We all had a favourite player growing up, for many of my generation it was Ally McCoist and it is easy to understand why: the man was living every schoolboy dream, scoring goals galore for the best team in the land and playing for the country of his birth.
But while Super Ally was grabbing all the headlines, another player caught my young attention – a real wizard with the ball and a great entertainer, the player I most enjoyed watching when I was lucky enough to be at Ibrox on rare trips north of the border. Mark Walters was signed on New Year’s Eve 1987, the latest in a string of prominent English players to sign for Rangers during the English ban from European competition.
His career began as a youth at Aston Villa, signed up on professional terms by Ron Saunders after serving his time as an apprentice. Walters was just 17 when he made his full debut under then manager Tony Barton and he had picked up a European Super Cup winners medal by the age of 18, after a substitute appearance in the second leg of Villa’s win over Barcelona in 1982.
His trickery on the wing and in midfield saw him quickly establish himself as a favorite of the Villa support, the mix of entertainment and end product made him a valuable asset at a time when black players were still the subject of abuse from the terraces. Walters went on to play a total of 181 games for the midlands club, scoring 48 goals in the process, before joining Souness’ English influx for a then respectable fee of £500,000.
With Walters signing on the last day of 1987, it fell that his debut for Rangers would be against Celtc at Parkhead on the 2nd of January 1988. Apart from the 2-0 defeat, the game was marred by scenes that to this day stand out as some of the most sickening acts of widespread racism ever witnessed in a football stadium.
The inhabitants of the aptly named jungle spent much of the match engaged in monkey chants. This vocal display was augmented by a carpet of bananas surrounding the pitch at full time, a testimony to the lengths the racist Celtc fans had gone to in order to welcome another great talent to Glasgow.
A mark of the man’s temperament, Walters managed to shrug off the vile abuse he received that day, later saying simply:
“People ask me how on earth I could get through that first game and enjoy it, To be honest with you, being abused wasn’t that much of a rarity in Britain at that time, even if it was more than I was used to.
I am single-minded. I was brought up by my family to see every experience as to be welcomed because you can always learn from it what you need to be better for it.”
The abuse levelled at him continued during his next away game too, at Tynecastle, proving that it was not only religious intolerance that marred Scottish society. It says much for the inclusive nature of the Rangers family that although there were isolated individuals within the support who indulged in racist behavior, the trend being shown around the country was widely ignored, with Walters being welcomed by the support.
It was a mark of the man too, that he was able to move forward from that day and establish himself as a star in a Rangers side stepping onto the road of success.
His trademark ‘double shuffle’ and elegant running excited me as a young lad, his ability to turn a defender inside-out and deliver a dangerous ball meant, for me at least, he stood out in a side full of quality players.
One of the games that sticks in my memory is the 5-1 demolition of Celtc in 1988; the way he beat his man about three times before planting a ball perfectly on Kevin Drinkell’s head, and the way he ruined a perfectly good McCoist penalty claim by following up and scoring himself.
Walters’ skill was richly rewarded at Ibrox, he picked up three league and two league cup medals in the three and a half seasons he spent with Rangers, helping the cause with 51 goals and countless assists in 143 appearances.
However, in 1991 Souness made his decision to leave Rangers for the club he had shared so much success with as a player. Liverpool proved too tempting a lure for him when they came calling and the driving force behind Rangers resurgence left, taking his tricky midfielder with him.
Walters was touted as the replacement for the long term injured John Barnes. This burden proved too much for him to shoulder, and that pressure, coupled with the emergence of another mercurial talent in Steve McManaman, meant that he never really hit the heights of his Rangers career. Making only 94 appearances and scoring 14 goals during his time at Anfield, he found himself loaned out to lower division sides before his eventual move to a relegation threatened Southampton. The end of the 1995-96 season saw Southampton safe and Walters released.
The professionalism that had always been evident in Walters’ career stood him in good stead at this time, he left Southampton and went on to play until the age of 38, making significant contributions for Swindon and finally Bristol Rovers before his eventual retirement in 2002.
Career stats of 603 games in a twenty season career show that he averaged over 30 games a season, and scoring 123 goals alongside the multitude of assists proved that he was one of the most productive players of his generation.
During his time with Rangers Walters’ made his sole appearance for the full England side, featuring in a win against New Zealand. I have never understood how so tricky a player, who played with some of the best sides in Britain, did not represent his country on a regular basis.
He was a regular performer at all levels of the domestic game yet a series of England managers overlooked his attributes, often in favour of far less productive players and I am left wondering if my views on the player are somehow coloured by the memories I have.
Have I somehow romanticised a period of our history from my youth? Was I simply fortunate to have only seen the best the man could offer and somehow missed any glaring deficiencies in his game?
One of the joys of football is that it does not really matter, the man was my boyhood hero, and my memories of him are entirely good ones.