Farewell Jimmy Walker: One of Football's Good Guys

Jacob SteinbergCorrespondent IJune 3, 2009

LONDON - JANUARY 8:  James Walker, the West Ham goalkeeper, celebrates at the end of  the FA Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Norwich City at Upton Park on January 8, 2005 in London, England.  (Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images)

It is unusual for a reserve goalkeeper quietly released by his club at the end of the season to stir the fans' emotions. Yet no West Ham supporter will forget the contribution made by Jimmy Walker after his departure from Upton Park yesterday. The game is full of footballers who take themselves far too seriously; he does not belong to that group.

A goalkeeper who is second-choice for his team can have cause to become sullen with opportunities for matches rare. With West Ham approaching their second season in The Championship, their manager Alan Pardew signed Walker from Walsall in the summer of 2004 as back-up to Stephen Bywater. Little was known about a man whose football had been played exclusively in the lower leagues.

Yet fans looking for a reference point had one. In January 2001, West Ham were given an away draw at Walsall in the third round of the FA Cup. Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Trevor Sinclair and Fredi Kanoute each started and the Premier League side won an engrossing match 3-2. One performance stayed in the memory however - that of the home goalkeeper, Jimmy Walker, whose many saves kept the final score respectable.

How, one wondered, could this excellent goalkeeper not be plying his trade in the top flight? The answer was simple: size. Walker suffered from Napoleon syndrome. At just 5'11", he was judged too small. A goalkeeper can work on his catching, kicking or shot-stopping. Growing taller is a physical impossibility.

Walker had to wait his turn at West Ham. Bywater was first choice, although many were unsure whether he was truly capable. Hesitancy off his line and poor kicking were worrying features in his make-up.

So when Walker was picked for a Carling Cup match, interest in him was high. His only problem was that the tie was away to Jose Mourinho's Chelsea. Yet he performed as if his very life depended on it. There were 6,000 West Ham fans at Stamford Bridge that night and none will ever forget it.

Predictably shot after shot rained in on the West Ham goal. Joe Cole, by now a Chelsea player, was in a threatening mood and appeared determined to score. He could not beat Walker. Only Mateja Kezman could, and only the once. 

Kezman's goal turned out to be the winner, but the game's narrative swung away from the outcome of the match near its end. With 15 minutes remaining, Tomas Repka fouled Arjen Robben in the box and a penalty was awarded - at the West Ham end. Immediately Frank Lampard grabbed the ball. This was his moment to finally silence the taunts of the West Ham support. This was his penalty.

He struck the ball hard and slightly of the ground, down the middle, almost as if he was hoping to burst the net and send the ball into the crowd. Walker dived to his left. He had been tricked by simple bludgeonry. Yet the net did not burst. Lampard was lifting his hands, but not in celebration, to put them to his head. The ball had spun high up in the air and away from the goal. Somehow Walker had saved the penalty with a combination of knee, leg and luck.

The away support erupted, their foe beaten, a cult hero spawned. In one moment, in his short West Ham career, Walker had sealed his place in the hearts of every West Ham for ever. If he didn't appreciate it that the time, he soon would.

He was back on the bench in the next game however. There were no complaints. He simply waited. He earned a run in the side in January, but an error-strewn display in a 4-2 defeat against Wolves let Bywater back in. Walker did not feature again until April.

By then Pardew was desperate. West Ham were in serious danger of not making the Playoffs and the financial consequences did not bear thinking about. Walker was thrown in for a crucial match at the league leaders, Wigan Athletic, that West Ham did not dare lose. Pardew never did make it easy for him.

With Walker sure of himself in goal, West Ham won the match 2-1. Walker was not dropped again and West Ham eventually reached the Playoff final, where they faced Preston North End. The better side throughout, Bobby Zamora gave the Hammers a merited lead after 57 minutes.

West Ham had performed so well that Walker had barely been called upon - then, out of nowhere, disaster struck. Coming well off his line to catch a high ball from Preston's defence, in mid-air Walker realised he had left his area. In an attempt to end his descent in the box, he twisted his leg back, inevitably tearing the cruciate ligament in his knee upon landing. To compound matters, he had landed outside the box. He was spared a red card for deliberate by a sympathetic referee and after seven minutes of injury time, West Ham held on.

For Walker, though, his Premier League career was over before it had even begun. Few doubted he would have been West Ham's goalkeeper in their first season back. Roy Carroll was signed from Manchester United instead.

The day after the Play-off final, I headed to an open-top bus parade to celebrate West Ham's promotion. Near enough to the bus to speak to the players, I chanced upon Walker. "How's the knee, Jimmy?" I shouted. His answer, delivered humorously and with a wide smile, was cheerily blunt: "Fucked!" Not many players are so open or self-deprecating. On a day of great celebration, that memory stands out.

Having recovered from his lengthy injury, Walker made only two more appearances for West Ham. Indeed his final memorable fact came after a match in which he had not been involved. West Ham qualified for the UEFA Cup in 2006 but their campaign ended with a heavy first round defeat to Palermo.

After the second leg, lost 3-0 in Italy, the away support were kept in the stadium for some time. In an empty stadium, Walker took it upon himself to lift what had been a miserable night. Shooting against a vacant goal, he met a cross with a stunning bicycle kick which cracked against the crossbar. To cheers, he eventually put in the rebound before accepting his fans' chants of appreciation.

Funny and down-to-earth, he will be sorely missed. Everyone liked Jimmy Walker. Maybe just not Frank Lampard.