Carlton Palmer interview: TFI Wednesday… – Owls icon and the blue-and-white band on the run


Carlton Palmer as a name, a personality and a football player usually evokes some sentiment within a split-second. Making his mark wherever he went, the Sheffield Wednesday idol is in the elite band of Englishmen to wear the Three Lions, and an even more exclusive footballers’ club in being lyrically immortalised. We’re not just talking terrace chants now either…

In a time known as 2011, something called Twitter still had a touch of the ‘exciting new band’ feel, while the relentless popularity rat race that rules today had not quite scuttled into town. It was all a tiny bit more serene at least, but a certain section of its community could be found in a giddy frenzy when rapper Kano let his track ‘E.T.’ free into the wild.

It had pulses racing for fans already, as a brilliantly explosive UK collaboration (with Wretch 32, Wiley and Scorcher). All the more so, though, for striking a new sweet spot of 90s references with its masterfully-set-up Carlton Palmer lyrical punchline (‘kicklines’ to Kano, if you know…).

That was a full decade ago this September, but it took quite some time before word reached Carlton himself.

“Well, I bet it’s only been a couple of years now, if that, and I only knew about it when somebody tweeted ‘have you heard this?’” the 18-cap ex-England midfielder explains. “(Kano) never said anything to me about using it, and I obviously haven’t got a problem with that at all, but no, I wasn’t aware of it at the time.”

“Quite chuffed really.”

It’s certainly not bad going, considering the likes of Michael Jackson (not the ex-Shrewsbury and Tranmere manager), Jay-Z and boxing champions Floyd Mayweather Jr. and ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley are the names getting shouted out alongside him. An eternal Sheffield Wednesday favourite for his irrepressible part in a promotion and five trips to Wembley in two years, Carlton thinks it captures something that resonates with many.

“I think it’s a great song, and I think it’s quite relevant, because a lot of the players that I speak to now, who played in my era – even with what this era brings to the table with finances – 99 per cent of the players I speak to would rather have played in our era. It was a fantastic time for a lot of things in the world, not just sport but music, design, a lot of things.

“It was a good time to play football, there were a lot of good players, a lot of great players, and a lot of great characters. If you look at the world as it is today, it’s not a great world that we live in right now.

“I don’t think it’s a better Premier League than when we played; there’s certainly none of the characters. I think the era that we played in was a fantastic era, it really was, and for life as well.”

Such playing personalities are now arguably subjected to a public that analyses and criticises the life out of them, with scrutiny and pressure from sponsors and suchlike also at levels never quite seen before. In perhaps that classic British way, we cry out for characters and then set about destroying the first hint of one on the horizon.

Carlton is glad to have had his time when he did, with the 90s a particular centerpiece. It would be wiping away history to say the decade was without its bleak elements, though there was a new energy coursing through it all the while. Enterprising and characterful, with the football/music crossovers there to be found as well, including at Sheffield Wednesday.

On the team-bus footage, travelling to the first of what became a replayed 1993 FA Cup final with Arsenal, Carlton was the man in shades singing along to Kool & the Gang (‘Celebration’). As a Sega Game Gear gets passed around the bus in Luxembourg during the UEFA Cup campaign that same season, it was George Benson’s ‘The Greatest Love of All’ attracting a few willing backing singers in Owls tracksuits!

A couple of years earlier, striker Paul Williams could be seen in post-match interviews wearing a Public Enemy cap, and Wednesday undoubtedly brought the noise on the pitch in those days, and behind the scenes. On this site in 2013, one of that group’s chief entertainers, U.S. star John Harkes, told how Nigel Pearson and Carlton were among those who would typically help serve up the sounds in the changing room.

Carlton himself remembers a definite musical edge to those times together.

“Always, always. We always had music on, we always had the TV on; Shez (John Sheridan) liked his horse racing so we used to have that on.

“The music used to be blaring in there, and in our dressing room before the game, it was just fun. It was fun under Ron Atkinson to play football, so we’d have the music on, the head tennis would be going, over the bench.

“It’d just be a craic in the dressing room, people would be dancing, and before we knew it, the boss would be going ‘listen, the bell’s gonna be going soon.’”

Continuing the theme, a notable lively young midfielder in the side had himself a Shabba Ranks-inspired nickname. As revealed by Chris Bart-Williams himself on here back in 2011, though, it seems it wasn’t for musical dexterity, or indeed any ‘Mr. Loverman’ credentials: “The team nickname for me was ‘Shabby Ranks’, though I think it was more for my challenging looks than talent.”

Does Carlton recall that one, or even who can claim credit for it?

“I don’t recollect who gave him that nickname, but I knew that was his nickname, yeah, for sure. Wasn’t the best-looking guy, was he, Shabba Ranks?

“And I think the Bartman was on that same level! But he’s a great lad, great talent as well.”

Teammate ribbing aside, the reggae/dancehall link is also an unmistakable source of pride and identity for Oldbury-born, Rowley Regis-raised Carlton.

“Yeah, my parents are Jamaican, and came over in the late-50s / early-60s, and I’ve been back to Jamaica several times. Reggae music is part of the culture; any gatherings that we had together, if we went to my uncle’s or whatever, it was always reggae music that’s played.

“I love reggae music, I like the beat when I’m training, and it’s part of culture, it’s part of life. I’m a big fan of Bob Marley and I went to see him in very early days in Birmingham, in Bingley Hall, when ‘Exodus’ was out.

“I’m old-school really, a lot of the new music I’m not particularly into. I’ve seen Barry White, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, Simply Red.

“Mick (Hucknall) used to finish in Sheffield when he was on tour; he was an unbelievable singer and he loved the acoustics in the Arena in Sheffield, so he always used to finish there and we used to go to his after-party there. I’ve been to see Rod Stewart, Elton John.

“I used to buy a lot of records, because I used to like the vinyl, and I did buy them for a long, long time. My music would have all been about reggae, soul, the likes of Rose Royce.

“I got into Frank Sinatra as well with Big Ron (Atkinson).”

Atkinson’s frequent final words pre-kick-off to that Wednesday side – who celebrated in 1991 both immediate promotion back to the top flight, and that League Cup final upset over Manchester United – would be to the tune of: “I’m going up in that stand, make sure you entertain me and these fans.”

After promotion was sealed, it was Carlton shouting ‘get in there, we’re back!’ towards the camera in the Hillsborough tunnel. His work ethic and relentless running power are always cited when his career is mentioned, but don’t be fooled for a second into thinking he was merely a disruptor.

You only have to see examples like taking Trevor Francis’ pass on into the Luton Town area, then the close control with the inside and outside of his feet, before sidestepping a defender and clipping a perfect cross for David Hirst to tee up John Harkes to head home in front of the Kop in 1992. Or maybe the solo goal at home to Oldham later that year, when he shrugged off one player around halfway, strode on and fired in off the post from outside the box.

In his England career under the late Graham Taylor OBE, Carlton was a Wednesday player, and you would really expect no less for a player who helped his club finish 3rd in the country in 1992, and reach both domestic cup finals the season after. How unimaginably far away having England internationals at the club seems for supporters now, but make no mistake, the Wednesday ran with the best of them back then, and a little piece of a brilliantly unique decade was blue-and-white-striped.

When Carlton appeared in a fairly spectacular advert (Paddy Power) just over a decade ago, he was in his Wednesday shirt as he emerged from under the water to somewhat shock a man who had been enjoying a sensual bubble bath with female company a couple of seconds earlier. As CP sat back in the tub, he urged the bewildered bloke to ‘put some Chris de Burgh on’ – but that was not in the original script.

“Well, actually, we were gonna use Simply Red, but we couldn’t get hold of Mick (Hucknall), so we didn’t get permission. I’m sure Mick would have been alright with it, but the people who were looking after the copyright wouldn’t allow us to use it, but they got hold of Chris de Burgh and he was fine with that.

“I know Chris de Burgh, and funnily enough, with my wife on our honeymoon, he was staying at a hotel he goes to in Mauritius, and he actually sang ‘Lady in Red’ to my wife Lucy, who was wearing a red pashmina. Only by chance that was.”

In keeping with being impulsive and seizing the moment, it takes us briefly to the last of Carlton’s Premier League clubs, Coventry City, and a barnstormer of a music-laced memory.

“There was one night, when we were at Coventry, me and big (John) Hartson had a night out. We were up in Scotland for pre-season, and me and Harts had snuck out.

“We weren’t allowed out, but we were senior pros and we were like ‘fuck that, we’re having a night out’, getting on with the job. This band were on, and Harts said to me ‘we’ve just got to keep a low profile’, this, that and the other.

“Next minute, he’s up on the fucking stage singing!

“Now he can sing, the big man.”

It is exactly that sort of scenario that would be just about Mission Impossible for a well-known player today, in the age of the camera phone and all the rest.

“We’ve got four kids and I feel sorry for them in this era that they’re living in,” Carlton continues. “Life should be enjoyable and life shouldn’t be around what the next person’s doing on social media or whatever.”

“I go on Twitter because I know the people I follow, but I’m not a big fan of social media, it’s a load of bollocks. Every person pretends everything goes alright, their life’s right, but it’s not reality, and people buy into that, whereas in our era, there was none of that, it was just reality.

“If you wanted to go and have a drink on a Friday night, go and have a drink on a Friday night. Fuck whether you’re playing football on a Saturday, it didn’t matter, people didn’t make a big thing of it.

“That was part of the culture, part of the fun of it, and it was fun. We got paid good money but it was fun, people worked hard, and people had a lot more integrity than people have now, in football.”

That said, the charmless side (putting it kindly) was certainly around then too, and criticism spilled comfortably over into tabloid vilification before Graham Taylor’s reign as England manager ended. The Watford great was the man Carlton won each of his caps under.

In one of the light-hearted clips from the infamous documentary of Taylor’s tenure, Carlton and England roommate Paul Gascoigne are on the training pitch, with Carlton pretending to be his manager. He tells the Lazio star, despite his jokingly tearful protestations, that he’s dropped from the team: “I think you’ve had too many Mars bars this fucking week. You’re lucky to be here son, you’ve got good feet but you’ve got a fucked-up knee, a fucked-up brain and a fucked-up belly!”

Carlton and the Geordie genius once ended up at the wedding of two strangers, with Gazza of course taking it upon himself to dance with the bride. The favourite anecdote Carlton keeps with him, though, goes like this:

“I always tell people this story and this is how I wanna remember Gazza. I made my Wembley debut for England, and after an international, you can stay down if you want for the night, because normally your club’s given you the day off.

“I decided to stay down, and my ex-wife and I decided to take a show in. Gazza asked me what I was doing, I told him and he asked how I was getting there.

“I said ‘I haven’t sorted it out yet but I’ll just order a taxi’, and he said ‘don’t worry, I’ll sort it out’. We were staying at the Royal Lancaster and he sent a white limo; the limo couldn’t even turn into the Royal Lancaster, it was that big.

“Inside were flowers, champagne, everything, and just a message from Gazza saying ‘congratulations, enjoy your night’. You imagine, like a young kid now, I’ve got the roof open, going through Hyde Park, it was brilliant.

“When I got back to the Royal Lancaster after the night out, I said to the guy ‘how much do I owe you?’ He said ‘no, Mr. Gascoigne took care of everything’, and that was Gazza for you.

“Just a lovely bloke and he epitomised everything about football for me. Away from it, life itself confuses Gazza, but he knows his way around a football pitch; that was home to him.”

For feeling at home in his own football life, while there were enjoyable times at the likes of Leeds United and Southampton, not to mention the honour of starting out with boyhood club West Bromwich Albion, there will always be one spell that stands higher than the rest for Carlton.

“Yeah, it was Sheffield Wednesday. Our family home’s still in Sheffield – my wife’s from Scunthorpe but she was living in Sheffield anyhow – all my kids were born in Sheffield, and it was just the best time on and off the field for me.”

To look back at those videos of that Wednesday, there were setbacks and gut-wrenching near misses in among the magnificent highs, but you can visibly see the fans completely captured by it all, with not a shred of apathy to be found. They were players capable of the spectacular, and ones too who looked like they really did relish playing together.

Fast-forward to today, and even before the pandemic took the matchday experience away from Wednesday supporters, the deep disillusion (interspersed with sadness and anger) has been there for a while now. Even the crest that was a favourite of many has long since been replaced. The owl design was especially uncomplicated, but it was distinctive, it was cool, it was Wednesday – just about everything those in blue and white currently don’t see or feel.

“The club’s lost its identity,” says Carlton. “When I go back, I always go and watch Wednesday, but it’s lost its identity.”

“I’m not saying (chairman Dejphon) Chansiri’s not a good bloke, I think he’s put an awful lot of money into the football club, but I don’t think he’s been advised properly. Like a lot of chairmen now, they buy a football club, you’ve seen it at Blackburn, you’ve seen it at QPR, they buy clubs and they don’t get the advice that they should get.

“They get involved with agents who are more interested in getting their managers or their players in and not advising the chairman in the right way, and that’s what’s happened at Wednesday. I know they’ve had a couple of near misses at getting back up, but it’s lost its identity.

“It’s sad to see what the situation is at the club now, it really is.”

While the Steel City remains his and wife Lucy’s base back in England, with time also regularly spent in Portugal, Shanghai has been the setting for the last seven years. It was Dubai before that, with Carlton doing punditry alongside running coaching programmes and setting up academies.

Now at Wellington College China, where Lucy also works as head of lower prep, he is their official ambassador. Describing it as the best time he has enjoyed since being at Wednesday, Carlton pinpoints why he thinks Shanghai has been a lasting adventure.

“It’s a magnificent place and I like the mentality of the Chinese people; they’re very loyal, they’re very supportive. If you look after them, they look after you, but it’s also cutthroat; if you were getting onto a metro, an old lady would shove you out the way, because back in the day, they had to fight for everything they got.

“We went to a pyjama party, we wore pyjamas on the metro, and nobody batted an eyelid. That’s the type of culture it is, that people don’t judge you, they wouldn’t worry what anybody else says, and that’s the type of culture that I fit in.”

The man from the West Midlands is, though, now into stoppage time of his Far East adventure, he feels.

“I always said that I wanted to get to a position to retire at 55; that was always my goal so I could travel, go to major sporting events etc. I’m lucky enough in life now that I can retire but my plan is to go back to the UK, go back into football at some level.

“I don’t want the stress of League football; I speak to a lot of mates who are managers and all they live for is the result on a Saturday. I was like that towards the end of my time when I resigned from Mansfield.

“I didn’t enjoy the week of training because I couldn’t play the way I wanted to play, I couldn’t chuck a young lad in, because what was more important? The result.

“So I wanna probably work in non-league, where the chairman’s got a project, where he says to me ‘Carlton, go and play the way you want, go and develop some young players, and enjoy football, have the craic, take the lads out for a drink’. Trust me, winning’s always important to me; if I do a spin class, like yesterday morning, I’ve got to come first.

“But to get to winning, there has to be a process, and the chairman has to buy into that with you. If I can get back to the UK, get into grassroots football and produce one player before I finish that’s gone from non-league football into the League, then that would be a great achievement.

“I’ve already done it from abroad, I’ve had a couple of players gone back from Dubai and into the League, so that would be great if I could do that.”

You are never more than six feet away from a cliché in football, and the same can be said for misconceptions of people. There are various elements that can swing the way someone is thought of in the game one way or another, which Carlton knows about firsthand.

He is an instantly recognisable figure in English football culture, but in his own words, who is Carlton Palmer, as the people closest know him to be?

“Well, Carlton Palmer is what you see is what you get. I was talking to my missus about this the other day, I’m not one of these, I can’t pretend; if I don’t like you, I don’t fucking like you.

“If you’ve done wrong by me, I don’t want anything to do with you, and what you see is what you get. What you’ve seen at Sheffield Wednesday: honest, hard-working.

“I’m a genuine person who works hard and I’m a loyal person, but if you fuck me over, I won’t make it my mindset to get one back, but I will have nothing to do with you. But if you get Carlton Palmer on your side, I’m loyal and I’m honest.

“When I saw that tweet recently of what (ex-Wednesday goalkeeper) Lance (Key) said, if when I die, somebody was to say that about me and that was genuine, that’s good enough for me.”

In a set of players and personalities that were a shining light in the lives of Wednesday fans, Carlton was among those to beam brightest. Hyde Park in the capital was not only where he cruised by in Gazza’s limo, but where Big Ron’s Owls team played a 5-a-side game the day before that treasured League Cup final win.

That is where we return to conclude here (well, in fantasy terms at least). The regular closing question to these features through the years has seen the interviewee asked for four teammates from their career, just as examples of those they would love to have join them again in the small-sided action.

Like a few others, Carlton went without a keeper in his line-up, but then there’s always Hirsty for that if needed…

“David Hirst, Des Walker, Chris Waddle, John Sheridan. They were just great lads, great footballers.

“Des Walker was I think at one point arguably the best defender in the world. Chris Waddle, for me, an absolute genius.

“John Sheridan, one of the best midfield players I’ve ever played with. David Hirst, if I was at Wednesday in a 5-a-side, I had to get him on my side; I do not like playing against him, he’s a fucking handful!

“I know they’re all Wednesday players but those players could have played in any team in that era.”

To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes

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