Ask any Chelsea fan to name one of the best wingers to have worn the club’s colours over the past 30-plus years and the odds are that Clive Walker will feature. He was a remarkable player at times, was Walker, and in happier circumstances, may have left a much stronger legacy. It was his misfortune that he played for the club in a time best described as mediocre and, at its worst, shambolic. But he left behind some memories that will linger long at Stamford Bridge and will forever be recalled when the FA Cup comes around each year, especially if the Blues get drawn against Liverpool.
Clive was introduced to the Chelsea first team at the end of the 1976-77 promotion campaign. He had gradually filtered into the conscience of Bridge regulars in the form of snippets about the Chelsea reserve side. While the first team were riding an emotional wave to promotion, despite the stringent financial restrictions placed upon the club in the summer of 1976, rumours abounded that there was an “even better player in the stiffs”, who was faster, more skilful and goal-hungrier than anyone in the first team. Bold words, given that Jock Finnieston and Kenny Swain had performed pretty well in front of goal for most of the season!
He was introduced in a couple of mid-season friendlies and his mere appearance set him apart from others of his age. He was only 19 but it was clear even at this young age, that he wouldn’t be needing a comb into his 30s! He was left-footed, as quick as a sprinter and awkward to knock off the ball. And he could shoot! Those that liked wingers were excited by his willingness to run between players and take a pot shot at goal. Put simply, he was exciting to watch. The press said the Oxford-born striker “looks like Terry Yorath and shoots like Bobby Charlton”. The latter was fairly accurate, at least.
It wasn’t until December 1977 that Walker broke into the Chelsea first team on a regular basis. It coincided with a mid-season flourish that brought a glut of goals for a struggling team. Walker’s introduction was a breath of fresh air and in January 1978, he achieved his 15 minutes of fame. Actually, it was 90 minutes. Walker tore European champions Liverpool apart in the FA Cup third round at Stamford Bridge. His first goal stunned an over-confident Liverpool and set the scene for a memorable January afternoon. His shot, from 25 yards, with the outside of his left foot, caught Ray Clemence unaware and took a wicked swerve at it soared into the top corner of the net.
For most of the game, Walker tormented the likes of Emlyn Hughes and Joey Jones, switching wings when necessary and goading the Liverpool players to take him on. It was a joy to behold and inspired Chelsea to a 4-2 win, against all the odds. And this was achieved without Ray Wilkins, who had to withdraw due to injury.
The following season, a dire one for Chelsea, Walker was the catalyst for another – all too rare – glorious occasion. Chelsea were 0-3 down to Bolton when Walker came on as substitute in the 70th minute. So pathetic was the Blues’ first half performance that many supporters left their seats in the East Stand at the interval, congregating in the space between the stand and the old Shed End.
These were grim times for Chelsea and the club’s downward spiral prompted Chairman Brian Mears to invite highly-rated Yugoslav coach Miljan Miljanic to watch and assess Ken Shellito’s hapless team.
Within six minutes of coming on, Walker lifted the 19,000 crowd by creating a “consolation goal” for Tommy Langley. Walker had the bit between his teeth and started to torment Bolton’s Paul Jones down the flank. In the 84th minute, Swain pulled another goal back and three minutes on, Walker, typically, raced through to score the equalizer with a low cross shot. The stray supporters in nomansland went berserk, and they were in a good position as Walker was ploughing his furrow down their wing. He wasn’t finished, for in the 89th, another dash, a low cross and Bolton’s lumbering centre-back, Sam Allardyce (!), scythed the ball into the net for Chelsea’s winner. Miljanic left his seat and returned to Belgrade, never to be seen again. He knew that even a spirited 4-3 win was never going to be enough to save Chelsea.
They were relegated and spent the next four years steadily declining. Walker had some purple patches, scoring regularly and sometimes being compared to great wingers of old. But like many flankmen, he was prone to periods of inertia. He played a key role in another FA Cup win against Liverpool – every bit as remarkable a performance as a few years earlier – but in 1982-83, he often looked disinterested like most of Chelsea’s team. But at the end of the season, with Chelsea staring into the abyss, he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win at Bolton that effectively saved the Blues from the drop to the third division. His manager, John Neal, was none too convinced and for a while, it looked as though Walker would be on his way.
As Chelsea rebuilt in the summer of 1983-84 amid cries of “never again”, Walker was given the chance to play a part in the rebirth. He started the season well, but then broke his jaw. Waiting in the wings, so to speak, was one Pat Nevin. Walker’s career at Chelsea was effectively over and he was sold to Sunderland in the close season. He returned to torment Chelsea in the Football League Cup semi-final second leg, scoring twice in what was a dreadful night for the club. Walker was abused from the stands, too, which was especially heartbreaking for those that appreciated his efforts at the Bridge.
After winding down his career with QPR and Fulham, Walker then enjoyed a second wind in non-league football. He played for Woking and Cheltenham and was, without doubt, one of the best players at that level by some distance. At Woking, he was a pivotal figure in a fine footballing side that won the FA Trophy on a regular basis. One player who benefitted from Walker’s precision crossing was centre forward Darran Hay, a three-time Trophy winner himself. “Clive was the best I played with. He made so many goals for me and was head and shoulders above everyone else. To come out of the Football League and show the sort of dedication to playing that he did with Woking was incredible,” recalls Hay.
He gave the same level of commitment to Cheltenham finally retiring in 1999-00 when he was into his 40s. He played over 250 games in non-league football, scoring almost 100 goals.
It’s a pity that Clive Walker didn’t get the chance to appear in a successful Chelsea team. The only time that might have been possible was in 1983-84 but that jaw injury cut his season short. But any grey-haired Blues fan will recall, with relish, games against Liverpool and Bolton and a young player who had the mad idea of taking the opposition on. Clive Walker really could have been a contender…