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Feature

TRFC Main Stand celebrates 50th Anniversary

20 December 2018

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the Main Stand, and without doubt holds great memories for Rovers fans young and old - and to maybe use a Johnny King nautical phrase - is still considered the 'flagship of the four' at Prenton Park, and even possibly the 'Ark Royal'. 

Despite the many decades of loyal service however, perhaps it also somehow links the stands' fate to that of her ocean going namesake, and with the expected life span of any major facility within football stadia these days set at 25 years, the act of 'mothballing' is more than likely the only option for the old lady.

It was a different story however during the mid-months of 1968, as Rovers were forced to finally replace the old wooden pavilion which had served Prenton Park for over half-a-century beforehand.

Rovers had moved to the current Prenton site in 1912, with the 'three-piece' wooden edifice an amalgamation of the centre section - revitalised from a ground sharing scenario with Birkenhead Wanderers Rugby Club at the turn of the century - and the two outer wing stands.  Often fondly known as the 'Weekend Stand', this was purchased from the Oval Sports Ground owned by Lever Brothers, shortly before World War One.  The entire structure had cost the club £350 in total - a far cry indeed from the £80,000 required for the new grandstand.  

By the mid to late 1960's however, its age had been well noted, and it had more than served its purpose.  Worst still, this major part of the Prenton Park ground had now inherited the unenviable tag as a firetrap.

Rovers now looked to the future, as plans drawn up for the new grandstand met with significant approval by the Club's board of directors at a board meeting in early February 1968. The contract for construction itself was in turn awarded to local constructional engineers, E. F. Blakeley, located in Beaufort Road.

The fresh design - one of the first to use a cantilever construction - composed of 19 separate bays - approximately 15ft 9inches per bay - the finished article was to measure almost 300ft long, accommodating 4,000 spectators. The total cost comprised of £47,000, with an additional £37,000 spent on executive and administrative office facilities. Rovers then announced a target date - the opening day of the League season, Saturday 10th August 1968 for its initial completion.

The forward Paddock area was also included in the makeover, enlarged and laden with cinders (which remained until the late 1970's), but the inclusion of dressing rooms and office accommodation was put on hold until the club could muster extra finance.  This would eventually come to fruition shortly after the new season kicked off, thanks in part to the efforts of the clubs' Supporters Association.

By early March, the construction workers had got to work pegging out the area, and on 22nd April, the first steel girders, which were to form the spine of the new grandstand, were lowered into place. 

The builders then set a timescale of just ten days to have the first section (one-third) in place, with the roofing to start almost immediately after the final home game of season versus Grimsby Town.  

This was slightly put back, as the old Pavilion meanwhile made its final 'stand' on Saturday 4th May 1968, at the closing Cheshire League game of the season - a 1-1 draw with Rhyl - before being quietly dismantled.

Later that week, the Birkenhead News then published Rovers' official announcement of both membership and prices for the new and exclusive Vice-Presidents Club.  Following suit on the 'executive lounge' idea pioneered by both Leeds United and Coventry City, membership to Rovers new facilities was limited to just 140.  Seats in an exclusive enclosure, which surrounded the Directors' Box were offered in tandem to use of a first class cocktail lounge, free parking and easy walk-in admission - all for the sum of £30. 

The second section of the ground then began on Sunday 26th May 1968, and with the remnants of the old stand now completely gone, and the now larger Paddock areas were extended.  Fencing, turnstiles and stairways were also added, but during this period the Club had to endure the frustration of vandalism, which resulted in damage to both the newly installed toilet and basic ground level facilities. 

Rovers were eager indeed to kick off in style and match the new surroundings with a bumper gate, so neighbours Liverpool along their new major signings were invited to provide the opposition for the stand's 'christening' with a friendly game on 30th July 1968.  With just over a week to go prior to the opener however, doubts that the stand would be ready in time were raised. A company of additional workmen were then employed to work round the clock in order to meet the deadline, which although eventually met, did not include the more detailed interior, which would have to wait just a little longer.

The game itself, won by the visitors 3-0, attracted an impressive final gate figure of 13,837, as both fans and directors alike hailed the new structure as a great success.  During its entire 56-year residency on the current site, Rovers had never seen anything quite like it, and this was added to a record number of season ticket inquiries, for within a two week period sales, almost doubled to over 800.

The facilities were finally completed just over four months later, as the stand's official opening was staged prior to the Division Three game with Northampton Town on Friday 20th December 1968.  While the ceremony was carried out by then-Sports Minister Dennis Howell, on the field, the team complimented the night's historic events winning 2-1 in front of 4,502 spectators.

It was of course tested to the full four years later, when First Division Stoke City visited Prenton Park for a Fourth Round FA Cup tie on Saturday 4 February 1972, and created a club record attendance of 24,424.  This is more remarkable given that all three Merseyside clubs were at home that day, with Liverpool attracting a gate of 59,296 for their 0-0 draw with Leeds United, while 45,462 watched Everton’s 2-1 win over Walsall at Goodison Park – a total of 129,182 spectators!  

Over the following years, a small number of improvements were made: a 'facial makeover' of the Dave Russell Restaurant was almost nearing completion all ready in time a match against Swindon Town in 2005.  In recent years, the suites were revamped completely throughout with the creation of the Platinum Lounge, Sponsors Lounge and the Gold/Silver Lounges, plus a new and improved Boardroom.

Tony Coombes


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