In an ocean of easy to ignore ‘breaking football news’, there has been a story of late which, while possibly having fallen under the radar for many people, certainly was genuinely newsworthy.
The early retirement from the game of Sheffield Wednesday’s Jérémy Hélan, at the age of just 24, didn’t come with the usual early retirement caveat of it being an injury-driven decision. Hélan is instead set to bring a premature end to his football career in the name of his religion.
In a footballing world where many observers tend to view the modern player as a detached-from-reality individual, an entity often internally generated and motivated by financial, material and personal gain, instances of someone stepping away from a lucrative sporting career at a young age for anything other than injury often provokes an incredulous reaction.
In tennis, Björn Borg, at the peak of his powers, aged just 26 and the winner of 11 grand slam titles, with the potential for more, walked away from the game in 1983. It was a decision which the sport itself, and even his rivals who were set to prosper from his disappearance, struggled to accept more than the man himself.
Back within football and former Liverpool midfielder Craig Johnston walked away from the game at the age of 28 to help look after his stricken sister.
These are incidents which left an overall feeling that there was an empty seat at the table. A seat that one day might be reclaimed by the estranged sports star.
In 1969, football in England reverberated to the shock and awe of another early retirement. Just like Hélan, Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Peter Knowles also walked away from the game in his mid-20s.
While Hélan, a utility player on the periphery of the Sheffield Wednesday first team, might well provoke no more than an eyebrow or two to be raised away from the cocoon of the those who play, work and support the South Yorkshire club, it was a seismic shock to the entire nation when Knowles walked a similar path over four-and-a-half decades earlier.
As Hélan walks away from a game which is flooded with players, a squad game where anonymity can almost be found due to the sheer volume of rivals for a place in the first team, Knowles was a product of a bygone era when a league title could be won using just 14 players. Week in, week out, most clubs fielded the same line-up. Footballing faces were familiar and their names were widely known.
Knowles was a household name in the summer of 1969; a man touted as a potential England international, and who was being billed as a contender for a place in Alf Ramsey’s squad for Mexico 70, a squad that his brother, Cyril, the Tottenham Hotspur full-back – who was already a full international – was also in with a chance of being a part of.
Bill Shankly had made overtures for his signature and a move to Liverpool was very much in the offing. Instead, that September, Knowles walked away from professional football, and he never looked back.
Having signed an eye-catching six-year contract for Wolves in 1962 as a raw 17-year-old, Knowles had progressed to the first team at Molineux by the tail-end of 1963, under the wing of the legendary Stan Cullis, becoming a fixture in the side during their 1964-65 relegation campaign.
It was under Ronnie Allen, the man who led Wolves back to the top-flight in 1967, that Knowles fully blossomed. The goals flowed, as did his on-pitch aggression, something which worked as the primary source of drive with which his career was fuelled. Skilful, direct, imposing and powerful, Knowles was very much a crowd favourite. He could just as easily take defenders on with subtlety as he could barge through them as if they weren’t even there. It was this force of nature style of play which piqued the interest of Shankly.
Having helped Wolves to a bitter-sweet promotion in 1967, one in which they fumbled the title on the final day, enabling Jimmy Hill’s Coventry City to take the top-spot. Knowles set out on the first of two trips to guest star in the United States in a FIFA initiative to promote the game in North America.
Wolves themselves sent a team to play as representatives of Los Angeles in a mini-tournament that summer. Knowles would return again two years later in 1969 to play under the badge of the Kansas City Spurs, in what would turn out to be a life-changing trip.
Between those two visits to the United States, Knowles’ career and his plans for the remainder of it continued to be played out. An injury-ravaged return to Division One, which saw him lose half of the 1967-68 campaign, was offset by a call-up to the England under-23 squad. A turbulent season was marked by him assisting the club in avoiding relegation and the handing in of the first in a series of transfer requests.
That season was another marked by individual praise for Knowles, but it was also shrouded in collective negativity for his club. Ronnie Allen left as manager in November, to be replaced by Bill McGarry. Wolves nose-dived after the turn of the year, winning just three of their last 20 league games, avoiding a relegation battle due to the inability of other clubs to catch up, rather than any fight put up by themselves. There was also an FA Cup exit suffered away at Hull City of Division Two. With Mexico on the horizon, Knowles’ frustrations at Molineux continued.
Read | Champions of the world: Wolves and the Stam Cullis era
In the summer of 1969, Alf Ramsey took England on an acclimatisation tour of Central and North America in preparation for the following summer’s World Cup. For Knowles, while the call-up didn’t come, it didn’t mean he wouldn’t be travelling Stateside.
The Kansas City Spurs were waiting, and it was while he was in the Midwest that not only Knowles football career but his whole life changed direction, when one day he answered a knock at the door and found himself face-to-face with two Jehovah’s Witnesses.
That one unexpected meeting set off chain-reaction for Knowles. He looked at himself in a way he never had before. He questioned himself in a way he never had before. His actions as a person, the persona he took out on to the pitch with him became a focus of discomfort. He looked at his perceived ‘Jack the Lad’ reputation and the trappings of an increasingly star-struck sport, all of which he had previously embraced and enjoyed.
The MG sports car on his driveway, emblazoned with his name down the side, the pop star adulation he received at every turn, the will to escape the confines of a club he felt were holding him back, the wanting of bigger and better things for himself and his career. Had Shankly tried to sign him as the 1968-69 season drew to a close then maybe things might have been very different for Peter Knowles.
The man who returned to Molineux for the 1969-70 pre-season came armed with a new world view. He didn’t want to move to Liverpool, but he still didn’t want to stay at Wolves, yet the reasons he wanted to leave were now starkly different to the ones he previously held.
He began the season well, as did Wolves, winning their opening four games. Knowles was open about his new found beliefs and was open about his intentions to possibly walk away from football. However, Knowles club and his team-mates didn’t fully believe it would come to him walking away however.
When Knowles took to the field at Molineux on 6 September against Nottingham Forest, it would prove to be for the very last time as a professional footballer. He was still three weeks short of his 24th birthday.
Knowles’ club, his manager, his team-mates, his fans and the game as a whole expected him to return. Bill McGarry had his training kit laid out for him on the Monday morning, following the 3-3 draw against Forest.
Knowles didn’t turn up. He instead became a milkman, and then worked in a warehouse.
As the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months, the reality of the situation sunk in at Wolves. Yet there was one near-miss that November when McGarry almost procured a U-turn from his missing striker.
With Knowles’ former attack partners Derek Dougan and Frank Munro suspended, McGarry took advantage of a visit Knowles undertook to Molineux to pick up his football boots for the purpose of coaching some local children. Called into the manager’s office, Knowles almost relented to McGarry’s plea for him to return to the club in a time of need.
Having felt wanted by his former manager, having seen his old team-mates training, Knowles walked out of his meeting with McGarry feeling like a Wolves player once again. Second thoughts took hold, however, and with fears that he wouldn’t be able to walk away a second time should he return, he informed McGarry that there was no way back.
The season ebbed away for Wolves, who eventually finished in 13th. An early 1970s revival of sorts took place at Molineux soon after: fourth in Division One in 1971 and 1973, combined with a run to the semi-final of the FA Cup; the UEFA Cup final reached in 1972; and a League Cup win in 1974. The great question for Wolves fans of that generation is: what if Peter Knowles had still been playing?
In the hope of him one day changing his mind and returning, Wolves held onto Knowles’ registration as a player until 1982.
Knowles himself has never professed regret about leaving football behind. The self-interest he harboured as a player, the aggression he had to take on to the pitch to be the effective force he was, it all just fell away from him. A fiercely private man, who continues to knock on doors for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he is always said to be a man at one with himself, a man who is content – something you can argue he never was when he was the next big thing in English football.
In 1991, Billy Bragg penned a song about him by the title of ‘God’s Footballer’. Knowles did pull on a Wolves shirt one more time for Kenny Hibbert’s testimonial. The image of him in early 1980s gold and black is an evocative one of what might have been, but in many ways of what still was. For a sport which invests so much within the concept of fans and players alike ‘believing’ in a concept, football still to this day struggles to accept the idea that a footballer could possibly opt to voluntarily walk away from the game for his own beliefs or needs.
So often deemed a waste of talent, Peter Knowles was a man who gave it all away to follow his own path. Whether you or I agree with that path or not, he deserves a great deal of respect from the game for having the strength of conviction to see that through.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74