We might love Chris Waddle as much as he loves England

Date published: Friday 31st July 2020 1:25 - Matthew Stead


Who’s this then?
Christopher Roland Waddle is now 59 and from the early ’80s to early ’90s was easily one of the finest, most creative footballers England had ever produced. He ended up playing 734 games for 13 different clubs: Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Marseille, Sheffield Wednesday, Falkirk, Bradford City, Sunderland, Burnley, Torquay United, Worksop Town, Glapwell, Stocksbridge Park Steels and Hallam. He also played 62 times for his country, scoring six times.

A strapping 6′ 1″ fella born in Felling, Gateshead (where I lived as a student, as it happens, just off Sunderland Road), he spent his early career playing on the left wing, moving to the right later after he’d improved his right foot.

“I was completely left-footed until I was about 23. It’s then that I started playing on the right-hand side and people knew I’d cut onto my left so I worked on my right in the gym. Twenty minutes a day for a couple of months is all it takes for a professional to improve his weaker foot.”

After playing for a few local junior clubs, he signed on at Tow Law Town from 1978 to 1980. A fine old Northern League club with a lot of history and one of the coldest places you could ever wish to see football, up on the edge of the Pennines, surrounded by moorland. A pal of mine once won a carrier bag of undefined meat in the half-time raffle at Tow Law. Fact.

It was here he was scouted by Newcastle. At the time Chris was, famously, making seasoning for sausages at a factory in Tow Law and although he was a Sunderland fan, they didn’t fancy him so the Magpies signed him up for £1,000 in 1980.

They would sell him five years later for £590,000 to Tottenham.

Newcastle were in the Second Division for all but his final season, helping them to promotion in 1983/84, when finishing third secured an automatic place in the top tier. Of his 148 club goals, over a third of them came when playing for Newcastle.

He played four seasons at Spurs, playing 54 games in his second, setting up many goals for Clive Allen who netted an incredible 49 times that season. A midfield of Glenn Hoddle, Chris and Ossie Ardiles launched Spurs to third in the league and to the FA Cup final where they lost a classic game 3- 2 to Coventry. Around this time, amazingly, he had a hit single, ‘Diamond Lights’, with Glenn Hoddle. It got to #12. The long-forgotten follow-up, ‘It’s Goodbye’, made #92

Unusually, he moved next to Marseille for £4.5 million, which was the third highest transfer fee ever at the time. He won three titles, became Magic Chris and recorded an alleged Albanian chart topper with Basile Boli.

Hugely popular with the fans, he remains a legend in the city to this day, winning the Onze d’Argent in 1991 He returned home to Sheffield Wednesday in 1992 and helped them to both cup finals against Arsenal, ending up with two runners-up medals. The FWA voted him Footballer of the Year. From 1996 he played for, weirdly, Falkirk, though only for four games, and then had a season each at four other league clubs before hanging up his boots. He still turned out for local Sheffield area sides and even into his late 50s can still be found playing Sunday league games.

His England career has been forever defined by his participation in the World In Motion video which featured a lot of him in action, and by the penalty miss at Italia 90, then the subsequent pizza advert with Start Pearce and Gareth Southgate six years later.

After retiring he went into punditry and has worked extensively on 5 live. His frustrated, angry England post-World Cup exit rants have become a traditional entertaining evisceration of English football


Why the love?
Chris scores a lot of love on a lot of different fronts. As a player he was tall, broad and had magic in his feet, but looked less like a top athlete and more like a bin man who was actually carrying a bin at all times. His hunched over running style made it appear as though he was lumbering and slow. But that was a kind of optical illusion because he was neither. The very antithesis of today’s middle-distance runners who glide over the turf, it all looked hard work to Chris and that made him very endearing. There was not an ounce of too cool for school about him.

And yet he had an incredible skill set. His ability to cut inside and then out was second to none. Time and again, he’d show the ball to the defender in a ‘go on then, here it is, here it is, come and get it’ move, before whipping it past his opponent as they dived in to try and get the ball. He could drop a shoulder and ease past a player and even though they knew he might do it, they could never stop him. He was the antidote to the ignorant view that pre-Premier League football was all kick and rush and clogging.

He could also hit a helluva free-kick; penalties, not so much.

On top of all this, by moving to France, he showed himself to be one of the more progressive thinkers in the insular English game. That he won the league three times and finished runner-up in the 1991 European Cup final is testament to the wisdom of his French adventure.

And the French, possibly even more so than the English, loved his playing style. He found a home that appreciated his talents and played an amazing 140 games in three seasons. Even though he only scored 28 across those three seasons, he was an invaluable cog in the Marseille machine.

He was such a physically distinctive player. There were the mullet years, of course, when he sported one of the finest examples of the business at the front, party at the back hairstyles. If you think about it, no-one played the game quite like Chris did. You could never mistake him for anyone else. He was serious but fun at the same time.

He scored spectacular goals: the 40-yard hit for Bradford, top-corner curlers for Sheffield Wednesday and Spurs, a right-footed lob for Marseille and many many more. His dribble for Marseille from inside his own half in the European Cup semi-final against AC Milan lives long in the memory.

All of this would be plenty of reason to be so fondly remembered but in his broadcasting career he’s garnered even more fans, especially when co-commentating on England games.

There are many highlights. In England’s 4-2 loss to Germany at the 2010 World Cup, he went ballistic during the game as England’s lumbering defence was shredded, banging on the desk. Off mic he could be heard shouting “no, no no”, angry at the poor quality of the performance. After the game he launched into a tirade, accusing the FA of “sitting on its backside” and doing nothing to help develop English football.

In 2014 and 2016 after more terrible performances he was apoplectic again. At times he’s an impressionistic talker and all the better for it. Post-Iceland debacle his classic statement about England – “we’re all just headphones” was a brilliant way to sum up the self-indulgence of their default to individuality over the collective. All shut off in their own little world. Apart not together. An observation perfectly expressed with Chris’s four words.

And after many years of this, I do believe the FA began to take notice of what he said and of the support his comments engendered. St George’s Park finally happened and today we have a surfeit of talented attacking players, though are less well served in the centre of defence. Are we comfortable on the ball now? We’ll see soon enough.

His words had such power, not just because they were true but because of how he said them. He has the most distinctive voice on the radio. An unreconstructed south of the Tyne Geordie accent, he’ll say “ah cannat” for “I can’t”, which only adds to the rootsy, man-of-the-people vibe that sits well on his shoulders.

And on top of all these things, to listen to him relating a story from his career, often about Gazza, is to listen to a natural raconteur.

When I wrote a Love Letter to him two and a half years ago, one of 5 live’s former producers told me:

“Chris is a great man, brilliant humorous company, easygoing, unassuming. As a broadcast colleague, he’s a proper trusted team player. As a match analyst, wise and witty, insightful and plain-speaking. And I might add he’s so humble with it: some ex-players – mostly those who couldn’t hold a torch to him as a player in their own right – are sadly a bit too quick to pontificate and be demanding & selective in media circles. He’s the opposite. Never ever choosing to remind listeners how good a winger he really was, he’s earthy and open-minded.

“As professional and enthusiastic to be at West Brom-Stoke on a cold winter’s night as he is in a sweltering World Cup cauldron angrily lamenting England’s latest World Cup exit. Versatile, but always passionate about his footy. I think I speak on behalf of the 5 Live footy team when I say it’s always a genuine joy to find yourself in the company of Chris Waddle in a commentary box or on tour, and as a listener a treat to hear him at games on 5 Live Sport.”

And that struck me powerfully as self-evident just from listening to him, which in itself is quite remarkable.

In 2018, though, things were a little different with England getting to the semi-final. Suddenly Chris was emotional, his voice cracking into tears after the Sweden game, needing to take a moment to compose himself, while the entire listening public said, “aw listen, the Waddler’s bubblin’”. This time his criticism of England would come after the loss of the semi-final, identifying England’s old trouble of inability to retain the ball in midfield and ending up getting bossed. Maybe next time they can go on round further. Do it for Chris.


What the people love
When someone has a popular playing career and then a popular media career, he really gets into the football DNA of our lives. So plenty of love for Magic Chris came in this week.

‘I’ve commentated alongside him now for more years than I care to remember and there is no-one more knowledgeable or passionate about the game. He loves it and simply cannot get enough of it and is quite simply one of the sharpest summarisers I’ve worked with. Equally importantly, he is great fun, a fine companion and – as I never tire of describing him – was once the third most expensive footballer in the world’ – John Murray, 5 live commentator.

‘Fabulous man, born entertainer and still obsessed with football. I’ve played with him on Astro in Tokyo and 5 a side pitches in Lisbon and he’s still a genius. He’s one of life’s radiators’ – Mark Pougatch, broadcaster, BT Sport.

‘Two years ago, immediately following the England last-16 penalty shoot out win, as 606 started he cried, voice cracked. Couldn’t hold it together. Kelly Cates, being the pro, calmed him or else he might have full-on blubbed. As emotional as he is angry when England blow it.’

‘He played for Bradford City in his twilight years and while we struggled to get results with him in the team, he was such a delight to watch. Was there for that chip against Everton in the FA Cup. Sensational goal.’

‘I didn’t really remember a whole lot about of him, aside from brief memories of him in Italia 90, flashes of artistry at Wednesday, the minor furore when Pleaty asked Keegan for a million pound for a 35 year old player and obviously his wonderful hair.’

‘*That* dribble for Marseille against *that* Milan defence with *that* Barry Davies commentary. Nearly one of the best goals ever but the ball trickled just wide.’

‘I seem to remember an interview after the 1990 World Cup and Gary Lineker had said that scoring a goal at the World Cup was better than sex. Waddle was presented with that info and laughed, shaking his head, saying: “I’m not sure what kinda sex Gary’s been having.”’

‘Fantastic player. He just tore defences apart. I love his absolute incapacity to accept players not doing their best when he’s commentating. He’s a fantastically big part of ‘All Played Out’ looking after Gazza with infinite patience.’

‘Awesome at Wednesday. The best rants about England on 5 live ever. He’s honest, frank and just seems like a great guy.’

‘Waddle moving to Falkirk was a massive moment for my bairn’s daft best mate at primary school. Surrounded by a sea of Rangers FC fans during nine in a row, he was delighted to be the one crowing about a world class signing for once. Was like Elvis announcing dates at Alloa Town Hall.’

‘I think the whole of Scottish football was in shock, as he was still a big enough name that you would not put him past showing up at Celtic Park or Ibrox…. but Falkirk!?!?!?!?! I still remember coming home to that news and thinking “why did Aberdeen not try get him?”‘

‘At the time he was that rare winger who was also a really great footballer. He turned people inside out but he could pass it, he could shoot, he could take free kicks.’

‘He was kinda like Figo before Figo.’

‘Combined outrageous skill with managing to look knackered from the warm up. Got to love a player who looks as knackered as we would be. Don’t think he actually was, just looked it.’

‘Genius. Managed to tear defenders to pieces whilst looking like he can’t be arsed.’

‘Probably England’s best player in the 1990 World Cup semi-final.’

‘The guy does not look like a footballer but was a magician: two-footed, turn of pace and read the game. Gary Lineker tells the story of when he heard that Waddle was being sold as he was joining Spurs, he was not happy, he would have easily scored 10+ more goals per season.’

‘The best sigh on 5 Live.’

‘Chris Waddle: The French Way. A VHS in the 90s in which he spends his time showing the audience how to shimmy and master tricks by beating downtrodden village locals somewhere in an obscure part of southern France.’

‘Dire que l’Homme ultime est kabyle. Star-struck.’

‘God at Sheff Wed. Simple as that. Don’t expect to see a better player in blue & white stripes in my lifetime.’

‘Very underrated pundit.’


‘At a time when English football was a backwater, ‘glory mullet’ Waddle dazzled us on the wing at continental powerhouse Marseille. The ‘90 semi penalty miss will never be forgotten but if his shot at goal during the game had not kissed the post he’d now be knighted. F**kin love ’im. Before Waddle lit up Marseille, people the world over seriously thought British players couldn’t cut it at football’s top level. He turned us all into shamefaced doubting Toms overnight. Given the way his playing career blossomed after Arthur Cox took charge of him, he is also living proof that a bullying boss is not always a bad thing.’

‘I remember being over the moon when he became Burnley’s player manager in the mid 90s. I loved him as a player but it didn’t work out.’

‘Probably the best player I have ever seen at Ayresome Park in an opposition shirt. Ran the show. Nobody could get near him. The drop of the shoulder. The stepovers. Superb player. Wish we coached that more at professional level.’

‘He said in an interview that in a Sheffield Sunday league game a few years back, he couldn’t resist taking the full back to the cleaners!’


Five great moments
40-yard free-kick in an FA Cup semi-final:

At 6:25, the wonderful “we’re all just headphones”:

A classic Waddler England dissection:

THAT strike and celebration for Bradford City:

The boy’s still got it, even at 59:


What now?
The fact that he’s still playing as he approaches 60 just goes to show how much he loves playing the game. No doubt he’ll continue to offer entertainment and perspective in equal measure as a co-comm on the radio. We can only hope that one day he won’t have to get stuck into England for another failure at a tournament.

John Nicholson has a Waddler t-shirt just for you…


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