It’s been 50 years since the outrageously talented Peter Knowles stunned the football world by playing his last game for Wolves and retiring at the age of just 23. One of his biggest fans, Express & Star Wolves fan columnist John Lalley, shares his memories of a talent lost to the beautiful game but of a life fulfilled.
By John Lalley
Just a few weeks previously man had miraculously set foot on the face of the moon.
Now startling events were in the process of lift-off at Molineux. Swathes of bewildered Wolves’ fans reckoned that Peter Knowles himself had taken the lunar path and was now occupying a completely different planet from the rest of us.
Astonished and disconcerted in equal measure, they were convinced that he had lost his marbles and gone completely crackers. Knowles, the most outrageously talented player to grace the club for decades was voluntarily calling time on an already distinguished career just a few days short of his 24th birthday. Knowles of all people; the handsome, headstrong icon of the terraces, the flash jack the lad and a Sixties swinger if ever there was one was about to embark on a quite startling personal transformation.
Wolves had made a storming start to the 1969 season with Knowles scoring in the first three games of the new campaign. After impressing in the England Under-23 team, he was a strong candidate for the trip to Mexico to defend the World Cup in 1970. But football was stunned by his announcement that the home game against Nottingham Forest on September 6 would be his last as a professional footballer. Amazement, scepticism and a measure of amusement abounded but he had concluded that it was impossible to reconcile the cynical world of football and fully embrace his recent religious calling as a Jehovah’s Witness. A chance ring of the doorbell at his home by a visiting evangelist had changed his life and fundamentally redefined his character and he hasn’t wavered in his beliefs in the ensuing fifty years.
Football, instead of shaping his future, became a power and a culture to corrupt. He saw himself faced with a moral choice; the fawning idolatry that he had previously thrived upon now repulsed him. Religion and professional football simply could not co-exist.
He remains wholly committed to his faith, utterly steadfast and to this day he can often be found in Wolverhampton’s city centre politely and sincerely espousing his cause. To meet up with him remains an absolute delight; the warm and friendly greeting never changes. ‘Hello, how are you? Let me shake your hand! Aren’t the Wolves doing well?’
His engaging kindness and thoughtful conversation exudes a sense of contentment; he has not a scintilla of regret regarding the life-changing choice that he made. Instead, he genuinely regrets any flashes of arrogance he displayed in his youth and wishes that he had never become a professional footballer in the first place. A host of Wolves’ fans privileged enough to have seen him perform so sublimely respectfully beg to differ.
As a teenager Peter was the stand out member of the Wolves team that reached the FA Youth Cup final in 1962. Two years later he appeared for England in the UEFA Under-18 Championship in Holland scoring in the final in the win over Spain.
He had already made a significant impact in a fading Wolves’ first team rapidly spiralling towards decline. The dismissal of the legendary manager Stan Cullis and relegation from the First Division left the club in disarray but as the team floundered, Knowles thrived.
The beginnings of his potential genius flowered; an enticing mixture of refined subtlety and thrilling extravagance. He was blessed with supreme self-confidence alongside the hubris and the petulance which acted as a magnet for so many young fans eager to thumb their noses at a staid and stuffy establishment.
He was a predatory goalscorer and an artistic creator with a razor sharp football antenna capable of devastating brilliance. The only weakness was the brittle temperament.
There was a potent insouciant streak of rebellion coursing through Peter’s rangy frame; impulsive, instinctive and exciting, a hugely gifted, incorrigible show-off fearful above all of the desolation of not being noticed.
At Portsmouth in February 1967, promotion-chasing Wolves trailed 2-0 and appeared down and out but a stirring second half rally won the day. Knowles celebrated his goal by deliberately hoofing the ball over the roof of the stand and clean out of the confines of Fratton Park.
As the home crowd expressed their noisy displeasure it would not have been lost on the Knowles’ psyche that this game was one of the two matches scheduled for transmission on BBC television’s Match of the Day programme later that evening.
Phil Morgan, the long-serving Express & Star writer on Wolves, gently pointed out that to fulfil his potential, Peter needed to shed his ‘extended boyishness.’ As the match ball soared towards The Solent that chilly afternoon, you got the gist of exactly what Morgan was hinting at.
Peter certainly had ‘attitude’ all right, bundles of it, but the substance heavily outweighed the trivia. To this day Wolves’ fans of my generation only discuss in superlatives when his ability is the principal topic of conversation.
How then could anyone have predicted that a maverick like Peter Knowles would find self-fulfilment and genuine humility in a place so diametrically removed from the macho sporting environment he had so enthusiastically embraced? His denouement against Nottingham Forest remains just about the strangest fixture I have ever experienced at Molineux.
The Wolves’ manager Bill McGarry, writing in his programme notes about his departing star, declared ‘His training gear will be laid out as usual on Monday and I expect him to be here.’ This was to prove simple wishful thinking; McGarry, like so many others, had underestimated the strength of Peter’s resolve.
The match itself was exhilarating but entirely incidental; the build up, the 90 minutes and the aftermath emphatically and implacably revolved around Peter Knowles. The vociferous North Bank end of the ground chanted his name incessantly, pleading with him not to leave.
Wolves inexplicably surrendered a three-goal lead which acted as a distraction, but the final whistle reconnected us with the real drama. Knowles didn’t hang about for any handshakes let alone any protracted fond farewells.
He fairly sprinted at full pelt towards the player’s tunnel and the sanctuary of the dressing room. One solitary, heartbroken teenage girl, Wolves’ scarf tied to her arm, avoided the police cordon, ran onto the pitch and made a beeline towards him from the Waterloo Road side of the stadium, but forlornly gave up the chase as Peter rapidly disappeared from view.
I myself stood watching from the South Bank terrace struggling like so many other fans to make sense of such a bizarre narrative. I was just an impressionable kid who like so many doted on Peter Knowles, but I sensed an air of finality and felt absolutely certain that this indeed was the last we would see of Peter in a Wolves’ shirt.
The club optimistically retained his registration for many years, but no amount of persuasion could make him reverse his decision. The retrospective speculation still endures to this day; just what could Peter Knowles have achieved had he played out the prime years of his football career?
One hundred and ninety-one appearances and 64 goals for Wolves are the raw statistics of his stint at Molineux, and, viewed in isolation, it is an impressive record, but there is another side to the story of Peter Knowles. It’s a triumph, a personal vindication for a single-minded individual who was answerable only to himself and not to the critics who dismissed him as naïve, impressionable and fundamentally self-indulgent.
His detractors – and there were many – went into overdrive. He was accused of treasonable defection and he faced a juggernaut of derision and open ridicule all of which he shouldered with admirable patience and dignity.
But this was not some immature, spoilt and capricious young man acting on a whim who simply didn’t know his own mind. Residual prejudice against Jehovah’s Witnesses and sheer blind ignorance led many to assume that they understood the inner-workings of Peter’s consciousness better than the man himself. Back then, public scrutiny engulfed Peter Knowles and such intimate intrusion must have been a mighty burden to endure.
His own mother was uneasy with his decision, his brother Cyril, himself a highly successful professional player with Tottenham, suggested that Peter might soon return to football. The two brothers were part of a large Yorkshire family, their father a miner, had died prematurely and they understood hardship.
Leaving behind the financial security of football and making a detour into uncertainty took some courage; Peter still had a living to make. After stints delivering milk and cleaning windows, he became a familiar figure working contentedly in a city centre department store until his retirement. Frequently recognised, he was always happy to patiently reminisce with curious admirers who so enjoyed his precocious skills.
Blinkered geeks like me take football far too seriously and routinely turn a blind eye to much of its grotesque avarice, its histrionics and its shallow superficiality; others take a more principled stance. Even after half a century, I’ll never forget his mercurial presence and his exciting impact at Molineux, but without kicking a ball, I reckon that for the last 50 years Peter Knowles has played the game of his life; an absolute blinder in fact.