For a 10-year-old boy growing up on a Wolverhampton council estate in the 60s, my life revolved around three things: football, football, and football. There was school football, evening and all day Sunday football with your mates, and the football at the Mol on a Saturday—waving a rattle and urging on the mighty Wolves (including the reserves when the first team was away).
It was a rounded, three-dimensional upbringing—mind you, by introducing the concept of time as a further dimension, and milking a metaphor to within an inch of its life, I’d claim that memories make for my fourth football dimension.
Letting in ten while in goal in a school match and being lauded as the best player on the park; chipping a keeper twice within five minutes from outside the box in another game; listening to the ’66 World Cup final via a transistor radio taped to the Tannoy of a coach travelling back from Great Yarmouth; being at Wembley watching Andy Gray win Wolves the League Cup by tapping one in after a Peter Shilton cockup; and Peter Knowles making the palms of my hands sting.
That was back in the days when goalies played without gloves; all we did was spit on our hands and rub them together. Then along came Peter Bonetti with his fancy finger wear and, before long, many thousands of pounds were being invested in goalie glove technology, with the result being that keepers now get to spit on their gloved hands and rub them together instead.
It was also back in the day when young top-flight footballers could be found living in digs on a council estate. It seemed quite normal for me and my mate Alan to call for his neighbour’s lodger on a Sunday morning for a game of three-and-in and a bit of centring-and-heading.
It was 1965, me in goal, Peter Knowles taking a penalty. He probably didn’t hit it particularly hard, but I dived full length and palmed the Casey around the jumper goalpost, and my hands smarted for what seemed like hours but turned out to be fifty years. Knowles would have been 19 and on the verge of being recognised as one of the brightest prospects in the game, but that didn’t stop him from having a kickabout with a couple of 10-year-olds.
Yes, it’s a cliché to say that he had it all. But, you know, he had it all. Including, as with most geniuses, his flaws. He could be petulant both on and off the pitch: the former earning him a poor disciplinary record, the latter the frustration of both club and fans with yet another transfer request.
Having established himself as Division Two’s outstanding player of the previous two seasons, 1967/8 saw Wolves promoted and a chance for Knowles to test himself in Division One. He didn’t disappoint and, despite missing a lot of games through injury, he impressed enough to earn the first of four England U-23 caps and was mooted as a contender for a place in the Mexico ’70 squad.
Five years after I saved his pen, he quit the game; destined to be remembered by many only as ‘God’s Footballer’ after being enshrined in song by Billy Bragg. Not by me though, nor the tens of thousands of others who had chanted his name from The Molineux’s terraces when not oohing and ahhing at yet another sublime piece of skill from a player who was arguably the first modern Number 10. We all sang from the stands songs like “Give it to Knowles, give it to Knowles/He scores goals, he scores goals” (I was 10, cut me some slack). Although we didn’t know it at the time, the adulation embarrassed him. In an interview a few years ago he recalled a match when he became acutely aware of it—“I thought to myself, this isn’t right, I’m just an ordinary person.”
He might have been an ordinary person, but he wasn’t an ordinary footballer. Compared by many to George Best and still talked about in awe by those who played with or against him, he scored 64 goals for Wolves in his six and a bit seasons clad in old gold and black and should’ve gone to Mexico and seen his reputation burnished in Technicolor. It never happened. He’d answered the door to two Jehovah’s Witnesses on a pre-season tour in America and a few months later, eight games into the 69/70 campaign and with Wolves off to a flying start, he announced his retirement. Wolverhampton was stunned. The club kept him on contract for a further 12 years until, as opposed to Peter, they recognised that there would be no second coming.
‘God’s footballer hears the voice of angels, above the choir at Molineux,’ sang Bragg in 1991. As an atheist and a Wolves fan, that’s as bad as it gets.
Peter Knowles has never regretted his decision. I did, and I still do. My palms are tingling…
This appeared in MUNDIAL 005, which you can only get on eBay for stupid amounts of Bitcoin nowadays. You can pre-order Issue 13 here, and subscribe to get the magazine pushed through your door all year here.