Whatever the template was for an English footballer in the 1990s, Chris Waddle certainly didn’t fit it. A Sunderland-supporting Geordie, who flourished in north London and Marseille before belatedly excelling in Sheffield – while being bizarrely overlooked by England when they needed him the most – it’s not immediately obvious where his legacy lies.
Waddle was among the small but significant exodus to Europe that followed English clubs being banned from UEFA competitions for half a decade in 1985. The British transfer record was broken seven times in eight years as the likes of Mark Hughes, Ian Rush, David Platt, Paul Gascoigne and Waddle spread their wings – with mixed results – in Spain, Italy and France.
A £4.25m fee meant he arrived in Marseille as the third most expensive player of all time and that, allied with a tricky settling-in period, meant he struggled to make an early impression. After living in a hotel, and enduring a gruelling fast-tracked pre-season training regime in the searing heat, Waddle gave himself an ultimatum: “This is it, it starts from now. If it doesn’t work, we’ll go home.”
His timing was impeccable. He finally announced himself with a stunning piece of impudence in Le Classique against Paris Saint-Germain, which is best left to Waddle himself to describe in an accent that sits somewhere between South Shields and the south of France:
Now, a musical interlude. Waddle’s willingness to immerse himself in a new culture went to the extraordinary lengths of recording the curious, supermarket-brand-Peter-
By 1991, he was playing some of the best football of his career and was on an upward trajectory from his crushing disappointment at Italia ’90, where the ball had taken a rather similar route in that penalty shootout against West Germany. Marseille’s run to the European Cup final that year took them past AC Milan in the quarter-finals, in which Waddle volleyed home the only goal in the second leg. As the match descended into chaos, and the floodlights began to fail, he came within a whisker of a goal for the ages.
The following summer, aged 31 but by now well and truly frozen out of the national team by Graham Taylor’s intransigence, Waddle returned to England to take his place in the Premier League. Despite being seen as a luxury at international level, his footballing education on the Continent had turned him into more than just an old-fashioned winger, as the Guardian’s Rob Bagchi noted:
“The winger without blistering pace requires a peculiar style of nerve to complement his skill. He left Marseille as one of Britain’s best three exports alongside John Charles and Kevin Keegan and by the time he returned to Sheffield Wednesday in 1992…he was thoroughly uninhibited. France had liberated him and turned him into a player with the courage of his convictions.”
Sheffield Wednesday found the £1m Marseille wanted and – after penalty agony with England at Italia ‘90 and falling at the final European hurdle with Marseille in 1991 – Waddle would face a familiar story in 1992/93 of what could have been. Wednesday reached two cup finals, both against Arsenal, and were narrowly beaten in both. While collectively falling short, the Owls still had the privilege of seeing an emboldened Waddle at his shoulder-dropping peak. His signature move – the dangling of a leg over the ball, mid-dribble, to bewilder a full-back – was by now part of the acclaimed Coerver Soccer School curriculum alongside the Cruyff turn and the stepover.
In the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against Sheffield United, he joined the very exclusive club of players of whom the BBC’s Barry Davies would openly ask if they were “going to have a crack”:
His performances in the untucked blue-and-white shirt that season were enough to convince the football writers to vote him their Player of the Year and to again put forward Waddle’s case as the solution to England’s perennial left-sided dilemma – Taylor’s more romantic-minded replacement Terry Venables could still not be persuaded. Nevertheless, the following season – just weeks short of his 33rd birthday – Waddle was still busy teaching young dogs old tricks:
In 1996, with his pace evaporated but his mastery of disguise still intact, Waddle’s time at the top level seemed over. A brief spell at Falkirk (“I looked at it and thought, ‘Yeah – why not?’”) was followed by a short-term deal at second-tier Bradford City, where the FA Cup once again gave him the chance to work his inherent magic. Having already warned Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall that he would be lobbed the moment the opportunity arose, Waddle wasted no time in keeping his word when the ball ran loose 40 yards out.
Waddle’s ageing but captivating feet, now in their 37th year, would be granted one final top-flight hurrah. Neatly enough, it would come with his beloved Sunderland, who were enduring both a relegation battle and the management style of Peter Reid, for whom the £75,000 signing of a glacial but graceful creator represented a rather desperate last throw of the Premier League dice. Reid’s gameplan was a sophisticated one:
An ill-advised step into player-management with Burnley began a gentle, turn-of-the-millennium winding-down of the Waddle roadshow. His lower-league (and then non-league) farewell tour – Torquay United, Worksop Town, Glapwell, Stocksbridge Park Steels – took him into his early forties, but it wasn’t a semi-tragic rage against the dying of his footballing light. Waddle simply loved playing. And, indeed, making terrible pop songs.
For all the ups and downs, the big-money moves and the humble non-contract deals, the 40-yard lobs and devastating penalty misses, there is perhaps one moment of Chris Waddle magic that deserves greater exposure. No-one seems to know who or what the “Red Raiders” or the “Green Giants” were – or why any of this was happening – but…well:
“GIVE IT TO WADDLER” indeed.
For the next instalment of ’90s Heroes, check out the Bet Bright football blog on Friday.