When Football Comes Second
Striker Answered Higher Calling
By Charles Bamforth
It was our good friend, Steve Gordos, who penned the book entitled God’s Footballer, telling the story of the young man who astonishingly walked away to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
Perhaps the other former Wolverhampton Wanderers forward who might best be able to understand what was in the heart and mind of Peter Knowles in 1969 is someone who himself gave up the game to pursue a life dedicated to God.
Richard Leadbeater is 41 and a founder of King’s Church in Guildford but was with Wolves when, as a 16-year-old, he became a committed Christian. His devotion led to him becoming an ordained minister.
“I was born in Wordsley but raised in Dudley,” he says. “I went to Ellowes Hall School in Lower Gornal. My mother had seen an advertisement for Netherton Colts under-9s or under-10s and I went there for training.
“I hadn’t played much before that and I loved it. I flirted with midfield and thought I was better in that position but, at 15 or 16, I moved up front and stayed there.
“I played for the school, the district and the county. From the age of 12, I was with Wolves in their School of Excellence. As a fan, I had been typically fickle, cheering who was winning. But once I was with the School of Excellence, I received two free tickets, so my father and I went along for every home game and it was difficult not to be a Wolves fan!
“Steve Bull, of course, was the big hero and he had that great partnership with Andy Mutch as the team came back up from the Fourth Division. I left school at 16 to sign on YTS forms. Chris Evans was the youth coach and Rob Kelly the youth development manager. A year later, their roles reversed.
“The manager who signed me was Graham Taylor. I thought he was fantastic and feel sad to this day that he was sacked. I think there was still a lingering bad press, it being his first job after England.
“Mark McGhee took over towards the end of my YTS time. For me, it was a shame Graham left.
“I’d had a pretty good YTS. In my first year, I was named Young Wolf of the Year. I had a very good partnership with Glen Crowe. Three of us were offered contracts – Glen, Macca (Emeka Nwadike) and myself.
“If Graham had stayed, I think I’d have got a longer contact than the one year I was offered under McGhee. He didn’t know us, so he didn’t want to commit to longer.
“My contract was renewed after a year but I always felt I was on trial at Molineux. All the time I was there from joining as a 12-year-old.
“There were lots of lads at the School and you had to hope you would keep being invited back. The YTS was for two years but it was very much a trial, hoping you would be signed as a full-time professional. And then as a pro, it was one year at a time.
“It would have been nice to have a contract of about three years. It would have been good to think the club were saying: ‘We are going to invest in you to see how you develop’.
“I got into the reserves in the second year of my YTS and for my two years as a professional, I pretty much played constantly for them.
“I had a decent scoring ratio. We had a midweek game and I scored four as we beat somebody 6-2. On the following Sunday, I was named as a substitute for the first-team game at Southend and went on for the final 15-20 minutes, replacing Jens Dowe.
“It was great representing the club I had been with for so long. No disrespect to Southend but it would have been nice if perhaps it had been at Newcastle or Manchester City!”
That Wolves team on October 13, 1996 in a 1-1 draw (Bull scored) in front of only 5,318 spectators was: Mike Stowell, Jamie Smith, Steve Froggatt, Mark Atkins, Mark Venus, Dean Richards, Robin van der Laan, Steve Corica, Steve Bull, Jens Dowe, Glen Crowe. Subs: Serge Romano and Richard Leadbeater.
“I was part of the squad a lot but in December, 1997, it was suggested it would be a good idea for me to go out on loan for some experience. I went to Hereford, where there had been a lot of arrivals from Wolves, with Graham Turner as manager, Keith Downing as player-coach and Ron Jukes as chief scout.
“I scored seven or eight times in 12 games, with a hat-trick in my second game. Upon returning to Wolves, I was told my contract was not being renewed. So it was into the lap of the gods, so to speak.
“It was a pretty stressful time. My agent was Mel Eves. I had a contract offer from Swansea, had my medical and my picture was in the paper. But I didn’t sign there and then, although I could have done.
“It was my first time away from home and I wanted to sleep on it. Next day, the manager, Alan Cork, was sacked, though I don’t think it was because of offering me a contract!
“I had trials at Plymouth and Barnet. Then Hereford said ‘You can always come back here’, so I did. Things did not go quite as well this time. Stevenage came in and I signed for them and dropped into non-League in February, 1999. The fee was £20,000 and somebody told me that is still their record fee and, at that, is the lowest record sum for any club. So I am the ‘cheapest most expensive signing in the Football League’. What a claim to fame!
“I was at Stevenage for two and a half seasons and we finished that first one really well. But I didn’t really enjoy it. Having been at Wolves, my local club with wonderful facilities, I was now at a club in a very physical league, playing a style of football that was not for me.
“Arrogantly, I thought I would be picked up by somebody else at a higher level and it was at this time that my passion to play professionally decreased as my passion to explore the Christian ministry increased. Your heart needs to be completely committed and I was now no longer thinking football long-term.”
So how did this new journey begin? “I grew up in a nice moral home but we were not church-goers,” he added. “Then, around the time I joined Wolves as a YTS, my sister (who is ten years older than me) came home and said she had become a Christian.
“I had always thought Christians were a bit odd but here was my sister, who is not odd. I started going to church out of curiosity and found lots of people who were not odd, so I kept going back. I became a committed Christian.
“Nobody at Wolves knew initially. To me, my life and my profession did not match up. To be honest, it was hypocritical.
“You need to practise what you preach the whole time. Most people don’t but Jesus does. In truth, I was embarrassed. Then Brian Law, a tough centre-half, came up to me in the gym and asked: ‘You’re a Christian, aren’t you?’
“I was so shocked and intimidated that I confessed. Brian followed up by saying: ‘There’s a bible study at my house tonight. You’re going to be there’. So I obeyed! It was a group of professional footballers in the Midlands who studied the bible and encouraged one another.
“It helped me so much. I knew I was not alone. I started my studies when I was at Stevenage. After leaving there, I spent a short while at Hednesford and then signed for Nuneaton in the Conference in the summer of 2001. Later, I was with Evesham and Redditch.
“That put me near Birmingham and I enrolled at Birmingham University to read theology. I had just got married. Going semi-professional helped me to pay my way through university.
“I really didn’t enjoy playing anymore and my performances reflected that. I gave up playing when I finished my degree.
“My church was St Stephen’s in Selly Park. I was offered an apprenticeship for a year to test the waters on Christian ministry. This turned into a role doing youth work for a further three years while I explored ordination.
“I was accepted into Wycliffe Hall at Oxford University (‘vicar school’) and was there for two years. Once ordained, I returned to a curacy at St Stephen’s.
“After four years, we moved to Guildford in the summer of 2014 to start a church from scratch. We began with four adults (one of whom was my wife) and seven children (three of whom were our own).
“We realised that the only way is up! Now we have a congregation of 110 adults and 40 kids. God has given us growth quite rapidly.
“We are Anglican but not Church of England. Think of Anglican as being a big circle with the Church of England being a smaller circle within it, just like there are churches within the Anglican tradition across the world that are not Church of England, like the Episcopal Church in the United States.
“We are linked to other churches in Surrey but not to the Church of England. We have external accountability, with trustees, and are part of a network to wider groups.
“For me, it is the best thing ever – and the hardest, by miles. But so rewarding. Football is fine for what it is. I still watch the game. I still cheer. I feel disappointed when my team loses. But it does not have an eternal value or consequence.
“Not everyone believes in eternity of course but if there is an eternity, then to be involved in work that bears eternal fruit or consequences is surely much more important than scoring the winner after 90 minutes!”
I ask about Peter Knowles and how the England under-23 international felt he could not continue playing because of how he behaved on the field.
“I don’t know his story particularly well,” Richard added. “I think you can be a Christian footballer, just as you can be a Christian lawyer or a Christian professor. But it should change the way you think.
“You see things through Christian lenses. To get to the top, you have to sacrifice a lot, make it the most important thing. But being Christian is a case of putting others before self, doing things to the honour of Jesus and not yourself.
“The amount of time, dedication, energy and ambition to get to the top is very difficult for a serious Christian. You see life as about not being for your own pleasure but about proclaiming a different message.
“It is possible – and needed – to be a Christian footballer. We need Christians in the football world. We need Christians everywhere. But I can understand how Peter Knowles felt. I had a professional footballer friend in Scotland who stopped because when he played, he could not do it in a Godly way. Of course it may be possible for some.”