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The Greatest Footballer that Never Was: Peter Knowles

The Greatest Footballer that Never Was: Peter Knowles

Footballer Peter Knowles surrounded by fans on the pitch

It’s certainly hard to imagine a modern-day Premier League footballer simply walking away from the riches on offer, certainly by choice. Even a moderately talented young player at one of the so-called smaller clubs can earn an impressive wage and secure their future selves with the vast earning potential.

Michael Johnson formerly of Man City might be used as an example, but there were many other factors at play there. Of course, life is full of what-ifs and maybes, some incredibly talented young sports stars get seduced by the lights and take the wrong path, leaving observers to wonder what could have been.

That being said, very rarely, in fact almost never, does a player who possesses incredible talent, and a natural, instinctive ability – choose of their own accord to walk away from the opportunity they, many would say, were destined to pursue.

Well, that’s exactly what Peter Knowles did. We’re no strangers here at The MALESTROM HQ to tales of sporting stars from yesteryear. In fact, it’s something that truly fascinates us, from the self-destructive lifestyle of brilliant footballer Robin Friday to the challenging circumstances facing boxer Sam Langford, or the apathetic approach of guitarist Ollie Halsall, there’s something undeniably fascinating about those who were destined for greatness.

Which leads us to a man by the name of Peter Knowles – Maybe the greatest footballer that never was.

Born in the post-war period of 1945 in a small village in West Yorkshire, Peter Knowles had sporting endeavour in his blood. The son of former Rugby League full-back Cyril Knowles who represented Wakefield Trinity, York and Featherstone Rovers, his older brother also Cyril Knowles played football for Middlesbrough and later Tottenham Hotspur.

As a teenager, Knowles was spotted by Wath Wanderers, at the time a feeder team of sorts for Wolverhampton Wanderers who kept a keen eye on him, before, as he turned 17 years of age, snapping him up and tying him down to what was a lengthy six-year contract.

It was 1962 and in an age when squad size bore little resemblance to that which millennials might be accustomed. And with Wolves themselves on the slide as a dominant force in English football, then manager Stan Cullis gave the bright-eyed Knowles his debut against Leicester City in the 1963-64 season.

A week later he scored his first goal in a 2-2 draw with Bolton Wanderers.

The following year saw Wolves relegated, but despite the doom and gloom the major bright spark to emerge from the season was the undoubted talent the young footballer Peter Knowles possessed.

Former teammate Frank Munro was quoted in The Guardian as such,

“What people forget is that he was a very, very special player. We had a good team then and he was probably the best player in it. If he’d continued playing I think we would have won things. He was a good passer of the ball, had two good feet and could strike the ball really cleanly.

He scored a lot of goals and had intelligence with it – he was one of those players who, when through on goal, you really fancied him to score.”

He was a gifted player, a natural some might say, so much so that in his brief time playing football at the top level he scored 61 goals in 174 appearances, and if you speak to Wolves fans of a certain vintage, they’ll tell you he was one of the best players ever to grace the turf in the Black Country.

Footballer Peter Knowles plaing for Wolves in 1969
Peter Knowles playing for Wolves, 1969.

All sounds fairly typical and nostalgic you might say, and in many ways, it probably was is. However, where the story deviates from the norm is that at the age of just 23 Peter Knowles retired, not through injury, by choice, and never played the game again.

By all accounts, he was a flamboyant almost ‘jack the lad’ character both on and off the pitch. He had self-awareness, that indeed he was the best player on the team and he had the ability to turn opposition defenders, most notably full-backs, inside out.

Outside the stadium, he reportedly drove around in a gold MGB sports car and enjoyed the fruits of his labours, revelling in the trappings of fame.

At one stage Bill Shankly was supposedly very keen on taking him to Anfield, and a serious offer was being considered. An England call up was also very much on the cards, as Alf Ramsey looked to assemble a squad capable of defending the World Cup in Mexico 1970.

However, it was around this exact time that FIFA announced a new initiative to spread the footballing message and raise awareness of the sport in the US. A league was created whereby the various states would be represented by British teams. Knowles went over and scored a number of goals that saw his team claim the title.

He proceeded to stateside the following year, this time finding himself in Kansas, which is where, as the story goes, he answered his apartment door to two Jehovah’s Witnesses and was for want of better term enlightened. From that moment on everything changed. Knowles himself said,

“I shall continue playing football for the time being but I have lost my ambition. Though I shall still do my best on the field I need more time to learn about the bible and may give up football”. 

And with that simple message, his career just fizzled out. On returning to Wolverhampton Knowles took part in the first eight games of the 1969/70 season, after the last of which against Nottingham Forest, he left the stadium without so much as goodbye drink and to the disbelief of pretty much everyone in football, he never returned.

For the following 12 years, right up until his 36thbirthday, Wolves kept Peter Knowles’ contract open in the hope that he would return and bring his ‘god’ given talents with him.

Knowles instead stayed to true to his word and followed a path of righteousness, he reportedly worked as a milkman and in the warehouse at the local Marks and Spencer. He became fiercely private and remained so.

Billy Bragg released a song in 1991 called ‘God’s Footballer’, and if anything cements your greatness in whatever the endeavour, it’s having a song written about you.

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