Club historian David Bull remembers two ex-Saints who died last week – Dave Walker, at the age of 73, and Ken Birch, aged 81.
The story is told of an FA-sponsored seminar, back in the day, when a coach was asked the difference between skill and technique. “Skill is being able to control the ball instantly, swerve your hips and change direction, taking the ball with you,” he replied. “Technique is being able to do that on a wet, windy Wednesday night at The Dell, with ‘Docker’ Walker up your backside.”
The attendees are reported to have nodded as one, such was the hard-man reputation of Dave Walker, widely known as “Docker”. Dave joined Southampton in 1965 from Burnley. Born in nearby-Colne, he had been on the fringes of Burnley’s most successful post-war side. With their half-back line of Adamson, Cummings and Miller, they had only occasional need of Walker, who could play all across that line, but was used mainly as an attacking wing-half at Turf Moor.
By the end of the 1964-65 season, it was time for Dave, now 24, to move on. With 38 First Division appearances to his credit, he resented Bill Shankly’s suggestion that, if he joined Liverpool, he’d need to spend two seasons in the Reserves, so as to “get used” to the Liverpool way of playing. Ipswich, who’d just finished a point behind the Saints in the Second Division, were interested, but all bids were off when Ted Bates came knocking at the door – literally and “out of the blue,” as Dave recalled.
By signing for Southampton, he added to the manager’s wing-half dilemma. Cliff Huxford had long been a fixture at No.6, but Bates had been agonising over how to rotate the No.4 shirt between the free-flowing Ken Wimshurst and the more defensive Ian White. Walker played more games than either of those in the 1965/66 promotion campaign – and had an engraved watch to show for it
In his second season – the Saints’ first in the top flight – Dave commandeered the No.6 shirt, while Huxford and White each played his last game. So, in his first two seasons, Dave had 66 League starts for Bates – quite a variation upon Shankly’s proposition. By the end of the following season, Bates had assembled a new centre-back pairing of John McGrath and Jimmy Gabriel and opted, in 1968/69, for a formation in which Walker played just in front of that duo.
Even as an attacking wing-half at Burnley, Dave had been expected “to filter back… patrolling just in front of the defence.” His dual role for Bates would sometimes take him back even further: “you maraud in front of the back four,” he explained, but would ocasionally have to “funnel in” to make a back five. Notice how “patrolling” had become “marauding”. Dave couldn’t remember who described him as “marauding all across the field… just taking everything out.”
And everybody, some said. Shankly included, of course. Dark and swarthy, with distinctive sideboards, the no-prisoners Walker could have been chosen by central casting for Shankly’s “Ale House” labelling – even though he was not playing in the September 1970 match vs Liverpool, when a challenge by McGrath brought Shankly’s famous slur upon Bates’s tough-tackling team.
Walker and McGrath (right) have put on their suits to attend a January 1972 FA hearing into their tackling-techniques.
In that 1970/71 season, Docker’s appearances dropped off. They fizzled to a halt as Lawrie McMenemy took over from Bates and, after 231 appearances for the Saints, Dave departed, in February 1974, for a brief spell with Cape Town City. Returning to Hampshire, he went into antiques, initially in Southampton. He then moved to the New Forest, where he continued his antique-passion and would retire with his wife Marcia, living next to his immediate family and grand-children in Hythe.
In common with other hatchet-men in the “Ale-House” side, Dave’s off-field persona belied his on-field belligerence. His name inevitably crops up, almost 50 years on, when older Saints fans reminisce about the tough guys of yesteryear but, as one internet discussant recently put it, when recalling “the pleasure of meeting David Walker,” he had found him to be “an intelligent, well-spoken, very nice guy.”
Dave ticked all of those boxes in a thoughtful interview, in 1996, for Bates’s biography. Reflecting on the art and artifice of management, he admired the “give-and-take” style of the “very shrewd” man who’d come knocking at his door in 1965. Ted Bates was, for him, “the best manager they’ve ever had at Southampton, or are ever likely to have.”
15 October 1941 – 21 April 2015
A schoolboy centre-forward, Birkenhead-born Ken Birch began his Everton career at right-half and, after 43 First Division appearances, arrived at Southampton to assume the No.4 shirt for the last 10 games of the 1957/58 season. The Saints, lying eighth in the Third Division (South), needed to finish in that division’s top half in order to qualify for the newly de-regionalised Division III. A 3-1 victory at Northampton on Ken’s debut launched a run of seven wins and a draw in those 10 games, enabling the side to finish sixth.
As the train leaves Southampton for Northampton in March 1958, debutant Ken Birch gets the prime spot at the window, backed (left to right) by captain Len Wilkins, John Christie and fellow-new signing, Ron Davies.
In the course of that run-in, captain Len Wilkins emigrated to Canada and Ted Bates’s young side needed an alternative old hand at the helm. The 24 year-old Birch was appointed captain for the 1958/59 season. His place would soon be challenged, though, by two local lads: Terry Simpson and Brian Clifton. But then Dick Conner – by two years Ken’s senior, yet long coveted by Bates – arrived from Grimsby in the manager’s big sell-and-buy summer of 1959 and, after only 37 games for Southampton, Ken’s Football League days were over.
When the Saints entertained Woking in the FA Cup in November 1958, a complicated clash of strips meant their borrowing the crimson-and-blue quarters of the Hants FA. Which explains this unusual photo of Southampton captain Ken Birch welcoming the visitors’ Charlie Mortimore, whose younger brother, John, would have three spells as the Saints’ assistant manager and later become the club’s President.
The highlight of his subsequent non-league career was captaining Bangor City in a Cup-Winners’ Cup-tie against Napoli in 1962. Had the away-goals rule then been in operation, Ken would have been on the winning side. As it was, he had to be content with converting a penalty in the home leg and with an assist, from a long throw, in Naples.
After which, he went to player-manage in the Transvaal. His first club, Benoni United, were on a slide and Ken soon left after what the Official History of South African football describes as “difficulties in motivating his squad.” A spell at Olympia was also short-lived and Ken came home to be a factory-worker on his native Wirral, where he has died after a long illness.
KENNETH JOSEPH BIRCH
31 December 1933 – 24 April 2015