Steve Palmer


Steven Leonard Palmer (m. 1986) is the only Cambridge alumnus to have built a successful career in professional football since the 1970s.

Palmer was born on 31 March 1968 in Brighton and came up to Christ's College to read computer software design in 1986.

He turned professional with Ipswich Town in 1989 and spent six years at the club before making a move to Watford. Palmer established himself as a first team regular during another near six-year spell at Vicarage Road and his departure on a free transfer in July 2001 caused some consternation amongst the club's supporters.Whilst at the club he broke the record for wearing every numbered shirt from 1 to 14 in the 1997–98 season.Watford secured back-to-back promotion the following season, with Palmer voted Player of the Season.

Palmer signed for Queens Park Rangers (QPR) in July 2001 and made his debut in August of that year in a 1–0 win against Stoke City. He was captain and ever present in what was QPR's first season in the third tier since 1966–67. In total Palmer made 95 league appearances for QPR, scoring 5 goals.

After leaving QPR in 2004 Palmer signed for Milton Keynes Dons, playing for the club for two seasons, scoring once against Blackpool.

He retired from football in October 2005 and took up a position as Tottenham Hotspur's Academy Performance Manager a month later.In December 2011 Palmer returned to Watford as Academy Recruitment Manager, leaving again in June 2012 to work with the Premier League setting up a performance tracking system for the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).


Below is an article featured in Varsity Magazine, 2009:

One of an endangered species?

Olly West talks to former Christ's student Steve Palmer, whose remarkable but little-known distinction is being the only Cantab to have built a professional football career since the 1970s Professionals who have graced the pitches of Oxbridge are an even rarer breed but Christ's student Steve Palmer is aiming to stop them becoming extinct.Palmer, the last of his three Blues as captain, is currently a non-contract player with his local club Brighton and Hove Albion, promoted to division 2 last year, as well attracting interest from Cambridge United and Ipswich Town. Following his expected graduation this summer, he will be devoting all his energies to making a league career. "Coming here is doing my football no good at all and when I return to Brighton the fitness is always a problem, but I'm only 20 which gives me a good 10 years of football and I've always got the degree should I ever need it", Palmer remarked.


'Pro Palmer joins rare breed', Varsity 10, Feb 1989

From the Archives

On the 28 July 2001. Queens Park Rangers FC, in administration and fresh from relegation to the third tier of English football for the first time since 1967, took the field for a pre-season friendly against arch-rivals Chelsea with a makeshift side, the majority of whom had just met. A remarkable 3-1 victory marked the beginning of an upturn in fortunes which resulted in promotion after three seasons. 

Yet among the sound bites of manager Ian Holloway and other players dying their hair blue-and-white as demonstrations of loyalty, captain Steve Palmer dictated matters on the pitch whilst keeping a modest profile off it, and was at the centre of this mini-resurgence.

Perhaps it is apt that Palmer's role at the club was so understated.  Having graduated from Christ's in 1989 with a degree in software engineering, Steve is, according to the Times, "the only professional footballer in the modern era to boast a degree from Cambridge University", although boasting about it is certainly not something he does - he was not even aware of his unique status.  

Before joining QPR, Palmer had signed for Ipswich Town upon graduation, winning promotion with the Tractor Boys to the inaugural Premier League.  A move to Watford followed in 1995 for a six-year spell in which he gained another promotion, then becoming the only Hornet to be ever-present in their sole season in the top division, which included a 1-0 victory at Anfield. 

Fellow Christ's alumnus Maurice Cox managed three seasons for Torquay United in the late 70s but "The Professor's" achievements are particularly exceptional considering a footballing climate in which players are signed by clubs before reaching double figures.

According to Palmer, Academy Performance Manager at Tottenham Hotspur since retiring from MK Dons, his final club, in 2005, the reason he managed it was simple.  "I had a clear desire and ambition to be a footballer.  I didn't see it as an obstacle.  Both my family and Brighton and Hove Albion, who I was with at the time, encouraged me to carry on with my education."

Despite his achievements, Palmer had no delusions of grandeur.  "It was a bit of a novelty for the media when I started but once you cross the line into professional sport you are judged on nothing but your performance.  My ambition was to gain the respect of my peers and make 500 appearances - which I did."

I venture that his education may have helped him become the calm head and great reader of the game that so often made up for a perceived lack of pace or elegance, yet he will not accept such a pretence.  "I wouldn't go down that line.  If anything, my ability to study was perhaps due to the same attributes that allowed me to learn the game." His university background only came back to haunt him when Watford  fans began a chant of "Walking along, smoking a bong, walking in a Palmer wonderland".

Indeed, what made Palmer so popular wherever he went was his work ethic.  As one Watford fan site raged when he was released, "As if there could ever be a time when Steve Palmer wasn't worth his wages, when he wouldn't do what was asked of him without a murmur of complaint."  Understated maybe.  Under-appreciated not so.

Yet if his attitude could be a lesson for many modern-day footballers, the three-time Blue's genuine pride in his academic work is an example too. "Looking back on the whole experience gives me immense pride. I see it as an achievement."

With daily training, and always in the knowledge that a professional sports career may await, it is not unreasonable to assume that other extra-curricular leisure activities were limited.  Yet Steve had other problems.  "I think the engineering degree was the bigger restriction.  I'd do my extra training, but I'd gone there with a purpose and I didn't see any point in risking that."

One obvious question arises.  Why, given its illustrious list of sporting alumni, does the University boast so few professional footballers?  Football is, as Steve points out, not played at a professional level as are rowing or rugby.  Yet can this explain the disparity?

"I honestly think it's a question of numbers.  Look at how many people play football in the country compared to those other sports.  It's quite simply very competitive."  However, Palmer "would be surprised if we didn't see another graduate make it soon".

I struggle to share his optimism, but what can be said is that the football world is gradually becoming aware of the need for a more formalised education for tomorrow's hopefuls, especially considering a success rate which Palmer estimates at "under 0.5%".  His current role encompasses this, and there is a classroom and education programme for the 15 and 16 year olds at Spurs who train on day release. Furthermore, the scholars, who leave school at 16, are made to complete an appropriate qualification. The club also has a full-time education officer on hand for those who do not make it to the glamorous world of professional football.

It has been a full cycle back to the classroom, at least partially, although Palmer's role principally consists of ensuring provision of suitable playing facilities, and he is on the training field as much as he can. He is clearly unworried that his remarkable achievements are not advertised other than by topping annual "Football's top ten clever clogs" lists. 

Yet whilst he may have dealt with Michael Owen in his day, the important issue remains unsolved: could Steve Palmer make a crucial saving tackle facing a failing computer in an essay crisis?