Sam Walker speaks to Ivan Speck for the EFL Q&A this week
For goalkeeper Sam Walker, chasing promotion is a new experience. On the other hand, the 26-year-old has been in sides which have avoided relegation on the final day three times in his career.
As he reveals in this week’s Sky Bet EFL Q&A, that hasn’t always come easily for the Chelsea academy product, who was sent off in just his third game on loan at Barnet as a teenager when they were trying to stay in the EFL.
The articulate Walker speaks about his love of cricket, winning the FA Youth Cup with Chelsea and having to be told when to stop eating Pic ‘n’ Mix sweets.
Were you always a goalkeeper?
Yes. I wasn’t massively into playing football. I was a bit of a nerd, so I was more into the stats side of things – a bit like Jeff Stelling, watching the game and knowing all the stats. My brother’s a couple of years younger than me and I went to watch his football training, He was seven or eight at the time and his team needed a goalkeeper. It was as simple as that. I said I’d give it a go. That was for a team called Istead Colts in Gravesend.
I grew up playing cricket in a big way, so I was always used to using my hands and my hand-eye coordination came from the catching. And I was always the biggest in my class, the biggest in the team and if you’re the biggest, you either end up at centre-half or even further back in goal. The height always helped me in goal.
I moved on to Gravesend and Northfleet (now Ebbsfleet United), played in the Kent League with them, then to Millwall when I was 14 or 15. I was quite a late bloomer, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I got a good grounding in Sunday league football and then went on to be polished in academy football.
I played a lot of cricket up to the age of 16. I still try and get in the odd game of cricket in the off-season, but only at Sunday village level. In my youth, when I was big and tall, I liked to steam in as a bowler as fast as I could, but that’s not too good on the limbs, so I’ve turned into more of a batsman now.
Sam Walker grew up playing cricket and didn’t get into football until a bit later
Best moment on a football pitch?
Hopefully I have many more to come because I haven’t had a promotion yet. I’m hoping to this season with Colchester, but I’ve had three last-day escapes from relegation, which were all pretty special in their own right.
One was in my first season, on loan at Barnet, seven or eight games into my career. We beat Port Vale on the last day of the season. Lincoln didn’t win and they went down instead (to the National League in May 2011).
The next one was in my first season at Colchester and then again the next season (a 1-0 win over Preston in May 2015). That one was the best feeling because we were up against Preston. They needed to win to go up, the game was on Sky and it all worked out in the end because they went up through the play-offs anyway.
We’d had a catch-up game on the Tuesday night against Swindon which we saw as a big opportunity but we’d drawn that 0-0. We felt a bit deflated afterwards because we knew how good the Preston side was that season. It was always going to be a tough ask and we needed a couple of other results to go our way.
Everything fell over the line for us on the day. Preston had a lot of pressure on them as well, they weren’t quite as fluent as they usually were. We got a late goal and held on for a 1-0 win to keep us up.
The FA Youth Cup win with Chelsea was great as well but that just feels like so many years ago. It was an incredible night to play and win at Stamford Bridge, but having played a lot of games of men’s professional football now, there’s a little bit of added weight to that over the youth team stuff.
Obviously the Youth Cup is highly prestigious and I’m very proud of that, but playing football on a Saturday at three o’clock means so much, not just to the players but to the fans who have worked hard and who pay their money to come and watch.
The biggest player from that Chelsea team is probably Jeffrey Bruma who’s at PSV Eindhoven now. Josh McEachran’s at Brentford and I played against Billy Clifford recently, who’s at Crawley. I think that’s about it. A lot of the other lads, as is the case with youth football, worked their way out of the game.
Is there one regret you need to put right?
Not really. I’m not a big one for regrets. There are some goals I wouldn’t want to see again, especially as a goalkeeper, but no real regrets. Football’s such a volatile industry, things happen all the time, you have ups and downs and it’s about trying to keep a level head throughout.
Being at the big clubs, like I was at Chelsea, it’s very, very difficult to crack the first team. As long as you can come out of that, like I did, feeling or knowing that I gave it everything I could and didn’t leave anything on the table, then it’s okay. It wasn’t going to work out at Chelsea but I had a good chance of making a decent career elsewhere. I went out on loan, got my experience and then made a permanent move to Colchester. I’ve played almost 250 games now (241 in the EFL, 20 in cup competitions), which is decent for someone my age.
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I’ve played a lot of good players who have gone on up to the Championship and the Premier League. I think the toughest one was a few seasons ago when Dele Alli was at Milton Keynes. You could really tell from playing against him then that he had everything – that little bit of bite about him, he was quite aggressive to play against. We lost 6-0 at their place (in November 2014) and he was instrumental in that. He scored one, ran the game and I thought there and then: “This guy’s going to be a bit of a player.”
He scored against us at home that season as well. Again he ran the show, but at their place he scored one from way outside the box, maybe 25, 30 yards. As a goalkeeper, you’re always expecting a shot, but I wasn’t expecting quite how well he hit it and he buried it quite comfortably into the bottom corner. That set the tone for the game and I thought: “This lad’s not going to be playing at this level much longer.” He wasn’t.
Least favourite away ground?
It’s difficult not to offend anyone here. Newport last year – and I say last year because I think they must have re-laid the pitch because it was fantastic this year – but last year the pitch was pretty awful. Certainly the worst pitch that I’ve played on, so that wasn’t enjoyable.
It was a day when you really had to concentrate on your handling and even with back passes. The ball could be rolled back to you and on any other pitch it would be a fairly routine clearance or you’d take a touch and play. It was more difficult at Newport. We try and play a little bit at Colchester, but there wasn’t much football played that day.
What’s your guilty food pleasure?
Sweets, specifically Pic ‘n’ Mix. We have Wednesdays off generally, so Tuesday night is a bit of a cinema night. After a tough day’s training on a Tuesday, I sometimes get a bag of Pic ‘n’ Mix. I have to be told to stop eating it, put it that way. My other half will take the bag off me for my own good because otherwise I could end up eating them all night.
I live in an area where our local high street has got a specialist Pic ‘n’ Mix shop on it, so I really have to try and stay away from there as well. It’s a difficult temptation.
Funniest thing you have seen in a dressing room?
There was one on a matchday a few years ago. At our level, a lot of clubs get in local graduates or guys on work experience who are doing physio degrees or sports science. We had a young physio in on a graduate programme. Joe Dunne was the manager and I think we had lost a game at home. We must have lost because he was giving us the full hairdryer treatment, a loud and angry post-match dressing down.
There’s a door at the back of our changing room that leads into our physio room and Joe had taken a slight pause. This young physio had not really been in a football changing room before, so he’s obviously presumed that Joe has finished his rant and opened this door to come in and check that all of the players are alright or if they need anything.
He opens the door very slightly but Joe has clearly not finished his rant, he sees him and absolutely lets rip at this poor lad, who goes completely red-faced and shuffles back into the physio room quite quickly.
We’re all laughing under our breaths because Joe was still going crazy at us for the performance that we’ve just put in. Once it had settled down, the lad had consulted the senior physio and said: “Do you think I should apologise?” so he shuffled his way back in, went up to the manager and apologised very quietly. The lads really got on to him. It was very funny at the time, but I felt really bad for him because if you haven’t been in a football changing room, you don’t know what’s what. He was only coming in to try and help, but it was the worst time possible.
Sam Walker says Dele Alli was always going to be special
Boyhood sporting hero?
Because I grew up loving cricket, it was either Marcus Trescothick or Graham Thorpe. Thorpe just, because he batted slightly lower down the order and was a slightly more attacking batsman. I’m a left-handed bat, so it was always a left-hander for me. It was a dream to open the batting for England or play football for England. Hopefully one of them can come true although I doubt I’ll be opening the batting for England any time soon.
Thorpe got a big double hundred somewhere when I was 11 or 12. It might have been in India or New Zealand and I thought: “Yeah, that’s living the dream,” like Alastair Cook did in the last Test. It is such a feat of everything – patience, skill – and to watch it is quite special.
If you had the power, what one thing would you change about the game?
It is slowly coming in but I would really push video assistance for referees on the big decisions at all professional levels.
The results of the games have so much weight and value nowadays that it’s important to get these decisions right. The game is so fast-paced, the referees aren’t going to get everything right. They need a little bit of assistance from time to time. It’s such a tough job being a referee. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it.
I watch a lot of cricket and rugby and I see how video has had a really positive impact. With football being so big around the world, it’s important that we bring it in and get with the times. It only needs to be a 15- or 20-second break for a replay – just to get it right.
I’d like to see it all through the EFL. The Premier League has so much financial backing behind it, but the points and the games are just as important to us in Leagues One and Two. And we’re not back in the 70s and 80s with old school terracing and floodlight failure here and there. All the grounds are technologically advanced nowadays so there’s no reason why you couldn’t have the video system in every ground in the Football League.
Most embarrassing moment in football?
There have been a few goals, one against Morecambe last season that was straight through my hands, but I got sent off in my third game on loan for Barnet when I was only 19. I’d never even considered being sent off before. I’m a pretty straight-laced guy, I was never in trouble at school, I just couldn’t believe I’d been sent off.
The first yellow was actually Martin Allen’s fault. He was Barnet manager and he was telling me to time-waste. We were trying to stay up and we were winning, so I was doing all I could to slow the game down, but I got a booking for time-wasting.
Then a ball came over the top that I stopped from going out for a corner, but the linesman thought it had crossed the line and he gave the corner. Without even thinking, I just got up and threw the ball away to buy myself a bit of time. We were playing Crewe and when I saw all of their players swarm around the referee, I thought: “Oh, God, I’ve just thrown the ball away.” The referee came over, gave me a second yellow card and I was sent off.
Fortunately we held on to win 2-1 because if we hadn’t, I think it would have been a very different story in the changing room. Martin Allen just came in, gave me a rough and ragged brush of the head, rubbed my hair and said: “Don’t do that again. You’ll learn from it.” That was good from him because to get sent off for time-wasting and throwing the ball away is pretty poor and embarrassing.
I was young, naïve, new to the game and walking off the pitch thinking: “That’s it. That’s my career. No-one’s going to like me after that.” Fortunately, I came back in after missing one game and helped Barnet stay up so all was forgotten.
It was a home game and all my family were there. The female side of the family, my mum, my aunties, they put an arm round my shoulder and told me not to worry, but my dad, my brother and my uncle were ribbing me straightaway, which was fully deserved.
Which player in history would you like to play alongside?
I loved watching Fabio Cannevaro as a defender because he kind of defied the odds, the way he was smaller than your average grisly centre-half. But he was such a good player to watch, so commanding and dominating and a real leader in that Italy back-line.
He would be my centre-half of choice. I wouldn’t even need to open my mouth, he’d just run the show for me, which would be very helpful.