Sunderland’s fixture against Newcastle at St James Park on 24 February 1979 is, of course, best remembered for Gary Rowell’s hattrick in a convincing 4-1 victory.
However, among the Newcastle team that played that day were two players who went on to have spells with Sunderland later in their careers.
Goalkeeper Steve Hardwick played the first eight games of our 87-88 division three season – Denis Smith’s first attempt to replace Iain Hesford, which obviously culminated in the signing of Tony Norman.
Lining up in midfield for Newcastle on Gary Rowell Day was 19-year-old local, Nigel Walker.
Walker, a slight and naturally talented and creative attacking midfielder, who could run at defences and had a trick or two, had come through the ranks at Newcastle – between 1977 and 1982 he played 74 games, scoring 3 goals. He was a talented sportsman, captaining England rugby schoolboys as well as playing football but, despite having a decent run under the management of Arthur Cox, he never really fulfilled his potential at Newcastle.
He was linked with a move to Alan Durban’s Sunderland in late 1981, as part of a swap deal for Alan Brown, the Sunderland striker who was on loan at Newcastle (imagine that happening these days). That move didn’t eventuate, however, Durban was keen on the player. Question marks were raised over Walker’s willingness to do ‘the dirty work’, and he departed St James Park on a free to play for San Diego Sockers in the NASL.
He was only to last a matter of months in the NASL, due to the NASL sides having to up their quota of homegrown players. Looking for a return to England, Walker was offered the chance to earn a deal at Roker in December 1982.
Durban was clear what he wanted to see from the trialist.
“There’s no questioning his skill,” said Durban. “But whether he wants to run and work or not is another matter.”
Durban was a fan of flair players. He’d set Sunderland up with three up front, and signed 34-year-old Frank Worthington around this time, too, to join the likes of Leighton James.
23-year-old Walker was determined to win a deal. “It’s a chance I hope to take,” he told The Journal. “I am a free agent, and I know this is an opportunity to get back into English football.”
Walker did enough to earn a rolling monthly contract at the end of 1982, however by January he was off to fourth division Crewe. This seemed to be of Sunderland’s doing, however. Durban wanted to see how Walker coped with lower league football and negotiated first refusal on Walker’s next move.
“I’ll be signing a monthly contract at Crewe,” said Walker, “and hope that Sunderland – or someone else – decide to take me on. I’m more ambitions than the fourth division.”
He stayed at Crewe for the remainder of the season, playing 20 times and scoring five goals, and came back to Roker Park in the summer in another bid to earn a more permanent contract.
And this time he did - impressing the manager in some pre-season games, including scoring at Feethams against Darlington, coming off the bench to replace another trialist, Middlesbrough’s Graeme Hadley, to pick the ball up 25-yards out, and ‘swivel sweetly to smash a marvellous left foot drive high into the net.”
He also played – and scored – in the Gore Cup, a pre-season tournament, in a 5-1 victory over an Isle of Man XI. It was the first game of the competition, with Sunderland winning the trophy in a final against St Mirren, having also beaten Burnley. Walker made the bench in subsequent games in the competition but didn’t get on.
With stiff midfield competition from the likes of Paul Bracewell – in his first spell at Roker Park – Mark Proctor, Leighton James and Gary Rowell to name but a few (Worthington’s brief spell had come to an end), first-team opportunities were limited.
He impressed in the Central League, however, and in November his chance eventually came – getting called onto the bench for the Roker Park fixture against Graham Taylor’s Watford. This was in the days of one substitute, and as such subs were usually kept for injury replacements.
In front of 15,407, Walker watched on from the sidelines as the following XI took to the pitch: Turner, Venison, Hindmarch, Atkins, Chisholm, Pickering, Proctor, Bracewell, James, Rowell, West.
Operating with a sweeper system and the central midfield combination of Bracewell and Proctor performing well, Sunderland took a first-half lead courtesy of Colin West’s header from Rowell’s knockback. We went two up early in the second half, thanks to a Mark Proctor header shortly after Pickering had cleared one off the line. Sunderland hit the post twice, through Proctor and Gordon Chisholm, before a Chisholm goal – another header, this time from a Leighton James corner – on 72 secured the three points.
With eight minutes left, Nigel Walker was stripped made his debut, replacing Welshman James, but he did little of note.
And that was it. His Sunderland career lasted eight minutes and, with Durban, the manager who evidently had faith in Walker losing his job in March 1984, Nigel joined Blackpool on loan, scoring a hattrick on his debut in a 5-1 win against Northampton Town.
Walker’s contract wasn’t renewed by incoming manager Len Ashurst, and spells at Chester and Hartlepool followed, before, aged 28, he moved into non-league, playing for Blyth Spartans and Dunston Fed, among others.
After leaving the professional game, Walker became a teacher. One of his earlier jobs was at St Bedes in Lanchester, where as well as teaching maths he took the fifth year football team, of which I was centre forward.
A lovely, funny and knowledgeable man, Nigel was still an unbelievably good player – joining in training and showing us how it was done (he was still playing non-league at this time) and a superb coach. At away games especially, he always attracted a bit of attention from northeast football fans, from both sides of the river.
Sadly, in 2014, Walker passed away from cancer aged just 54. However he’ll always be remembered by those who saw him play or those who were taught by him, as a supremely talented footballer, and a cracking bloke, too.