In a matter of months he went from being seen as English football’s big managerial hope on the international stage to being a load of rubbish – more or less literally. Graham Dunbar looks back
For followers of the national team unconvinced by Steve McClaren, some comfort can be taken from the example of Mike Walker, a man who proved it is possible to go from England contender to managerial pariah in less than a year. Walker’s career path once seemed to be following that of Alf Ramsey: reaching the top after taking a small East Anglian club to unimagined heights. Eventually, he would more closely resemble Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos: sharp-suited and well groomed, with a sideline in waste management.
Younger readers will need reminding how and when this happened and, indeed, who exactly Mike Walker is. Absurd as it sounds now, he might have occupied the England coaching bench at Euro 96. Doubt it? Well, it is worth recalling the crisis of confidence in English football, at club and country level, as autumn promise turned to winter chill in 1993.
Within a month Manchester United, England’s only representatives, were dumped out of the European Cup and Graham Taylor showed in games against Holland and San Marino that it was impossible for him to lead a team to the World Cup. Amid hand-wringing in the media, a nation turned to a Norwich City team whose little-known and poorly paid manager had just masterminded a bold tactical triumph against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup. By becoming the first English side to win in the Olympic Stadium, Walker’s Norwich proved that home-grown coaches could succeed, playing in the right way, on an international stage. And so for a few golden weeks, the silver-haired, bronze-skinned Walker – who combined an obvious vanity with a neat line in self‑mocking humour – was consulted as an oracle and tipped to succeed Turnip Taylor. The two personality traits came together in one of Walker’s most memorable lines, that to earn a decent salary on his incentive-laden contract at Carrow Road – then still a fiefdom of, er, “shrewd” chairman Robert Chase – he’d need to win the League, FA Cup and Eurovision Song Contest every year.
Norwich were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by eventual winners Internazionale in December. Walker was gone a month later as he cashed in on his high stock value by signing a lengthy contract to revive Everton, the team he supported in his north Wales boyhood. But he was sacked after ten months at Goodison, his team bottom of the Premiership having just escaped relegation on the last day of the previous season. Walker had achieved the big pay-day he craved, but was now on a fast track to obscurity. He left Everton feeling betrayed by owner Peter Johnson and with a large chip on his shoulder. For the third time in three managerial jobs, he blamed the chairman for preventing him seeing the job through.
At Colchester United in 1987 he was sacked with the team top of the old Division Four after falling out with chairman Jonathan Crisp. Walker licked his wounds for four years as reserve coach at Norwich before given a chance at the first team. Chairman Chase was rewarded with a third-place finish in the inaugural Premiership season, but he could not cope with Walker’s popularity or expectations and seemed relieved to see him go. After Everton, Walker invested his pay-off in a Norwich skip-hire firm and by 1996 was ready to return to the fray. But only the forgiving Canaries were interested and then as much for sentimental and marketing reasons.
Left almost bankrupt and bereft by the Chase regime, a relegated and rebuilding club leaned heavily on the feel-good factor Walker brought back with him. Yet this was a different man altogether, introspective and cynical when trying to connect with a younger, brasher breed of player than the wise old pros he had left behind. Perhaps Walker and McClaren could swap notes on how to handle the articulate and outspoken Danny Mills, a local lad offloaded to Charlton for £250,000 and worth £4 million barely a year later. He was the first to have his man-management skills challenged by Craig Bellamy – a confrontation that could have cost Norwich dear when Crystal Palace almost stole the teenager for a measly £1m, rather than the £6.5m eventually paid by Coventry City two years later.
By the spring of 1998, a disjointed City side steered clear of relegation into the third tier with back-to-back 5-0 home wins in April – and Walker was duly sacked by new club owner Delia Smith. Even then, pride would not let him accept a lesser job and links with such sides as Hartlepool, Dunfermline and Colchester came to nothing. In late 2000, he joined Apoel Nicosia in Cyprus. It proved an unhappy ten-month stint, though Walker still lives there today, enjoys kickabouts with British Army families and happily shares his views on the mini-resurgence of Cypriot football.
Time has healed the split with Delia and, although the skip company is no more, he is an occasional visitor to Carrow Road, accompanied by a perma-tanned and blonde partner. Could have been a Sir Alf-type; ended up as a Big Ron clone. However, go to YouTube some time and check out those Norwich goals in Munich – Jeremy Goss’s immortal volley, Mark Bowen’s smart header – and listen for Motty’s commentary: “This is almost fantasy football.” It was, and it was Mike Walker who made it real.
From WSC 245 July 2007