Peter Knowles, who quit Wolves and football for a life as a Jehovah’s Witness, turns 74 today. JOHN LALLEY trawls the memory bank to recall the man behind the headlines.
The life of Peter Knowles is not a single story with a simple pattern; it’s a paradox, unusual to say the least, contradictory in parts and still splitting opinion to this day.
For the best part of 50 years, Wolves fans of my generation have speculated endlessly about his decision to leave the game and about the unfulfilled potential of Peter Knowles as a football player.
Peter’s departure from the game and the unique circumstances surrounding his exit to this day leave so many supporters with a sense of lingering bewilderment and disappointment.
It’s a natural enough reaction; his was a rare talent and it’s undeniable; had Peter remained at Molineux, the outstanding Wolves’ outfit of the early 1970s who were such a pleasure to watch, would have been immeasurably strengthened and may well have achieved so much more tangible success apart from a single Wembley triumph in 1974.
His playing colleague Frank Munro frequently told me that had Peter remained at Molineux, Wolves would have become League champions.
Frank may have been speculating overmuch but the inference is crystal clear; Knowles was blue chip quality.
He quit the game just before his 24th birthday; distance lends enchantment and no doubt Peter’s merits as a player have been wildly embellished by some over the last half century, but the evidence was already strikingly apparent.
He left football just as he was expressing his talents with maximum fluency.
The histrionics, the petulance and the showboating were shelved and virtually redundant.
Whether this new-found serenity was a direct result of the peace of mind that his faith had afforded him, only he will know, but he appeared on the very brink of fulfilment, and that, believe me, was an exciting prospect.
But for me this unusual tale endures as a triumph; a personal vindication for a single-minded individual who was dismissed as naive, self- indulgent and impressionable; an immature, spoilt young man who simply didn’t know his own mind.
His sanity and sincerity was strongly questioned. He was derided, laughed at and dismissed as a self-indulgent crank acting on a whim, a dreamer who would soon be unable to sustain the falsity of his position.
In reality and to his eternal credit, Peter knew exactly what he was doing and his certainty and his sincerity never wavered.
With unswerving dignity and patience, he has the faced ridicule, the barrage of criticism from those who viewed his decision only on their own selfish terms.
So many Wolves’ fans indignantly believed with a sense of irony that Peter had turned his back on a God-given talent with needless abandon.
His own family had understandable reservations. Peter himself concedes that his widowed mother back in his native Yorkshire was herself deeply uneasy with his decision.
He came from a large family; his father a miner died prematurely aged just 42 leaving Peter’s mother to bring up six kids on her own.
One of his sisters was lost to pneumonia and another sibling died in infancy.
It was a profoundly difficult existence and professional football offered him an outlet from the turbulent restrictions of his home background.
To find the inner strength to make such a fundamental detour from the financial security inherent in football to return to a perilous netherworld of uncertainty was indeed remarkable.
Surely, this was risk-taking in the extreme; even his own brother Cyril voiced his doubts hinting that Peter would change his mind and be back playing football within six months.
The man often forgotten by this remarkable story was surely the Wolves boss Bill McGarry.
He wasn’t the type of character seek or to elicit sympathy; appearing irritable and angry in equal measure but what a monumental blow this must have been to his strategic planning for the club.
Injuries, suspensions, loss of form and players caught out by the ageing process you simply accepted in the natural scheme of things, but this outcome was inconceivable.
Wolves ultimately under-achieved under McGarry but not by much. What massive frustration must have coursed through McGarry’s volcanic veins; this for him was surely a game changer and none of it of his own making.
The club itself seemed reluctant to accept the inevitable. The following season with Peter departed for almost an entire year, the staff list printed in the match-day programme still faithfully recorded as registered; Knowles Peter / born Frickley, Yorks / recruited from Wolves Juniors 60-61 / 5’11’’ / 11s 2lb.
Alas, it was all wishful thinking and to his credit McGarry acted quickly to secure England international Mike O’Grady from Leeds as a replacement.
It appeared an astute move but an Achilles tendon injury soon blighted O’Grady’s contribution and his Molineux career fizzled out amidst great disappointment.
The truth was that Wolves didn’t replace Peter Knowles, they simply had to get along without him.
My first memories of Peter were the initial flourishing of his talents in the Wolves’ team that splendidly reached the final of the FA Youth Cup in 1961-62.
Alongside him were other juniors destined to reach first-team status at Molineux. Jim Barron, Bobby Thomson, Fred Goodwin, Dave Woodfield, Ken Knighton, John Galley and Fred Kemp all figured in the run to the final which ended in a narrow two-legged defeat to Newcastle.
As an impressionable kid it was thrilling following our youths back then. One of the matches was at Villa Park and my father and I travelled to see Wolves pulverise the home side 4-1 with Knowles the principal architect of the win starring in midfield.
The result delighted me every bit as much as a win for the first team.
Wolves under Stan Cullis had based so much of their ascendancy on the transition from youth to first XI football, and reaching this final suggested that all was well at Molineux and that this successful progression was set to seamlessly continue.
Instead Wolves fell into dramatic decline and Knowles became disillusioned at Molineux, craving for a more appropriate stage to showcase his talent.
He hankered for a transfer but he was essentially a top professional; despite being disgruntled, his commitment didn’t waver and at the moment of his departure, Wolves had regained their vibrancy with a host of talented players who would entertain us so regally during the 70s.
Knowles had dovetailed superbly with the ageing Derek Dougan for a couple of very special years; I often amuse myself by daydreaming of Peter pairing up on a regular basis with the predatory instincts of a fit and firing John Richards. An incendiary prospect I reckon but alas, not to be.
I can still picture the elegance of the delightfully emphatic strike for his final goal for Wolves at Hillsborough in contrast to a glaringly reckless intercepted back pass that cost Wolves a cup match at a packed Molineux against Manchester United.
The suave, handsome young man singled out for abuse from fans of other teams jealous of his pulling power both on and off the field of play.
‘Where’s your handbag, where’s your handbag, where’s your handbag, Peter Knowles?’
The derision was tinged with such envy it served merely as an accolade. The taunts couldn’t mask the grudging acknowledgment of a talent that was something special even to rival supporters.
When those same fans got wind of Peter’s spiritual conversation the identical chant was extended by the rhetorical enquiry of ‘Where’s your bible Peter Knowles?’ with the answer, ‘In your handbag, in your handbag, in your handbag, Peter Knowles!’
I must concede that every time I attend matches these days and watch players alighting from enormous team coaches clutching delightfully fetching man bags presumably full of assorted cosmetics, I laugh to myself and think pleasant memories of Peter!
Without doubt, this affiliation to the perceived rebel side of Peter existed beyond the boundaries of Wolverhampton.
During the promotion season of 1966-67 Peter only played in half of the games with the boss Ronnie Allen often selecting the worthy Dave Burnside as an alternative.
During the fixture at Ashton Gate, before proper segregation of fans was the norm, a couple of bolshy Bristolians belligerently took me to task. ‘Why isn’t Peter Knowles playing? ’ they demanded.
The inference being that here was an opposition player who they wanted to see because they rated him highly and just as likely admired because like themselves Peter had ‘attitude’ and the public platform to indulge himself whenever the mood took his fancy.
My reply didn’t shed much light on Peter’s absence; I muttered something about Peter not being in decent form just lately which was code for me saying I wish he was playing myself.
By the end of that successful season, Knowles had reasserted himself as an indispensable component of the Wolves’ team; he was now about to add consistency to his mercurial talent and win selection in the England Under-23 team.
Selection for the full England team and a likely place in the 1970 Mexico squad to defend the World Cup appeared likely before events took their remarkable turn.
My first point of contact with him was well over 50 years ago during school holidays, simply asking him to autograph the array of pictures I collected in a scrapbook.
Regardless of any perceived reputation, he was invariably patient and accommodating; he didn’t pretend he was in any mad rush to keep some imaginary appointment and the signatures were always legible and clear.
There was never any need to approach Peter with any trepidation. One beautiful morning during pre-season, a few lads including myself wandered inside a conveniently open gate at Molineux and watched the players during training.
It was a ruse we tried regularly and more often than not, the groundstaff would quickly send us packing before locking up securely.
Occasionally we struck lucky and were tolerated especially if a curious adult or two followed us onto that old dog-leg shaped Waterloo Road Enclosure.
We usually stayed close to the gate near to the halfway line fully expecting to be thrown out at any moment, but emboldened no doubt by being left to our own devices, four of us wandered towards the players’ tunnel in the direction of the North Bank terrace.
As Peter approached, we presented our books and pictures fully expecting to be ignored as the sanctuary of the dressing room awaited.
Instead Peter collected our assorted paraphernalia, sat himself on the newly manicured Molineux pre-season turf and signed every single article with meticulous care as he basked contentedly in the glorious sunshine.
What’s more, he asked each of us to identify our christian names so he could personalise the signings.
The groundsman marched purposefully in our direction; we expected the usual order to clear off but instead he simply told us not to set foot on the pitch.
Peter immediately told us to follow the instruction. He did after all it appeared have some respect for the voice authority!
I for one was more than happy to comply; I got an inkling that maybe today our luck was in.
Us four kids, already in raptures, were transported onto cloud nine when Peter asked us if we would act as ball boys as he was about to take on some shooting practice against an apprentice goalkeeper already working out at the South Bank end of the stadium.
We didn’t need asking twice; as Peter jogged along the pitch towards the hotel end of Molineux, we sprinted the length of the Enclosure eager to scramble behind the goalposts of the vast, deserted South Bank.
For 20 minutes or so we enthusiastically retrieved Peter’s pot shots with all the vim and exuberance we could muster.
When he was finally ready for the refreshment of the dressing room showers, Peter thanked us courteously and we left elated and a touch bewildered by our good fortune.
A host of critics had labelled Peter Knowles as a self-indulgent and preening showboater short of moral fibre and lacking in substance, but that morning I saw another side to his character.
A kindness and a capacity to appreciate the existence of others, and, alongside this, a glimpse at his application and the serious work ethic and the perseverance required to become the special kind of player that inspired all too briefly.
Many decades on I recall that morning with glowing affection and ponder on the distorted caricature of Peter Knowles.
Back in 2011, I wrote an article recalling Peter’s departure from the game; he took the trouble to make contact and thank me for showing a modicum of respect and understanding for his decision.
He deserved more than my miniscule contribution; he made the right call and he has never regretted his decision for a moment.
To cross his path in the city centre of Wolverhampton as I occasionally do is always a delight.
The greeting is invariably the same and suffused full of good nature.
I asked him a few years ago if he had tuned into the television and seen Helder Costa play for Wolves and how did he rate the Portuguese star.
‘Not as good as Bully!’ Peter replied; I couldn’t help chuckling! He enjoys a short resume of the current state of Wolves without any mention of his playing days, another warm handshake before excusing himself to be about his business.
I always come away from our brief exchanges feeling better than I did before, my day enriched and you can’t ask much more of anyone.
He asked me one summer what I would be doing now the football season was over.
I mentioned I would be watching some cricket. Immediately and with real feeling, Peter said ‘Oh I used to love cricket; I was invited to the nets by Yorkshire, but I didn’t go.’
I wondered if deep down he still loved football; perhaps not, but it crossed my mind.
His last match as a professional in September 1969 still remains a bizarre memory after all these passing years.
Depressed as I was at the prospect of Peter leaving, I never doubted for a moment that he meant it.
When he rapidly bounded off the pitch at the final whistle, one solitary female fan with a Wolves’ scarf on her arm slipped the security and made a beeline for the retreating figure.
She soon gave up the unequal chase as Peter disappeared down the Waterloo Road tunnel.
The photograph of the incident encapsulates the moment of absolute separation; the Peter Knowles we all supported had moved on unequivocally.
The heartbroken young girl represented every one of us; in that instant, Knowles became a separate man, almost a stranger.
And there’s the paradox, the contradiction. I admired him so much when he played for Wolves but I admire him even more right now; a man for all seasons; not just the football season.
Happy birthday, Peter Knowles.