Name: Joseph Nicol Walker
DOB: 29 September 1962 (age 51)
Clubs: Leicester City, Motherwell, Rangers, Dunfermline Athletic, Hearts, Burnley, Partick Thistle, Aberdeen, Ross County, Inverness CT
International Caps: Two
Football history is littered with players who, in hindsight, would perhaps like a do-over. The reasons are many: too many vices, recurrent injuries, falling out with managers or big mistakes in key moments that forever affected their reputation. For Nicky Walker, however, it will be the fact that he always put himself in a tough situation and never got the chance to show what he could really do until his waning years.
First at Rangers then at Hearts he competed not only under the intense pressure associated with keeping goal for a team with top of the table aspirations, but against other custodians of a similar, or even greater, quality. He was never allowed to make mistakes and continually found himself on the sideline when he did so. Bracketing such difficult scenarios were spells at Motherwell and Partick Thistle where he was revered by the supporters happy to live with the odd error as long as he could continually pull off top level saves.
Motherwell had just been promoted back to the top flight when the man who had taken them there, David Hay, abruptly left the country to accept a coaching role in the United States. Jock Wallace took over the task of trying to keep The Steelmen in the top flight and one of his first signings was a young blonde haired goalkeeper who he’d been impressed by in their time together at Leicester City. It wasn’t long before the 20-year old Walker was installed as Motherwell’s first choice keeper and he turned in a string of impressive performances to help the team narrowly avoid an immediate return to the second tier.
Over at Ibrox, things weren’t going so swimmingly for Scotland’s most successful club as they were forced to watch Celtic, Aberdeen and then Dundee United march to a league title over them. It was enough to convince the board to bring back former manager Jock Wallace, who had been in charge when the Light Blues ended Celtic’s nine-in-a-row reign over Scotland. Unimpressed with the residing goalkeepers, Peter McCloy and Jim Stewart, Wallace once again called for Walker to join him at a new club. Jumping from a newly promoted side with low expectations to a team that had an army of supporters demanding its swift return to the top of the table brought with it a lot of pressure and Wallace was careful to ease his young keeper into proceedings. His first season brought only 11 appearances and he missed out on a League Cup Final winners medal after McLoy was preferred for the 3-2 victory over Celtic. His workload increased the following year, up to 20 games, when Stewart was sold in the summer and he split time with McLoy. However, the veteran was given the nod yet again when Rangers contested another League Cup Final, this time defeating Dundee United. Finally, Walker won sole possession of the gloves and was the regular number one for the 1985/86 season. The one drawback was the lack of quality in the Rangers side. When Charles Green made his famous quote that the Third Division title winning Rangers side was the worst in the club’s history, he must not have been aware of the 1985/86 team. They averaged less than a point per game, a record low, and only avoided the embarrassment on missing out on Europe by pipping Dundee to the final spot on the last weekend of the season. Their 56 goals conceded was the worst total for any side in the top half and 25 worse off than Aberdeen, the team directly above them in the league table. The board reacted decisively by sacking Wallace and bringing in Graeme Sounness as his replacement. A new era at Ibrox had begun.
For Walker, though, it was the beginning of the end. Chris Woods had been one of Sounness’s first signings and he was the nailed on first-choice over the next three years. Rangers won two titles within that time but Walker never made enough appearances in either campaign to get his hands on a league winner’s medal. When the 1989/09 season started in the same fashion he figured it was time to leave Ibrox in search of some regular playing time. His move was a strange choice.
Hearts were the nearly men of Scottish football between the mid-eighties and early nineties. Starting with their infamous crumbling at Dens on the final day of the 1985-86 season, the Gorgie Road side finished runners-up in the league three times, lost one Hampden final and exited at the semi-final stage on another five occasions. A particularly heartbreaking loss occurred to Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final where the Edinburgh side lost the match despite leading 1-0 with two minutes remaining. Goalkeeper and Hearts idol, Henry Smith, was at fault for both goals and was fast developing a reputation as a big game bottler. The fans were fully behind Smith, but manager Alex MacDonald wanted to see if he could bring in another reliable keeper with pedigree if Smith fell apart altogether.
MacDonald needn’t have bothered. Hearts were fairly average for the remainder of the 1989/90 season but Smith wasn’t a problem and he successfully kept Walker sitting on his hands throughout the campaign. When Hearts made a poor start the following year, failing to win any of their first three games and exiting the League Cup, MacDonald paid for it with his job. Joe Jordan came in as his replacement and kept Smith on as the number one. Results improved but not to the degree that the new boss or his employers had envisioned and when, in January, Hearts followed a third round cup exit to Airdrie with a 5-0 defeat at Aberdeen, Jordan decided to shake things up in the first team. The most noted change to be made was Walker coming in for Smith and the understudy performed well enough in a 2-1 win over Dundee United to remain the number one choice for the remainder of the campaign. The new boss felt justified in his selection but Hearts fans could never get their head around the switch. In their eyes Smith was the undisputed best goalkeeper at the glove. They always felt like Walker was an accident waiting to happen.
The support got their wish the following pre-season when Jordan opened up the position for both keepers to fight for and Smith won back the gloves. In fact, Walker didn’t play a single minute of football in the 1991-92 season as Hearts re-established themselves among the elite at the top end of the table by leading the league at Christmas and coming in second behind Rangers. It would be a fleeting visit as they sunk back down the following year, although Walker was re-installed after the club’s poor start.
It was at this point where Walker displayed the best form of his career as Hearts recovered in the league table and reached the semi-final of the cup once again. In the 2-1 defeat to Rangers, Walker was magnificent in keeping the favourites out for long spells, but his rash tendencies reared up once again when he elected to come charging out for his line to meet Ally McCoist, allowing the striker to simply poke the ball past him for the winning goal. However, it was still at this point where Walker was given his first Scotland cap, playing in an international friendly against Germany, which we lost 1-0.
Finally, it seemed, he was in control of his own destiny, but then fate turned on him again. In an away match at Aberdeen, Walker was injured in pre-game warm-up – striker Iain Baird had to go in goal as Smith hadn’t travelled and Hearts lost 3-2 – and didn’t play again for the rest of the season. This included the 6-0 debacle at Brockville where, it has long been rumoured, the Hearts players basically gave up in a hope of getting Jordan sacked. They got their wish.
Sandy Clark took over and reinstated Smith. In a depressing 1993-94 campaign both keepers would see playing time but both would rather forget the dismal nine months. His Hearts career ended when new manager Tommy McLean stepped through the doors and decided he didn’t want either of the two battling stoppers, bringing in Craig Nelson from Partick Thistle as his number one. Walker moved to Partick Thistle as a makeweight in the deal.
The keeper was a revelation at his new club, helping them fight off the drop in memorable fashion. For long periods of 1994-95 it looked certain that Partick Thistle were the team facing relegation. What didn’t help their cause was the fact that the teams above them – Dundee United, Aberdeen and Hearts – were perceived as underachievers who were “too good to go down”. Thistle responded with an incredible second half to the season that saw them drop only three of 18 league fixtures. Their late season charge was capped off with a stunning 3-1 win against Celtic that ensured relegation was no longer a possibility – a result which remains the last time Thistle have beaten The Hoops in Glasgow. Unfortunately they couldn’t overcome the pressure the following campaign and were relegated in a playoff defeat to Dundee United. It was during this unfortunate year, however, where Walker earned his second and final Scotland cap, featuring against the USA in a friendly. He would remain the last Thistle player to be called up to the senior national side until Scott Fox was included last month.
In the summer of 1996, Walker was on the move once more. Aberdeen had finished third in the league the following year but manager Roy Aitken was not content with the form of goalkeeper Michael Watt, whose mistake in the semi had cost them a final meeting with Rangers in the Scottish Cup. Walker became number one but it was clear that his powers were declining and when Derek Stillie emerged, and with Aberdeen going through a rough campaign, it made sense to look to the long term by preferring the younger option.
At 35 and out of the Premier Division, Walker decided to move back closer to home and took up a role playing for Ross County; the newly admitted Highland club having been welcomed into League football four years earlier. He proved his longevity to the game by excelling for four seasons in Dingwall, helping County to successive promotions in 1998-99 and 99-2000. The 112 league appearances he would go on to make rank as the most amount of matches he ever played with any one club, remaining a hero in the eyes of the County fans until this day. Although, they may have been happier if, when his contract ran out, he didn’t join Inverness CT for the 2001-02 First Division season. Then again, players often move between the two clubs because of their isolation as full-time teams and it isn’t held in the same regard as if Walker had travelled across Edinburgh to Easter Road earlier in his career. After one season as Caley’s number one he finally gave up at the game just a couple of months shy of his 40th birthday.
Where is he now? Well, Nicky’s great granddad is the founder of the ‘Walkers Shortbread’, the biscuit company that sells around the world and is Scotland’s biggest exporter of food. After retiring Nicky went back to work in the family company and still does the occasional bit of goalkeeping coaching for Highland league teams.
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