Martin Peters scored 194 goals in a memorable career that included long and successful stints at West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City and Sheffield United. But it was for his strike on 30 July 1966 that he will forever be remembered.
With the World Cup final between England and West Germany level after 77 minutes, England won a corner. The ball was swung over to Geoff Hurst, whose fierce strike was deflected across goal. The German defence was scrambled – and who else should be there but Peters, darting beyond Wolfgang Weber to finish powerfully from eight yards.
It was in so many ways the quintessential Peters finish. At West Ham, the club he is associated with above all others, he earned the nickname ‘The Ghost’ for his uncanny ability to glide unnoticed into goal scoring positions. “They called him that because nobody would realise he was there, waiting in the box 15 times a game, because the ball did not always come his way,” Hurst – a lifelong friend – would later explain. “But when it did – bang – he would put it away.”
Weber would score eleven minutes after Peters to force the final into extra-time, only for Hurst to complete his hat-trick to steer England towards the Jules Rimet. As the players walked the 39 steps to collect the trophy, led by captain Bobby Moore, Peters was famously captured wiping his palms courteously on his shorts, for fear of muddying Queen Elizabeth’s pristine white gloves.
It was the greatest achievement of Peters’ storied career. It remains the greatest achievement in English sporting history.
And yet Peters nearly did not make it as a footballer in the first place. Born in Plaistow, east London, his father William was a lighterman on the River Thames and had initially hoped his son would end up working on the barges as he had done. But a superb performance for an England schoolboys side that beat West Germany 2-0 in 1959 saw the professional offers roll in. And he settled for the club just a stone’s throw from where he was born.
Peters made his West Ham debut against Cardiff City on Good Friday in 1962. He was quickly adored by the club’s supporters for his frequent goal scoring, technical proficiency and commitment, as well as his selfless versatility. Primarily a wing-half, he went on to play in every single position for the east London side – including goalkeeper.
Further success was to follow at Tottenham Hotspur, the club he moved to in 1970 in a deal which saw him become England’s first £200,000 player. His midfield elegance and attacking instincts were naturally well received at a club that prided itself on playing adventurous, expansive football. Playing under Bill Nicholson, Peters formed a formidable attack alongside the likes of Martin Chivers, Alan Mullery and Alan Gilzean, all players to have gone down in Tottenham legend.
It was to prove a profitable transfer with Peters winning his first domestic winners’ medal in 1971, when Spurs beat Aston Villa to win the League Cup final. He would win the trophy again – as Tottenham’s captain – in 1973, a season after he played a starring role in the 3-2 aggregate win over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Uefa Cup final.
There were also spells at Norwich City – where he was voted the club’s player of the year two years running – and Sheffield United before he called time on his professional career in the early eighties.
But despite his numerous club exploits, it was for his glorious arrival on the international stage that Peters is best remembered. He did not make his England debut until May 1966 – just two months before the opening match of the World Cup, against Uruguay. England’s drab performance in that goalless draw convinced Sir Alf Ramsey to boldly rip up his tactical strategy and adopt the ‘wingless wonders’ 4-1-3-2 system, with Peters promoted from the substitutes bench for the second game, against Mexico.
Peters – and England – never looked back.
He was superb against Mexico. He assisted Hurst in the 1-0 quarter-final win over Argentina. And, in front of 96,924 people at Wembley, he was on hand to score in the most famous game of football in English history.
“Martin never had the recognition he deserved,” Hurst told the Daily Mail in 2017. “He’s always been underrated and still is. His goal in the World Cup final could easily have been the winner. Apart from a couple I got. In one respect, it would have been nice for him to have that acclaim because he deserved it. He was a fantastic player, a natural footballer who was totally and utterly devoted to the game. It’s nice to talk about him.”
Peters was honoured with an MBE in 1978 and briefly managed Sheffield United in 1981, later playing non-league football and working in the insurance business. He also spent time on the board at Tottenham and worked in the hospitality suites at West Ham, before it was revealed in 2016 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
His death was announced on Saturday evening. “It is with profound sadness that we announce that Martin passed away peacefully in his sleep at 4.00am this morning,” a statement from his family read.
“A beloved husband, dad and grandad, and a kind, gentle and private man, we are devastated by his loss but so very proud of all that he achieved and comforted by the many happy memories we shared. We will be making no further comment and kindly ask that the privacy of our family is respected at this extremely difficult time.”
He is survived by wife Kathleen, daughter Leeann and son Grant.
His place in English football folklore is forever assured.