It was the soundtrack to one of English football’s most gilded careers, from Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday, to 59 games for England: “You’ll never beat Des Walker.”
Never mind beating him, there was also a good chance you would never meet Walker. For a man who tasted some of the greatest highs in the game – Wembley final wins at Forest, a World Cup semi-final and a stint in Serie A – Walker was notoriously publicity-shy, knocking away interview requests like a cautious opening batsman.
And yet here he is, still lean and fit aged 55, standing on the touchline at Manchester City’s academy stadium, chatting away about everything from Brian Clough to the art of defending and his days as perhaps the world’s most unlikely lorry driver.
This is a rare opportunity to enter Walker’s world and it seems there is only one place to start: how did one of England’s most masterful centre-backs, whose athletic excellence at his peak would have been a welcome addition to Gareth Southgate’s squad at the European Championship this summer, end up chugging up and down Britain’s motorways?
“I did the running for Nestle, and drove for nearly five years,” he says. “I’d left Forest [in January 2005, after Joe Kinnear was sacked] and I was driving all over the place. When I was a youngster in London I used to live two doors up from the Coca-Cola factory. I used to watch the lorry driver reversing into this tight spot countless times and remember being amazed at how he did it.
“When I was in my mid-twenties at Forest, I was bored one summer and I took my Class One HGV [exam]. I also took the motorbike and bus ones, just to fill my licences up and have all the ticks.”
Walker is warming to his theme, his boyish enthusiasm belying his grey hairs. “I always drove ‘artics’ [articulated lorries], you know,” he says.
Lorry-driving might have become an unlikely second career for Walker, but there is no doubt how he will be remembered by the majority of football fans of a certain vintage – a Rolls-Royce of a defender, ruthlessly efficient, utterly reliable, and who seemed to have an inbuilt radar for sniffing out danger.
He found defending so effortless he could have been puffing on a cigar, although he was actually more likely to be found pulling on a cigarette when not on the field – his heavy smoking a nod to an age when such habits were not considered a problem, even for elite athletes.
He carved out his reputation at Forest, under Clough, but actually made more appearances for Wednesday. In 1990, he was crucial for England as they reached the World Cup semi-finals before that gut-wrenching defeat by Germany on penalties.