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In part 5 of the ‘Sibling Rivalry’ series Paul McParlan recalls the incredible story of Cyril and Peter Knowles, two outstanding footballers who between them inspired supporters, musicians and worshippers of God.
Football and popular music have often been intertwined over the years, not always successfully. Kevin Keegan made several attempts to break into the Hit Parade without success and the less said about Glenn and Chris with Diamond Lights, the better. There have not been many songs written about footballers though and the chances of two footballing brothers having separate songs written about them would seem to be remote in the extreme. Yet, this happened.
Cyril Knowles was the subject of “Nice One Cyril” which reached number 14 in the charts when recorded by The Cockerel Chorus in 1973 and his younger brother Peter was the inspiration behind the classic cult song “God’s Footballer” written and performed by Billy Bragg in 1991. When interviewed recently Billy stated that it was one of his favourite compositions.
The story of the Knowles brothers is one of the most remarkable of modern times with outcomes that nobody could have predicted when they made their footballing debuts.
Cyril Barry Knowles was born in the pit village of Fitzwilliam, near Wakefield in West Yorkshire in July 1944. Fourteen months later his brother Peter was born in September 1945. Their father was Cyril Knowles senior who had established himself as an effective rugby league player for the nearby team of Wakefield Trinity. He played as a full back and made 65 appearances and scored 95 points in a career that spanned from November 1934 to September 1937. Sporting genes were clearly in the family.
After the Second World War, there was only one career option open to the residents of Fitzwilliam, a lifetime working down the pit – unless you had a special talent. One such person was the Yorkshire and England cricketer Geoff Boycott whose sporting prowess enabled him to escape from a life of back breaking work in the local mine. Indeed, Cyril started life as a miner at the tender age of 15. However, as a talented sportsman he was offered a chance to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Rugby League player for nearby Featherstone Rovers. He also showed exceptional ability as a footballer and was offered a trial by Manchester United at the age of seventeen. They turned him down for being “too small”. Despite this rejection, he wrote to Middlesbrough. They invited him to the club and saw a potential first team player. They offered him a contract as did Featherstone Rovers. For Cyril, it was an easy decision to make. Rugby League with Featherstone was part time, football with Middlesbrough was full time. Cyril knew “he just wanted to get out of the pit” so he chose the soccer club.
Peter Knowles, like his brother, also appeared to have an aptitude for sport. In his final year, whilst appearing for the school team, he came to the attention of a scout from Wolverhampton Wanderers, who was impressed by Peter’s performance. That evening the talent spotter from Wolves arrived at the family home and offered the schoolboy a contract which would allow him the opportunity to initially develop his talents with the club’s renowned local nursery team, Wath Wanderers
Showing a remarkable streak of stubbornness that was to characterise the end of his career, Peter initially rejected the approach as he felt that the team played “very boring” football. Also, Cyril had been rejected after an earlier trial at Wolves, so perhaps Peter was demonstrating family solidarity. When interviewed in 2009, Peter – who obviously looked up to his brother – said that the best piece of advice he had ever received was from Cyril who told him “Football is better than going down the pit”. Peter relented and agreed to meet the legendary Wolves manager Stan Cullis. Like many before him he was impressed by the integrity and honesty of Cullis. It is also noteworthy that Cullis was a deeply religious man and a regular church goer. His son Andrew became a vicar. John Arlott, the sports commentator, dubbed Cullis “The Passionate Puritan”. It is not unreasonable to assume that the young, callow Knowles was deeply influenced by him. He decided to sign for the club immediately. A wise choice; it was also the day he was due to start work in the local pit.
Initially, it seemed that Peter was going to play at the higher level as Wolves were in the top division whereas Middlesbrough were in Division Two. Although Cyril arrived as a left winger, the manager Bob Dennison converted him into a left back and transformed his prospects. By the end of the 1962/ 63 season Cyril had made his first team debut and by the start of the following season had established himself as the first choice left back. However, Middlesbrough were a club on a downward spiral and would be relegated to the Third Division at the end of the 1965/66 season. Cyril was soon to be heading in the opposite direction to Division One as Bill Nicholson, the Tottenham Hotspur manager, looking to replace the ageing Ron Henry at left back paid £45,000 for his services in May 1964.
The young Peter Knowles was already making an impression on manager Stan Cullis at Wolves. During the 1961-62 season he was a key player in ensuring that they reached the F.A. Youth Cup Final in 1962. They lost 2-1 on aggregate over two legs to Newcastle United and would not appear in another final until 1976. Knowing they had a potential star in their ranks, the club offered the young 17-year-old a six-year professional contract, unheard of in those times. It was to prove to be an inspired decision by the management. Peter made his first team debut in the 1963/64 season and scored in his second game against Bolton Wanderers. This is still one of his fondest memories. Unfortunately, just like his brother, Peter had also joined a team who were in sharp decline and by the end of the 1964/65 season they were relegated to Division Two. For the first time in their careers Cyril would now be the one playing in the higher league.
Life at Tottenham could not have started any better for Cyril. Nicholson handed him the left back position at the start of the 1965/66 season, making his debut against Sheffield United in August and during the campaign he only missed 4 games out of 46. The next year he played in all but one of the club’s fixtures culminating in Cyril winning his first ever medal as Tottenham beat Chelsea 2- 1 in the 1967 F.A. Cup final. By December 1967, he had made the first of his four appearances for the England team. Bill Nicholson, a fellow Yorkshireman, opined that Cyril had an “educated left foot” and praised his undying effort and determination. For Spurs fans he had swiftly achieved the status of cult hero for his willingness to give everything for the cause.
Over at Wolves, Peter had been dismayed by the club’s relegation and the sacking of Stan Cullis – the manager he admired so greatly. He felt that his talents should be showcased at a higher level and demanded a transfer. As he had signed a six-year contract the club refused. In the first season in the lower division, he was Wolves’ top scorer with 19 goals but the club – under new boss Ronnie Allen – could only finish sixth. The next season they were promoted back to the top flight. Just as his brother Cyril had become a cult hero with the Spurs supporters, Peter was the idol of the fans on the terraces of the North Bank but for different reasons.
Peter Knowles oozed talent, style and panache. He grew his hair long in true Sixties fashion. He wore flashy clothes and was adored by hordes of screaming girls at Molineux. He bought himself an MG Sports car and had it sprayed in gold, the colour of his club. He embraced his “Jack the Lad” reputation. Fortunately, the image matched the skill. Knowles could score spectacular goals. He could take on defenders or simply brush them aside. He was not above using gamesmanship to help the team, once famously getting George Best sent off. He was skilful, direct, imposing and powerful. His performances brought him to the attention of a certain Bill Shankly, however with the security of that long-term contract behind them, the manager Ronnie Allen was able to rebuff this suitor. Liverpool signed Alun Evans instead. One cannot help but speculate what might have happened if Shankly had taken Knowles under his wing.
As the decade drew to a close, Cyril became the mainstay of the Spurs defence but also an outlet for their attack with his penetrating runs forward. In the 67/68 season he appeared in every single Spurs game, all 52 of them. The next season he played in 45 games as Spurs finished sixth and reached the League Cup semi-final. Lacking the ‘devil may care’ attitude of his younger brother, he had already started to prepare for a life after football. He became the part owner of a fish and chip shop in Pudsey near Leeds with his younger brother Kelvin and could often be found serving behind the counter in the summer months. The 1969/70 season saw Tottenham drop to eleventh, but little did Cyril realise that he was about to embark on the most successful period of his career. However, he could never have foreseen how his brother Peter would spend the next and subsequent decades.
Wolves were back in the top division for the 1967/68 season, but Peter struggled with injuries and missed half of the club’s fixtures. Despite this he was the second highest scorer with 12 goals. Wolves struggled and finished in 17th position avoiding relegation by two points but playing in the top flight brought him to the attention of the England management team. He represented England at Under 23 level and gained his first cap and goal against Wales. With the World Cup in Mexico now only two years away he was delighted to be on Alf Ramsey’s radar.
Peter married his girlfriend Jean in July 1968. By the standards of the time it was a real footballer’s wedding. The bride wore a “micro mini” dress and they posed for photographs perched on the bonnet of his MG sports car. This became the cover shot of the programme for the first Wolves home game of the following season. Outwardly everything appeared almost perfect in his world. Inside, Peter was deeply troubled. He didn’t like the person he had become through football. Looking at himself, he perceived an arrogant individual who cared about nobody but himself. The pressures of fame, the adulation from fans, seeing his name in the press and watching himself on television were starting to weigh him down. It seemed to Peter that when he put on a football shirt he became a different person. He wanted to be ordinary again.
He had also begun to reflect more on events during his childhood in Fitzwilliam. Peter was only eleven years old when his father passed away at the tender age of forty-six and his baby sister died four weeks afterwards. Another sister succumbed later to pneumonia. As was often the case in close knit mining communities, the family dealt with these misfortunes stoically as Peter later said: “We never discussed God. We never asked why. We just thought it was bad luck”. But now he was starting to ask questions.
That same summer, Peter answered the door to a Jehovah’s Witnesses. His name was Ken Fletcher, who himself had only become a Witness 12 months earlier. He knew that the footballer Peter Knowles lived there but did not expect a welcome. Many players would have simply slammed the door in in his face, but he chose to invite him in. He asked Ken a simple question – why did his father and sisters “who had done nowt wrong” die? He listened to Ken’s explanation and started to realise that what he was saying made sense to him. Peter began to attend Bible reading classes and came to the conclusion that maybe God had chosen a different path for him.
His mother was distraught by his conversion and tried to reason with him. As did Cyril, who felt that his younger brother had been caught at a particularly vulnerable point in his life and that the religious group had preyed upon this weakness and taken advantage of it.
Peter, or “Knocker” as he was known to the fans, scored 9 times in the 68/69 season as he and Derek Dougan established a partnership that produced over half of the team’s goals. Off the pitch, he started to attend regular congregation meetings for the faithful and his wife Jean, after some initial scepticism, also became a Jehovah’s Witness. During the summer of 1969, Wolves undertook a tour of the United States. The team were based in Kansas and Peter was in regular contact with a group of Witnesses out there and attended regular meetings. He regarded this period as “a crucial time in my spiritual development”
At the commencement of the 1969/70 season he was no longer the flamboyant extrovert of previous years. He made an impressive start, scoring in each of his first three games as Wolves won their first four fixtures. Knowles was open about his new-found beliefs and his intention to leave football, but nobody took him seriously. It was not unusual for a Jehovah’s witness to reconcile their beliefs with playing football as one his contemporaries, Bobby Tambling, had demonstrated by turning out for Chelsea. In fact, the religion made no demands on him to retire from football. However, at congregation meetings a number of members pointed out that the person they saw on the pitch was different to the one they saw at meetings. Peter came to the conclusion that there was only one logical outcome.
The seventh fixture of the season saw Peter face Cyril in a League Cup tie at home against Tottenham on Wednesday 3rd of September 1969. It was to be the last time they appeared against each other on a football pitch. Wolves won 1-0. Three days later Peter played in a 3-3 draw at Molineux against Nottingham Forest. Peter had deliberately delayed the announcement of his retirement until he had competed against Cyril one last time. When the match with Forest was over, Peter declared that he was relinquishing football to pursue his beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. He never played professional football again. He was just three weeks short of his 24th birthday.
For Cyril, the Seventies were to be his most successful period as a footballer. In 1970/71, he was part of a Tottenham team that finished third in the league and won the League Cup. The following season, he helped them to win their second European trophy when they beat Wolves over two legs in the UEFA Cup final. So if Peter had still been playing, then they would have been the first set of brothers to compete against each other in a European final.
Hunter Davies in his book “The Glory Game” describes how when Spurs played away at Wolves that season, Peter came into the dressing room before the match to speak to his brother. Davies reminds the reader that Peter gave up football to become a Jehovah’s Witness, “something you would never expect Cyril to do.” They chatted for a few minutes before Peter left.
One of the Spurs team shouted, “That your brother then Cyril?”
“Yeh” said Cyril “Still got a lot of skill”
“Must have” said Alan Gilzean “Takes a lot of skill to read the Bible”. Everyone laughed, even manager Bill Nicholson smiled.
This brief exchange reflects the bewilderment with which most of Peter’s contemporaries viewed his decision. It was something to be made fun of and to be used to obtain a laugh at the former player’s expense.
The upward spiral continued into the 72/73 season. Tottenham were narrowly defeated by Liverpool in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup but once again visited Wembley defeating Norwich City 1-0 in the League Cup final. At the same time, Cyril was to become the unlikely subject of a hit record due to an advertisement that was being screened that season. It featured some cartoon bakers dressed in black with bowler hats who made Homepride bread. When the production hits a problem a character called Cyril saves the day and his friends respond by singing “Nice One Cyril, Nice one son, Nice one Cyril, let’s have another one.” This chant was quickly adopted by Tottenham fans.
Harold Spiro was a season ticket holder at White Hart Lane and was also a song writer. He decided to rewrite the song in celebration of his team and his favourite player, Cyril Knowles. It was recorded by the Cockerel Chorus, with Harold himself fronting the group. It reached number 14 in 1973. The recordings also earned Spiro an Ivor Novello award for best novelty song. Based on the single’s unexpected success, the group went on to release an album. Sergeant Pepper it wasn’t!
Although Tottenham reached the UEFA Cup final again the following season, losing to Feyenoord, the golden period was coming to an end as the team dropped to eleventh position in the league. On a personal level, Cyril had to deal with another traumatic event in November 1974. His young son was a rear seat passenger in a car heading along a motorway when a stone was thrown up by a lorry ahead of them. It went almost instantaneously through the windscreen and hit him on the head. Unfortunately, his son died as a result of this freak accident. This was one of a number of similar incidents which led to a campaign to have car windscreens strengthened to stay in one piece if they were broken or pierced.
In the 1974/75 season, Tottenham had to win their last game against Leeds United to avoid relegation. Unbelievably, Cyril was the hero of the hour netting 2 goals in a 4-2 victory; they were his last ever goals for the club. The club granted Cyril a testimonial in 1975, in recognition of his service and Peter made an appearance as a substitute in the game. His last ever game was against Everton in December 1975 but at the end the season, a persistent knee injury forced him to call time on his career.
During the seventies, Peter was employed in a number of different occupations. He initially became a milkman, then could be found working in a warehouse and in his later years was an employee of Marks and Spencers. Two months after his retirement, on a visit to Molineux, the Wolves manager Bill McGarry thought he had managed to persuade Knowles to return. Peter himself admitted that the conversation with the boss had made him “feel like a Wolves player again” and he was set to return. However, by the time he had arrived home he had reconsidered the offer and declined the opportunity. Wolves continued to renew his registration every year at the club in the hope he would reappear one day. Finally, at the end of the 1981/82 season, 13 years after he had last pulled on the shirt, Wolves officially released him. He was now 36 years of age.
Peter Knowles now spent most of his time attending congregation meetings and surprising people in Wolverhampton when he appeared at their door to spread the word of the Bible. When tracked down for interviews from time to time he continued to stress that it was the best decision he had ever made. Most fans of a certain age would still say he was the most talented player they had seen in a Wolves shirt. Even Noel Gallagher from Oasis was moved to write on reading Peter’s story:
“A great player lost to the game, but he found long term peace and quality of life. Well done Peter and may you live a happy and fulfilling life.”
Cyril went into management with a degree of success. In 1981 he became assistant manager at Middlesbrough leaving in July 1983 to take over as manager of nearby Darlington and a year later guided them to promotion from Division Four. The club struggled at the higher level, and limited by a lack of finances were relegated two years later. As a result, he was relieved of his duties. The folly of that short-sighted decision was brought home when Darlington were relegated to the Vauxhall Conference two seasons later. Now in charge at Torquay United, he took them to the Fourth Division play offs in 1987/88 and to the final at Wembley of the Sherpa Van Trophy during the following campaign. His final post was as manager at Hartlepool United. Although he was the key element in the team achieving promotion from the Fourth Division during the 1990/91 season, in February 1991, after being diagnosed with brain cancer, he put coach Alan Murray in temporary charge. Despite surgery, Cyril never recovered and died five months later in August 1991 at the age of 47. There is a stand at Hartlepool’s ground named in his honour.
Peter is now 72 years of age. He has never regretted his decision to leave football. In fact, he has often stated that he wishes he had never played the game. Peter can still be seen knocking on doors in Wolverhampton spreading the word of the Bible. He is still happily married to Jean. A deeply private man in 2009 he threatened to sue journalist Peter Gordos under the Data Protection Act for writing a book about him.
During their footballing career, Cyril and Peter played against each other on just seven occasions. They met four times in the First Division and were involved in an incredible game at White Hart Lane in March 1965, which Tottenham won 7-4. The brothers also encountered each other in both the F.A. and League cups. Overall honours were even as Cyril and Peter were both on the winning side on three occasions.
For differing reasons, the Knowles brothers were lost to the world of football, one due to a religious calling the other through illness. Cyril and Peter made huge contributions to their respective clubs and are still revered as legends by the fans who were lucky enough to see them perform. They overcame personal family tragedy to make at the top of the professional game and showed deep personal integrity to respond to the challenges that life offered them. Their story is one that will surely never be repeated.