A Tran­mere fan’s emo­tional night out

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS -

IN HIS opus Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby prof­fered a fairly valid ques­tion: “What the hell is buried in the sub­con­scious of peo­ple who go to Ley­land DAF Trophy games?”

There are a few pos­si­ble an­swers. Masochism, a need to es­cape the vis­it­ing in­laws, or a hope­less re­liance upon the tra­vails of a lo­cal foot­ball club to mod­er­ate one’s mood.

Twenty-two years after Hornby posed his life-ques­tion­ing teaser, and eight years since the ar­cane com­pe­ti­tion was re­branded for an eighth time as the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, one fact re­mains in­cor­ri­gi­ble: tor­tured souls, ex­tend­ing what­ever ra­tio­nale, still flock to watch its largely mean­ing­less fix­tures. Not many, ad­mit­tedly. But some.

I’m among the dwin­dling num­ber. This tour­na­ment, par­al­leled with my ar­dent love for Tran­mere Rovers, has hauled me, with an aching mag­netism, to some of the na­tion’s seed­i­est joints on some of the cold­est nights in mem­ory.

How­ever, on the first Tues­day in Oc­to­ber, a bleak and mis­er­able af­fair on the Wir­ral, even I strug­gled to con­jure a rea­son­able, sane and adult rea­son for at­tend­ing Tran­mere, ranked 90th in the Foot­ball League, ver­sus Carlisle, ranked 91st.

After a pro­longed bout of soul-search­ing, I un­earthed a ten­u­ous, two-pronged jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of sorts: I would at­tend this most heart-stop- pingly abysmal match to ex­tend my ‘con­sec­u­tive com­pet­i­tive home games at­tended’ streak to 127, and, for the first time in 13 death-de­fy­ing years watch­ing Tran­mere, sit in the Cow­shed.

To the unini­ti­ated, this may sound like a galling hu­mil­i­a­tion. I imag­ine many read­ers are fur­nished with a hor­rific men­tal im­age of fans rolling about in mud and hay, fight­ing off the ad­vances of as­sorted cat­tle, whilst watch­ing two god-aw­ful teams joust for supremacy.

Whilst this may be a fit­ting de­scrip­tion of the ac­tual foot­ball match, I re­gret­tably in­form you that sup­porter ameni­ties were of an al­to­gether more or­derly fash­ion. No ac­tual cows. No ac­tual shed. No ac­tual para­pher­na­lia na­tive to the keep­ing of cows or the func­tion­al­ity of sheds.

Rather, the Cow­shed, now more of a metal­lic shell, is a grand­stand at Pren­ton Park, the home of my beloved Rovers.

Once home to the loud­est, row­di­est, most

ram­bunc­tious fans our hum­ble club could muster, it holds an almost myth­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance to sup­port­ers of a cer­tain ilk and era.

To many mawk­ish Tran­mere fans, the Cow­shed, at least spir­i­tu­ally, is a mon­u­ment to for­mer glo­ries, a sym­bol of where we’ve been, an Elysian Fields of hope and con­fi­dence. It’s home.

The stand was first con­structed in time for the 1931/32 sea­son, a rather be­mus­ing fives­pan tri­an­gu­lar roof cov­er­ing a pre­vi­ously open ter­race on Pren­ton Road West, the very street which still houses the mod­ern in­car­na­tion to this day.

The en­clo­sure was af­fec­tion­ately dubbed the Cow­shed be­cause, quite lit­er­ally, that’s what it re­sem­bled.

A cen­tral fea­ture of the early sta­dium, this beloved struc­ture re­mained a true hub of ac­tiv­ity even as the gar­gan­tuan Main Stand rose from the ashes like a dom­i­nant phoenix.

The orig­i­nal roof was re­placed by a three­span al­ter­na­tive in the 70s and re­fur­bished ter­rac­ing fol­lowed soon there­after, but, in its abil­ity to at­tract like-minded foot­ball diehards and foster an un­shak­able sense of civic pride, the Cow­shed re­mained largely un­changed for six decades.

How­ever, in the mid-1990s, an en­thu­si­as­tic lo­cal en­tre­pre­neur named Peter John­son achieved what nei­ther the Nazis nor Thatcherism could: flat­ten­ing the Cow­shed and mov­ing Tran­mere fans from their cramped, cosy, com­fort­able fief­dom.

John­son, then a young man pos­i­tively froth­ing with am­bi­tion, en­gi­neered a true hal­cyon pe­riod in Rovers’ his­tory, tak­ing the Su­per­whites from the squalor of fourth di­vi­sion ad­min­is­tra­tion to the very precipice of the em­bry­onic Premier League.

In ’92, ’93 and ’94, Tran­mere, man­aged by the inim­itable Johnny King, reached the Di­vi­sion One play-offs, prac­ti­cally brush­ing up against the plain glass win­dow guard­ing the Promised Land.

It seemed only a mat­ter of time that Rovers, dubbed the Deadly Sub­ma­rine to the ocean lin­ers of Liver­pool and Ever­ton, would join the elite, and John­son wanted a ground to fit the bill.

Ac­cord­ingly, he sanc­tioned a huge re­de­vel­op­ment of Pren­ton Park, in­clud­ing a new Cow­shed, shorn of the evoca­tive roof, fur­nished with over 2,400 plas­tic seats, and bear­ing an elec­tronic score­board for the con­tem­po­rary au­di­ence.

John­son didn’t stop there. Next, he over­saw the build­ing of a grand, almost pala­tial ed­i­fice be­hind the ad­ja­cent goal. It was made of the finest ma­te­rial, con­tained the most splen­did con­tem­po­rary fa­cil­i­ties, and pro­vided a com­pletely un­ob­structed view to some 5,600 spec­ta­tors.

If the old Cow­shed was a trib­ute to where Tran­mere had come from, the Be­bing­ton Kop, in all its roar­ing majesty, was un­doubt­edly a sig­nal of in­tent as to where they were head­ing next.

Nat­u­rally, fans felt the best stand in the sta­dium shouldn’t be handed over to vis­it­ing sup­port­ers. At least not en­tirely. Thus, the Kop was ini­tially split down its im­pos­ing mid­dle, and housed home and away acolytes.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, when jug­ger­naut clubs such as Sun­der­land and Mid­dles­brough rolled into town, it was their ex­clu­sive abode, mak­ing for a rau­cous at­mos­phere yet an almost lop­sided ap­pear­ance.

This flex­i­ble ar­range­ment re­mained in place for a num­ber of years un­til, in the 1999/2000 sea­son, Tran­mere, man­aged by for­mer goalscor­ing demigod John Aldridge, con­spired to some­how haul them­selves past Black­pool, Coven­try, Ox­ford, Barns­ley and the afore­men­tioned Boro en route to a League Cup semi-fi­nal with fierce ri­vals Bolton.

A poached goal from Clint Hill in the first leg, played at the Ree­bok, gifted Rovers a scarcely be­liev­able lead head­ing into the home sec­ond leg, for which tick­ets were de­manded by the Wir­ral pub­lic with rare de­sire. Quickly, of­fi­cials de­cided that the Kop would host home fans only for this his­toric en­counter, seek­ing to bank the yearn­ing fans to­gether and cre­ate a wall of noise and pas­sion that would drive Tran­mere to Wem­b­ley.

It worked a treat. The stand mor­phed into a gy­rat­ing mass of hu­man emo­tion, with rolling waves of gut­tural en­cour­age­ment wash­ing down on the favoured sons.

Nick Henry caught a vol­ley sweeter than any in his life, almost burst­ing the net, be­fore a young Alan Ma­hon swiped home a penalty and Dave Kelly rounded out the fan­tasy.

Pren­ton Park had nary wit­nessed such a night. The Kop was duly chris­tened and, fol­low­ing a con­vinc­ing cam­paign, be­came the home end in time to start the 2001/02 sea­son, my first as a match-go­ing, seven-year-old fan.

Thus, I’ve only ever known the Cow­shed as an away end, save for the bliss­ful anec­dotes told by my fa­ther, for whom it was a sec­ond home dur­ing the Fri­day Night Foot­ball revo­lu­tion in the early-90s.

Ac­cord­ingly, when the op­por­tu­nity fi­nally arose to en­ter the Cow­shed, al­beit for a game of lack­lus­tre proportions, I was giddy with an­tic­i­pa­tion.

I clanked through the turn­stile, eyed the­most un­fa­mil­iar cranny of this most fa­mil­iar church, and am­bled up the steps, en­ter­ing the shrine from a novel an­gle.

I then pro­ceeded to stand on hal­lowed ground – where my Dad once stood, and his Dad be­fore him.

Where hun­dreds once hud­dled in the dire 1980s. Where thou­sands once thronged to watch the great es­cape.

It was Tues­day night in 2014 but, if you squinted hard enough and avoided the fan­boys with metic­u­lous quiffs at­tached to iPhones like the needy to in­tra­venous drips, it was pos­si­ble to sum­mon within the poetic mind a Fri­day night in ’ 92.

At long last, I felt I’d seen it all, ex­pe­ri­enced it all, and was ush­ered into an al­to­gether more se­questered pan­theon of Tran­mere fans.

I felt a sense of be­long­ing, to my era and, more im­por­tantly, to that long gone. * Tran­mere beat Carlisle 5-4 on pens after a 1-1 draw.

Tran­mere and the Cow­shed

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