The Merseyside Derby that was

Across the footballing world, the Merseyside Derby is a well-known game between Everton and Liverpool. Most football fans will also be aware of Merseyside’s third team – Tranmere Rovers. However, just a couple of miles up the side of the Wirral peninsula is the historic seaside town of New Brighton. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that here was once also home to its own Football League team.

New Brighton AFC were elected to join the Football League’s Third Division North in 1923, following the league expanding to 22 teams; two years after Tranmere earned their election into the league pyramid.

A world with two Wirral-based football league teams is almost impossible to imagine for the people on the peninsula today, the majority of whom will not remember the existence of another club to divide families and friends. The divide is large enough on Merseyside these days with three professional outfits. With a fourth it would not be difficult to imagine the increase in fiery debates burning within pubs’ walls across the region. Not least when Derby Day rolls around twice a year.

The Tower Athletic Ground

New Brighton played their home fixtures in an astonishing ground at the foot of the New Brighton tower, which upon its construction in 1900 became the tallest building in Britain. Built by the same company, the stadium was intended to house New Brighton Tower FC – who, after a brief two-season stint in the football league’s Second Division – were a legitimate club in their own right. After Tower’s demise as a result of the owners being more concerned about the commercial success of the seaside resort rather than football, the Tower Athletic Ground became the adopted home of New Brighton AFC.

The Tower Ground could accommodate an incredible 80,000 spectators, which in today’s English Football League would make it second only to Wembley Stadium in capacity. However, crowds rarely exceeded 10,000 for New Brighton’s home fixtures.

Rivalry with Tranmere

Being based on Merseyside, as one of four football league clubs, naturally comes with a great amount of division among the areas’ football fans. When New Brighton entered the Third Division North, their main rivals became Tranmere Rovers, also based on the Wirral. Arguments bloom every year without fail about the intensity of Derby matches. Which rivals hate each other the most? Is it the Old Firm? Perhaps the Steel City Derby? New Brighton’s rivalry with Tranmere fast became a fierce one, and in terms of passion was surely the equal to that of any derby match in Britain.

Triumph in derby games is often the most important thing in an entire season for fans of both clubs. It’s the fixture you look for first when the season’s schedule is revealed every summer. The one you equally love and fear. New Brighton did not lose to Tranmere from their inaugural season in the football league in 1923 until the beginning of the 1926/27 season. An incredible run of form against a bitter local rival. An even more impressive statistic when you consider for two of those seasons Tranmere’s line-up contained arguably the greatest goal scorer ever to play the game in Dixie Dean.

The peak of these Wirral Derby contests came in the first season of football after the Second World War in 1946/47. A season that gave clubs all over the country some of their highest ever attendances.

With huge numbers expected for the first clash between the two teams in the post-war era, Mersey Ferries laid on a special service from the Woodside port in Birkenhead to New Brighton for Tranmere supporters. Over the water, Everton and Liverpool played out their derby match on the same day. A clash I’m sure the police were pleased about. Despite this, the ‘other’ Merseyside derby still drew in a record-breaking crowd of 14,291. The hosts came away with a 2-1 victory that day, and Tranmere would have to wait another year to exact their revenge on their local rivals.

Over the entire course of the Wirral Derby’s brief 28-year history, New Brighton were defeated by Tranmere 20 times, winning 13 of the games themselves and 8 matches ending in draws across all competitions. The bragging rights died in Birkenhead.

Kits

New Brighton went through a plethora of different colour schemes for their kits; something very rare in the modern game. A club’s colour is the basis of its outward identity. Upon their formation they donned blue and white, but soon changed to a white shirt. This is potentially due to Everton’s allegiance to a blue strip. Wirral rivals Tranmere even had this same kit change years later, themselves wearing blue until the early 1960s, when they switched to their famous all white kits. Moving away from any resemblance to their blue neighbours.

New Brighton had changed their strip to red and white by the 1934/35 season. In what seems like an identity crisis, they had now covered all other Merseyside football teams’ colours. And so, in a bid for some originality, they changed their strip once again in 1937, to incorporate maroon and white, the combination that stayed with them for the remainder of their existence.

The Club’s Demise

After finishing bottom of the league in 1951, New Brighton AFC were voted out of the football league after a 28-year stay, being replaced by Workington and thus marking the end of the ‘other’ Merseyside derby. Tranmere have since had the Wirral peninsula to themselves, as they were once accustomed to, being the oldest football club on the Wirral. Only second in age on Merseyside to Everton over the Mersey. Although New Brighton’s fan base did not straight away flock to Birkenhead to get their football fix, it took six years before Tranmere’s average attendances increased to over 10,000 again.

Over the years many football clubs have fallen out of existence. Sadly, it is becoming more and more common due to the enormous amount of money at the top the game. At the end of the day, money talks. You do not have to look far to find a financially troubled club in today’s polarised pyramid.

Sadly, New Brighton never managed to bounce back from their relegation from the Football League. Clubs every year face the struggle against falling away into the abyss outside the 92. Their old Wirral rivals Tranmere did however manage to haul themselves back into the Football League following relegation in 2015, ending their 94 year stay in the 92. Had they failed to gain promotion, the financial challenges of maintaining a football club in non-league football may have resulted in the Wirral being left without a professional football league club for the first time since 1920.

 

About the author

I am a Tranmere Rovers season ticket holder, and lover of all things lower league. My favourite thing about football is visiting other clubs grounds for the first time.

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