Loz Simpson remembers a goalkeeper who played over 300 times for Tottenham and four times for England and yet is still remembered with an insipid distain
For younger fans who never saw Ian Walker, it may be something of a mystery as to why a player who made over 300 appearances for the club and won 4 England caps is regarded so poorly by those who saw him play. For those that do remember him, it will be a mystery how he managed to make over 300 appearances and win 4 England caps. In his defence, Ian Walker was not prone to the sort of calamitous gaffs that were a common site when Heurelho Gomes was in goal. In fact, Ian Walker could be trusted to always take care of the routine duties of a goalkeeper. The trouble was, that was where his talent ended. He stood 6 ft 2, but whenever a shot was to the side of him, left or right, bottom or top corner, he seemed about 2 ft 6 he was so far from the ball. He was Tottenham’s Mr consistent. That is to say, he was consistently picked and consistent is his average to poor performances. In that sense, he was the very embodiment of Tottenham in the 90’s. Unspectacular at best, plainly awful at worse.
Ian Walker was one of our own. A product of Spurs’ own youth academy and son of unremarkable Welsh goalkeeper and Norwich City managerial legend Mike Walker. A handsome young man, sporting some impressive 1990’s curtains, Ian made his debut for Spurs on 10th April 1991 away to Norwich. His father was almost certainly looking on, a youth team coach at Norwich and a few months short of the job which would make his name. Spurs lost 2-1 in a disappointing performance. It would be the start of things to come. Current Spurs number 1 Erik Thorstvedt developed a series of back injuries over the next few years that would untimely force him to retire in 1996, but it would not be until the 94/95 when Walker would become the undisputed Tottenham number 1.
The 94/95 season would be Walkers big year. Ossie Ardiles initially made him first choice, but it was Gerry Francis and his rejuvenation of Tottenham that year that bought out the best in Ian Walker as it did for many other Spurs players (notably Nick Barmby and Colin Calderwood). The season would prove to be the apex of Walkers Spurs career, with many fans remaining unconvinced as to his ability.
The 95/96 season showed promise for Spurs at times, but Walkers inability to keep a clean sheet would hamper a season that faded away. The following year a 10th place finish masked the fact that Spurs lost 18 league matches that season, equalled only by relegated Sunderland. Walker was again picked up for his poor performances. He was rightly criticised for poor displays in December 1996 where Spurs lost 6-0 at Bolton in the League Cup, and 7-1 at Newcastle a few weeks later. Despite these heavy defeats, Ian Walker was absolutely undroppable at Spurs. It would remain this way until the summer of 2000.
If you’re wondering why Spurs didn’t sign another keeper if he was really that bad, well, they did. Good ones too. He had Norwegian Espen Baardsen as his understudy, and at one point was also joined by Frode Grodas from Chelsea, who was Norway’s first choice international keeper. Baardsen would get game time under George Graham and Christian Gross. He seemed the far better keeper, but Walker would ultimately get his spot back. Grodas, by contrast, wouldn’t make a single appearance for Spurs. When he left the club he remarked that he was Norways number one, but Tottenham’s number three. He added that if anyone was going to get the number 1 jersey off of Ian Walker they would need a blow torch. He was that untouchable at Spurs and no one outside knew why. Perhaps that was the case inside the club too.
It can be fair to say that Christian Gross made many mistakes when he was at Spurs, so says a lot that he reflected on Ian Walker in a 2004 interview. Goss said “The biggest mistake I ever made at Tottenham was to replace Espen Baardsen in goal with Ian Walker. I picked Baardsen when Walker was injured for a while but putting him back in the first team is something I really do regret. I cannot believe he is England’s No 3 goalkeeper. He is not a winner and never will be. He was lazy.”
Walker would eventually be replaced by Neil Sullivan from Wimbledon in the summer of 2000. He did not wait long after Sullivan’s arrival to place in a transfer request. At the time, then club director David Pleat said “We have reluctantly agreed to a transfer request from Ian Walker. We understand his frustration at his lack of first-team opportunities at the moment. Ian’s form last year was excellent and by bringing in Neil Sullivan it increased the competition at the club. We now have two top-class goalkeepers and we are perhaps victims of that situation.” Tottenham fans would have unanimously disagreed with most of the statement. He would be sold to Leicester shortly afterwards for a tidy £3.5m. Perhaps it was that laziness that Gross mentioned that saw Walker hand in a transfer request rather than fight for his place. Whatever the truth of it, Walker leaving White Hart Lane evoked a positive reaction from most Spurs fans who had to sit through his flapping around in goal for the best part of a decade.
When the rainbow shone over White Hart Lane in May, like the proverbial curtain at the theatre, there were 50 legends on the pitch. Most were undisputed. The inclusion of some (Edgar Davids, Simon Davies, Stephen Carr) was debatable. Ian Walker, 312 appearances over 12 years at the club and a league cup winner’s medal, was not there. No one who saw him play would ask why he was absent.