Johnny had much more success as a manager than he ever did as a player, gaining his first management post at Tranmere in April 1975. He led the “Superwhites” to promotion out of the old Fourth Division in his first year but was sacked in 1980. Following successful spells in charge at non-league clubs Northwich Victoria and Caernarfon Town, Johnny made a return to Tranmere in 1987 when Peter Johnson, who had recently taken over the club, appointed him manager towards the end of the 1986–87 season. With the club fighting to avoid relegation out of the Football League, Johnny saved them from relegation in the last game of the season with a 1–0 home win over Exeter City. For his first full-season in charge King signed Jim Steel to act as a target man for striker Ian Muir. The move was inspired and the team enjoyed considerable success together in the seasons to follow. They rose to a mid-table finish in 1987–88, before winning promotion as Fourth Division runners-up in 1988–89. Tranmere then finished fourth in the Third Division in 1989–90, missing out on a second successive promotion after losing 2–0 to Notts County in the play-off final.
Johnny then took the club to Wembley four times in two years, with supporters starting to call the National Stadium; “Prenton Park, South”. While there he won the Football League Trophy in 1990 with a 2–1 victory over Bristol Rovers and the “Superwhites” won promotion with a 1–0 win over Bolton Wanderers in the 1991 play-off final, after Tranmere finished fifth in 1990–91. They also reached the Football League Trophy final for a second successive year, losing 3–2 to Birmingham City.
They finished a comfortable 14th in 1991–92, before hitting fourth in 1992–93. This qualified them for the play-offs, however they were beaten 5–4 on aggregate by Swindon Town at the semi-final stage. The club again narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier League in 1993–94, losing to Leicester City in the play-offs. They also reached the semi-finals of the League Cup that year, only losing on penalties to Premier League side Aston Villa.
King brought such big name signings as John Aldridge, Pat Nevin and Gary Stevens to Prenton Park, but, with Tranmere being a small town club, the large crowds did not materialise. This meant the club had to sell top players such like Steve Vickers and Ian Nolan to survive. Tranmere nevertheless qualified for the play-offs for a third successive season in 1994–95, finishing fifth, before being beaten 3–1 by Reading at the play-off semi-final stage. In April 1996, with Rovers struggling for form in the league, Chairman Frank Corfe appointed John Aldridge as player-manager, and King was “moved upstairs” to become Director of football and so ended Johnny’s second reign.
Johnny was too much of a gentleman to ever complain or to say “I told you so” when new manager John Aldridge failed to match his success. When I was a child I always dreamed of going to Wembley to watch Tranmere play but always thought it was too much of a dream. Johnny King not only made that dream come true but made it so that Wembley visits were more or less mundane.
During his second spell at Prenton Park, if he had been supported by a backroom regime who could provide him with some money to keep hold of the players he unearthed, we might well have got into the Premier League. Unfortunately, every season he was in the second flight of British football he had to sell some of his best players to keep the club afloat.
So it is with great privilege that we would like to make Johnny King a true Hero of The Bears! Not just for the success he brought to Tranmere but the dignified way he went about it and for some of his infamous words of wisdom…
“I can’t promise anyone success, but I can promise them a trip to the moon.”