Friday, August 12, 2011

Forgotten Scotland Players: Nicky Walker

Do our footballers ever ruminate on how a modern Scotland can persuade the rest of the world that it is embracing innovation and shifting away from our old "tartan and shortbread" image?

Probably not.

But at least one star of yesteryear is probably immensely relaxed about the nostalgic power of plaid and a unleavened biscuit phenomenon.

Joseph Nicol Walker, scion of the famous biscuit empire that bears the family name, now enjoys a position of prominence with the firm his great grandfather founded.

But before becoming the Queen's official oatcake supplier Nicky Walker enjoyed a long football career. A career distinguished enough to see him become the Scottish Football Blog's fifth forgotten Scotland player and the first goalkeeper to make our list.

It was a career that began close to home. Aberlous Villa, his first club, were formed in 1924, some 28 years after Joseph Walker founded the biscuit company that would become Scotland's biggest food exporter in the same Speyside village.

From Aberlour to the bright lights of Elgin and a teenage stint in the Highland League. A stint eye-catching enough to attract the attention of Jock Wallace at Leicester City.

Walker's stay at Filbert Street was short, perhaps a city that cherished it's fried potato snacks over crumbly sweet biscuit goodness unnerved him, but it did offer the chance to build a relationship with Wallace.

When the manager took over at Motherwell his goalkeeper followed. When a diminished Rangers called on Wallace to return and steady the ship he again took Walker with him.

But these were not vintage times at Ibrox. Rangers continued to toil and Wallace struggled to recapture former glories. Walker got his chances but was missing for the only trophy that Wallace won in his second spell - Peter McLoy started the 1984 league cup final against Dundee United.

With the sacking of Wallace and the start of the Graeme Souness revolution Walker's chance of establishing himself as a long term number one were hit by the arrival of Chris Woods.

He hung about - short loans at Dunfermline and Falkirk followed - but it was clear that only a move out of Govan would bring opportunities. In 1989 he bowed to the inevitable and signed for Hearts.

Was Walker welcomed as a hero? Not so much. This was a move that perhaps reflected managerial anxiety over incumbent 'keeper Henry Smith's ability to combine occasional ball dropping moments with longevity and Tynecastle cult hero status.

But Smith rose to the challenge and cemented his place as number one in Gorgie. It was Henry who travelled with Scotland's Euro 92 squad while Walker ended the 1991/92 season on loan at Burnley.

Yet the Hearts manager couldn't make his mind up. Joe Jordan - then an oft bewildered Scottish Premier League manager still awaiting his transformation into an Italian baiting Champions League coach - turned back to Walker in 1993.

And here we have our international breakthrough. Andy Roxburgh's Scotland take on Germany (managed by some chap called Vogts) at Ibrox on 24th March 1993. Nicky Walker wins his first cap.

His Scotland clean sheet lasted 19 minutes before Karl-Heinz Reidle put the Germans ahead. But that's where the scoring stopped in a sound Scottish performance that will forever be remembered as the game that Duncan Ferguson showed what might have been had headbutts, jail terms and SFA hate not intervened.

Although he remained in the shadow of Andy Goram and eventually a resurgent Jim Leighton, Walker had now become an internationalist.

But the life of a professional footballer is an oft unsettled one, managerial changes at Tynecastle saw him slip out of favour under Sandy Clark and then out of the door completely when Tommy McLean arrived as boss.

McLean's vision for Hearts - which no doubt included something unintelligble about attacking widemen playing from "in tae oot" - had room for the potential of Craig Nelson but none for the experience of Walker.

Our hero of a trillion afternoon teas found himself as the makeweight in Nelson's move from Partick Thistle. A new dawn was breaking for Nicky Walker and it was breaking over Firhill.

Nelson would go on to make only 24 league appearances for Hearts while Walker would play 53 times for Thistle. Walker would play for Scotland again. Nelson would never play for Scotland.

But it wasn't all plain sailing. Under the stewardship of Murdo MacLeod the Jags struggled in the 1995/96 season. Only seven clean sheets were kept as the team's paltry eight wins saw them slump to second bottom.

Under the short lived play-off scheme - there is no such thing as a new idea in the world of Scottish football - that meant a two-legged promotion/relegation decider with Dundee United, runners-up to Dunfermline in the First Division.

United ran out 3-2 winners and it was a relegated Walker who doubled his caps tally with an eight minute substitute appearance against the USA in Conneticut.

That match, a 2-1 defeat, was a warm-up for Euro 96 and Walker was part of the Scotland squad that graced the tournament with the usual mixture of grit, determination, passion, fleeting glory and ultimate failure. As so often with his international call-ups there was little doubt that he was very much the third choice travelling companion to Goram and Leighton.

Domestically he had emerged from a relegation season with his reputation enhanced and Aberdeen spent £60,000 to keep him in the top flight. His Pittodrie stay didn't work out and he failed to notch up even a score of league appearances. The end was nigh after - in one of Wikipedia's more ignominious football entries - "he was supplanted by Derek Stillie."

He returned to his Highland homeland and Dingwall's finest, Ross County. The move brought his most sustained run of first team action, first on loan and then as a permanent signing. Close to 140 appearances followed as County established themselves in the SFL.

2001 saw a brief, romantic return to Aberlour Villa before he signed for County's Highland rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

There was a strange twist in this autumn of his career. In September 2001 he was denied an appearance in the Highland derby against his old club when he was stranded in the United States during the air traffic confusion that followed the September 11th attacks.

Inverness veteran Jim Calder took his place in a match that saw County manager Neale Cooper win his first derby after five years in charge. Walker returned in time for the next match and promptly conceded six against Airdrie.

As he approached his forties Walker was going to have to devote more of his time to the family business. Inverness were his last professional club although he remained involved with football in the Highlands.

Now production director for the shortbread behomoths he's set to carry family stewardship of the firm into another generation.

He's businessman with a past though. Nicky Walker was something of a well tanned, luxuriantly haired fixture of Scottish football for the best part of two decades. Periods of that career were spent in the shadows but he often impressed.

For a while he seemed to be forever the close-but-no-cigar fall guy of the Scotland squad, always there, always willing, never playing. But twice he got his chance.

Two memories at least to sustain a man through a biscuit based board meeting or shared as a pleasant anecdote over a nice cup of tea and sample of the family's finest.

Forgotten Scotland Players number 5: Nicky Walker, Hearts and Partick Thistle. 2 caps.