Martin Peters: 1943-2019

by | Dec 21, 2019

Ten years ahead of his time, they said. Sir Alf did, first. A midfielder with a ghostly presence on the pitch, able to drift into goal-scoring positions without drawing any attention to himself. An elegant footballer, at a time when elegance was neither encouraged nor protected. And he was almost the most famous of them all. Geoff Hurst might have ended up the answer to a pub quiz question, the half-forgotten man of ’66, had it not been for a last minute deflection which led to Wolfgang Weber scrambling a late, late equaliser on that sunny afternoon in July 1966. Arise Sir Geoff. Arise Sir Bobby, too. Club-mates both, but it all might have been so different.

Martin Peters never did get his knighthood, though he did get an MBE in 1978.

He falls into that rare category of “players remembered affectionately by the supporters of more than one club”, too. He had eleven years at West Ham United, before going to Tottenham Hotspur, becoming the first £200,000 footballer in the process. It was a strange deal, £150,000 in actual money and a fading Jimmy Greaves, valued at £50,000, and Spurs seemed to get the best out of it. Martin Peters only managed one trophy in eleven years with West Ham, a European Cup Winners Cup in 1965. He’d not been selected for the previous year’s FA Cup final team. At Spurs, came a further European trophy, the UEFA Cup in 1972, and this was sandwiched two League Cup wins, against Aston Villa in 1971 and Norwich City in 1973.

His final England cap came the following May, against Scotland at Hampden Park. That 1966 World Cup final had only been Peters’ eighth for his country. He became England’s nearly man again in 1970, when his two goals put his national team into a seemingly unassailable position in the World Cup quarter-final against West Germany in Leon. What if England had held onto that lead? Would they have given Italy a game in the Azteca in the semi-final? They probably would, though it’s difficult to imagine that it would have resulted in plaques being erected around the stadium afterwards.

It is astonishing to think that he only made his debut for his country on the 8th of May 1966 for a friendly against Yugoslavia, as Ramsey continued to tinker with his team ahead of the finals. He played in two further friendlies before the squad was announced and was not picked for the first match, a dull, grinding, goalless draw against Mexico at an underwhelmed Wembley. England started to improve from the moment that Peters was added to the midfield, and he didn’t lose his place in the team again. He ended up winning 67 caps for his country, scoring 20 goals.

At 31 years of age, Peters joined Norwich City in 1975, and would go on to spend five years at Carrow Road. There would be no silverware this time (he joined the club in March, but was not selected for their appearance in that year’s League Cup final against Aston Villa), but he was voted player of the year twice, in 1976 and 1977, and played 206 games for the club, scoring only two fewer than he had in the previous five years. Not bad, when we consider that he was 36 by the time he left Carrow Road, and that all of his goals for Norwich also came in the First Division.

There followed a brief and unsuccessful stint in coaching and management. Sheffield United were already seriously in decline when he arrived at Bramall Lane in the summer of 1980, but the retirement of manager Harry Haslam in January 1981 saw Peters take over as manager but the team go into a tail-spin, winning just three of the sixteen matches played under him and falling from twelfth place in the table and into the relegation places on the last day of the season, when a last minute penalty miss by Don Givens against Walsall sent the club into the Fourth Division for the first time. Had Givens scored, Walsall would have been relegated instead.

As with other members of the 1966 team, Martin Peters succumbed to Alzeimer’s disease, with his condition being made public in 2016. Sadly, dementia has not been uncommon among the professional footballers of this era, and research into this apparent connection – professional footballers are almost three and a half times more likely to die from a neurodegenerative disease than the general population – is still in its infancy. Football, it can sometimes feel, still hasn’t quite faced up to the potential costs that its players have undergone for the game, and it’s likely that the full findings of further studies into this area will be contentious, now matter what they find. We should, however, never underestimate the terrible cruelty of Alzheimer’s disease.

And neither did players of his generation enjoy the riches that today’s star players do. After the Sheffield United disaster, Martin Peters worked in insurance for 17 years, before being made redundant. He later worked in match-day hospitality for both Spurs and West Ham, and even spent four years on the board of directors at White Hart Lane between 1998 and 2002, as a non-executive director with special responsibility for supporter liaison. A player from a different generation, whose playing career was, at 882 games in all competitions across 22 years, as full as they came.