Reading Football Club are deeply saddened to learn of the death of former captain and stalwart of Elm Park, Johnny Walker, at the age of 90.
John Young Hilley Walker, to give him his full name, was one of the oldest surviving Football League players, having celebrated his 90th birthday only a month ago. He enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the game, eight years of which were spent at Elm Park with Reading.
Born in Glasgow, he played as a youngster for the junior club Campsie Black Watch. Surprisingly, he was not signed by any of the Scottish professional teams but represented the British Army on several occasions during his National Service. Before he was demobbed, he had signed for Wolverhampton Wanderers, then in the First Division. He found it hard to break into the first team at Molineux, but had one excellent season, 1950-51, when he became a regular at inside-left and featured prominently among the goalscorers. He netted Wolves’ goal as they were unfortunate to be beaten 2-1 in that year’s FA Cup semi-final replay by Newcastle United.
In October 1952 he was sold to Second Division Southampton for their then record fee of £12,000 and spent five happy seasons as a free-scoring inside-forward. He was a permanent fixture in the Saints’ line-up, and it was something of a surprise when he was allowed to leave to join Reading. Perhaps the fact that he was aged 30 when he came to Elm Park, and a fee of £2,750 was obtained, tipped the balance, but no-one could have predicted that he would remain a Reading player for the next eight years.
He made his debut in a 1-1 draw away to Swindon on December 14th, 1957 and stayed in the team wearing the number 10 shirt, for the rest of the season as Reading finished fifth in the regionalised Division Three (Southern Section). He did receive one tangible reward, a runners-up plaque as Reading were beaten 2-0 by Portsmouth, in the final of the Southern Professional Floodlit Cup.
As the seasons ticked by, John moved around the team, from the forward line to wing-half, then finally to right-back, where he could use his experience to save his legs, and also read the game so expertly that he could now, as team captain, inspire and direct the younger players around him. His stentorian cry of “Steady!”, heard all around the ground, did much to resolve a potentially dangerous situation.
Over half of the 27 goals he scored for Reading were the result of accurately-converted penalty kicks. His best return was in the 1962-63 season when he reached double figures, with eight of his ten goals being successful strikes from the 12-yard mark. He was second-top scorer that season as the team narrowly escaped relegation.
His final campaign at Elm Park, 1964-65, saw the team enjoy a successful FA Cup run, only losing to First Division Burnley in a Fourth-Round replay. John captained the side in all six cup matches and throughout a reasonably successful league season, but now aged 36 was given a free transfer at the end of the campaign.
He continued to play as a part-timer, for Amersham Town. He reverted to a forward position, and in one of his early non-league games told the referee, “You’ll have to excuse me for getting caught offside so often – I’m a bit too quick for this class of football!”
John returned to Reading to play for Tilehurst in the Reading & District League and also helped out at Elm Park by coaching and managing the Under-18 youth team, which played in the South Eastern Counties League. By now his main employment was with the Post Office in Friar Street, but he remained a Reading fan and in retirement continued to support the club as an enthusiastic fan at the new Madejski Stadium.
John’s 80th birthday celebrations a decade ago saw old programmes, scrapbooks and personal tributes from family and former playing colleagues give testimony to a long and colourful life. He spent his later years living quietly in Theale, but kept a keen eye and sharp mind on the varying fortunes of each of his former clubs.
Johnny Walker sits 17th in the all-time list of appearance makers for the Royals, having played 319 times during eight years with the club, scoring 27 goals. A true legend of the blue and white hoops.
Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time.