In his autobiography ‘Who Ate All the Pies?’ Newcastle striker Micky Quinn held the game up as the perfect example of manager Ossie Ardiles’s footballing philosophy, “Attack, attack, attack and fuck the defence. Sometimes there would be nine of us going forward with just one defender and the goalie staying back.” Tranmere’s manager John King would describe the game as, “A carnival night.”
1991/92 was the final season of the Zenith Data Systems Cup, a competition that began life in 1985 as the Full Members’ Cup, acquiring a sponsor in 1987 to become the Simod Cup, with Zenith Data Systems taking over in 1989. The competition was open to all teams from the First and Second Divisions, England’s top two tiers at the time, although not all opted to compete.
At the time of the 1 October 1991 first-round match at Prenton Park both Tranmere Rovers and Newcastle United were in the Second Division. Tranmere, back in that division for the first time since 1938/39, had won the league fixture there 3-2 in September. Quinn referred to it as Newcastle’s worst performance of the season. “We never performed at all and even though we were 2-1 up at the interval, we got what we deserved – nothing,” he told the Newcastle Chronicle. “I never even managed a shot, so I am looking forward to doing a lot better tonight.” Quinn predicted that Tranmere would be very direct and positive. Both assertions would turn out to be correct.
Tranmere’s main goal threat came from John Aldridge, like Quinn a Liverpudlian. He had joined in the summer from Real Sociedad, having expressed a desire to bring his family back from Spain to England. “Tranmere Rovers were the only ones to show an interest,” he told The Times on signing. He’d got off to a flyer hitting nine goals in Tranmere’s first five games of the season.
Rovers had only lost one game so far that campaign in a run which included a draw with First Division Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Rumbelows Cup only the week before. Newcastle were sitting 23rd in the 24 team league with only one win from ten league matches. The game would be live on Sky Sports, one of the first matches the new channel had rights for.
The teams were – Tranmere: Eric Nixon; Dave Higgins, Ged Brannan, Kenny Irons, Mark Hughes, Steve Vickers, Chris Malkin, John Aldridge, Jim Steel, Dave Martindale and Neil McNab.
Newcastle: Pavel Srnicek; Alan Neilson, Robbie Elliott, Liam O’Brien, Kevin Scott, Darren Bradshaw, Lee Clark, Gavin Peacock, Micky Quinn, Andy Hunt and Kevin Brock.
Both sides made two changes since the league game. For Tranmere, Steel came in for the injured John Morrissey, while McNab wore number eleven in place of Tony Thomas. Newcastle preferred Neilson at right-back instead of Steve Watson while Andy Hunt was chosen ahead of on-loan Celtic striker Andy Walker to replace Franz Carr.
The first goal came after three minutes when Quinn diverted Lee Clark’s 20-yard shot past Nixon. Three minutes later Tranmere were level, Aldridge nodding Malkin’s cross down into the path of 34-year-old Neil McNab who fired the ball in from 12 yards. Aldridge then pounced on Elliott’s weak backpass on 18 minutes to put the home team 2-1 up. It was all square six minutes later when Nixon saved brilliantly from Hunt’s whipped shot only to see Quinn stick in the rebound.
Newcastle began to dominate the second half of a game played in a gale-force wind in front of a crowd of 4,056. They went in front again when O’Brien ran unchallenged for fully 60 yards before slipping the ball in for Peacock to lift it over Nixon to score. But Tranmere came back. Martindale made space down the right and the ball worked its way across the penalty box for Steel to fire home with fifteen minutes remaining. The 90 minutes ended at 3-3 as the game entered extra-time.
Four minutes into the first period Darren Bradshaw had a rush of blood to the head. In the right-back position and short of options to play out, he turned towards his own goal and casually chipped a thirty-yard pass back in the vague direction of Pavel Srnicek. The Czech keeper, taken by surprise, came to meet it at the penalty spot but Aldridge got there first and chested the ball past him, walking it into the net for 4-3. A minute later Irons made space for himself on the left, pinging a ball into the box that Aldridge knocked down for David Martindale who scored his first senior goal for two years to extend Rovers’ lead.
Newcastle got themselves back into the tie a minute before half-time. Quinn pressured Irons into running back towards his own goal with the ball, before losing it on the edge of the Tranmere box. Clark picked up possession and drove into the box, firing a shot low past Nixon’s right-hand. Gavin Peacock made it 5-5 when he knocked teenager Clark’s shot cum cross in on the goal-line with ten minutes left.
With two minutes of extra-time remaining, Neilson drove into the Tranmere box with substitute Graham Branch at his heels the whole way. Although it looked like Branch had knocked the ball back to his goalkeeper referee John Key felt he had pulled the attacker down from behind and awarded Newcastle a penalty. Quinn sent Nixon the wrong way for his hat-trick. It looked like that was the Geordies home and dry, but they hadn’t counted on Key playing five minutes of injury time.
In the fourth minute of added-on time a push in the back from Neilson sent Aldridge down in the box and the referee awarded Tranmere a penalty. The former Liverpool striker, who had missed from the spot in that September league game, dusted himself down and dispatched his kick to make it six-all. After 120 minutes the match stats read Newcastle 33 shots (17 on target) with Tranmere 21 shots (9 on target). The game would now go to a penalty shoot-out.
Nixon in the Tranmere goal employed the tactics famously used by Liverpool’s Bruce Grobbelaar in the 1984 European Cup final shoot-out by wobbling on his goal-line. It seemed to work as Quinn sent his kick onto the post. Kenny Irons then stepped up to put Tranmere in front. At Newcastle’s second Nixon went low to his left to save from Lee Clark. Steve Mungall, playing his 500th game for Tranmere, having come on as a substitute, scored to make it 2-0. Newcastle got one back when substitute David Roche scored his kick. Mark Hughes put his effort in the top corner to make it 3-1. United’s best man on the night Gavin Peacock converted to make the score 3-2. Tranmere though now had the chance to win the shoot-out on their fourth kick. Higgins put his kick to Srnicek’s right, only to see the keeper pull off a great save. Liam O’Brien had the chance to draw Newcastle level on the fifth kick. Nixon moved slightly early to his left, exactly where O’Brien placed his shot, the keeper turned it round the post and Tranmere had triumphed 3-2.
Nixon’s heroics denied Aldridge the chance to put a seal on his performance. The striker recalled in 2007, “We won the shoot-out 3-2 but, after scoring a hat-trick, I was down for the last kick. Despite my efforts, though, the identity of the man of the match was something of a surprise. Ever heard of the keeper who let in eight goals yet won a mountain bike for his efforts? Step forward, Eric Nixon.”
The Newcastle fans left the ground singing Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.
“We went off the rails tonight,” Tranmere manager John King said afterwards to the Liverpool Echo. “Some of the mistakes out there were schoolboy errors. The last time I was involved in a game like that was when Everton lost 10-4 to Spurs. You can’t sleep after witnessing something like that. I can’t just sweep it under the carpet. I’ll have to take a day’s rest away from it all. Go and watch another football match somewhere.”
“I thought I’d have a go,” Nixon said of his Grobbelaar style antics. “I didn’t think my old mate Bruce would mind, and fortunately it worked.”
Ardiles went into the referee’s room after the match to dispute the added-on time. “The game was going out live on television, and I would like to see exactly how much time their clock showed we had played.” Of his side’s performance, he said, “Going forward we were in a different class, but defensively we were poor.”
The Argentinian World Cup winner would find himself out of a job after a run of only one win in 13 games across November 1991 to February 1992. Kevin Keegan would take over, saving Newcastle from relegation to the Third Division, turning round their fortunes the following season by taking them to the league title and up into the Premier League.
Tranmere would lose in the semi-final to Nottingham Forest. They finished the season in 14th position. John King, in his second spell as Tranmere boss, would continue as manager until 1996, when John Aldridge took over. King became Director of Football. With a stand named in his honour in 2002, and a statue of him outside the ground in 2014 King passed away in 2016 acknowledged by the club’s fans as their greatest manager ever.