Life may supposedly begin at 40 but in the case of former West Ham goalkeeper Jimmy Walker, one of the most remarkable periods of his life began a decade earlier.
Signed on a free transfer from Walsall, where he had played more than 400 games and helped the Saddlers to three promotions, Walker arrived at West Ham in summer 2004 at the age of 30, and although a serious injury limited his opportunities, his five years at the club included three of the most dramatic in West Ham’s history.
‘Walsall gave me a second chance after I was released by Notts County for being too small when I was 17,’ Walker told Blowing Bubbles. ‘We’d got relegated that last season and my contract was up, but they’d offered me a new deal, and I’d heard West Ham were interested in me and thought “I’m 30, if I don’t take a chance now, I’ll never see if I’ve got what it takes”.
‘I’d heard Alan Pardew liked me, and when we played them at Upton Park he put Brian Deane, Ian Pearce and some other big lump up front, like he was testing me.
‘It was backs to the wall stuff but I played well, we got a 0-0 draw and I got a really good reception from the West Ham fans, and thought: “I could see myself playing here”.
‘Later in the season, Derby were also interested in me, which would have meant I didn’t have to move house, but once the West Ham interest was confirmed, that was it – I was sold.’
While a 30-year-old striker would be unlikely to be plucked from a relegated side to join a promotion-chasing team, goalkeepers are, as the saying goes, different.
‘Keepers mature later – as an outfield player you have to be more excitable and run around more, but we need to be calmer and become a better decision maker, which comes with experience, and I knew this was happening to me,’ Walker explained.
‘All my career people had written me off, but I so wanted a chance in the Premier League. I knew if I went to a Prem club, I’d be down the pecking order, but if I helped a club get promoted, I’d have a much better chance, and that’s what West Ham offered.’
The reason West Ham offered that was because they had lost the 2003-04 play-off final.
‘I went to see Pards before and after the game, and he said: “Let’s see which division we will be in”. I knew that joining a side trying to go up was probably better for me, but when I met him a few days after the final he was still lower than a snake’s belly and to be honest I really wasn’t sure!
‘He said if I signed, he’d start the season with Stephen Bywater as first choice but I’d challenge him, which seemed a bit odd – I thought if I was better in pre-season, then surely I’d get a chance, but I let that go.
‘When the offer came, I went to Upton Park, walked out into the centre circle and looked around and got a very good feeling.
‘We didn’t talk about money much – it wasn’t that much more than Walsall had offered, and I could probably have got better at Derby, but it felt right, and I was in.’
Walker was part of Pardew’s summer rebuilding programme, as he had only taken over midway through the previous season and had limited time to get things his way. His first taste of West Ham life on a pre-season trip to Sweden, did not get off to the best start.
‘I’d played against Rufus Brevett lots of times, and he was one of my least favourite opponents, and now he was my team-mate.
‘In Sweden, I was sitting near him and Pards said: “You two East Midlands boys can room together” – I thought he was joking, that was the last thing I wanted, but he turned out to be one of the best guys I’ve ever met in football.’
With proven winners such as Teddy Sheringham, Sergei Rebrov and Luke Chadwick added to the squad, things were looking up, but Walker had to wait for his chance to play.
‘Pards had promised Stephen that he’d start whatever happened, but I didn’t believe that was really going to be the case. I was ready and raring to go and thought I’d get the nod, but no,’ he said. ‘However, he did say I’d get cup games.’
And that is where Walker’s West Ham adventure began. After home League Cup wins over Southend and Notts County, things stepped up a gear with a trip to Chelsea who (spoiler alert) under their new manager Jose Mourinho went on to win the League Cup and Premier League title that season – and Walker made his mark.
‘We lost 1-0, but it was a sensational night when I finally realised what the club and fans were all about,’ he said. ‘We took about 8,000 fans, and playing with that noise behind me, I felt invincible.’
Sadly, Walker was not invincible, as Mateja Kezman scored, but it was a save rather than the goal that was the main talking point of the night, from a Frank Lampard penalty.
‘It was a definite penalty, but it seemed to be held up for a long time, there was lots going off behind me and things being thrown, and looking at Lampard, you could see how desperate he was to score, and I thought even he can’t be this cool.
‘I figured there was no way he would place it and thought I’d stay up as long as I could to block it – and I did. I’d love to say it was the perfect save, but he just smashed it at me.
‘After the game, Martin Tyler, who had been commentating that night, sent me a DVD and said to take a look at the penalty.
‘This DVD was the wide angle shot, rather than the one shown on television, and after the save, unseen on TV, you can see the linesman waving frantically that I had been off my line, but referee Andy D’Urso waved him away.
‘My moment of glory could have been taken away, and it would have made me a lot poorer, as I don’t think I ever bought a drink in Essex after that.’
Eventually, Walker got his league chance and as the season run-in began, with West Ham looking to win a place in the play-offs again, the pressure began to mount.
‘Going away to Wigan, the chairman and directors were sitting behind Pards – they’d never been on the bus before so we knew what that meant, he might as well have had the Grim Reaper sitting there,’ said Walker. ‘We won 2-1 and never saw the directors on the bus again. I knew we’d go up.’
A last day win at Watford earned a play-off slot, and then the work began again.
‘We knew the pressure was on the whole club to go up. I hate to think what would have happened if we hadn’t, the boss would be in trouble, and the reason I’d joined was to get us up, so it was amazing to be within touching distance of the Premier League,’ he said.
After a two-legged win over Ipswich, this time it was Preston in the final who stood in West Ham’s way.
‘Pards had learnt a lot from missing promotion the season before and we had a lot of experience in the team, so we knew if we turned up, we had a great chance.
‘This was all I’d thought of since being released by Notts, I want to prove that everyone who said I was too small was talking rubbish. I’d injured my groin against Ipswich so I couldn’t train until the day before the final but there was no way I was missing out.
‘When I had my first kick, I thought my leg had come off, but the atmosphere was amazing and you couldn’t hear yourself think, which kept me going.’
Bobby Zamora put West Ham ahead on 57 minutes, and from there on, there was even more pressure on the defence, to hold on.
‘With about a minute to go, there was a ball that I could have let Elliott Ward and Anton Ferdinand deal with about 15 yards out, but I was so fired up, I thought I’ll come out and take it, lie down with it and kill some time,’ Walker explained.
‘My adrenalin took me higher than usual in my jump and I could see the line of the edge of the box so I made sure to land on my right foot, on the right side of the line, but as I did so, my knee exploded.
‘I wasn’t messing about, I did the whole thing. If you do your ACL, the first few seconds are excruciating but then it wears off, so when physio came over I said: “Strap me up and I can finish”, but he was insistent, and knew what he was talking about.
‘We had a big row on the pitch, and I was booked as I was stretchered off as I had landed outside the box, and from being at the centre of the action, I watched the end of the game on a tiny screen in a first aid room.
‘Ludek Miklosko came in to celebrate after the whistle, and there was no way I was going to miss out on the celebrations, which is how that famous photo of me on his back came about. It was a horrible injury but it was a sensational occasion and to get the team up is something I’ll be proud of forever.’
After ecstasy came the agony. ‘The surgeon said they wouldn’t know just how bad the injury was until they opened it up, but it would be at least six to nine months out, and it turned out to be really bad – ACL, medial and lateral ligaments, all snapped, so when I saw the lads preparing to play in the Premier League, it was hard to take,’ he said.
‘Roy Carroll and Shaka Hislop had both joined that summer, and mentally it took me a long time to recover, but in November we went to Spurs where Anton equalised in the 90th minute, and that flicked a light in me, I had to get back.
‘John Green, who had been the physio, had left the club by this stage but I had a chat with him and he said he couldn’t believe the state my knee and life were in, and that I needed to sort both, so I was back in the gym at 5.30am each day, working harder than ever to get fitter than ever.
‘In January Roy was injured and Pards confirmed he was going to get another keeper on loan for the rest of the season as I’d been written off for the season, but I promised him I’d be back by a certain date in February, and on that date, I played in the reserves against Leicester, tested the knee and it was fine.
‘In March, finally I made my Premier League debut against Portsmouth, and I managed to play 10 games which earned me a new contract. It had all been worth it.’
Not only did he earn a new contract, but Walker also earned an FA Cup final runners-up medal.
‘I was so close to playing and that Steven Gerrard shot was at the same end where my injury had happened. I understood why Pards went with Shaka, but you always wonder “what if?”,’ he said.
After promotion and an FA Cup final, the next season was no less dramatic for West Ham, with a change of management and ownership – and the Great Escape; but for Walker, no change of luck.
‘After that injury-dogged season, I think I overdid it training in the summer, and also Robert Green signed, so it was always going to be tough to get picked ahead of him and Roy,’ said Walker.
‘After I played one game, my knee was sore and needed more surgery, which kept me out for another six months and that really upset me because it meant I couldn’t train every day, and to challenge at the top level, you had to train that often.
‘I was lucky that managers knew they could depend on me as a back-up, and I was good in the changing room, but I was involved less often, and then it didn’t change much when Gianfranco Zola came along either.
‘I knew Paul Lambert at Colchester, and thought I could play at League One level without having to train so much, so I went and had a good few months there on loan.
‘When that finished, Zola said I could come back but there still wasn’t really a role for me, and I didn’t want things to end like that, so in summer 2009 I left.’
After a brief stint at Tottenham, where he did not make an appearance, Walker returned to Walsall to see out the rest of his career, breaking the club’s appearance record before leaving in February 2013.
‘It was a bit of a shame how it finished at West Ham, but it was starting to change from the club I’d really loved, so it was the right time to leave, and I have so many lifelong memories from my time there,’ he said.
‘I fell in love with West Ham and would have loved to play 200 games (he played 20) – without the injury, who knows? But I had some fantastic times and to be involved in the promotion year, Cup final and the Great Escape – you can’t get three more exciting years than that.’
‘From day one the fans were brilliant to me, and saving that Lampard penalty in front of them cemented me in there.
‘When I go back now, I’m doing ambassador stuff with the likes of Billy Bonds, real West Ham legends, and there’s me alongside them. The club has been brilliant to me and I have a massive bond with West Ham.’