If Alf Ramsey stated that Martin Peters was ten years ahead of his time in 1967, was that comment made 40 or 50 years ago? This isn’t an esoteric GCSE Maths question, it’s simply another example of trying to get to grips with the confusing legacy of former West Ham, Tottenham and England star Martin Peters.
His achievement are beyond question: at club level he won the European Cup Winners Cup with West Ham and a UEFA and two League Cups with Tottenham. More significant still was the vital role he played in England’s 1966 World Cup success as part of an international career that yielded 67 caps and 20 goals.
His international manager Alf Ramsey loved him; so too did his club manager at West Ham Ron Greenwood, but less progressive football people were not as convinced about Peters. These were staid, no-frill times when every player was expected to be identifiable in a position and perform within a rigid and flat tactical team structure. Martin Peters was not that kind of player; indeed he was famous for having appeared for West Ham wearing every single outfield shi1rt number during his time at the Boleyn Ground.
For example, many West Ham fans swore he was the best left back they had seen in years when he filled in that role for an extended period. He did predominantly feature in the middle of the park, but it was impossible to pigeon hole him as a defensive ‘half’ or an attacking ‘inside forward’ – indeed it was players like Peters who helped change football’s lexicon towards the modern use of defenders and midfielders.
An archetypal Martin Peters moment that symbolised his wide range of capabilities came in a November 1968 league game against Leicester. Their opponents had a free-kick in a threatening area and Peters jumped highest in the defensive wall to eliminate the danger. He brought the ball under control, passed the ball calmly out to the flanks and surged forward into attack where, 15 seconds later, he dispatched a thumping volley from a cross past Peter Shilton.
Where the world can agree that Martin Peters could be seen at his best was linking midfield and attack. He formed a near-telepathic relationship with Geoff Hurst at the Hammers which brought many goals, though the nature of his scoring was sometimes resented. The Peters speciality was ghosting into space beyond confused defenders and finishing emphatically with head or foot, but because he had avoided the kicks and hacks that Hurst endured to score his goals as the centre-forward, this was seen almost as a cunning and devious way to get goals – more akin to the dodgy foreign types so mistrusted by the British game.
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Ironically, Martin Peters’ supreme capacity for adaptability made him a victim of his own success. He grew to resent being used to plug holes throughout an under-resourced West Ham team while Hurst and Bobby Moore were considered untouchable performing in their favoured roles. Peters moved to Tottenham and prospered greatly by dint of playing in a consistent role – and his best – week in and week out.