Remembering Martin Peters: the total midfielder “a decade ahead of his time”

Remembering Martin Peters: the total midfielder “a decade ahead of his time”

William Peters hoped his son would follow him as a Thames Lighterman. Life on the river was a tantalising prospect, but a new passion would soon lead him on a different path. When Martin Peters died, another link in a golden chain was broken. We’ve now lost half the team that graced Wembley on that glorious day in 1966. 

Our heroes in cherry red shirts are as much a part of the Swinging Sixties as the Beatles and miniskirts. Peters scored the goal that almost won England the World Cup. A miss-hit clearance dropped to his right foot and a new sobriquet was born: the ‘ghost’ had just put England 2-1 up.

History remembers the hat-trick scored by Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy, but what about the third member of West Ham’s World Cup trio; what about the lighterman’s son whose inch-perfect cross found Hurst to defeat Argentina in the quarter-final? 

Unlike the majority of boys raised in post-war Britain, Peters wasn’t obsessed with football. He enjoyed the game but displayed an equal flair for cricket and was a promising all-rounder. However, he made rapid progress with Dagenham Boys, ostensibly as a centre-half, and soon captured the attention of national selectors. 

Peters won six caps for England Schoolboys in a variety of positions including left-back and left-half; an early indication of his versatility. He played his final schoolboy game at Wembley against West Germany, a side that included Wolfgang Overath, his performance drawing a glowing reference from German coach Dettmar Cremer. 

The portents grew even stronger as West Ham scout Wally St Pier sent Peters a telegram on the day of the match. St Pier had already recruited Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, a burgeoning commitment to youth that would prove to be a magnet. Peters was courted by a number of clubs, including Arsenal, Spurs and Fulham, but it was the Hammers who secured his signature as a ground-staff boy in May 1959. 

As an apprentice, Peters earned £5 a week in the summer and £6 during the season. He would paint the stands, sweep terraces and clean senior players’ boots. It was a harsh introduction but essential for any kid learning the ropes; today’s pampered academy players would surely benefit from such discipline. 

Peters signed professional in November 1960, playing primarily as right-half, while manager Ron Greenwood gave him his first-team debut in April 1962 against Cardiff. His third appearance was curiously the return fixture against Cardiff at Ninian Park. Although starting at left-back, Peters took over as goalkeeper when Brian Rhodes was injured, putting in a commendable performance in bizarre circumstances for such a young talent.

Read  |  The feast of West Ham’s all-English Cup Winners’ Cup glory of 1965 – and the famine that followed

The 19-year-old became a first-team regular by 1962/63, playing 36 league games and scoring eight goals. West Ham’s very own ‘Swiss Army knife’ played mainly at right half but also filled in for Bobby Moore and featured at inside-left when Johnny Byrne was injured. He was the Hammers’ man for all occasions.

The following season was punctured by disappointment for Peters as he missed out on the club’s first FA Cup win in 1964. Until Christmas he had been virtually ever-present, missing just two of West Ham’s first 29 games.  However, Boxing Day 1963 proved to be a fateful day both for Peters and the club. 

League leaders Blackburn inflicted a crushing 8-2 defeat, which remains West Ham’s heaviest loss. Nothing could disguise the ineptitude of a performance where all 11 players would rightly share the blame. But what changes, if any, would Ron Greenwood make for the return fixture two days later? 

By some twisted logic only Peters was dropped, replaced by the functional Eddie Bovington. A 3-1 victory up in Blackburn might have vindicated the manager’s decision, but the implication was clear: Peters was held responsible for the debacle. Greenwood’s 1984 autobiography Sincerely Yours offered a bland explanation: “Peters was going through a lean patch and a knee injury was also bothering him.”

In his 2006 autobiography, the Ghost of ’66, Peters rightly paid tribute to Greenwood’s influence on his career. But his burning resentment at the Rovers episode was stronger than ever: “Athough I’d been troubled by a slight knee injury and hadn’t played well in the first game – no one had – I felt hurt by the decision to make me the scapegoat.”

His bitterness was understandable and justified, however, it would be short-lived as 1964/65 proved to be the greatest season in the club’s history, with West Ham entering the Cup Winners’ Cup for the first time. Peters was Johnny on the spot once again as he deputised for Moore during a three-month absence. There were no further hiccups as Peters became a key element in a wondrous European campaign that climaxed at Wembley. A dazzling 2-0 victory against TSV Munich was the epitome of open, attacking football – and Peters was pivotal as the consummate box-to-box midfielder.

The World Cup season of 1965/66 had gone particularly well for Peters, 60 appearances and 17 goals helping West Ham to the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final and the League Cup final. He won his fifth and final England under-23 cap against Turkey in April 1966, but Peters wouldn’t assume selection for the World Cup squad as a natural consequence. Indeed, Geoff Hurst had raised the possibility of a joint family holiday in Cornwall, and even identified accommodation with a TV set so they could watch the football. 

Peters won his first full cap in a 2-0 win against Yugoslavia in May and was ultimately named in the final squad of 22. However, his elation was tempered by being assigned the number 16 shirt, something Peters believed would see him grace the bench for the finals. However, fate was about to turn logic on its head.

Read  |  Geoff Hurst: the stand-in whose hat-trick won England the 1966 World Cup

Peters was tailor-made for Sir Alf Ramsey’s vision of a well-oiled football machine but sat out the opener against Uruguay, with John Connelly preferred on the left wing. He returned for the Mexico game as Alan Ball was sacrificed in favour of Terry Paine, another conventional wide man. He was to remain from this point, a vital cog and a legend in waiting.

The tactical blueprint had been written six months earlier in a brilliant game against Spain. Ramsey was still toying with wingers but he’d already seen the future. Peters wrote his own unique chapter in World Cup history by scoring that final goal, consistent throughout as he headed off after victory against West Germany to buy furniture for the house. Like others in this great side, he was modest to the core.

His final three seasons with the Hammers were ultimately frustrating as the club struggled to find any proper rhythm, finishing 16th, 12th and eighth in three seasons following the World Cup win. It betrayed inconsistency and shocking underachievement, while cracks were beginning to show in his relationship with Ron Greenwood, who bizarrely accused him of saving his best performances for England. 

A lack of ambition consumed the club as they even declined the chance to sign an out-of-contract Gordon Banks, Greenwood piously honouring a verbal agreement to sign Scotland under-23 goalkeeper Bobby Ferguson.

Peters could at least console himself with a blossoming England career. A commanding performance against Scotland in 1968 was marked by words that would follow him for the rest of his career. Ramsey proclaimed he was a player “a decade ahead of his time”. Whilst intended as a compliment, it secretly fuelled Peters’ insecurity and the need to continually prove he was indeed exactly that. In reality, Ramsey had foreseen the growth of Total Football and believed Peters, with his versatility, sharp mind and excellent technique, was made for that version of the game.

West Ham enjoyed a more productive season as they cracked a top-10 finish for only the fourth time in a decade, Peters netting 24 goals in league and cup games, his best-ever return. But it was the beginning of a swansong at West Ham. 

An inevitable parting of the ways arrived in March 1970 as Peters was sold to Spurs for a British record fee of £200,000, with the free-scoring Jimmy Greaves joining the Hammers as a makeweight in the deal. Many West Ham fans saw Peters’ departure to the enemy as an act of betrayal – but he wanted to win trophies, medals for the mantelpiece, something realistically he was never going to get at West Ham. 

Spurs, in many respects, were the antitheses of West Ham. They had a record of sustained success: double winners in 1960/61, FA Cup winners in 1962 and 1967, and a frequent top-six side, and they could offer the incentive of regular European football. They had Pat Jennings, Alan Mullery, Martin Chivers and Alan Gilzean in their ranks, all genuine titans of the game who could stir the blood. 

Read  |  Jimmy Greaves and the ill-fated spell at AC Milan

Peters played the back end of the season for Spurs then joined the England squad for the World Cup in Mexico 1970. Like Moore and Hurst, he was only in his mid-20s and considered the backbone of a more talented team than 1966. It was a quiet tournament by Peters’ standards, although he contributed to some fine team performances. Again, he scored a forgotten goal against West Germany, putting England 2-0 up in the quarter-final with 20 minutes to go. A sick goalie, freak equaliser and bungled substitution all contrived to put England out of the World Cup.

The quest for domestic recognition immediately paid off as Spurs finished third in 1970/71 and won the League Cup, defeating Aston Villa 2-0. Peters scored 15 goals in all competitions, including a hat-trick against West Brom.  

As a result, Spurs had qualified for the newly-renamed UEFA Cup, a vindication of his switch to north London as 1971/72 beckoned. Spurs defeated Nantes, Rapid Bucharest and AC Milan on the way to an all-English final against Wolves. Spurs powered to a famous 3-2 aggregate victory, with Peters at the fulcrum. 

Following Mullery’s transfer to Fulham that summer, Peters took over as club captain and marshalled another strong run in the UEFA Cup. There were impressive scalps on the way, including victories over Olympiakos, Red Star Belgrade and Vitória Setúbal, however they were edged out in the semi-final against Liverpool, the eventual winners.

Spurs experienced a West Ham-style dip in league form but were still a formidable cup side. In 1973, they defeated Norwich to win the League Cup again and a pass into Europe. Peters’ time at Spurs also coincided with the end of his England career. 

In October 1973, he captained England in a vital World Cup qualifier against Poland. The ignominy still hangs like a bad smell as England’s 34 attempts on goal and 26 corners couldn’t produce the win required for qualification. It was the stuff of nightmares as the players could have done no more. Peters won his 67th and final cap against Scotland in May 1974.

With Spurs he enjoyed another run to the UEFA Cup final, where they played Feyenoord. A 2-2 draw in the first leg at White Hart Lane put the Dutch in the driving seat. The second leg was marred by crowd violence and unusually attributed to Spurs fans, who rioted as they went behind in the match and the tie. They would lose the final 4-2 on aggregate.

It helped sow the seeds of Bill Nicholson’s eventual resignation weeks into the 1974/75 season, Peters’ friend and mentor replaced by ex-Arsenal player Terry Neill – a surprising choice bearing in mind his association with the red half of north London. Although he had no desire to leave, Peters didn’t feel wanted and signed for Norwich in April 1975.

Read  |  When Bobby Moore went to Denmark

A new dawn in Norfolk seemed like something of a comedown after the glamour of London. But it was a fruitful time as Peters enjoyed his football, free from the shackles of expectation. He helped Norwich cement their status in the top flight and was voted player of the season in 1976 and 1977. 

The formal wind-down process began when Peters joined Sheffield United as player-coach in 1980. A brief spell as manager of United marked the end of his playing involvement with the game in 1981. 

Peters’ post-football career was a strange concoction driven by necessity. After a brief spell playing non-league football with Gorleston, Peters branched into motor insurance with Hurst, an unusual career path for two World Cup legends, something their modern equivalents would barely comprehend. In later years Peters served as a director at Spurs, and fell back on the old stand by for ex-footballers: matchday host in corporate suites for his first two clubs.

The announcement in 2016 that Peters had Alzheimer’s disease was heartbreaking, though not unexpected for a player of his generation. Peters was a superb header of the ball and one can only imagine the cumulative damage inflicted during a 20-year playing career. 

His daughter confided her sadness when West Ham moved from Upton Park. She could stimulate her father’s memory with visits to the old ground, where he could enjoy a sing-along to ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’. It just wasn’t the same at the London Stadium.

A uniquely talented footballer, Peters will forever be a member of West Ham’s holy trinity of Moore, Hurst and Peters. Though never quite as celebrated, he was arguably the most accomplished footballer of the trio, certainly the most complete. 

Any comparisons with Hurst are pointless as they had entirely different functions within the team, but how does Peters fare against Moore, a player who occupied a similar position on the pitch? The former was excellent in the air, had great pace and could score goals from a variety of positions. The truth is, Moore, despite his unbridled brilliance, couldn’t claim the same skill-set. 

In the end, Martin Peters made 880 first-team appearances and scored 231 goals, a strike rate of a goal every four games which is remarkable for a player who was ostensibly a midfielder. Typically, such achievements become obvious now he has passed away. God’s XI now has a left-sided midfielder, but I’m sure he’d be happy to play anywhere.

By Brian Penn

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