In a football career spanning twenty-years, Des Walker played over 700 times for Nottingham Forest, Sampdoria and Sheffield Wednesday, won 59 caps for England, and perhaps most memorably, during the Italia 90 World Cup was an integral part of the most successful England team since 1966.
I was fortunate enough to play alongside Des for Nottingham Forest in his final season as a professional footballer, in what was my first season in the professional game. At 38, he was almost twice my age back then, and although it only seems like yesterday, over a decade has now passed since he retired.
Retirement is a difficult subject for many footballers – regardless of their achievements – and for Des that has proved to be the case. The fleeting years I spent alongside him at Forest turned out to be the pinnacle of my career, and as I draw closer to the end of my days in football, the foray I’m making into journalism is a nod to the question that every player will have to ask themselves one day: what comes next?
In truth, it is a question that Des Walker has still not answered. Most of his contemporaries have forged careers in coaching, management or the media, and those were avenues open to Des when he retired. So why has one of the best defenders England has produced been driving a lorry for the past six years? Although he has endured a difficult relationship with football since retiring, his days behind the wheel are now numbered. And he is now taking his first tentative steps towards a return to the game.
When I ring Des out of the blue to ask if I can interview him, he invites me to his house the following evening – an example of the generosity he regularly showed when offering advice and words of wisdom to young players such as myself all those years ago. When I meet him – as it turns out he is staying with a friend until his house move is complete – he is the same animated and engaging character who speaks with an infectious passion about football, just as I, or anyone who knew him in his playing days would remember.
His young children are running around full of energy, and perhaps because of them, in one sense the intervening years have been kind: he still looks as lean and fit as he did when he was gliding across the City Ground turf. In another sense however, the years that have passed have been a challenge, with the hole that football left something he has struggled to replace, even to this day.
When Des left Nottingham Forest in January 2005 – after a short stint on Joe Kinnear’s coaching staff – he walked away from football, and for nearly a decade couldn’t look back. “I had two young kids so I wasn’t sure about going in to management,” he said. “The problem was I knew I wouldn’t have seen them grow up. So I was pretty sure I knew what I didn’t want to do, but I had no clue what I was going to do. I knew I couldn’t go through my life doing nothing, but when you’ve been a professional footballer for 20 years, what matches that? I don’t think anything ever does. I don’t think anything ever gives you the same buzz as going out, playing well, and winning a game on a Saturday. For every footballer that was their love and their dream. So when I walked out that door at the City Ground, I thought, ‘what do I do now?’ There was this big black hole in front of me.”
After twenty years in football, he enjoyed his first year of retirement – playing golf, travelling, and doing some of the things he had “missed out on”. But the anxiety around his future hovered menacingly in the background, and slowly but surely, he began to withdraw from the world around him. “After a year or so, without really knowing it, I kind of fell into a bit of a depression,” said Walker, who will turn 50 later this year. “I stopped going out, and I was always an outgoing person. By the second year, you don’t know you’re down, but you’re starting to get that way. And by the third and fourth year, you’re like a recluse – it’s taken its hold. No one needs four years off, let’s be fair!”
I ask how he felt about football during that time, and whether he ever considered making a return: “Football’s always been my life – I’m dead enthusiastic when it comes to football. But when I retired my way of dealing with it was just to stay away from it. I didn’t want to watch it, judge it, be around it, see it. That probably tells you a story. It was like football never existed.”
He tells me he how he “hid behind” his children, and while they took up much of his time, he knew he had to do something to give himself purpose, and to get out of the house. So one day he asked a friend who owned a haulage company if he could drive for him. “I love driving and I’d already done my class one, just for the hell of it,” he said, “bus, bike, I’d done them all! So I went out with a couple of his drivers, and I loved it to be fair. After the first week I worked, on the Friday night I got home and said, ‘right who’s going out for a drink’ – and something clicked for me: I had to be working. No matter what it was, I had to earn going out for a drink or whatever I was going to do in life. That’s how it had been as a footballer: for nine months you earned that 6 weeks holiday in the summer. Nothing I did was ever going to be the same as football, but I realised that in life I need that satisfaction to have done my job well. Once I got that in my mind, the adjustment became easier. But up until then, there was a long four years of my life that were….” the sentence tails off with a telling sigh.
Des now regularly works fifteen-hour days and believes that driving a lorry is one of the toughest jobs around. But he says it’s nothing compared to what he put himself through physically and mentally during his football career. “The boys say to me ‘you’re in the real world now’ and so on, but I had to push my body way past its limits for twenty years. I can dig in more than most people – you can’t be a footballer without being mentally tough.”
Unsurprisingly, he does get a few second glances when out in his lorry, but his familiar face does have its advantages too. “Most people don’t recognise me because they don’t expect me to get out of the lorry, but if I’m lucky, sometimes I get my load tipped quicker! They’ll say ‘Des get in that bay’, while some other geezer’s got to wait two hours” he says with a cackle of laughter. “I travel all over and that’s when I know I got on alright with most of the fans – I suppose they could be making me wait.”
My next two questions are difficult ones for me to ask. After a successful career in football Des was a wealthy man, but money doesn’t last forever. He jokes that that is especially true “a couple of ex’s down the line”, but insists that money has never worried him. “I’m quite happy to have a crap car; I’m quite happy if I’ve got a roof over my head,” he said, “and as long as I’ve got two arms and two legs, I’ll always feed my children. I’m lucky enough to be healthy enough to go out and graft if I need to, and do any job I need to, to be able to feed my children – and I’m not bothered what it is.”
I ask if he ever worries what people may think about how far removed his job is from what people might expect Des Walker to be doing? “The one thing about football,” he said, “and the one thing about my career, is no matter where I am or what I’m doing today, no one can ever take that away from me. That’s for me. I always played for myself. Not selfishly, but whenever I was on that park, I didn’t care who was there watching me. It was something I played from childhood, and going out on that park, winning, playing well, contributing to my team, gave me a high.”
That high is something that I can’t help feeling he has missed, but he won’t be driving a lorry for much longer. He has a new business venture on the horizon, and has recently passed his UEFA ‘B’ coaching licence, and will begin the UEFA ‘A’ course this summer. So why now after a decade out of the game has he felt the urge to return to the world of football? “So many people say to me ‘Des you should be in football’, all the time, and sometimes I stop and think maybe I should. It’s not that I fell back in love with football, because I never fell out of love with it, I just stayed away from it, but I’ve started to enjoy going back to games now. I’m going to finish my coaching badges, and maybe ease myself back into it. I just needed that adjustment period, although, it’s nearly ten years since I retired,” he says with a laugh, “so that tells a story of how long it sometimes takes!”
He continued: “You get used to driving a lorry, it’s repetitive, whereas in football there aren’t two games the same; there’s never two times where you feel the same, but you’ve got to drag the same or better out of yourself, and that physical, mental, courage that you have to produce – nothing matches that. But I do enjoy driving a lorry,” he quips, “you can bully people, it’s a big old lump isn’t it!”
When I ask what role he might see for himself in football in the future, he says with a wry smile: “I don’t think it’ll be carrying the cones.” He understands that after ten years he may have to start somewhere nearer the bottom than the top. But in a nod to his former mentor Brian Clough, he believes that the experience he has means there will be a role out there for him somewhere, and it would be hard to argue with that. “I’d be just as proud managing Ilkeston Town, as Man United or Nottingham Forest, because you can only win what you started out to win. For me, again it’s doing my job and doing it well, that’s where I get my satisfaction.
“I think I’m quite a strong person. I believe what I believe in football, and I learned from the man who for me was the master of football. He said ‘it’s a very simple game’, and I watch managers and coaches nowadays who complicate it. For me, the game can be simplified.”
Des’ final words to me are poignant, revealing just how arduous his exile from football has been, and the difficulty he had coming to terms with the end of his days as a player: “I liken it to a soldier becoming a civilian – it’s a massive adjustment because it’s been your life. People will say it’s not that important, but when you’re a footballer you’re conditioned to thinking that’s the only thing there is in the world. Everything else becomes unimportant. All that matters is that you play well in that 90 minutes on a Saturday, everything else is taken care of after that. It’s a wrench, a wrench to leave behind, although, I don’t think you leave football behind, it leaves you behind.”
For Des Walker nothing has come close to replicating the high he felt as a player at the top of his sport. Perhaps it has taken him this long to realise that although nothing ever will, he still needs football in his life, even if coaching or management will always come as a poor second best.