Sunday 2nd February 2014 brought the shock news that former Blyth Spartans player & manager Nigel Walker had sadly passed away.
Nigel had battled cancer for 25 years, his wife Nicki responding to the flood of tributes:
“He died after a long fight with cancer, having had a rare form of lymphoma for 25 years, which he never let get him down and worked through most of the time, then developing secondary malignant melanoma last June. He has fought so hard, with great stoicism, and an undaunted spirit.”
After 10 years as a professional footballer he went back to his studies and eventually became a maths teacher, being such a humble and modest person he would often play down his time as a footballer to the point that when pupils found out he had played for the local heroes, he would often deny it!.
However when pupils took in old match programmes featuring him he would happily regale them with stories of his past career and the pupils loved having an ex Newcastle player in took charge of the school football team.
Nigel Stephen Walker was born in Gateshead on 7th April 1959, his precocious talent had been spotted as an 18-year-old playing for Wearside League Whickham when Newcastle manager Bill McGarry signed him in July 1977.
He didn’t have to wait long for his debut, making the first team on 5th November 1977 in the 1-1 draw with Bristol City.
Born and raised on Tyneside, Nigel was living every young Geordie’s dream, plucked from local football straight into the Black & White’s first team, showing his undoubted ability he established himself making 14 appearances that season.
However the Magpie’s were relegated to Division Two, finishing 2nd bottom with only 22 points, (11 adrift from safety).
In 1978/79 he made 21 appearances really establishing himself and on 7th October 25,731 were inside St James Park to see Nigel score the winner in the 1-0 victory over Leicester City.
A week later his exquisite left foot was on show again when he lofted a superb free kick in for Peter Withe to score for United in the 1-1 Tyne Wear Derby draw at Roker Park.
Nigel capped a good fortnight for him personally on 21st October when he scored the goal again but it was scant reward in a 1-4 defeat at Charlton Athletic United, recovered to finished 8th in a season which arguably saw his finest run of form for the club.
1979/80 saw United fared little better, Nigel only made 11 starts & twice came on as a sub as they finished 9th. 1980/81 saw Bill McGarry sacked and eventually replaced by Arthur Cox, Nigel made 21 appearances that season as the Magpies finished 11th.
Nigel scored his only goal of the season in the final day 3-0 home victory over Orient at St James Park on 2nd May (it turned out to be his last for the club).
In 1981/82 he went out on loan to Plymouth Argyle but returned to Tyneside without having played for them. He was to only played 5 times before Arthur Cox released him, his last game for Newcastle came on the 7th November in the 1-2 defeat at Chelsea.
Nigel, then aged only 23, took the decision to move to America.
He accepted an offer to play for the San Diego Sockers in the North America Soccer League for the 1982 campaign.
When Nigel arrived in America the exodus of international stars had started, losing the services of George Best, John Cruyff, Gerd Muller & Frank Worthington.
(Cruyff had returned to Europe having being ‘totally’
disgusted with the hard artificial turf found in some of the NASL stadium).
However Nigel’s midfield partner had become a movie star
the previous summer, legendary Polish midfielder Kazimierz Deyna played Paul Wolchek in the cult football film:
‘Escape to Victory’.
*Kaz Deyna became a San Diego Sockers legend playing 269 times in both formats scoring 162 goals for the Sockers and winning 5 titles.
Nigel made 19 appearances scoring once in the NASL format when the season finished and moved to an indoors format he also played twice in the Major Indoor Soccer League for San Diego Sockers before returning to the UK in January 1983.
He signed for Crewe Alexandra on a non contract basis he played 20 times and scored 5 times as Crewe just managed to avoid finishing bottom on goal difference over Hereford United but had to apply for re-election.
In July 1983 Alan Durban took Nigel to Roker Park and he made his 1st Black Cats appearance on Friday 5th August when Sunderland played in the Gore Gold Cup Tournament on the Isle of Man. He scored the opening goal in the 5-0 win over an Isle of Man XI, he was an unused sub in the Final when the Black Cats beat St Mirren 1-0.
Nigel’s next game was on Monday 22nd August in the 3-2 friendly win over Darlington at Feethams coming on as a half time sub to replace Graeme Hedley and scored the winner, having played well pre-season he was to only featured once for the first team once the season started, coming on as an 82nd minute sub to replace Leighton James in the 3-0 victory over Watford at Roker Park on Saturday 12 November 1983.
Towards the end of the season he was loaned out to 4th Division Blackpool, he featured 10 times and made an instant impact scoring a hat trick on his debut for the Tangerines in the 5-1 win away at Northampton Town on 20th March.
In the summer of 1984 he joined Fourth Division Chester City and in his 41 appearances established himself as a firm favourite with the fans, he became a City hero in front of the season’s best 3,968 crowd at Sealand Road on Boxing Day.
He scored his 1st goal for the club in their Boxing Day Derby with arch rivals Wrexham when his penalty sealed a 2-1 win.
Nigel scored 9 goals that season, 3 from the penalty spot, after a brace on the 20th April in the 2-0 victory over Port Vale he scored his 2nd career hat trick on the 8th May in the 4-4 draw at Swindon.
Nigel’s 9 goals saw him finish 2nd top scorer behind striker Stuart Rimmer.
Nigel’s form prompted Hartlepool United manager Billy Horner to offer him a 2 year contract and he made the move backup North, he made his debut on 17th August 1985 in the 2-4 defeat at Cambridge United (Nigel’s one time Newcastle teammate Alan Shoulder also marked his Pool debut that day with a goal).
Nigels’ 1st goal for Pool’s came in the 2-1 win over Northampton Town on 18th September, after a shaky start to the season, they climbed into the top 3 by mid-October. They were still in a promotion spot in early March but eventually faded slightly to finish in 7th place. Nigel started 49 times that season for Pool’s and made 1 subs appearance scoring 5 times.
In 1986/87 he had to wait until the 5th October to find the net scoring in the 4-1 home win over Lincoln City, Nigel made 38 starts & 4 sub appearances as Pool’s struggled to an 18th place finish only 5 points off bottom spot.
By the time his contract had expired Nigel had also completed a 4 year Open University study in Technology & Design, he had found it increasingly difficult to leave his home for training every day of the week and decided over the summer to pass up several approaches from professional clubs to enrolled on a 4 year Computing for Industry course at Newcastle Polytechnic, it was no surprise he would eventually gain a first class honours degree in computing.
Having joined Newcastle United with 7 O-levels &
4 A –levels he had harbored thoughts of returning to his academic studies during his Open University course releasing his time as a professional footballer wouldn’t
last for ever:
“If our lucky you’ll be in the game until you’re 35.
I’d been thinking about the course for a while.”
With the PFA’s player education programme very much in it’s infancy in 1987 he was asked for his impression of his fellow professionals during his ten years in the game :
“Footballers are no dimmer than any other group of workers, but people feel happy with stereotypes. One problem is that they can’t choose their spokesmen. There are lots of lads who could do what I’ve done, the main problem was one of lack of opportunity.”
Blyth manager Jim Pearson, fresh from guiding the club to its 9th Northern League title,
knew Nigel from their time together at Newcastle and used his friendship to seal his signature despite interest from other Non League clubs in the region.
Nigel made his Spartans debut on 22nd August in the 3-0 home win over Chester le Street, he scored his 1st goal for the Spartans on 8th September in the 4-2 home win over Ferryhill Athletic. Nigel’s proven quality & class was clear to be seen playing 47 times as Pearson’s side retained the Northern league title with 2 games to spare, Nigel scored 11 goals including a run of scoring in 4 successive games March 1988.
1988/89 began with Nigel adding to his Spartans silverware when he scored the winning penalty in Blyth’s 5-4 Cleator Cup penalty shoot out victory.
It turned out to be much tougher season as Nigel made 35 appearances under 2 managers. Dave Clarke had replaced Pearson in the summer but after a run of poor results saw him quit, another famous ex player for the 78′ cup run Tommy Dixon replaced him.
Nigel scored 3 goals as Dixon’s side finished in a lowly 9th place, the clubs lowest league finish since 1966/67.
The following season, 1989/90, wasn’t much better as Tommy Dixon’s side struggled, Nigel was now the main stay of the team midfield playing 39 times and even covered at right back for 3 games as Blyth limped to another 9th place finish.
Nigel found the net 9 times that season including his 1st ever FA Cup goal in the 3-0 1st Qualifying Round win at Murton, however the goal came courtesy of the Murton goalkeeper when Nigel’s free kick crashed off the cross-bar and went in off back of the keepers head!.
Another manager came and went in the summer with Ronnie Walton stepping up from assistant to replace Tommy Dixon. Along with his former Newcastle team Steve Carney, they were very much the experienced pro’s in the side and spurned offers from elsewhere to stay with the Spartans. Walton’s side fared better finishing 3rd thanks in large to the scoring prowess of Steve Cuggy, although it was Nigel who scored the club’s 1st cup goal of the season in the 5-2 League Cup win at West Auckland, it was his first of 7 he got that season.
The 1991/92 season was probably the most eventful one in Nigel’s 6 years with the club, he had finished his course and began training to become a teacher and taken up the role as assistant/coach but that was all before the campaign had even got under way.
It started with him having to settle for a place on the bench…
went on to see him become manager…
and ended with him scoring a dramatic extra time winner in a Cup Final back where it had all started…
St James Park!
Money was becoming increasingly tight, keys players were lost to clubs who could pay more but Nigel stayed despite offers from elsewhere and became the focal point of a young side. The season didn’t start well and few months in the club were in a serious cash crisis, Ronnie Walton asked the players to take a 30% pay cut for a few weeks to help out.
Prize asset Richie Bond signed for Blackpool and upon leaving thanked people at Croft Park for helping him get his albeit late break into the Football League, Nigel was singled out for special praise with Bond stating he: “was the best player he’d ever played with”.
Just as things began to look up Ronnie Walton surprisingly quit after a surprise home defeat to 5th bottom Seaham Red Star, citing it was nothing to do with the players or the club!.
Nigel was approached by the board about becoming the new manager and he accepted the post, his first game in charge was due to be back Whickham of all places on 1st February but the weather put pay to that. His reign in charge began a 5-2 League Cup victory over Dunston Fed on 11th Feb, however it were somewhat of beginners luck.
A 1-2 defeat at Billingham Synthonia made it 6 games without a victory and all but ended any faint hopes of winning the league but Nigel remained upbeat:
“The lads battled well, we need a little luck in front of goal but we will turn the corner”
By the time the Spartans face local rivals Whitley Bay in a Senior Cup Semi Final replay on 17th March Ronnie Walton returned to the club, after brief discussions they both agreed to resume their former roles and Nigel returned to his more familiar midfield birth.
Given events of the season the Spartans made a respectable 6th place finish and the Spartans reached the Northumberland Senior Cup Final where they came up against high-flying North Shields. Colin Richardson’s big spending Northern Counties East League Champions were hot favourites to complete a double but the Spartans had other idea’s.
A goal from David Hunter sent the tie to extra time, the 2nd period of which was minutes old when Nigel scored one of his best goal for the club. Hunter played him in to crash home a superb winner on the ground where it had all began for him, the delight was clear as he celebrated scoring 11 years to the day since his last goal on the hallowed turf of St James.
3 days later Nigel added another medal to his Spartans haul when they beat Consett 1-0 in the League Cup Final at Murton.
*Nigel’s cup final winner is still to this day the last winning goal scored by a Blyth player at St James in a Senior Cup Final, despite the club appearing in 6 more Finals at SJP since that Saturday afternoon in May 1992.
Now fully qualified as a Maths teacher, 1992/93 proved to be his last season at Croft Park. He made 9 starts and 4 appearances as s sub once again covering at right back when need, Nigel marked his last start for the club on 3rd November with 2 goals in the 7-0 hammering of Ferryhill Athletic at Croft Park. His last ever appearance in a Blyth shirt came in the FA Cup 1st Round tie with Southport at Croft Park on 14th November 1992, he came on as a second half sub in the 1-2 defeat.
When Nigel moved to Northern League 2nd Division Dunston Federation Brewery, another medal came his way as they stormed to the 2nd Division title. Nigel scored a penalty on his debut and went on to score 4 goals for the free scoring Fed.
The following season he managed 2 more goals as the Fed finished their first season the Northern League First Division in a respectable 11th place. Nigel’s 2nd goal was a painful one for his former club, it came on the 27th December in Fed’s superb 3-1 victory over the Spartans at the Federation Ground needless to say being the person he was there was no celebration.
Nigel’s’ final goal for the Fed came on 3rd September 1994 when he scored in the 3-3 draw at West Auckland.
Very much a family man he lived a stones throw from Whickham’s Glebe Ground where Newcastle United spotted him playing, Nigel was a hugely popular not just with football fans who admired & envied his talents but with his fellow players and that carried on into his teaching, many of his pupils were thrilled to have been taught by a professional footballer especially one who played for Newcastle United!.
Nigel played 216 times for Blyth scoring 40 goals (including 1 in a penalty shoot out), he played under 4 managers and had a run of 9 games as caretaker manager from 11th February – 17th March 1992.
His honours while a Spartan includes a Northern League title in 1987/88,
Northern League Cup 1991/92, Northumberland Senior Cup 1992
JR Cleator Cup twice in 1988 & 1992.
He graced Croft Park for 6 seasons with his silky skills, effortless balance and sweet left foot he was adjudged by many as one of the best midfielders to play for the club and the fact he stood by the club through some tough times when many others opted to play elsewhere for more money showed the mark of the man, earning him legendary status with many Spartans fans.
On Saturday 8th February 2014, a minutes applause will be held before Blyth Spartans home game to mark Nigel’s sad passing and to allow everybody connected with the club to pay their respects to a genuine gentlemen and a true Spartan.
RIP Nigel Walker ..
taken from us but certainly never to be forgotten..
- Credits, Acknowledgments & Thank you’s:
Kevin Tilmouth who once again provided memorabilia from his collection that was used in this article.
The following websites provided information & images from Nigel’s career: