The annals of history are littered with tales of footballers whose careers did not go in quite the direction as anticipated at one time or another.
Many a player has burst onto the scene as a youngster and been tipped for the top only for things to not quite pan out as expected. The shortfall in achievements versus expectations can be down to any number of reasons. For example, injury can blight a career, as can bad lifestyle choices. There are others whose talent is perhaps over-hyped and although they go onto enjoy decent careers, they ultimately fall short of reaching the very heights of the game.
There are others, though, who do make it to the top and are expected to go even higher and into the realms of the truly great only to perhaps fall ever so slightly due to a regrettable transfer at a critical point in their career not quite panning out.
The aim of this article, therefore, is to have a look at the careers of some players who went on to be household names and yet still arguably fell just short of the very top level due to moving to the wrong club at the wrong time.
John Wark and Paul Mariner
John Wark and Paul Mariner were integral pieces of the Ipswich Town jigsaw of the late 1970s and early 1980s under Bobby Robson. Both won FA and UEFA Cup honours with the Suffolk-based club and both were heavily capped by their respective countries, appearing in the 1982 World Cup finals.
Both very fine players, then. Both at or very nearly at the peak of British football at least.
Then in 1982 with Bobby Robson accepting the England manager’s position the ground shifted at Portman Road with Ipswich falling into rapid decline and the successful side that Robson bequeathed the club being broken up.
By the 1983-84 season, Mariner and Wark were arguably at the peak of their careers and with Ipswich slipping out of the running for the game’s major honours both men went on the transfer list at their own request.
The transfer market at around this time had settled down following the early days of million-pound transfers and so Mariner and Wark left Portman Road on relatively cut-price deals. Mariner was signed by Don Howe at Arsenal for £150,000, while Joe Fagan added Wark to Liverpool’s midfield in March 1984 for £450,000.
A question of big fish in a reasonable-sized pond becoming reasonably-sized fish in a couple of big ponds maybe, but both Mariner and Wark arguably failed to push on at their new clubs as expected.
Although past his 30th birthday upon his arrival at Highbury, Mariner was still a regular starter for England and yet the move to North London did not really work well. Playing 60 times in the next two-and-a-half seasons, Mariner managed to score only 14 league goals before being sold in the summer of 1986 by the incoming manager, George Graham, who had replaced Howe.
Wark perhaps had more success at Liverpool, at least initially, but signed as he was to replace the outgoing Graeme Souness who was on his way to sunnier climates abroad, Wark too was unable to stamp the lasting impression upon Liverpool predicted.
A good first full season saw Wark end the 1984-85 campaign as Liverpool’s top scorer, but an injury the following season, sidelined him as Liverpool went onto take the double of league and cup and there was no way back for Wark after that.
Wark returned to Ipswich and played in the top two flights for almost another decade until he was well past his 39th birthday and many will contend he had a career of the very highest calibre. Others, though, will suggest that notwithstanding his legendary status in Suffolk, his one true shot at the ultimate big time with Liverpool was slightly underwhelming.
Des Walker was a classy central defender who made his name in the mid to late 1980s with Nottingham Forest. “You’ll never beat Des Walker” was the song belted out by Forest and England fans and, according to Gary Lineker, by Walker himself during matches when he was playing well.
Deployed as a central defender or sweeper for Forest and England, Walker had impeccable timing and rarely went to ground, preferring instead to use his reading of the game to make timely interceptions and appear to be ‘in the right place at the right time’. On the occasions he was found out of position, his incredible pace was invariably enough to retrieve the situation and get his team out of trouble.
Making his Forest debut in March 1984 at the age of 18, Walker played almost 350 games in all competitions under Brian Clough, winning the League Cup in 1989 and again a year later. Walker won his first England cap in 1988 and became an integral part of Bobby Robson’s Italia ’90 side that reached the World Cup semi-finals that year.
With the world at his feet, Walker was widely admired by other clubs and managers and it seemed a matter of time before he would move on in the search of the game’s highest honours. After a prolonged spell of speculation, Walker chose to move to Seria A and Sampdoria in 1992. It was a time when Italian football was still at its peak and was attracting players from all over the world, but almost immediately Walker struggled to adapt.
Italian football was in those days considerably different in style and manner to its English counterpart, with sides tending to drop much deeper. This meant that Walker’s biggest asset, his speed, rarely needed to be utilised. Sven-Göran Eriksson was Sampdoria’s coach at the time and Walker often found himself playing out of position at left-back.
It was an unhappy time in Italy for Walker and it seemed to affect his England form too. In a World Cup qualifying game at Wembley in April 1993, Walker was outpaced for the first time in living memory as Marc Overmars got behind him and Walker was forced to bring him down in the area. The same thing happened a month later when he was beaten for pace in Poland and could only watch as another goal was conceded.
By November 1993 his England career was over and so was his Italian sojourn. It had not been a success and even though Walker would continue to play professionally for another 11 years in a 20-year career, he never again reached the heights of his Nottingham Forest form and, his career arguably never quite reached the peaks predicted.
It might seem a little unfair and perhaps even churlish and inaccurate to include Kevin Keegan in this list and to suggest that he had anything less than a very top-class and stellar career. After all, he was a multiple title winner in more than one country, played in European Cup finals for two different teams, was twice European Player of the Year, and won more than 60 England caps.
And yet… upon closer scrutiny some of the choices he made with regards to transfers perhaps can be questioned.
Keegan made his name at Liverpool in the ‘seventies after his 1971 transfer from Scunthorpe in a strike partnership alongside John Toshack. In the six years that followed, Keegan and Liverpool won 3 league titles, two UEFA Cups, an FA Cup and in Keegan’s last game, the European Cup in May 1977 in Rome.
Keegan then decamped for the Bundesliga and Hamburg SV, citing the need for a new challenge. The German league was won in 1979, but that was to prove to be Keegan’s last major honour won in the game. It could be stated that Keegan’s move to Germany made him as a player and as footballing superstar despite the relative lack of club honours won, but there really can be no disputing that he next two transfers laid waste to the man’s talent and each time were cases of heart ruling head.
In 1980, and again two years later, it is little exaggeration to say that Keegan could have chosen to join practically any side in Europe. Upon leaving Hamburg, instead of going to one of the giants of the game he allowed himself to be sweet-talked by Lawrie McMenemy into joining Southampton down on the south coast.
Although he bought into McMenemy’s dream that with him in the side the Saints could be transformed from a decent mid-table side to one chasing the game’s top honours, that was always going to be a long shot at best given the resources at McMenemy’s disposal.
Ironically, it was the rather decent 1981-82 season that convinced Keegan that the promised land was going to remain out of touch for all at the Dell. Leading the table going into March, Keegan was convinced Southampton could hold on and take the title if only McMenemy would dip into the transfer market and reinforce the side. Informed that the funds weren’t available, Keegan could do nothing but watch on forlornly as Southampton’s form deserted them and they fell away to sixth.
After a disappointing summer in which he had only featured for 20-odd minutes in England’s World Cup campaign in Spain, Keegan returned to England’s shores in perhaps not the best frame of mind and a falling-out with McMenemy on a pre-season tour led him to seek a transfer once more.
Again, there was no shortage of possible suitors and again Keegan surprised all by deciding to drop down a division and join Newcastle United. Keegan spent the next two years at St. James’s Park and wrote the first chapter of his love affair with the Magpies as promotion was secured back to the top flight.
However, a single promotion success in the last four years of such a talented player’s career was scant reward for one of England’s true greats.