Premier League Career: Manchester United (1997-2001), West Bromwich Albion (2002-2003, 2004-2006)
Ronnie Wallwork is one of the fortunate players to have a Premier League title winners’ medal to his name. He made 12 appearances in the 2000-2001 season which meant he qualified for a medal as Manchester United cantered to their seventh league championship in nine seasons.
Having been capped four times by England’s Under-20 side in 1997, Wallwork was a player who did have the potential to go further but his career would take a dramatic fall from grace.
A lifelong Manchester United supporter, he joined the club as a trainee in July 1994 and signed professional forms less than a year later. He helped the Red Devils win the FA Youth Cup in 1995 and in 1996, was voted the club’s Young Player of the Year. Things were looking good for further progression.
By the start of the 1997-1998 season, Ronnie was a regular in the reserve teams at Old Trafford but needed to make a first-team breakthrough. He got his first experience of Premier League football in October 1997, replacing Gary Pallister as a 64th minute substitute in United’s 7-0 thumping of Barnsley. To further advance his education, he had loan spells over the next 18 months at Carlisle United, Stockport County and Manchester United’s feeder Belgian side, Royal Antwerp. It was whilst he was in Belgium that his first sign of a short temper became known.
After Antwerp lost a match to La Louviere which ended their hopes of promotion, Wallwork grabbed referee Amand Ancion by the throat. In the same incident, fellow United youth player and Antwerp colleague, Danny Higginbotham insulted the official. The Belgian FA took a dim view to both actions. Higginbotham was banned from football for a year whilst unbelievably; Wallwork was banned from playing in all FIFA-affiliated nations for life! Antwerp secretary Rene Snelders was quoted as saying: “This is the equivalent of the death penalty.”
Whilst both actions were unacceptable, the sentencing was exceptionally harsh and after numerous appeals, both sentences were dropped down in length with Wallwork’s final penalty being a 12-month ban from all competitions in Belgium. After this messy incident, he got back to business with his parent club and made a breakthrough in the 1999-2000 season. Used largely as a defensive midfielder, he made seven appearances in the Premier League, just missing out on a title winners’ medal. The following season, he achieved the magical number required to get recognised for medals, finishing with 12 appearances but they were to be his last Premier League efforts. The signings of Juan Sebastian Veron and Laurent Blanc pushed Wallwork further down the pecking order and in the summer of 2002, he was released by his boyhood club.
In July 2002, he moved to West Bromwich Albion, becoming Gary Megson’s first signing after promotion to the Premier League. Sir Alex Ferguson had given his own high recommendation, saying Wallwork was the “best Bosman of the summer.” He played in 27 of Albion’s 38 Premier League matches in 2002-2003 which was a tough year personally for him after his mother passed away at the start of 2003. West Brom were relegated and after falling out of favour under Megson when the club were back in the First Division, he was loaned out to Bradford City in January 2004.
Bryan Robson was the Bradford manager at the time and he managed to add a few more goals to Wallwork’s game by playing him further forward in midfield. A broken toe sustained against Rotherham United cut short this period in Yorkshire but a four-goal return from seven appearances was impressive stats. So, when Robson succeeded Megson as West Brom manager in November 2004 with the club back in the top-flight, you could imagine Ronnie’s delight. He became an integral part of the team and started every single match from December onwards. In January 2005, he scored his first Albion goal to wrap up a 2-0 home victory over Manchester City which was Robson’s first victory as Baggies boss.
On the final day of the season, West Brom beat Portsmouth and with results going their way, they became the first club in Premier League history to be bottom at Christmas and still avoid relegation. He won Player of the Season recognition for his efforts and extended his contract in the process. There would be no happy ending though.
He played 31 games in the following season but West Brom were relegated for a second time in his stint with the Black Country club and he would be frozen out of proceedings when Robson left his position as manager. After surviving a stabbing incident at a Manchester nightclub in November 2006 which left him with wounds to his back, hand and stomach, he wound down his professional career with spells at Barnsley, Huddersfield Town and Sheffield Wednesday.
Wallwork’s fall from grace was complete in 2011 when he was charged with concealing criminal property in connection with offences relating to stolen cars. He was jailed for 15 months in December 2011 after pleading guilty to three counts of handling stolen cars.
It was an unsavoury end to a controversial career where a player never quite fulfilled his potential talent.