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Joe Walton

Classy Preston North End full-back

Joseph Walton, footballer: born Manchester 5 June 1925; played for Manchester United 1940-48, Preston North End 1948-61, Accrington Stanley 1961-62; married (one son, one daughter); died Preston, Lancashire 31 December 2006.

Joe Walton, one of the classiest uncapped defenders in British football during his 1950s pomp with Preston North End, became the most expensive full-back in the domestic game when Preston paid £12,000 to sign him from Manchester United in March 1948.

The Old Trafford boss Matt Busby, who had agreed to sell the diminutive, wavy-haired Mancunian to one of his chief Lancastrian rivals, did his utmost to persuade the richly promising 22-year-old to remain with the Red Devils. Even as he drove his player to Deepdale to finalise the transfer, the young manager offered to turn the car around and call off the move. But the ambitious Walton, the target of several other major clubs, was tired of life in the shadow of Johnny Carey and John Aston, the two internationals who graced the flanks of Busby's rearguard, and remained adamant that he wanted to leave.

So he did, and, after making only tentative progress for several seasons, he matured into a thoroughbred performer who chalked up 435 senior appearances in nearly 13 years as a Lilywhite, a period during which Preston, inspired by the magnificent Tom Finney, went agonisingly close to lifting both League championship and FA Cup.

Having excelled for both Manchester and Lancashire Schoolboys, Walton enlisted with United as a 14-year-old in 1940, turning professional in October 1943. During the remainder of the Second World War, he became a regular for the Reds in the emergency Football League North competition and was selected three times to represent the Football Association.

The conflict over, he made his senior début against his future employers, Preston, in an FA Cup encounter in January 1946 and within eight months was called up by England to face Scotland in the unofficial international staged at Maine Road, Manchester, to raise money for the Bolton Wanderers disaster fund (33 people had died due to overcrowding at a cup tie that March). No cap was awarded, but Walton made his mark, positioning himself intelligently, tackling cleanly and exhibiting cool assurance with the ball at his feet.

But, back at club level, where Busby was in the process of constructing the first of his three dazzlingly fluent sides, there was a problem. Though Walton could operate with equal facility as a right- or left-back, he was confronted not only by the almost metronomic splendour of Carey and Aston, but also by another enterprising rookie, Billy Redman.

Hence, after enjoying only 23 first-team outings in nearly two peacetime terms, he felt his prospects at Old Trafford were limited and succumbed to Preston's blandishments. Within a month of the switch, he had played for the Football League against the League of Ireland, gained a regular berth in North End's defence, and netted two springtime penalties, though these would turn out to be his last goals for a decade.

However, in 1948/49, with Finney injured for much of the campaign and the influential Scottish wing-half Bill Shankly having retired from playing to embark on a management career, Preston were transformed from a confident top-six outfit into a pallid combination which could not avoid relegation to the Second Division.

That season and the next, Walton retained his place at left-back but his form grew variable. Thus, when the Lilywhites rose from the second flight as champions in 1950/51, the full-back slots were usually filled by Willie Cunningham and Billy Scott, and, although Walton played enough games to earn a medal, he was almost transferred to Grimsby Town, only for the transaction to fall through at the last moment. There was talk of an exchange deal with Blackburn Rovers, too, but that also failed to materialise and gradually the former Manchester United man returned to prominence.

Though he made only a minor contribution as Preston were deprived of the 1952/53 League title on goal average - the method used to separate clubs on the same number of points before the less complicated device of goal difference was introduced - Walton regained the number-three shirt from Scott in 1953/54, and struck up a convincing partnership with Cunningham.

That season he played a key role as the Lilywhites reached the FA Cup final at Wembley, where they were beaten 3-2 by West Bromwich Albion after leading 2-1. Now, barring brief absences through injury, the left-back berth became Walton's personal property for the remainder of a decade during which the team experienced contrasting fortunes.

In 1955/56 they finished only one point above demoted Huddersfield Town, then in 1956/57, under the guidance of a new manager, Cliff Britton, they rose to third in the table. A year later, with Walton a model of reliability and the team reaching its compelling peak, Preston went one better, finishing as runners-up behind Wolverhampton Wanderers. But thereafter they fell away and in 1960/61 were relegated as the bottom club.

By then Walton himself had been supplanted by a younger man, the Irishman John O'Neill, and that February, aged 36, he was sold to lowly Accrington Stanley for £1,590, the fee being paid in four instalments.

However, although impecunious Stanley were already experiencing hard times, that was nothing to what was in store for the Lancastrian strugglers. After Walton had helped them to finish 18th in the Fourth Division at the end of his first campaign, they plunged to the foot of the table during 1961/62, a season which was to end, prematurely and catastrophically for them in March, with the penniless club resigning ignominiously from the Football League because it could not meet its financial commitments. There would be no return until August 2006.

It was a poignant way for Walton's professional career to close, but he still loved the game and served non-League Horwich RMI, near Bolton, as a player-coach. Later he ran a newsagent's shop in Preston, then worked for an electrics firm in the town. Back at Deepdale, he was missed not only for his footballing ability, but also his modesty, his engaging bonhomie and his piano- playing. When Joe Walton left North End, the players' sing-songs were never quite the same again.

Ivan Ponting