WE expect our heroes to go on forever. Football fans are always drawn to the past, to the players that light-up our childhood and teenage years – individuals who were, when all was said and done, just a decade or so older than a 12 year-old fan. As time passes, the gap between the fan and his idols narrows, we eventually become part of the same bracket and with that, comes a reminder that we are all very much mortal.
The passing of Martin Peters is another blow to the belief that we go on for eternity. He was, according to Sir Alf Ramsey, “10 years ahead of his time”. Well, time caught up with Peters, as it does with all of us, but what memories the former England international left behind.
Peters was one of the first “modern” players, capable of playing in a host of positions, steady, clever but rarely flashy. No small measure of skill, he had the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. But Peters could have been elevated even higher if Wolfgang Weber had not scored a very late equaliser in normal time at Wembley in July 1966. That goal sent the World Cup final into extra time and robbed Peters of the enormous honour of scoring the winning goal in England’s finest hour. The plaudits went to his West Ham team-mate, Geoff Hurst, but there was no doubt that Peters was one of England’s heroes in 1966.
When he left West Ham in 1970, Peters became a £ 200,000 player. In the transaction that took Jimmy Greaves to Upton Park, Spurs undoubtedly got the better deal, Peters was 26, Greaves was past his best, as his short stint at West Ham proved. He became one of the most durable players among the boys of ‘66, playing 724 games in total and eventually retiring in 1981.
As sad as it is to say farewell to an England legend, Martin Peters’ death underlines that our heroes are gradually fading away. Each year, the pool of 1960s and 1970s icons becomes smaller and smaller. The obituary section of the Rothman’s book (ok, now it’s the Sun book) gets bigger and bigger and the print smaller. We start to see players being recognised with similar birthdates to our own and we recognise more and more names from our Soccer Stars in Action albums. To quote David Bowie from his classic album, Aladdin Sane, time’s “script is you and me, boys”.
Some teams from the past have become decimated by old father time. Celtic’s Lisbon Lions side of 1967 seems to have been particularly cruelly treated recently. Six of their 11 heroes from that memorable day have passed away, including Billy McNeill and Steve Chalmers in 2019. The England 1966 final team has now lost five and 10 in the 22-man squad. Interestingly, the West German team beaten at Wembley has lost just two, Helmut Haller and Lothar Emmerich. The successors to England’s crown in 1970, the mighty Brazilians, have nine of their World Cup winning XI intact, with only Carlos Alberto and Felix saying farewell.
Some classic teams are disappearing fast, though. The Spurs double winners of 1961 and Ipswich Town’s surprise champions of 1962 have both lost seven of their regular 11. The Everton team of 1970 has seen six of its number pass away: Gordon West, Keith Newton, Sandy Brown, Howard Kendall, Brian Labone and Alan Ball, the youngest member of the 1966 England team. Five of this group were under the age of 70, demonstrating that a lot of footballers, their bodies battered and broken and scarred from years of pain-killing injections, do not live to a ripe old age.
The oldest fully intact Football League title winning team is possibly Derby County’s 1974-75 side, managed by the late Dave Mackay. With the exception of Roger Davies (69) and Steve Powell (64), this squad is in its 70s and includes David Nish, Colin Todd, Bruce Rioch, Archie Gemmill, Kevin Hector and Francis Lee. Nottingham Forest’s 1977-78 championship team is also still going strong. Conversely, the Wolves team of 1953-54 has completely succumbed to the march of time.
Increasingly, we hear news about former players who are suffering from dementia or similar conditions. We are living longer in the 21st century, but that means we become more vulnerable to the afflictions of ageing. Sadly, Martin Peters had suffered from this cruel disease and hence, he had become largely invisible over the past few years. We all know the Jeff Astle story, an outstanding player and decent man who was taken very young at the age of 59. The debate about the effect of heading the ball on the brain is ongoing and could change the face of football.
In 1966, Peters helped create English football history. Ramsey’s team was never given the credit it deserved until much later, but with each passing decade, the scale of achievement becomes even more remarkable. The England team was of its time, but Martin Peters, to reiterate Ramsey’s famous comment, was well into the next decade. Thankfully, the Peters legacy will live on and his place in football’s pantheon is assured.
While we remember the considerable achievements of an excellent player, let’s also remind ourselves that our heroes do not go on forever, so let’s enjoy them and respect their role in making football the most popular sport in the world. They might be placed on a pedestal by thousands of fans, but essentially, they are flesh and blood and just human beings. But winning the World Cup does make some of them rather special….