloved Liverpool between 1987 and 1989, he moved to Real Sociedad in Spain's Basque Country and later returned, aged 32, to join Tranmere, then managed by the great Johnny King in the old Second Division.
ALDRIDGE IS LIKE A GUNSLINGER: HE SHOWS NO EMOTION, HE KILLS PEOPLE AND HE GOES AWAY
Aldridge hit the ground running and scored 40 goals in his first season with the Super Whites, 1991/92. King's quote about him is the stuff of legends: "Aldridge is like a gunslinger: he shows no emotion, he kills people and goes away."
In all he found the net 174 times in 294 games as Tranmere reached three successive play-offs (1993-95) but couldn't quite get to Wembley for the right to compete for a place in the Premier League.
In 1994 he also fired them to the League Cup semis where they lost on penalties to Aston Villa after drawing 4-4 on aggregate.
Two years later Aldo became player- manager, hanging up his boots for good in 1998 then guiding Rovers to the 2000 League Cup final. Along the way they took the Premier League scalps of Middlesbrough and Coventry City, then vanquished Big Sam's Bolton in the semi-finals before losing 2-1 to Leicester City (for whom Emile Heskey played) at Wembley.
His knock-out expertise continued in the following season's FA Cup as Rovers defeated Everton 3-0 at Goodison Park then Southampton 4-3 at home — after trailing 3-0 at half-time — before the visit from his beloved old club in the last eight.
In goal for Tranmere against Liverpool that day was John Achterberg, the likeable Dutch keeper who'd spend eleven years at Prenton Park as player and coach before joining LFC's Academy staff in June 2009.
AT TRANMERE I'D ALWAYS LOOK MYSELF FOR WHO TOOK FREE-KICKS AND PENALTIES FOR THE OPPO AND AT LIVERPOOL OUR ANALYSTS DO THE SAME
His grounding at Rovers held him in good stead, he reveals. "Towards the end of my time at Tranmere when I was player- coach I would look myself for who took the opponent's penalties and free-kicks. Here at Liverpool we have a number of good analysts so I ask them to help me with gathering footage and so on.
"We have meetings with the goalies before each game to look at free-kicks, corners, penalties, what the opponents will want to do, where they put pressure on, what their strikers like to do, and how we might like to play out..
"People probably never think of half of the things we look at, but there is a lot of thinking behind it and that is how much goes into it in terms of our preparation for a game nowadays."
John's career at Prenton Park — 350 appearances over eleven years — dovetailed with Jason McAteer's three- year spell at the club, the former Reds wing-back skippering the side when they reached the 2004/05 League One play- offs. Having hung up his boots two years later, Birkenhead-born McAteer returned in 2009 to become assistant-manager to former Liverpool great John Barnes, but their ill-fated tenure in the dugout lasted just four months.
Johnny King, in contrast, was in charge at Rovers for two memorable spells: from 1975-80 when they played Liverpool that time in the League Cup; and from 1987-96 when he led them from the wilderness to Wembley appearances and the verge of a place in the Premier League.
Johnny was Tranmere's Bill Shankly, and Bill was his hero. His office had a framed portrait of Shanks, and he possessed a similar turn-of-phrase to the great man, once declaring: "Tranmere Rovers may never be able to compete with Liverpool or Everton — they're big liners like the Queen Mary. However, I see Tranmere as a deadly submarine, attacking them silently from beneath with a torpedo!"
Fittingly the statues of King and Shankly outside the Kops of their stadiums were sculpted by the same man, Tom Murphy, and Johnny has a stand named after him too. Their like shall never be seen again.