The sad and premature death of Norwich City great Martin Peters in 2019 yielded, inevitably, a nuée ardente of sympathy and sadness from all around the footballing world, including a very genuine outpouring of sorrow and sympathy from many Canary fans.
Peters had been, in the years leading up to his death, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, meaning that, for many, those sympathies would have been fuelled by their experiences of witnessing that dreadful condition slowly and inexorably erode away the mind and personality of their own loved ones.
There are few of us who have not been touched by that sort of personal loss. It’s one that, for some, is almost as painful as death itself; the steady realisation that someone close to you, someone you loved and shared a life with, no longer knows who you are.
In Peters, it stole away from us someone who was not only one of the finest footballers that England has, or will, ever produce but a true gentleman as well.
If you are too young to have ever seen him play, you will, doubtless, have been told about him by those older Canary fans who you know. When they do, look at the far-off place in their eyes that accompanies their memories of the man wearing the number 11 shirt.
In his pomp, Peters was the complete midfielder, peerless and courageous, a man famously described as being ‘ten years ahead of his time’ by former England manager Sir Alf Ramsey. There wasn’t a weakness in his game – he genuinely possessed every single quality you’d expect of someone who played in his position.
He could bring the ball out of defence. He could act as a shield for said defence and play, if required, as a sweeper. He could tackle as well, but his forte wasn’t the hard and physical coming together of limbs that we associate with a tackle today – the type that takes a man out of the game, enlivening the crowd in the process.
No, Peters was able to nick the ball off an opponent with minimal effort and little to no contact. He was a will-o’-the-wisp; there and gone again but with the ball at his feet.
This unerring ability to appear out of nowhere earnt him the nickname ‘the ghost’, such was his seemingly supernatural ability to be at exactly the right place and at the right time to do exactly what was needed at any point of the game.
Even today you can watch Peters in action and appreciate this. A passage of play will take place with him having no part in it, no presence or influence. He is passive, a spectator. Yet, at the moves denouement, he is the King.
Peters was denied footballing immortality by Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup Final. Hurst and Wolfgang Weber, whose last-minute equaliser in that game took it to extra time, meant that, rather than being one of an elite handful of men who have scored the decisive goal in World Cup Finals, his is now a supporting role in that pantheon of scorers at English football’s greatest triumph.
Hardly a consolation prize of course, but then again, whenever 1966 is mentioned in footballing terms, which name most readily comes to mind first?
Hurst of course. And maybe those of Charlton, Moore and Ball. Peters scored in the final yet was never the symbol of that afternoon that the aforementioned quartet have become or an icon of the tournament in the way that Eusebio, Rattin and a Russian linesman ultimately became.
Not that it will have bothered him of course. He had a World Cup winners medal and nothing to prove to anyone.
Much has been said and written about his £50,000 move to Norwich from Tottenham in March 1975. He’d hardly been agitating for a move and, at just 31, Peters might, rightly, have felt that he still had to offer the club in terms of his playing ability and influence on younger teammates – the likes of Jimmy Neighbour, Neil McNab and Keith Osgood.
How might they have benefitted from his continued presence at the club? Neighbour, as it turns out, eventually did but only when he joined Peters at Norwich 18 months after Peters had done so himself.
Norwich manager John Bond knew that Peters, ever the professional, needed little to no supervision or management. As far as he was concerned, his new acquisition could have the run of the place. Live where he liked, train as hard or as often as he liked and say what he liked – there’d always be someone to listen to him, including Bond himself.
Yet Peters made little to no use of the indulgences that Bond would have afforded him, training hard and moving to rented accommodation nearer to the club where, in time, his poolside parties would become much looked forward to events for his teammates and the club’s coaching staff.
His impact at Carrow Road was immediate.
He saw out the 1974-75 season in imperious form from the off, hitting the ground running and playing a big part in ensuring the club’s return to the top flight in England after a year’s sabbatical back in Division Two.
The ten league games he subsequently appeared in for Norwich that season were, up to then, the first he had ever played in outside of Division One – a career that, ultimately, saw him make 724 league appearances for his four English clubs, of which all but 35 were played in the top division.
At one point he was being seriously considered for an England recall.
Don Revie’s side had two matches in early 1977, a World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg on March 30th whilst, the previous month, the Netherlands were at Wembley for a friendly.
That latter game had seen the Dutch, led by Johan Cruyff but inspired by two-goal Jan Peters, dominate so utterly and completely in their 2-0 win, it led to strident calls for an England team, over-reliant, perhaps, on Kevin Keegan, to bring in a few players who had, to coin a phrase, ‘been there and done that’ at the very highest level.
Peters, who ended up winning the Canaries’ Player of the Year award at the end of that season, was the man whose name kept on being mentioned in dispatches.
Demands that were, ultimately, put to rest by Revie’s successor, Ron Greenwood who stated that he was building an England team for the following year’s World Cup and that, as much as he admired Peters, a player who he had once managed during their time together at West Ham, he felt that, at 34, Peters was ‘too old’ to have a future with England; declining to name him in his squad for the return match against Luxembourg.
This didn’t stop Greenwood from promptly calling up Liverpool’s Ian Callaghan, who played in the same position as Peters, for his own England recall, eleven years after his last appearance. Callaghan duly played in England’s 2-0 win over Luxembourg, winning the last of his four England caps in the process.
Little was made of the fact that he was nearly eighteen months older than Peters at the time.
Peters might have been disappointed but, ever the professional, would have simply just got on with his job at Norwich. He played in all of City’s 45 league and cup matches that season, ending it as second only to Viv Busby in terms of goals scored (8), one of which was a perfectly executed volley in a 2-1 win over Bristol City on April 16th.
He was a key player for Norwich in each of the following two seasons as well, making 36 league and cup appearances in the 1977-78 campaign followed by 42 during the 1978-79 season, enduing that as the club’s leading goalscorer with 12, ten of which were in the league as Norwich finished, for them, in a disappointing 16th place.
A year or so, at the conclusion of the 1979-80 season, Peters had made a further 48 appearances in total, the last of which was in a 4-2 win over Derby County at Carrow Road on May 3rd.
That turned out to be his last appearance for the club.
He was, at 36, more than ready for another season at Norwich but found the appeal of his first managerial role that summer at Sheffield United rather too appealing to turn down. Especially sp as then Norwich manager John Bond had told him that same summer he had been asked if he would be interested in becoming Manchester City manager if, as seemed likely, incumbent Malcolm Allison ended up either resigning or being fired.
Bond was suitably tempted and ended up at Maine Road that October and it seems very likely now that, given he would have anticipated taking his assistant, Ken Brown with him, he was letting Peters know there would soon be a vacancy at Norwich and he couldn’t think of anyone better to succeed him.
He also knew, however, that Sheffield United had already made their interest in Peters known and didn’t want to deny him the chance of starting his managerial career there at the expense of a possible one down the line at Norwich.
Peters opted for Yorkshire but later admitted that he thought he could, on reflection, have carried on playing for Norwich in the First Division for a bit longer and that, had the club offered him any sort of coaching opportunity, he would have been more than happy to commit himself to Carrow Road for as long as was needed.
But this was not to be.
He is, rightly, remembered with great affection at West Ham, Tottenham and Norwich, something which will always remain the case – three clubs whose fans will always acknowledge that he was “one of us”.
A true legend of the yellow and green and simply the greatest player to have ever played for our club.