A slice of Premier League genius: Des Walker

Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to a centre-back who prompted existential crisis in even the very best forwards.

The most well-known and best chants dedicated to a singular star usually centre on a creative or forward player. There’s Giggs tearing opponents apart. There’s Jamie Vardy having a party. Ozil, so the Emirates faithful insist, is better than Zidane.

Elsewhere it is character that is largely championed. Steve Gerrard is f***ing hard while Stuart Pearce was celebrated for the psychotic nature of his competitiveness.

It is rare for a centre-back to have a song in his honour but of course they exist and have done so. Manchester City supporters like to sing about Vincent Kompany to the tune of Mrs Robinson and inform their captain that he is ‘loved more than he will know’. Going further back but remaining in Manchester, Gordon McQueen was six foot two, with eyes of blue and was after you: again, referencing and honouring combativeness.

Former Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and England defender Des Walker also had his own tribute from the terraces and it rang out across the City Ground and Hillsborough for the duration of his twenty year career, usually following a break-away that saw the Hackney-born number six outstrip his opposite number for pace and knock the ball safely back to his keeper’s control. The song lacked humour; it even lacked endearment. It was a boast really, and as no-nonsense as they come, the latter aspect very much like the player himself. You’ll never beat Des Walker.

You’ve never beat Des Walker. It was a chant stripped of all nuance, leaving only the highest compliment you could possibly level at a defender. Walker wasn’t just good; he was so good it was futile even to attempt taking him on. In that regard it is the first, last and only example of an existential song originating from a football stadium.

‘He used to sing that song ‘You’ll never beat Des Walker!’ – he used to drive you mad when you were playing against him!’ Gary Lineker admitted years later, thinking back to the numerous occasions he’d been completely marked out of a game by his international team-mate.

Walker signed for Forest as an apprentice and went on to win the club’s Player of the Year award four years consecutively. In those same seasons he was inducted into the PFA Team of the Year too meaning beyond any reasonable doubt that in the lead-up to the Premier League’s founding he was – by some distance – the best defender out there. Yet when the razzmatazz of modern football all kicked off he was absent, having been sold to Sampdoria. The following year Forest were relegated.

A successful season in Serie A led to a prompt return to our shores as Sheffield Wednesday shelled out £2.75m for him and for eight campaigns he excelled for the Owls. In 2007, six years after his departure he was voted the best centre-back in the club’s history.

Walker read danger better than most and on the rare occasions that let him down he had a sprinter’s pace to atone but perhaps his greatest quality is one that sounds damning but is not meant so. He was a poor footballer but knowing this he never tried to be one. Instead he was the purest of defenders, first, foremost, and only that. He kept things simple and focused on doing the simple exceptionally well and in this regard it’s no wonder that Clough rated him so highly. It’s no wonder too that on those steps you can detect the sadness behind the magnanimous words.

It might seem counter-intuitive to flag up a goal as Walker’s slice of genius. After all, this was a player whose entire M.O. was to stop them occurring; sticking limpet-like to forwards; exasperating them into ineptitude; clearing his lines and intercepting with the minimum of fuss. Some context is required.

In 407 appearances for Forest, Desmond Sinclair Walker scored precisely once. In 800+ professional games – 59 of them for the Three Lions – he scored precisely once. Better still, it was a last minute equaliser.

It arrived on New Year’s Day in 1992, with Luton Town the visitors. The Hatters had scored in the opening minute and elsewhere dominated a game in which Forest were – in the words of Cloughie – ‘garbage’. Indeed so furious was the legendary gaffer that he missed the memorable moment, as he stormed to the dressing room ready to administer the almightiest of rollockings.

Things were desperate now for the home side as the ref checked his watch. Des Walker was up front. That’s how desperate they were. And eschewing subtlety the balls were lumped long and hard.

One found Walker in space, to the left of the penalty area. He took a touch. The crowd collectively experienced a double-whammy of realisation: that not only was a leveller forthcoming but it would derive from their hero who was always, absolutely always stationed at the other end. It was fired into the roof of the net ruthlessly and carnage ensued.

The shot was fierce. It was, aptly for the goal-scorer in question, unbeatable.