The paceless late-bloomer who possessed limitless levels of skill and was once the third-most expensive player of all-time. The understated show off was a class above the majority of his peers. In many ways, that famous penalty from Italia 90 simply adds to the allure.
“I think I’m gonna be in this factory for the rest of my life”.
Who could blame Chris Waddle for thinking this way? By the time he had turned 19, he was still working as a meat packer in this aforementioned location, seasoning sausages and pies and playing football when he could for Tow Law Town in County Durham. Less than ten years later, a transfer to Marseille meant that only two other players in the history of football cost more money at the time.
The evolution of this Gateshead guy’s status in a relatively short period remains remarkable. Where did it all go so right for the Waddler?
Newcastle United took a chance on the tricky, unpredictable winger in 1980, paying less than a thousand pounds for his services, awarding a one-year contract in the process. Waddle had spent a couple of years of his adolescence with Coventry City but failed to earn a professional deal, meaning a life in the local factory awaited. He worked there for two-and-a-half years but now he needed to submit his notice. His life was drastically altered. The Magpies had swooped in and nabbed one of the bargains of the decade.
Waddle netted nearly half a century of goals in 170 appearances over five years at St. James’ Park, but it was his dazzling nature and inimitable slouched running style that really caught the crowd’s eye. He didn’t sprint but rather skipped by his helpless opponents. An increasingly recognisable drop of the shoulder would be followed by a swing of that gorgeous left boot to manipulate the ball any which way he saw fit. His gift was supreme and his personal ambitions lofty.
Playing in a talented team alongside Kevin Keegan and Peter Beardsley, Waddle helped Newcastle earn promotion to the top flight and solidified their status en route. As far as he was concerned, this northeast journey had reached a natural cul-de-sac. Yes, he may have been fairly fresh off the factory floor but Waddle was never in doubt about his own ability, nor were his growing number of admirers.
The Sunderland supporter was about to break Newcastle fans’ hearts.
He won his first of sixty-two England senior caps four months before departing the club, aged 24. There was more to come on the international stage for Waddle – he would go on to represent his nation at two World Cups and a European Championship – but, for now, the priority was London and Tottenham Hotspur. He simply had that ‘it’ factor which could not be contained by a Newcastle side who had limited aspirations.
Spurs had a soft spot for technical anarchy on the pitch throughout the 1980’s, so Waddle slotted it in nicely. Joining the club in 1985, he was the tender meat in the succulent sandwich of the three most gifted English footballers of the era to pass through White Hart Lane. Waddle teamed up with Glenn Hoddle, the active icon at Spurs and, while their connection on the pitch was predictably seamless, it was their partnership away from football that struck an unexpected chord.
In April 1987, Hoddle and Waddle ventured into the world of music and released the drenched-in-80s-cheese ‘Diamond Lights’ which reached as high as number twelve in the UK charts. It set the pair and the club up for the FA Cup final just weeks later against Coventry City – the club who had turned Waddle away as a teenager. They were about to break his heart all over again in one of the more unlikely FA Cup shocks.
The 3-2 defeat was a massive missed opportunity for Waddle and Spurs.
This two-month period in spring ’87 proved to be Hoddle’s protracted goodbye to his beloved Spurs as he headed for Monaco. Waddle remained but eyes from abroad were prying.
English clubs’ ban from European football following the Heysel disaster saw some high-profile British players – like Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and David Platt – looking abroad to broaden their horizons. Waddle was an unquestionable hit at White Hart Lane during his four years at the club, sticking around just long enough to welcome another precocious talent from Tyneside.
Paul Gascoigne, like Waddle, was signed from Newcastle and the two struck up a formidable bond, helped along nicely no doubt by Waddle setting up Gascoigne’s first goal for Spurs courtesy of a delicious slide-rule pass.
The pair’s time at Spurs aligned over just a solitary season as Marseille, almost inevitably, came calling for Waddle in the summer of 1989. Such a move was the style at the time. The 29-year-old became the third-most expensive player in the world after the French club parted with £4.25m to secure their man. Waddle and Gazza bid farewell to one another on the club scene but their international bromance was burgeoning.
A year later, both men roomed together during Italia 90. Arguably Waddle’s most difficult task during the tournament was off the pitch, babysitting his ceaselessly energetic teammate. The role included taking Gascoigne for walks during the night to calm him down so they both could sleep.
On the pitch, they made up England’s talented midfield alongside David Platt and were, of course, a penalty shootout away from the final after Waddle ballooned his spot-kick over the bar. Waddle had earlier hit the bar during the match with an outrageous effort from distance in a game that England largely dominated and should have won.
It was little wonder that Waddle’s confidence was sufficiently high to attempt such a feat. His first season with Marseille had been a huge success as his side won the French championship (the first of three on the bounce), despite the man himself starting life in France slowly.
Initially, Waddle struggled in his new surroundings with the language barrier causing a significant issue but his late arrival meant that he was also behind his teammates on the fitness front. His debut came as a substitute in a comfortable victory over Lyon – a game in which Mick McCarthy was playing for the opposition – with Waddle’s first act in the famous white jersey remarkably being to place the captain’s armband around it as he replaced the injured Jean-Pierre Papin to take over as skipper for the rest of the game.
The extent of Waddle’s French was the ability to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and count to ten. Yet, here he was, leading one of the top sides in Europe.
Papin, a talismanic striker who would eventually be sold to AC Milan when Marseille ran into monetary difficulty, played a major part in helping Waddle settle by inviting the England international to live with him while he found his own home, helping his new teammate ease into French culture more easily. This period coincided with a positional switch.
Waddle had, at first, been deployed in the number ten role; a position he had no experience playing in and one in which he struggled to adequately fulfil. Question marks were raised over the expensive purchase.
When his manager Gérard Gili pulled his new signing aside and asked Waddle to indicate where he would like to play using a pen and paper, Waddle placed an ‘X’ on the right wing.
The rest was history.
Waddle’s first goal for Marseille was littered in class and ebullience and acted as a sample of what was to come over the next three years. Taking the ball on his chest, Waddle flicked the ball over the on-rushing Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Joël Bats before audaciously back-heeling it into the net.
Waddle had officially arrived in French football. The many doubters were silenced as ‘Waddlemania’ was conceived. Fans around Marseille began to copy Waddle’s famous mullet haircut, parking ticket fines were quashed by starstruck policemen and, for the second time in his career, Waddle released a hit single. This time, with teammate Basile Boli, as the duo collaborated on the song ‘We’ve Got a Feeling’.
The city of Marseille could not get enough of ‘Magic Chris’. The man himself illustrated the reasoning behind the sentiment in a documentary chronicling his time at the club, saying:
“I can dribble. I can smile and I can communicate with the crowd.”
Like a great film, Waddle, as a player and a man, simply resonated with his audience.
It was not just the flair that was appreciated. Waddle was key to Marseille’s impressive results both domestically and in the European Cup and they were unfortunate not to win the latter during his debut campaign. They fell at the semi-final, losing to Benfica on the away goals rule after the Portuguese heavyweights progressed courtesy of a controversial goal.
As expected, Benfica lost the subsequent final against the mighty AC Milan and it was the Italians who would provide the opposition during Waddle’s finest hour at Marseille – the following season’s European Cup quarter-final.
In a showing of remarkable mental strength, Waddle responded to the agony of Italia 90 by performing wonderfully for Marseille in 1990/91 with the zenith of Waddle’s form coming in the two legs of the last eight against Milan. The defending champions were eliminated after drawing the first leg 1-1 at the San Siro – Waddle setting up Papin for the away goal – before running out 1-0 victors in France.
Waddle scored the game’s only goal; a sumptuous volley with his weaker right foot from an unfavourable angle. He almost added to the ecstasy, embarking on an almighty solo dribble before falling flat on his face at the last second. It would have been one of the all-time great goals in European Cup history.
Regardless, Marseille progressed and despite the floodlights failing and AC Milan attempting to have the game replayed as a result, Les Olympiens went all the way to the final where they contested one of the worst showdowns in the competition’s history against Red Star Belgrade.
Red Star won on penalties with Waddle refusing to take one less than twelve months after his miss with England. It was a shame on a number of counts for Waddle, whose relationship with Bobby Robson’s successor as national team manager Graham Taylor was strained to such an extent that Taylor refused to select Waddle after he criticised the team’s tactics.
Amazingly, Waddle’s last cap for England fell in the fall of 1991 and, by the end of the season, Marseille, now in financial peril and in need of cashing in on their assets, sold Waddle. It showed the esteem with which club president Bernard Tapie held Waddle in by placing a £4 million price tag on the 32-year-old’s head.
As a gesture of goodwill and gratitude for Waddle’s services over the previous three seasons and more than a century of league appearances, Tapie allowed the price to drop to one million pounds for English clubs. Before he knew it, Waddle, who had helped Marseille win a treble of French titles, was in Sheffield, signing for Wednesday in the summer of 1992, just in time for the newly-established Premier League
By now, Waddle had slowed down significantly but his class, evolved to extraordinary levels over the previous seasons abroad, was apparent (Ryan Giggs found out the hard way) and at the end of his first season back in English football, Waddle was paid the ultimate compliment by being awarded the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.
It had been a wonderful season for Sheffield Wednesday as they reached both the League Cup and FA Cup finals – losing to Arsenal on both occasions – with Waddle scoring a delightful free-kick in the semi-final at Wembley against Sheffield United.
It was reminiscent of Paul Gascoigne’s – who was now abroad himself with Lazio – set piece on the same pitch and competition two years earlier. The talented pair, in a very different way, had come an awfully long way from their Gateshead days. But, by now, Waddle was starting to come down the other side of the mountain.
The 1992/93 season was Waddle’s last great season and despite his former side Marseille winning that season’s European Cup, Waddle had little to be bitter about. He remained at the Owls for another three years before moving to Bradford City via a very short spell up north with Falkirk.
The old dog was still capable of providing the odd trick, demonstrated most prominently with an incredible long-range effort for Bradford in an FA Cup tie away to Everton in 1997.
Despite approaching forty, Waddle was still in demand in the top flight and Peter Reid persuaded him to try help Sunderland – who Waddle had supported growing up – avoid relegation from the Premier League by playing the final run of fixtures in 1996/97.
Sunderland went down but Waddle’s efforts were valiant. He briefly joined Burnley as a player-manager before a short stint with Torquay United preceded a number of years in non-league football.
Waddle’s appetite for football has forever been insatiable, despite his own country not always reciprocating the love. He falls into the category of ‘under and misused maverick’ on the international stage for England, despite his passion for the national team never diminishing, as seen in his extraordinary on-air reaction to England’s quarter-final win over Sweden at the 2018 World Cup.
I think we all feel a bit like @chriswaddle93 does right now 😥😢
— BBC 5 Live Sport (@5liveSport) July 7, 2018
Chris Waddle played the game at the elite level as if it was a friendly five-a-side among friends and, for Waddle himself, that attitude was crucial. He was the showboater with class who was only too aware of his obligation to entertain the masses using the natural gift he possessed.
Countless supporters will be eternally grateful for witnessing a footballer the likes of which will be tough to replicate. How the game could do with another Chris Waddle to inject fun back into the sport.