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Billy Hughes & Martin Peters

Legends Billy Hughes and Martin Peters both passed in 2020. The ending of a year always inspires a little nostalgia, but the death of two old pros just before Christmas this year prompted a little introspection too, thoughts about England’s place in the game.

When Martin Peters passed away, his obituaries were, of course, full of memories of the World Cup of 1966 for Peters remains one of only two Englishmen to score in a World Cup final, alongside his West Ham colleague Geoff Hurst.

Legends Of Soccer: Billy Hughes & Martin Peters

billy hughes and martin peters article by dave bowlerBy Dave Bowler 

Just how much hangs on a simple twist of fate is evident in the story of those two and how their futures diverged in the split second when West Germany forced a last minute equaliser in that game.

Had Wolfgang Weber not made it 2-2 and sent the game into extra-time, we would still be waiting for the first hat-trick in a World Cup final, Hurst would not have achieved the immortality that went with it and it’s Martin Peters who’d have been renowned for scoring the goal that won the cup – and might have had the knighthood that went to Sir Geoff to boot.

The phrase that always attached itself to Peters was “ten years ahead of his time”, the way that England boss Alf Ramsey explained his style of football at a time when the English game was mutating from the old WM or 3-2-5 formation into something that more resembles the formations of the modern game.


It was Peters – and to an extent Alan Ball too – who made that World Cup win possible, for if they weren’t quite the at the world class level of Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Ray Wilson and Gordon Banks, they were still quite brilliant footballers.

More important, they were thoroughly modern footballers, central midfielders with the ability to break wide, making Ramsey’s “wingless wonders” idea a reality. England were able to overpower sides with numbers in the middle of the park while still being able to get width when necessary thanks to those two.

Beyond that, Peters had an additional gift, that ability of suddenly appearing in the box, unmarked and ready to finish off chances. They called him “The Ghost” because he could materialise from nowhere and that was a priceless asset, especially in the way Ramsey wanted to play.

Perhaps more than anyone else, it was Peters, who only arrived on the international scene in the final preparations for 1966, who made the “wingless wonders” work, a footballer who made a new conception of the game possible.

His arrival on the scene coincided with the last time that England unveiled a new way of playing the game, the last time the home of the game was responsible for a tactical innovation that kicked it forward, into new territory. We haven’t done it since – and that tells you just how great a player Martin Peters was.


Billy Hughes was a less stellar name perhaps, but his passing was just as sad for he was emblematic of something equally special, not just for his team – Sunderland – but for the English game as a whole, something we should especially ponder as the third round of the FA Cup comes around again.

Hughes was a star in Sunderland’s road to Wembley in 1973, then played a pivotal role as the Second Division side defeated the seemingly invincible Leeds United in what remains one of the most memorable FA Cup finals of all time.

He looked as though he roadied for Deep Purple, possibly dabbled in playing bass for Blodwyn Pig, the look that was required from the kind of mercurial, crowd pleasing ranks to which he belonged. But give him a ball and he could illuminate a freezing, grey afternoon at Roker Park and give the people something to enthral them, with barely a TV camera ever in sight.

As the big guns enter the FA Cup this weekend, and play their reserves to do it, thoughts of Hughes will loom large, not least because, like Peters, he too represents an era when English football had something very special, something it has largely disposed of in the race for money – the FA Cup itself.

Doing away with replays, heading for midweek rather than weekend rounds, some of them are self inflicted wounds, but the progressive disinterest in the competition, not merely at the top, but from the ranks beneath, is profundly depressing.


There will, for example, be ten Championship clubs only too delighted to get knocked out this weekend – and they’ll be selecting sides accordingly – so that they can concentrate on the possibility of promotion and of then being ritually humiliated on “Match of the Day” for a season while soaking up the gravy. That’s where we are now, not playing for the glory that the fans want, but playing for the money that the directors want.

Contrast that with Hughes’ era. From Sunderland in ’73 to West Ham in 1980, three Second Division sides – Southampton were the other – won the FA Cup and Fulham reached the final too. Since West Ham’s win, no Second Division / Championship team has won the trophy and there have been just four second tier finalists in 40 years, and one of those, QPR, was in 1982.

So, looking forward to the big Wembley occasion in May when Chelsea and Manchester City will arrive there without even trying, I think we can all be excused a little nostalgia for the days of Billy Hughes, don’t you?

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