Des Walker was a Nottingham Forest and England legend
Credit: EMPICS / GETTY IMAGES
It was the soundtrack to one of English football’s most gilded careers, from Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday, to 59 games for England: “You’ll never beat Des Walker.”
Never mind beating him, there was also a good chance you would never meet Walker. For a man who tasted some of the greatest highs in the game – Wembley final wins at Forest, a World Cup semi-final and a stint in Serie A – Walker was notoriously publicity-shy, knocking away interview requests like a cautious opening batsman.
And yet here he is, still lean and fit aged 55, standing on the touchline at Manchester City’s academy stadium, chatting away about everything from Brian Clough to the art of defending and his days as perhaps the world’s most unlikely lorry driver.
This is a rare opportunity to enter Walker’s world and it seems there is only one place to start: how did one of England’s most masterful centre-backs, whose athletic excellence at his peak would have been a welcome addition to Gareth Southgate’s squad at the European Championship this summer, end up chugging up and down Britain’s motorways?
“I did the running for Nestle, and drove for nearly five years,” he says. “I’d left Forest [in January 2005, after Joe Kinnear was sacked] and I was driving all over the place. When I was a youngster in London I used to live two doors up from the Coca-Cola factory. I used to watch the lorry driver reversing into this tight spot countless times and remember being amazed at how he did it.
“When I was in my mid-twenties at Forest, I was bored one summer and I took my Class One HGV [exam]. I also took the motorbike and bus ones, just to fill my licences up and have all the ticks.”
Walker is warming to his theme, his boyish enthusiasm belying his grey hairs. “I always drove ‘artics’ [articulated lorries], you know,” he says.
“It’s a challenge, you never get bored. They’re long hours and you’ve got to respect lorry drivers because it’s hard work and a lot of concentration
“They seem determined now to make out it’s not a skill. Let me tell you, it’s a massive skill and not everyone is confident enough to drive them. Many people can’t, and are so cagey, so those drivers must be commended in my view. I look back on it now and I really enjoyed it.”
Lorry-driving might have become an unlikely second career for Walker, but there is no doubt how he will be remembered by the majority of football fans of a certain vintage – a Rolls-Royce of a defender, ruthlessly efficient, utterly reliable, and who seemed to have an inbuilt radar for sniffing out danger.
He found defending so effortless he could have been puffing on a cigar, although he was actually more likely to be found pulling on a cigarette when not on the field – his heavy smoking a nod to an age when such habits were not considered a problem, even for elite athletes.
He carved out his reputation at Forest, under Clough, but actually made more appearances for Wednesday. In 1990, he was crucial for England as they reached the World Cup semi-finals before that gut-wrenching defeat by Germany on penalties.
Walker in action for Nottingham Forest against Notts County in 1984
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
“My whole career was a highlight,” he says. “I’d like to think anyone who watched me play long enough would think, ‘He consistently did his job’. It’s easy to play 10 games a season and do well. If you do well for 60, or 70 games, then that’s something else.
“It’s what I was paid to do and I was the professional doing my job. I can hold my head up high and say I gave my best every time I went out on the field. Forest fans, especially, and Wednesday fans, hold me in esteem because they think I gave everything for their club. Even in my late thirties I gave everything. If people look back on that, I’m happy.”
It is unquestionably at Forest where Walker will be remembered. He lifted two League Cups, in 1989 and 1990, and played in the 1991 FA Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur, when he suffered the misfortune of heading the crucial goal into his own net.
There is also the famous moment of Walker’s only senior goal, against Luton Town in 1992, when he made a rare foray up front to crash a shot past Steve Sutton – on loan from Forest at the time – in the final seconds.
Off the field, he was never flash, despite being once described by Roy Keane as “a world-class playboy and the man for the night-time adventures”. Indeed, former team-mates remember him driving into the club in a sponsored Skoda.
The respect between Walker and Clough, his manager, flowed both ways. After matches, Clough would untie Walker’s boots and take them off, turning to the dressing room to say: “If you lot play like Desmond, I’ll take your boots off as well.”
Walker played under other managers, including Sir Bobby Robson and Sven-Goran Eriksson, but nobody came close to Clough. “Best manager I ever had, by a long way,” Walker says. “Simple and effective. He didn’t ask you to do something you weren’t good at, you had to do what you were good at. You had to have courage to play for him. You had to be able to make a mistake and get on with it.
“I went there as a 16-year-old and he made me grow up in one year. He taught me to be a man, he didn’t teach me to be a good player.”
Brian Clough and assistant Peter Taylor on the sidelines at Anfield in 1978
A few hundred yards away from where Walker is speaking, Pep Guardiola has just lifted the Premier League title. Whereas Champions League success continues to elude Guardiola with City, Clough led Forest to successive European Cups.
“Great managers can manage players, whatever the age or era,” Walker says. “Cloughie would adjust to anything. He’d still have his character if he was managing now, but you wouldn’t have the lifespan of management if he couldn’t adapt. Football has always changed, it’s not been the last 10 years you know? He could manage anywhere in the world.”
Walker is now doing some coaching of his own, working alongside Dennis Wise in charge of Garuda Select, a UK-based academy for young Indonesian footballers.
He has had the role for three years, after leaving a similar position with Derby County’s academy, and during our chat in Manchester he is keeping one eye on his charges, playing a few yards away.
Des Walker coaching
“I never thought about coaching as a player,” he says. “I played with players who were taking their badges. Brian Laws at Forest was one and I always remember Cloughie saying to him, ‘Son, what are you going to teach them, how to tackle badly?’
“After I’d retired, everyone was saying I should coach or manage. I always thought that the right thing would come along for me. Whether you’re coaching a top team or not, coaching is coaching. My knowledge of the game will come out wherever I am.”
Walker and Wise are charged with the task of discovering young Indonesian footballers and the work is already paying off. Two players have signed for European clubs and eight are playing in the Indonesian top flight. “I’d been working with youngsters at Derby anyway and if you see the improvement in a player, that is the reward,” Walker says.
“Technically they are very good, but in terms of the game understanding they are behind Europe. That’s my job as a coach. Some take it on quicker than others, but they are a pleasure to train. I can only live for tomorrow. I don’t look back on anything, I can’t live yesterday. Football for me as a player is over.”
And with that, Walker is off.