The 1931-32 season became a significant moment in the history of Tranmere Rovers as they announced themselves as a football team with ambition and the squad to match.
In 1921-22 Tranmere had joined the Football League as a founding member of the Third Division North and spent much of the 1920s looking like a team not quite sure of themselves. By the end of the 20s and into the early 1930s Tranmere Rover’s name was being mentioned more and more at the top table of English football.
The most notable quality that saw Tranmere draw national attention was their ability to find and develop good young players. Ellis Rimmer, Thomas ‘Pongo’ Warring and of course Dixie Dean made their first Football League debuts at Prenton Park before moving to First Division clubs and ultimately England.
By 1931 Tranmere had yet to display their own brand of football to a national audience only playing against their opponents in the Third Division North. However the luck of the FA Cup draw saw an opportunity for Tranmere to enter the national football scene.
After confidentially dispatching West Stanley 3-0 in the First Round of the FA Cup and then Bristol Rovers 2-0 in the Second Round Rovers now had the chance of being drawn against a top club from the First Division. As football fans across Birkenhead flicked to the sport pages of the local press they would have discovered Tranmere had be draw at home against Chelsea.
Chelsea who had just been promoted to back to the First Division in 1930 were looking to make a name for themselves taking on some of the great teams of the age including Huddersfield, Arsenal and Everton. Their first move upon returning the First Division was to sign three Scots Hughie Gallacher, Alex Jackson and Alec Cheyne.
These names may not mean a great deal to many today but these three were some of the most successful players of the 1920s and 30s. All had been part of the Scotland team who had beaten England 5-1 in 1928, Gallacher had captained Newcastle to First Division champions in 1926-27 and Jackson led Huddersfield to two FA Cup finals and won several league medal with the club.
The 1931-32 season had not got off to the best of starts for the Londoners however with some humiliating defeats most notably losing 7-2 to Everton in October. However by January Chelsea had won four out of their five games and were brimming with confidence for their FA Cup tie against ‘Little Tranmere.’
The Chelsea team arrived on the Wirral after their game against Bolton and decided to take in some of the sights. The teams were pictured taking in several holes at the Royal Liverpool Golf Course and were seen by many locals at West Kirby promenade as they stayed at the Royal Hotel. Although it was not all fun as the team were seen training along Hoylake shore, yet not all the players took the sessions seriously such as Hughie Gallacher who smoked cigars whilst rest of the team trained.
The Birkenhead News reported that the Chelsea team seemed quite relaxed in their training for Saturday’s game taking in a round of golf every morning. After light training the team would eat the championship winning meal of Beef and Chips with beer to wash it down with.
A reporter from the Liverpool Echo managed to catch up with Alex Jackson who proclaimed ‘I can’t see Tranmere having a chance!’ Others writing into the paper poured scorn on Tranmere’s chances against their First Division opposition.
However was this over confidence justified? In the modern game clubs at the top flight spend hours pouring over DVDs of their opponents recent games to ensure they are ready for anything. Obvious in 1932 this would have been impossible yet it seems Chelsea hadn’t even checked the results of this Third Division North team.
Out of the last nine games Tranmere had played prior to Chelsea they had won seven and drawn two. During that run they managed to play Rochdale twice beating them 9-0 at Prenton Park and away 6-3. Much of this success had been the goal scoring ability of both Ernie Dixon and Fred Watts who the previous season alongside Jack Kennedy had score a total of 96 goals.
Unlike the Chelsea team the Tranmere players under the trainer Jimmy Morten spent several hours a day running, sprinting, going through physical and dumb-bell exercises. However it wasn’t all hard work, the team were invited to the Birkenhead Hippodrome the Wednesday before the game to see the Pantomime of Robinson Cruseo.
The game though did catch the attention of the national media as the Pathe News Company sent down a film crew to record the game. Prenton Park was looking its best for its first film debut as the new five span roof stand had been built at the start of the season along Park Road West. The stands distinctive roof had been constructed by a company more used to building barns and this design saw the fans nickname the structure the Cowshed .
On the day crowds packed into a cold Prenton Park to see their local heroes take on the Goliath’s of the First Division hoping Chelsea’s over confidence would be their undoing.
The crowd didn’t have to wait long after kick off for the first bout of excitement as Fred Urmson for Tranmere fired a power shot into the back of the next after ten minutes. However the celebrations were short lived as E. V Gough the referee deemed Meston was in an offside position before Urmson took the shot. The Tranmere players protested he was not interfering with play but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
Chelsea responded to the Tranmere onslaught going 0-1 up after 28 minutes and as the play got underway in the second half Fred Watts equalised bringing Tranmere back into the game. Soon after Ernie Dixon raced down the ground and powered the ball into the back of the net from twenty five yards giving Tranmere the lead.
A famous victory was now in the sight for Tranmere however referee Gough hadn’t finished playing his part on the result. Johnson for Chelsea put the ball into the Tranmere box where Pearson headed in the equaliser even though he was in an offside position.
The Tranmere players once again found themselves at the mercy of the Gough who again made a controversial decision to let the goal stand. The game finish 2-2 which was a frustrating disappointment for all at Prenton Park even Chelsea who now had to look forward to an unwelcome replay.
The gate attendance for the game was around 13,000 which was far below expected numbers however the turnout still produced £1250 from the gate.
Ultimately Tranmere’s trip to Stamford Bridge was more clear cut as Chelsea won the day 5-3 ending Rover’s cup run dreams. By the end of the season Tranmere managed a very respectful fourth position finish in the league whereas Chelsea only finished 12th in the First Division.
Although Tranmere’s moment in the spotlight was short lived they had managed to raise the profile of the club and their ambition. The game against Chelsea and subsequent games in following season against Leeds, Barnsley and Liverpool showed that this little club from the Wirral were not mire minnows in the game happy just to be in the Football League, but a team with the drive and skills to push on to the highest levels.