The Sensible and Capable Type - Peter Walker
Richard White talks to Peter Walker, who was an integral part of the Watford squad between 1954 and 1962.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s football was massively popular, with the home entertainment industry not providing much competition at the time. Making dresses out of old curtains and hats out of carpet remnants had lost much of its glamour during the war, and queuing to spend your ration coupons was a national pastime to be avoided. So it was that football attendance records were broken and local heroes made on the muddy fields of England. One local talent who emerged in Watford was Peter Walker, catching the eye with stylish and sometimes brilliant wing play. With his friendly and unassuming outlook, Peter became a recognised and popular figure around the town, unable to walk along Watford High Street without being stopped every few yards for a chat by enthusiastic fans.
After joining Watford at the start of the 1954/55 campaign, Peter went on to make 190 first team appearances over eight seasons, scoring 44 goals, but it was only a chance encounter that led to him playing for the Watford first team at all, more of which later.
Peter, who still lives with his wife Moyra in St Albans, was born in Watford in 1933 to a family that moved shortly afterwards to a rented house in St James Road, just around the corner from the Watford ground. Peter became a ball boy at Watford FC as a small youngster. He recalls his main duty was to collect players from the upstairs room at the Red Lion pub opposite the ground where they always gathered before matches. A more painful memory was when Len Dunderdale, famed for his extremely powerful ball striking, shot wide of the goal on one occasion only for the ball to flatten Peter who was standing behind. The ball had hit him so hard in the chest when he tried to catch it the trainer had to come over to revive him, much to the crowd’s wry amusement.
As a youth Peter excelled in all sports, despite no prior hint of sporting ability from anyone in his family. At Watford Fields school he captained the football and cricket teams and also became school captain (head boy), showing the respect in which he was held by teachers. When he moved to Victoria secondary school at the age of 11 he broke his leg in a football match, and had to have it re-set to straighten it. This did not dampen his enthusiasm, and he was soon back playing for the school first team with boys who were much older than him.
After leaving school at 14, Peter worked for the West Herts Post newspaper, which then rivalled the Watford Observer in coverage of Watford FC and local news. Peter started work in the advertising department and progressed to take wedding photos and write reports on local sporting events.
Football was Peter’s main love. The Whippendell Road Guild and Bushey United teams he played for as a teenager remained unbeaten, winning every competition they entered. Peter was always a forward, his two-footed skills and ability to weave through opposition defences making him a natural inside forward or winger, whilst also being a regular finisher when chances fell in front of goal.
With such budding football talent emerging close to home, Watford FC showed an interest and signed Peter on amateur forms at the age of 16 to play in their mid-week side, effectively the 3rd team. Peter believes he was probably manager Eddie Hapgood’s first signing, along with Fred Titmus, who was on Watford’s books before he was advised to quit the ‘dangerous sport’ of football and concentrate on his cricket. Titmus went on to have a long and successful cricket career with Middlesex and England across five decades.
At the age of 18, Peter received his expected call-up for two years of compulsory national service in the Army. Having ambitions to fly, he managed through a well-connected uncle to get a transfer into the RAF. He applied to become a pilot to extend his RAF career, but for reasons that were never disclosed he was not successful. It was only years later that Peter found out through his wife Moyra’s perceptions that he was totally colour blind, to the extent that he could sometimes only tell which team players belonged to during matches by facial recognition. The fact that Peter went on to have a successful career in professional football is a remarkable testament to his residual visual acuity.
On discharge from National Service at the age of 20 Peter returned to Watford. Nothing was heard from his home football club, but while considering his future, including an offer to play for Wycombe Wanderers, he went along to Vicarage Road to watch the ‘Blues’ play an evening match. On the way to his seat he happened to be recognised by trainer Pat Molloy, who invited Peter to play in a trial match with the Watford squad a few days later. Within 20 minutes of the start Peter was pulled out of the match and asked to sign a full time contract with Watford, which he gladly accepted!
One of the first things Peter did with his newly acquired status was to buy a sleek looking two-seater MG Sports car as befitting a young man of burgeoning sporting prowess. Whilst driving it for the first time into St James Road in Watford where he still lived with his parents, he was pulled over by an extremely large and stern looking policeman who clearly ‘wanted a word’. Peter admits to having a cold sweat as it suddenly dawned on him that having spent all his £160 savings on the car, he had arranged no car tax or insurance and to complete the hat trick, he had no driving licence either. “I thought he was going to throw the book at me” admits Peter. The policeman leaned into the open top car and said “Excuse me Mr Walker, could you tell me who Watford have drawn in the first round of the FA Cup?”. Peter answered “Corby Town, sir” before driving off, extremely relieved that being recognised locally as a Watford player - albeit a reserve team player at the time - had saved him any further questioning.
Having performed well in the second team, Peter was finally awarded his first team debut on 20 November 1954 in that very FA Cup tie at Corby Town. Scoring the first goal and setting up the second in a 2-0 win, Peter actually rates this as one of his best ever performances. Still it took him two seasons of occasional first team appearances before he was able to command a regular first team spot. “When I signed for Watford there were 30-40 other professionals on the books including six older players ahead of me battling for a first team place as a winger. Watford had paid good money for some of them and they had to be played”. Just like today, home grown players had a tough time breaking into the first team, as Watford’s policy was generally to buy ‘proven’ older professionals, exemplified by when the club directors bought five players from Leicester in one fell swoop in 1948, having originally asked the price for their entire reserve team!
In the 1956/57 season, Peter at last claimed a permanent first team place as a winger, playing in 51 matches in all competitions that season and 43 the next, scoring 22 goals in the process. “I could have scored more but was told that wasn’t my primary task, which was to stay out wide and create goals for others” remembers Peter, somewhat ruefully. “I did knock on manager Neil McBain’s door once and ask him whether I could play at inside forward, which was my favourite position as I saw more of the ball, with better goal scoring opportunities”. The manager by this time had a glass of gin and tonic permanently on his desk and was living on fish and chips, with discarded wrappings in his office.
“When I entered the room McBain was chatting with a chap whom I knew slightly, and who had no football background or role at the club. McBain was going to refuse my request but the other fellow got involved and showed him how by making a couple of positional changes he could accommodate my request to play at inside forward, for the next match at least”. McBain then agreed and made the changes.
Peter was a develop a strange relationship with his brusque boss; being one of only three Watford players with a car at the time, McBain would often ask Peter to drive him to matches around the country so he could scout for new players. So as not to appear too obviously the manager’s ‘pet’, Peter’s friend and fellow player Maurice Cook was asked to accompany them. Invariably the first stop would be at a pub next to Watford Junction for a stiff drink for the manager, followed by further regular pub stops all the way to their destination. Fortunately Peter and Maurice were happy with soft drinks. “We were always well looked after on these trips, having seats in the Directors’ Box and staying at five star hotels when an overnight stay was required” remembers Peter.
Living so close to the ground, Peter used to duck through back alley ways to avoid being button-holed by supporters on match days. “The crowds seemed really happy on the way to the game, with plenty of banter and none of the tribal nonsense you get now” he recalls. “And the attendances were always under reported, so the club paid less Entertainment Tax[a forerunner to VAT}.” One gentleman alive today has a particular reason to remember Peter: “There was a house in Vicarage Road extremely close to the ground, where an expectant mother was about to give birth. She said if it was a boy she would name the baby after the first Watford goal scorer that day, which happened to be me, and he became Peter”.
Footballers at that time seemed to include a fair proportion of ‘characters’ and risk-takers. It was a precarious profession with player contracts being only a year long, meaning it was an anxious wait at the end of each season to see who was on the ‘retained list’ for the following one. Treatment of injuries was also in its infancy compared with today, resulting in many more early retirements from the game and an average professional career length of just 18 months, according to Peter.
When Peter joined Watford he found that there was a strong gambling culture amongst the players. “Training sessions were held in the mornings and many players spent their afternoons and evenings on gambling activities, particularly horse and dog racing, so the club introduced ‘perks’ such as free cinema tickets to try and keep us away from temptation”. One or two of the more savvy players - including Peter - worked in part time jobs, which also helped prepare for a career after the game: “I got chatting with a chap who ran a garage just off Watford High Street where I used to have my car serviced. He was a great mechanic but terrible with paperwork, so I started helping him with his invoicing and accounts and we later set up a new garage business together”. Peter went on to run a number of garage and car sales businesses, finally retiring at the age of 70. “I was once told I was the only honest car dealer in England – not always a good trait in that business!” he recalls with a smile.
Peter has a string of memories players and their antics during his time at the club. Tommy Harmer would never take to the field before a game without a lighted cigarette concealed in the palm of his hand, taking crafty drags on it to quell his nerves. Bobby Bell was an extrovert, who would get his fellow players to chant his name on training runs through Cassiobury Park, enjoying turning the heads of other park goers.
There were some strange approaches to football training in the 1950s to contend with, such as when it became fashionable for the players to see very little of a football during the week, the theory being that they would then be more hungry for it on a Saturday afternoon! Once they did get hold of the ball on a Saturday, however, things could be tough. “We always knew that when we played at Coventry, they would soak the match ball in a bucket of water for an hour before kick off to ensure it was sodden and heavy. This favoured them because they were a tough side with ex-miners who would hit the ball hard and press home their physical advantage”.
Peter remembers being something of a trend setter in the Watford changing room when he and Sammy Chung paraded the first pair of football boots with screw-in studs. They’d got these from Wren’s sports shop in central Watford, and they soon became the norm. Previously studs on football boots were held in by nails, which were an extra hazard for injury, as some players allowed the nail heads to protrude out of the studs for extra grip.
Peter recalls one of the most astonishing exhibitions of skill he ever saw when shortly after joining Watford from Arsenal, Cliff Holton gave a demonstration of ‘finishing’ to the rest of the team in training. Whilst players drilled in crosses, Holton met them with his head or either foot and belted the ball into the net past the hapless keeper from all angles. Like most teams, Watford did a lot of training on their own ground, which meant that the pitch was quickly worn out and turned into a sea of mud during the winter months. “The only place that always had a lovely pitch like the ones you see today was at Ipswich. As well as good drainage, it had a training ground next door so they kept the stadium for matches only. We loved playing there”.
Once in the late 1950s when Peter was out injured he was asked by Bobby Howfield, who was playing in the first team that day, whether he would drive Bobby’s mother and wife down to watch the game at Crystal Palace using Bobby’s car. Peter agreed, provided he could follow the team coach, as he didn’t know the way. Nearing their destination, Peter put his foot on the brake pedal but to no effect. Pulling the handbrake virtually out of its socket was also in vain. The car smashed into the back of the team coach resulting in Peter having a gashed head and injuring his passengers. The car was badly damaged, but the coach containing the players was able to continue to the game. Watford went behind to a goal inside two minutes, finally losing 3-0, and manager Len Goulden blamed the defeat on Peter’s accident unsettling the players.
When Peter confronted Bobby Howfield about the state of the brakes on his car, Howfield replied “that’s funny, it’s happened to me before too”. It transpired that the oil in the hydraulic brake system had virtually leaked away, and Howfield had not bothered to get it seen to. This only confirmed Peter’s view that he was a ‘hot-head’, something Howfield would also prove on the pitch.
Players would bet on anything when the opportunity arose. One frosty winter morning during a training run through Cassiobury Park the older players bet a young triallist that he wouldn’t swim across the freezing river Gade, which must have been deeper than it is now! Out to impress, the lad stripped off and completed his challenge, only for the other players to shirk on paying their debts. It was typical for players to be quick in taking money and slow to pay it out when it came to gambling. Peter also has a very good idea who was behind the floodlight sabotage in a home evening match against Shrewsbury at the end of the 1958/59 season, causing the game to be abandoned. He’s not telling, but it certainly appears to be gambling related!
The social life enjoyed by players was good, and after Maurice Cook moved to Fulham in 1958, Peter became friendly with a number of the Fulham players, including England internationals Johnny Haynes, Bedford Jezzard and Jim Langley. Peter rates left back ‘Gentleman Jim’ Langley as one of his toughest and most physical on-field opponents. “He would spend the game trying to knock you flying over the advertising boards but as you were lying prostrate on the floor he would come over, proffer a hand and ask in the poshest voice imaginable “Are you OK Peter old chap, let me help you up”, typically followed by “How’s the family? We’re having a social event after today’s game, would you like to bring them over?”. All while the match was in progress!
Despite the fact that he was one of the youngest in the squad after he joined the club, Peter was elected at the age of 21 by the Watford players to be their representative at the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA), the players’ union. He assumes this was because he was seen as a sensible and capable type and was not a gambler.
From the formation of the Football League, footballers’ wages had been heavily regulated by the football authorities with modest limits set for basic wages and all the add-ons such a win bonuses and signing-on fees. But it had seemed unfair for decades that highly talented footballers such as Stanley Matthews who filled stadiums wherever they went, were limited to a maximum wage of £20 per week whilst directors squirrelled away huge gate receipts at successful clubs. When Watford won promotion from Division 4 in 1959/60 the players’ prize money was limited to £55. Not per player, but £55 to be shared between the entire playing squad! It would take an inspirational union leader with huge courage and determination to take on the powerful barons running FA and League football, and one was found in the shape of Jimmy Hill.
Hill went to work on battling the authorities to remove the wage limit, finally threatening the football authorities with player strikes (which Peter did not support), until at last the maximum wage limit was abolished in 1960. Hill’s colleague and England captain Johnny Haynes at Fulham was then trumpeted as the first £100 a week footballer. This of course has paved the way for the eye watering salaries and bonus payments in the game today, which players of Peter’s generation can only gasp at in astonishment with the rest of us.
In the middle of his career at Watford, Peter suffered a foot injury while playing in a training match in the stone-covered club car park at Vicarage Road. This prevented him from kicking the ball hard with his right foot but being equally good with his left he was able to continue playing. Diagnosis of the injury failed and the problem became chronic, causing Peter to miss games over following seasons. “We only had a heat lamp and massage for treatment in those days”.
When it came to the end of the 61/62 season, Peter was made an offer by non-league Kettering, which he thought he couldn’t refuse. “There was plenty of money in non-league football then, even in the so-called amateur game, where payments euphemistically termed ‘boot money’ were supposed to cover your expenses”. Peter earned the same wage as he was on at Watford plus a signing-on fee of £500, equivalent to several month’s wages at the time. Even better, players were expected to train on their own and only had to turn up for matches, giving plenty of time to set up a business for when their football career was over. “I had an E-type Jag by then, and could drive to matches in record time because there were so few other cars on the roads. I was probably a bit of a menace!”
Peter enjoyed a successful period plying his trade out of the league. After finishing top scorer at Kettering, he repeated that distinction at both Wisbech and Stevenage Town, before retiring from professional football at the age of 35 in 1968, turning down the offer of a final one year contract at Dover to concentrate fully on his garage business.
Towards the end of his time at Watford, chairman T Rigby Taylor befriended Peter and said he would propose him as a member at West Herts Golf Club, next to Cassiobury Park, along with Maurice Cook. This rather exclusive club was at that time generally only open to people who were running their own businesses. Peter agreed to join, although he initially gulped hard at the annual fees, and he remains a member over 50 years later.
Peter soon achieved a single figure handicap and played regularly with club professional Ronnie Mandeville, but he developed something of a reputation in later years, when the saying ‘Don’t play golf with Peter on a Tuesday” arose. This resulted from an unfortunate coincidence, where Peter had arranged Tuesday games of golf with first Cliff Holton and later George Catleugh, with each unexpectedly passing away the day before the game.
Even in his eighty-sixth year, Peter retains a razor sharp recall of his time in the game and a fondness for the club he so honourably represented. He still attends the occasional match at Vicarage Road, providing good company to those that are lucky enough to spend time with him, and happy to share his stories about a bygone era of the game.