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Chris Waddle: From Non-League to playing in World Cups – and back again

Chris Waddle

ON THE RUN: Chris Waddle playing for England. Picture: PA Images

By David Richardson

Chris Waddle had found a pocket of space in midfield when he received the ball onto his favoured left foot. A small, second touch set it out of his feet as he lifted his head up to look at the picture of the game in front of him, but what would he do next?

Drive forward on one of his trademark dribbles or swing a pass out to the left? Turn back and keep possession or return the ball from where it came?

Instead, he struck a sweet, dipping effort from a full 35 yards which flew in over the helpless goalkeeper.

This was the goal scored by a 59-year-old Waddle in early March for Long Bennington Veterans FC, of the East Midlands Veterans League Conference East, against Bottesford in the Olivia Hinton Trophy, which quickly circled on social media.

It was a strike of pure instinct, arguably the best word to describe the tricky former England winger’s style of play, who was back playing amateur football a mere 20 years after finishing his professional career.

Indeed, it was in 2000 when he made a return to the Non-League game at Worksop Town and he hasn’t really stopped playing since.

Chris Waddle

Chris Waddle in action for Worksop Town

“I was talking to someone the other day about music and I asked why does Rod Stewart or Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones keep touring?” Waddle told The NLP. “They must be so secure money-wise, why do they still do it? They said, ‘Well why do you still play football?’. Because I love it and my friend said, ‘well, there’s your answer’.”

It is a life-long relationship from when he first started playing in the North- East, endless hours of 25-a-side matches with people of all ages where he developed his renowned dribbling ability, having to beat seven or eight opponents on a bumpy, overgrown field.

At 14, he was playing Sunday morning football against adults, all trying to kick lumps out of him, but an early setback left Waddle questioning whether football was for him.

He was turned down for an apprenticeship at Coventry aged 16 and had to start looking for work, which came at a £20-a-week seasoning factory, more famously reported as a sausage factory, although he never did make the sausages.

“I got very disillusioned about the game when I got released,” said Waddle. “I felt sorry for myself a bit but at the back of my mind I wanted to prove them wrong.

“I went and played junior football, I had a year in goal with Pelaw Juniors. I always liked being in goal, mucking about in the warm-ups and stuff. The last season at U18s was with Clarke Chapmans which was a good side.

“I wanted to try and play at a bit of a higher level and a friend got me down to Tow Law Town, in the Northern League, I’d never heard of them. Tow Law was basically one street with a ground down the back of a side street. Very nice club, friendly people who run it.

“They trained in Newcastle at a leisure centre on a Thursday night and I went down. I’d missed most of the pre-season and they were in the friendlies.

“They had a game at Frickley on the Saturday, who were a very good Conference team then. They didn’t know whether I’d play, said I could be sub, but when we met on the morning and travelled down on the minibus, I counted around and, including the assistant manager, there was only 12 – I thought I had a fair chance of starting!

“I played on the left hand side of a 4-3-3, we drew 2-2 and I made both goals. The league started the following Saturday and that was it, I got into the team from the off.”

Up against the likes of Blyth Spartans, Spennymoor United and Bishop Auckland, Tow Law finished the 1979-80 season in mid-table – but Waddle emerged as a shining light.

After one particularly impressive performance during a narrow defeat to Stalybridge Celtic in the FA Trophy, Waddle was offered a contract by Tow Law which guaranteed him £5-a-week whether he played or not. Even under contract, he was still turning out on a Sunday morning.

Soon, scouts from Carlisle, Sunderland, Newcastle and Barnsley were all watching him. He took two weeks off work to trial for Sunderland but they turned him down.

Newcastle offered a trial but he had no holidays left and couldn’t get the time off work. Barnsley wanted the same and their scout, so adamant manager Allan Clarke should sign Waddle, was happy to be sacked should the young playmaker not make the grade, but the club didn’t go through with it.

However, Newcastle knew Waddle’s contract was up at the end of the season and decided to wait, eventually paying a measly £500 for him with a further £500 should he play 20 league games.

Chris Waddle playing for Newcastle United against Manchester United

“Tow Law didn’t have a leg to stand on, I thought Newcastle could pay more to help them out a bit. I didn’t enjoy my work job, I would smell of herbs and spices, I just looked at it and thought I’ve got to take a chance.

“Billy Bell, the manager at Tow Law, was a football fanatic and would travel around clubs watching training sessions. I can’t remember being coached at all until I went to Tow Law. He was a coach ahead of of his time.

“Non-League football was a great way to learn your trade. I learnt to appreciate a lot of things. It was a setback at Coventry and something I didn’t anticipate or want to happen but, looking back, I’m glad it happened that way.”

Newcastle were a Division Two side in transition during the early 1980s. Arthur Cox arrived from Chesterfield after manager Bill McGarry was sacked shortly after Waddle had arrived. “Nothing to do with me, I don’t think!” he joked.

Waddle was in and out of the team during his first season before Cox started cleaning the decks the following summer – and then Kevin Keegan arrived.

“We were struggling to score goals,” recalls Waddle, who at 23 started training his right-foot for 20 minutes a day until it was a good as his left. “Arthur probably didn’t realise at first the size of the job. Me and him used to fall out a lot but I look back now and he was only doing it because I had something and he was trying to get it out.

“I used to get a lot of advice from him and he was excellent – even though at times I wanted to shoot him! He did a great job on me.

“We went to Madeira in pre-season and someone rang home and said Kevin Keegan is signing for us. We didn’t believe it! We were bang average, a team in the making, but probably two or three years off being a decent side. We got home and he had signed! The place took off. We were like, ‘why’s he come here?’

“A lot of the players suffered at first, we were overawed. That year was hit and miss. Terry McDermott came in as well. It must have been difficult for them to come in and be playing with Division Two players.

“We started getting going and also signed Peter Beardsley, he was a fantastic footballer. I felt I could mix it with them.”

Newcastle won promotion in the 1983-84 season with Waddle scoring 18 goals before Keegan retired, Cox left for Derby County and Jack Charlton came in as manager, implementing a more direct style to keep the team in the top-flight.

Waddle partnered Beardsley up front and bagged 16 more in his debut season at the highest level which led to the first of 62 England caps.

Within five years he had gone from playing in the Northern League to the international stage and had become a cult hero for his mullet hairstyle which he said “gave him his strength”.

But Waddle felt a move away from the kick-and-run style of Newcastle would benefit his game. He has always been a big believer in giving technical players a licence to express themselves.

“Tottenham was ideal for me with Hoddle, Ardiles, Ray Clemence in goal, Graham Roberts. I knew the team inside out. I had to test myself again and I was ready for it.

“English football has always got this thing about physical size rather than talent.

“A lot of technical players were classed as luxuries. If they were playing abroad then they would build a team around these guys but we never saw that.

“I always thought the English game was about physical leg work. Box-to-box players were massively in demand.”

At Tottenham, after signing for a fee of £590,000, he reached the 1987 FA Cup final, finished third in the league and got to the semi-finals of the League Cup.

He and Glenn Hoddle were also in the UK Top 20 pop charts with ‘Diamond Lights’ and he represented England at the 1986 World Cup, Euro 1988 and semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, where he missed THAT penalty.

“We played some wonderful football against Belgium, Cameroon and Germany,” he said. “We matched them all, especially Germany when we played three at the back and played like them.”

Four seasons at White Hart Lane ended with a £4.5m move to Marseille, making him the third-most expensive footballer at the time.

“No one saw that coming to be honest, even though I was playing really well at Spurs. That was just ‘wow’.

“It probably didn’t get any better than to play in a team like that.”

Chris Waddle celebrates scoring for Marseille

They won three consecutive French championships from 1990 to 1992 and reached the 1991 European Cup final.

Waddle returned to England in 1992 at Sheffield Wednesday and then played for Falkirk, Bradford City, Sunderland, Burnley and Torquay United before coming full circle back to Non-League at Worksop Town.

“I always loved Non-League and pub football. When I got to 39 I decided to hang my boots up but within two weeks I was playing at Worksop in the Northern Premier League.

“We scored 111 goals, got to the first round of the FA Cup against Bournemouth and the quarter-final of the Trophy.”

Waddle left Worksop after two seasons as he became one of the main co-commentators on BBC 5 Live, a role he still holds today.

He formed his own Sunday League side, Brunsmere Athletic, and took them to two promotions in four seasons as player-manager.

Waddle has also turned out for the likes of Glapwell, Stocksbridge Park Steels and Staveley Miners Welfare and is still a regular around the Non-League scene.

“I still watch Hallam FC at the oldest football ground in the world and it’s still got the slope! My friend Richard (Pillinger) has just taken over as chairman and they’ve got a new manager in Craig Denton, who was at Worksop. I know Craig so I’m hoping good things will happen.”

Waddle turns 60 in December but has no plans to hang up his boots just yet.

“A friend of mine is starting a football team next year and at the minute he’s asked us to sign,” he says. “I’ve helped teams out and if there’s a game available, I’ll go and play in it.

“I’ve started playing walking football which I enjoy although the amount of times you want to run with the ball, it’s so frustrating! I’d love to play one more year and after that walking football is the future.

“As long as I can still play and am not feeling any reaction, or thinking this is dangerous, until I get that sort of warning I’ll keep playing.”

This article was brought to you by The Non-League Paper, the UK's best-selling football title on the newsstand, on-sale every Sunday.
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