In September 2000, Leicester City bowed out of the UEFA Cup in the first round, following a 3-1 ‘away’ defeat to Red Star Belgrade. Due to growing political unrest in Yugoslavia, and the match being scheduled a week prior to an election, the game was moved to a neutral venue in Vienna. Following the departure of Martin O’Neill and Emile Heskey to Celtic and Liverpool respectively during the summer of 2000, Leicester could not manage to advance past the first round of their European tour.
They earned their place in the UEFA Cup by winning the Worthington Cup in February 2000, with victory over Tranmere Rovers, in the last League Cup Final to be hosted at the original Wembley Stadium.
The final came during an era where Tranmere seemingly prioritised the cup competitions, and despite struggling in Division One, were experiencing a good deal of success in domestic cups under John Aldridge. It was to be their first and only major cup final to date. Having lost to Aston Villa in the semi-final on penalties in 1994, after taking a healthy 3-1 lead into the second leg, Tranmere fans would certainly have felt this chance to compete for silverware was long overdue.
The Merseyside team claimed some impressive scalps through the 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed they thrived in cup games in ways they just could not manage in the league. These giant killings include one of, if not the best comeback in FA Cup history, when Tranmere came from 3-0 down against Premiership Southampton to win 4-3 in 2001. As well as beating neighbours Everton 3-0 at Goodison Park in the same season. The domestic cups have truly produced some of Tranmere’s greatest ever moments.
The coverage in the lead up to the 2000 League Cup final was not filled with much excitement from the press. They expected a dull affair between two teams who favour long balls into the box. A headline that stands out from the BBC’s build up managed to somehow insult both clubs, calling Tranmere “minnows” and Leicester “paupers”. It may not have been Arsenal and Manchester United, but it was a cup final, nonetheless.
The game itself went on to exceed expectations, from a neutral standpoint at least. John Aldridge’s team selection was instantly controversial, selecting young Irish goalkeeper Joe Murphy ahead of fan favourite and number 1 John Achterberg. Sure enough, Leicester went ahead within half an hour, due to poor reactions from Murphy. A Matt Elliot header which cannoned back off the crossbar onto Murphy and trickled into the net.
Leicester won the match 2-1, but Tranmere did not make it easy for them. In fact, Tranmere did not make it easy for themselves either. Clint Hill wrote himself into the history books for the wrong reasons when he received a second booking for a soft foul on Emile Heskey in the 63rd minute. Tranmere trailed 1-0 at this point and it looked like that could well be it for their dreams of major silverware and a place in Europe.
David Kelly equalised for Tranmere in the 77th minute sending the White half of the 74,000 spectators inside Wembley into delirium. A well-placed volley which put the ‘minnows’ from Birkenhead within touching distance of the UEFA Cup.
For fans of 90s football trivia, it would not have been the first time Tranmere had tasted football on the continent, having competed in the innovative and short-lived Anglo-Italian Cup. A competition set up to allow second tier clubs from England and Italy to get a taste for playing abroad. A cup that is sorely missed by the cult few who got to experience it, and with the growing wealth in the Championship in recent times, a seemingly plausible idea for the future. With that said, the UEFA Cup is a different level completely, reserved for a select elite few from all of Europe’s top leagues. It has and always will be an unrealistic dream for a club like Tranmere to play in it. Chances to play in continental competitions are once in a lifetime for clubs like Rovers. But, they very nearly did it.
Matt Elliot guided a perfect header into the corner of the Tranmere goal just four minutes after Tranmere’s equaliser, crushing dreams and silencing any sort of underdog success narrative. That was it, Leicester had done it. Scott Taylor hit the crossbar with a free header in the last attack of the game for Rovers, almost forcing extra time, but it was not to be.
Looking back at historic football and incidents like this, there are so many intriguing ‘what ifs’. Had Taylor’s last minute header gone in; had Clint Hill avoided a second yellow card; had John Achterberg played; had Matt Elliot’s heavily pregnant wife given birth a bit earlier, who knows, maybe it would have been Tranmere lining up against Red Star Belgrade that September. They would have joined Chelsea and Merseyside neighbours Liverpool in the competition as representatives of England. An enormous honour.
Leicester’s run in the UEFA Cup the next season may have been cut short, but what if Tranmere had taken their place instead? What could that cup run have looked like? Well, had Leicester advanced past Red Star, they would have had a chance at beating their second-round opponents in Celta Vigo. This would have led to third and fourth round ties against Shakhtar Donetsk and Stuttgart, before a quarter-final at the Camp Nou. Celta Vigo lost on away goals to Barcelona, thanks to a Rivaldo brace in the second leg. The Spanish giants then lost to eventual winners Liverpool in the semi-final. As farfetched as it may seem, that could have been Tranmere Rovers.
Birkenhead; Wembley; Austria; Spain; Ukraine; Germany; Spain; Liverpool; Birkenhead. A magical mystery tour, the likes of which we just cannot fathom.