Football: Wary across the Mersey: Simon O'Hagan meets the manager with a cloud over his Wembley horizon

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JOHN KING'S motivational methods are legendary. His idea of team-building means stepping off the coach after returning from an away match and leading his Tranmere players straight into the pub. Or if he is feeling extravagant taking them off to Ireland for a few days' golf and Guinness.

Now, though, one of the most singular and successful managers in the lower divisions is facing a challenge that will test even his capacity for inspiration, at a time when Tran

mere, as they go into today's Coca-Cola semi-final second leg at Aston Villa, most need it.

Tranmere's rise from Fourth Division obscurity and near-extinction seven years ago to the brink not just of their first major Cup final but also of the Premiership is the most remarkable story of its kind since Wimbledon were cutting a swathe through the League in the early Eighties. And thanks to the 55-year-old King, they've been a lot nicer to watch.

However, as King readily accepts, perhaps the most important person in Tranmere's transformation has been their chairman, Peter Johnson. The multi-millionaire head of the Park Foods Group, with a nice line in hampers, Johnson has helped Tranmere feast on success. But a return to rationing now looks likely.

Johnson is poised to move across the Mersey to Everton, where, after the death of Sir John Moores, he has been involved in a takeover battle with the theatrical impresario Bill Kenwright. Last week Johnson was heading for a victory that would mean the end of his association with Tranmere.

King, whose vivid way with words is something else that marks him out as a manager, describes the prospect of Johnson's going thus: 'For years I've been saying to him, 'We're heading for the moon.' I'd hate to run out of fuel just as we were about to get there.'

King will have no choice in the matter. 'The chairman's ambitious. If he gets the chance at Everton, he'll take it. We can't stop him. All we can do is give him as much success as we can.' The problem is that Tranmere's surge through the divisions has never really attracted the crowds, in spite of their staging games on Friday nights to avoid clashing with Liverpool or Everton. All the talk of 'Merseyside's best team', in the wake of the Big Two's difficulties this season, now rings a little hollow.

Johnson's impending departure hardly provides the ideal background to the most important game in Tranmere's history. 'The players say they don't worry about it, but of course they do,' King says. 'We don't talk about it because it's not worth it.'

It would be a shame, to say the least, if the Johnson affair was allowed to overshadow King's extraordinary achievements at Tranmere, a club he first managed from 1975 to 1980 before getting the sack. A Liverpudlian, passionate in his approach to football but exuding canniness as well, King had a mentor in Bill Shankly, who helped him out at Tranmere after he had retired from Anfield.

King, remembered fondly by Tranmere's fans, was persuaded to return in 1987 after Johnson had stepped in to stop the club going out of business. Since then Tranmere have twice won promotion and been winners and runners-up in the Leyland Daf Cup. They have clocked up five Wembley appearances, including one in the 1988 Football League centenary celebrations that showed their talents off to a wider audience.

No one who saw them beat Villa 3-1 in the first leg is in any doubt of that. The class and experience of John Aldridge and Pat Nevin may have counted for much, but so too did the contribution of younger men like the 23-year-old midfielder Kenny Irons. The result provided yet another instance of a First Division team taking on one from the Premiership at their own game, and beating them at it.

Can Tranmere successfully defend their advantage today? Psychologically, the lateness of Villa's first-leg reply was a setback, but it may have been just what Tranmere needed to keep them on their toes. King plans to continue with the sweeper system he introduced for the Villa game, while still playing two wingers.

Villa, though, will be desperate to put behind them defeat not just at Tranmere but at Bolton in the FA Cup last week. 'These are crucial times for them,' King says. And the times for Tranmere aren't exactly insignificant either.

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