John Walker played a pivotal role in bringing national league football back to the Waikato in 1988.
Walker, the founding chairman of composite club Waikato United (formed at very short notice to contest the 1988 national league) and a former Hamilton AFC president, died on November 18, aged 90, after spending several years in residential care.
On at least three occasions during the 1970s and early 80s Walker stepped in to ensure the survival of Hamilton AFC – Waikato’s first national league entity – in an era when there was no pokie funding.
And he arguably performed an even more important service in bringing bitter warring factions together in late 1987 to form Waikato United and snaffle an unexpected national league vacancy.
In some respects Walker, a football-wise but often abrupt Scotsman, was an unlikely figure to build such unity, given he could be such a blunt speaker, who would invariably start meetings not with a formal welcome, but by exclaiming: “Right, we’re not here tae shag aboot.”
However Walker was at the very heart of a remarkable chapter in Waikato football history.
There had been huge ferment in 1986-87, as various parties brooded over the region’s absence from the national league since 1982. This was partially fueled by the rapid emergence of Claudelands Rovers – under driven new coach Roger Wilkinson – as a force to challenge the historic dominance of Hamilton AFC as Waikato’s top club.
After racing through the divisions, in 1987 Rovers took the unprecedented step of leasing their northern premier league spot to Waikato FC, a privately run company headed by former Hamilton AFC chairman Terry O’Donnell, having the previous season started this re-badging process by calling their northern league team “AFC Waikato”.
The long term plan was for this entrepreneurial Waikato FC to offer shares to clubs or businesses who wished to invest in a flagship Waikato football team capable of contesting the national league, playing out of Porritt Stadium on Sundays. Signed up as feeder clubs to Waikato FC were Rovers, Waikato Unicol and Matamata Swifts.
This somewhat sidelined mid-table Hamilton AFC, who had worthy heritage, a solid Muir Park base, but had lost their way a little bit after turning down a return to national league when they once again won the northern league in 1984.
They thought Waikato FC was pie-in-the-sky stuff.
By contrast Waikato FC had great on-field form, but was plagued by financial, administrative and personnel issues off it. It touted itself as a “Waikato representative team”. Hamilton AFC scoffed that it was just Claudelands Rovers in disguise.
In 1986 both Rovers and Hamilton made national league applications for the proposed enlarged 14-team national league the following season. But both were rejected with Hutt Valley United and Mt Maunganui preferred, while Waikato media ran riot with weekly sniping between the two bomb-throwing factions.
Waikato FC further pressed their credentials by winning a very strong northern premier league in 1987, hammering Hamilton 5-0 in the process.
But behind the scenes Walker – installed as Hamilton’s president in early November 1987 – worked to make peace with Rovers, with a series of secret meetings effectively cutting Waikato FC off at the knees.
The initial peacemaking plan was for the clubs’ two northern league teams to be run in tandem by a joint committee, with games to be played at Muir Park and financed by sponsorship and gate taking, and dual membership of both clubs.
This budding alliance proved critical when Dunedin City belatedly withdrew from the national league in December 1987, leaving an inviting opening.
Central League champs Waterside-Karori, West Auckland, and Porirua Viard were also bidding for the vacancy, but Walker was perfectly positioned to pitch a new composite single-team entity of “Waikato United” with the backing of both Rovers and Hamilton, who would act as feeder clubs.
Waikato FC’s competing case was discarded because Claudelands Rovers were considered the real owners of its leased league spot, while the Rovers-Hamilton bid was a joint one from the region’s two strongest teams. The New Zealand Football Association (as it was then known) bought the proposal.
Waikato United was born, and proceeded to win the Chatham Cup in its very first season, while Walker went on to be named administrator of the year at the Waikato Sports Awards.
Meanwhile Waikato FC folded, owing tens of thousands of dollars, and the concept of clubs being able to “lease” their league berths was duly outlawed, while on the player registration front the concept of “feeder clubs” was restricted to national league clubs.
If the 1988 cup win was the most obvious pointer to Walker’s legacy, it was just part of a deep football background.
John was born in Glasgow, but with his father owning a string of bakeries in Scotland and the north-east, he spent much of his youth growing up in Newcastle, leading to him becoming a life-long Toon Army man.
He was then conscripted into the Royal Navy, which gave him a taste for travel – including a trip to New Zealand. In his early 20s, when he had completed his apprenticeship as a printer, he emigrated, initially settling in Morrinsville, where he met his wife Pat.
As a footballer John was a speedy, nippy winger or front man and in the 1950s played for the (original) Hamilton Wanderers club which amalgamated with Technical Old Boys in 1964 to form Hamilton AFC.
While his playing career was cut short by a horrific leg break he became increasingly important off the pitch. In 1967 he formed John Walker Printers, and that background assisted his Hamilton AFC club to publish some of the first club match programmes in New Zealand featuring match photographs.
In the early 1970s Walker would weekly print up to a thousand match programmes to be distributed around dairies and shops as pre-match publicity for Hamilton’s home games. He would also do the raffle books, the lucky draws, and various other promotional aids.
Despite building a highly successful business, John was a frugal, practical man who was unimpressed by airs, graces and pretentiousness. He was well respected in football, deeply connected in business, and was well regarded by the players.
One of Walker’s most important administrative decisions occurred in 1987 when he signed coach Roger Wilkinson, after he had been sacked by Waikato FC from a dual coaching role with former England player Tommy Taylor.
The pair struck a very good coach-chairman partnership that got Waikato United off to a flying start, though Wilkinson still cringes when he recalls the awkward first interaction between two feisty Waikato football characters.
“John was working behind the bar at Muir Park and I’d gone in to have a sniff around after a game,” Wilkinson said.
“At the time I’d been pushing it in the media that Rovers were now the top team in town, so I wasn’t the most popular person at Muir Park.
“John stared across the bar at me and said: ‘I want to talk with you outside’.
“I thought he was wanting to have a pop, and shot back: ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to talk with you’ and walked out.
“It was only days later through one of his board members that I learned John was interested in having me coach Hamilton rather than arguing with me.”
Ironically, 20-odd years down the track Wilkinson was to end up as Walker’s son-in-law.
“John could be abrasive, but he could also be terrific company, and there was a great atmosphere about Muir Park under his watch,” Wilkinson said.
“His heart was always in the right place and he was a tremendous chairman of a football club. He was very supportive and he understood football, which isn’t always the case with administrators.
“Even though he could be very strict, the players loved him. That was because he always considered the players a club’s biggest asset, and he was not averse to defending them, even against the coach. At various times a lot of the incoming players lived with him.”
Walker was not one to shy away from controversy.
One day in 1990 when cleaning out the changing rooms at Muir Park he found a referee assessor’s match report.
He was so surprised at the incongruity between what he had just seen on the pitch and the assessor’s match analysis that he took the unprecedented step of publishing excerpts in Waikato United’s next home programme, embellished with the odd observation from himself.
It was to be a long time before some members of the refereeing fraternity would again step inside Muir Park.
But generally Walker was more a chairman to sort problems out than create them. He really didn’t like to shag about.
Wilkinson: “As chairman John got things going, made sure the money was accounted for, and ran things properly. The biggest thing about John was, you knew it was never about him, it was always about the club.
“I think if he had not stepped down (end of 1990) we would have gone on to far greater things at Waikato.”
[Cordwainer Bull is New Zealand Football Media’s reigning community-internet writer of the year and a former Waikato United programme columnist. His hobbies include football history and writing obituaries. His favourite player was Billy Trembath.]
Categories: NZ Men's National League
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