Blue-eyed boys - Peter Withe

Peter Withe
Peter Withe.

Freddie Goodwin saw something that warranted signing me, but Willie Bell didn’t. He just wanted to get in his own players so sold me to Nottingham Forest. I still had a good time at Birmingham City.

Peter Withe

Next up in our series of 'blue-eyed boys' interviews, Sean Cole catches up with former Blues and Nottingham Forest striker Peter Withe to look back on his varied career in the game…

Peter Withe was close to never becoming a footballer. There are still outliers in the modern game, but with formalised academy structures and clear pathways for young players, these days it’s rare to find someone who took such a circuitous route to the top. An England international famed for winning the First Division title and the European Cup, he finally made his mark via spells in the lower leagues, South Africa and America.

After failing to get noticed as a youngster growing up in Liverpool, Withe was working as an electrician on the docks when a colleague who’d previously been a trainee at Southport recommended him to the club. He signed his first professional contract there in 1971 but it was still a precarious existence. When a new manager came in and didn’t see a place for him, he moved on. The desire to pursue his dream then took him somewhere entirely unexpected.

“Eventually I got an offer to go to South Africa,” says Withe. “I’d never really been out of Liverpool. I’d got married to my wife and then we’d had a young child, but I just felt it was something that I wanted to pursue. My wife understood, and we ended up going. I played out there for two years and got spotted by Derek Dougan, who was guesting for the team, and he went back to Wolverhampton Wanderers and told Bill McGarry ‘I’ve found my successor’.”

Regardless of that glowing endorsement from a Wolves legend, Withe’s progress was far from straightforward. He was given a three-month trial and eventually managed to convince the club to take him on after scoring a hat-trick against the first team in a training match. Even then he had to work his way up from the reserves, competing against seven other strikers for just two starting spots.

Withe scored on his debut, a 3-1 win over Ipswich Town at Molineux, and made a further 16 appearances for Wolves, scoring two more goals. He looks upon it as his first real experience of professional football despite a handful of games elsewhere in England. Joining Wolves set him on the right path but, eager to play more, he accepted another offer from abroad.

“It was during the English league’s off-season. At that time, I just wanted to play football and the opportunity arose to go to Portland. It was a brand-new franchise and these people in Portland had never even seen soccer before,” says Withe. “It was a great experience. We sold the sport to the people. We started the first game with a crowd of 7,000 watching us and at the last game there were 35,000.”

A humble Liverpudlian with a big, bushy beard, Withe became a cult hero and the face of the Portland Timbers. He enjoyed breaking new ground at the vanguard of the North American Soccer League and scored at an impressive rate, powering home plenty of headers. His exploits attracted the attention of clubs back home. Third Division Brighton had an offer accepted before Freddie Goodwin stepped in.

“He flew out to America to watch me play on the recommendation of Vic Crowe, who was in charge of the Portland Timbers. He watched me play against St Louis. I scored in the game and had a meeting with him afterwards where I agreed to sign for Birmingham City.”

Ironically, Withe’s move was delayed due to his own good form. The nature of the contract he signed with Portland meant that he couldn’t return until their season finished. As they qualified for the play-offs and kept winning, Birmingham City’s campaign kicked off with their new striker stuck on the other side of the Atlantic.

He made his debut at the end of August, but Goodwin didn’t last much longer. Sacked following a poor start to the season, Willie Bell was named as his replacement. Withe played regularly, often alongside Trevor Francis and scored nine times. On the final day Blues drew away to Sheffield United to confirm their survival, condemning Wolves instead. Withe stayed on and featured in a handful of games at the start of the next season but knew that he wasn’t in Bell’s long-term plans.

“It was obvious he didn’t really fancy me as a player. Some managers see something in you and some don’t. Freddie Goodwin saw something that warranted signing me, but Willie Bell didn’t. He just wanted to get in his own players so sold me to Nottingham Forest. I still had a good time at Birmingham City. There were some good players there who taught me a lot. Howard Kendall, who was captain at the time, taught me a hell of a lot about leadership and helping players.”

Although dropping down a division to join Brian Clough’s side, it proved a fortuitous move as the charismatic manager was looking to replicate his Derby heroics in a similar setting and assembled an incredibly diligent and effective group of players. Withe was top scorer as they were promoted to the top flight and went on to win the First Division the year after, an achievement it’s almost impossible to imagine being replicated. One game stood out on the way to the title, as Forest proved the doubters wrong.

“We were top of the league and playing Ipswich Town in a night game at the City Ground,” recalls Withe. “One of their players, Mick Mills, said: ‘Well, they might be top of the league, but they haven’t really come up against a good side yet.’ Brian Clough pinned that comment on the door, so we could all see it and we went out that day and beat them 4-0. I scored all four goals. We just kept winning games after that.”

After a season where Withe proved himself once and for all at the top level, he was riding high and primed to achieve more. Unfortunately, for all Clough’s motivational and man-management skills, he could also be incredibly stubborn. He believed that his word should always be final and was determined not to succumb to players’ demands. Once he’d drawn a line, there was no going back, as Withe discovered.

“My time at Forest came to an end because we had a disagreement over a new contract. It was over £10 really. The difference between what he offered me and what I asked for was £10. I know it sounds stupid in terms of today’s market and what players are earning but that was it. I left Forest and went to Newcastle.”

While Forest were busy taking the continent by storm, winning the European Cup in successive seasons, Withe was toiling away in the Second Division, trying to get his new team promoted. He gave it two years, but they fell short on both occasions. Keen to compete for honours again, he joined Aston Villa for £500,000.

The move earned him a few trophies, some memorable moments at Wembley and the England caps he’d longed for since first getting into football as a youngster. It might have turned out differently. Withe was weighing up another offer that had emotional appeal but could see what Ron Saunders was building. Facing a tough choice, he made a decision that subsequent success would vindicate.

“It was a heart-wrenching one because my local team, who I used to support as a youngster, was Everton. They were trying to sign me as well. It was a head versus heart moment. The heart wanted to sign for Everton, but the head thought they weren’t going to win things, whereas Aston Villa had a strong determination to do that. Ron Saunders was a bit similar to Brian Clough. He had a focus and said: ‘You will be the final piece in this jigsaw and if we sign you then we’ll win the league.’”

And so, it came to pass – Withe scoring 21 goals on the way to the title. While he maintains that he doesn’t look back on the decision to leave Forest with any regret, even as they went on to win the European Cup, he made up for it by leading Villa to the same trophy. During the second half of a nervy deadlocked final in Rotterdam he fired home the only goal against the overwhelming favourites Bayern Munich, carrying on a proud tradition for British clubs in Europe.

Withe stayed at Villa for another three seasons, until 1985, when he left for Sheffield United. The manager that signed him, Ian Porterfield, was sacked and chances were hard to come by under Billy McEwan. Withe was still living in Birmingham and travelling up, so Garry Pendrey gave him the chance to rejoin Blues on loan. He was here for three months, ploughing on even after suffering a broken arm in his first game back.

A permanent move didn’t transpire, and he eventually joined Huddersfield Town as player-assistant manager to close out his career and ease a transition into coaching. His last league game was at the age of 39, after which he became assistant manager at Aston Villa, later heading up the club’s scouting department, then working in their academy. Always prepared to test himself in different places, he got the job as manager of Thailand in 1998.

“I must have done something right because I was there for five years. Normally, managers only last about 12 months. I took them from about 110 in the FIFA rankings to the top 50. When I left there, I got the offer of going to Indonesia as their national coach and took that opportunity. I had four years there and then I went back to manage a club team,” says Withe.

“All in all, I had 11 or 12 years in Asia, which was a great experience. It taught me a lot of things with regards to different cultures and ways of coaching and talking to people. A big thing was not losing your temper, because in Asia that’s seen as a sign of weakness. There were lots of things I picked up and I really enjoyed my time out there.”

Withe has had an intrepid life in football, which has taken him to four different continents as a player, coach or manager. He’s finally taking a break to spend time with family and promote his autobiography, ‘All For The Love Of The Game’, which was released last month. Yet, at the age of 66, he’s still not ruling out returning to the game in some capacity.

“My wife said to me that she’s travelled all over the world with my football so could I take some time out to see the grandchildren. So, at the moment I’m not doing anything, but I’d never say I’m finished with football because it’s one of those games where anything can happen. I’ve already had a couple of calls about different things, so I never say never.”

GALLERY: A selection of images of Peter Withe in action.