Football: Fan's Eye View: Mersey tide is turning: No. 34: Tranmere

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The Independent Online
GOALKEEPER Eric Nixon was singing 'Livin' Doll' over the PA while full-back Steve Mungall was kissing all the female passengers. The lads were in a boisterous mood, letting their hair down after a successful away leg in Italy.

Pat Nevin became an instant hero among the fans and not just for his on-the-field performances. In Reggio Emilia, a sleepy town in northern Italy, he was typically chatting amiably to a group of supporters when a local thief grabbed one of the group's camera. Nevin sprinted after the culprit and recovered it.

Tranmere in Europe] Was it really happening? The Anglo-Italian Cup may be on a par with the Leyland Daf, but it was the club's first foray into Europe. As we flew back from Bologna after Rovers' scoreless draw with Serie B side Reggiana, I thought back to my earlier experiences following the team.

My first match (who ever forgets?) was a Cheshire League local derby between New Brighton and Tranmere Reserves in the late 1960s. The visitors' name instantly appealed, despite the club's uneventful 100-year history. George Yardley was my early hero. He led the League in scoring before serious injury ended his season at Shrewsbury in April 1968.

Until the second coming of Johnny King, there was not a lot to cheer. A 2-2 FA Cup draw with Stoke in 1972 was probably the highlight. At this point in Rovers history, Shankly's old guard at Liverpool, led by Ron Yeats, had moved across the Mersey to bolster Tranmere's side. The 'Colossus' himself had scored in that match but Gordon Banks denied Rovers a famous victory before a record 24,000 attendance.

The 1978-79 season brought about a personal highlight in my service as a supporter. I came runner-up in a programme competition to guess the best-ever Rovers XI selected by the former manager, Dave Russell. My reward was a cheque for pounds 2.50, which I hung proudly on my bedroom wall.

A decade in the basement followed. Highlights were few, but there was no excuse for Charlie Lindsay's brand of hooliganism. During one 5-0 home defeat, the 72-year-old whacked the backside of the visiting keeper with his walking stick.

The club came close to collapse in 1982. An FA Cup match at home to non-League Scarborough was advertised as Rovers' last stand. Hot favourites, Boro demanded a bye since Rovers were unlikely to be in business for the next round. Against all the odds, Tranmere battled to a surprise 4-2 victory, encouraging staff and supporters to keep the club in business.

The revival in Rovers' fortunes followed the arrival of Peter Johnson, a local businessman who has shrewdly steered the ship on a straight course for the top. The combination of Johnson's business acumen and King's transfer bargains has rocketed Rovers up the divisions. Shrewd purchases include Nixon, John Aldridge (64 goals in 91 games), Nevin and the latest signing, Tommy Coyne.

Prenton Pups, the club's junior supporters, indicate their favourite away ground is Wembley. Who can blame them, after seven appearances on the hallowed turf in the glorious reign of King. Now in his second spell, he is Rovers' most successful manager. King has skippered or managed the side to four out of only five promotions in the club's history.

Before ascending, however, Tranmere had to win their last game of the 1986-87 season against Exeter to preserve their League status. Rovers included two local non-contract players but a goal 10 minutes from time by full-back Gary Williams saved Rovers from oblivion.

Since then, the life of the Rovers fan has changed dramatically. This season we will be disappointed with a mere play-off place in the First Division after lying second in the table before Christmas. At last it seemed Rovers would challenge the two Merseyside greats, but Aldo's injury has brought a slide.

Can we yet talk of the big three on Merseyside? I dream of attending regular local derbies at Anfield or Goodison, providing that the Reds and Blues manage to stay in the Premier League, of course.