For this week’s Highbury Hero we’re travelling back in the time machine to the swinging sixties. To remember the bravest goalkeeper I’ve ever seen. Arsenal’s Double winning goalkeeper Bob Wilson.
Although Bob was an excellent all round sportsman and a very good keeper, athletic with great agility, he was a little bit raw when he first came to Arsenal. But Bob worked so hard at his game through his persistence and sheer will power. He was focused and determined to let nothing stand in his way to becoming a top class goalkeeper.
Bob modelled his game on Manchester City’s German keeper and ex-prisoner of war Bert Trautmann, who famously broke his neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final against Birmingham City and heroically carried on playing. Bob was cut from the same cloth and Bob’s trademark was his ability to anticipate the danger early, coming out to dive headfirst at the opposing forwards feet to smother the ball. Of course this was always a risky business, often resulting in Bob ending up black and blue from kicks to various parts of his anatomy, or sometimes worse, with all manner of broken and cracked bones over the course of his career.
I recall many times Bob putting his head amongst the flying boots to miraculously end up clutching the ball against all odds. I remember one particular occasion at Highbury in the Double season, when George Best came flying into the Arsenal penalty box only for Bob to brilliantly dive in low to snatch the ball from Bestie’s feet. Bob rates this as his favourite save.
Born in Chesterfield, Bob had a very different background to most footballers, in that he was well educated and came from a middle class family. His parents were both Scottish and Bob was the youngest of six siblings. Tragically he lost his two eldest brothers in the Second World War. John known as Jock, the eldest, was a Spitfire pilot, while Billy was a rear gunner or “Tail End Charlie” as they were known, in a Lancaster bomber. Both were killed in action.
Bob was an excellent schoolboy goalkeeper who played three times for England Schoolboys. One of his team mates was Nobby Stiles who Manchester United snapped up. The other player that United wanted to sign was Bob Wilson.
When Bob and his parents attended the 1957 Charity Shield at Old Trafford, between Manchester United and Aston Villa, they were guests of United. Matt Busby was hoping to tie Bob down to a contract. Bob’s father went into Busby’s office. Bob thought it was to conclude the deal. However when they came out everybody said their goodbyes and in the car a couple of minutes later Bob’s father dropped a bombshell saying “Matt Busby asked whether you would be prepared to join the club on schoolboy forms. I told him no. Football and Manchester United can wait until you get some decent qualifications behind you”.
Fifteen year old Bob Wilson was in tears in the back of his father’s darkened car. There was no guarantee that Bob wouldn’t fall by the wayside as hundreds of other young prospects do. Also the top wage in those days was only £20. Good money back then but not the fortune players earn today. So you can understand why Bob’s father wanted him to complete his education. But can you imagine how devastated Bob must have felt, to have had the chance to become a Busby Babe denied him.
Bob knuckled down to his studies and by 1960 had gained the qualifications required to go to Loughborough College and enrol in a three year teacher training course where he studied PE and History.
Bob was still playing plenty of football and after a friendly between Loughborough and Wolves in 1961, their manager Stan Cullis approached Bob and he signed amateur forms with Wolves and played for their reserve and third team till 1963. But another famous club, from North London were taking an interest in Bob Wilson.
Bertie Mee then Arsenal’s physio had also been the physio at two FA Schools weeks at Oxford and Cambridge which Bob attended. Bertie told Arsenal about Bob and the club kept tabs on him. Bob was invited to Highbury in February 1963 to meet Arsenal manager Billy Wright, ironically Wolves most famous player. Bob was very impressed by the marble halls, but when he was shown down the tunnel and walked on to the pitch he was blown away by it. It sent shivers down Bob’s spine. This wasn’t a football stadium; it’s a cathedral thought Bob. He made up his mind to join Arsenal there and then.
But Wolves kicked up a fuss. They insisted Bob was their player, while Bob maintained that as an amateur he was free to sign for whoever he liked. The Football League and FA got involved and the legal wrangle took eight months to sort out.
In the meantime Bob began his double working life as an Arsenal footballer and a PE teacher, first at a school in Paddington, then later at Holloway school, where one of the pupils was a young Charlie George. Bob was still allowed to train and play for Arsenal while the dispute over his registration was going on in the background.
Bob was very different to the other Arsenal players both in his background and appearance and there were plenty of nudges and winks when Bob turned up wearing his duffle coat and college scarf! Bob was very naive and gullible back then and you can just imagine the piss-taking he went through, especially when they found out his middle name was Primrose, after the Scottish tradition of using the mother’s maiden name as a middle name.
I dread to think what they would have made of Bob once dressing up in tights for a Shakespearian stage role as Harry Hotspur in Henry V. I couldn’t see Frank McLintock, Peter Storey, John Radford or any of the other Arsenal players doing that! It took Bob a while to earn the rest of the Arsenal players trust and respect.
Bob got an early taste of first team football in 1963-64, when Jack McClelland was injured and he was taken on a pre-season tour of Holland and Germany, where Bob played against Hamburg and the great Uwe Seeler. Later that season Jack McClelland was injured again and his replacement Ian McKecknie was dropped for being overweight and Bob made his league debut for The Arsenal on the 26th October 1963, against Nottingham Forest, at Highbury in a 4-2 win.
I believe Bob Wilson remains the last ever amateur to represent Arsenal at first team level. Bob kept his place for the next six games but in the last of them, a 3-1 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Bob had a bad game. Three days later the newspaper headlines read that Arsenal had signed Jim “Fingers” Furnell for £16,000 from Liverpool. What’s more the newspapers also claimed that Arsenal players had dressing-room discussions about how it was wrong for union members to be playing top grade football with an amateur. Bob had clearly not convinced the Arsenal players yet of his ability to play at the top level.
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Bob signed his first professional contract and Arsenal settled the dispute with Wolves paying them £6,500, so as not to drag the whole thing through court, even though Arsenal were confident they would have won the case. Thereby Bob Wilson became the first amateur to be bought for a transfer fee.
Three or four months into the 1964-65 season things went from bad to worse, as Bob was dropped from the reserve team to the third team and he had an almighty row with Billy Wright over it in physio Bertie Mee’s office. Wright then called the whole of the coaching staff in and asked their opinion. Wright then ridiculously accused Bob of looking at himself in a mirror on the wall! Bob had heard enough and walked out, slamming the door behind him. But Alf Fields was waiting at the marble halls and asked Bob to take a seat next to him. Bob said “Alf he can stick his fucking third team I’m off”. Alf said exactly the right words to placate him. Bob thanked Alf and as he walked out the marble halls, he took a hard look at the bust of Herbert Chapman and the big red cannon on the marble floor and vowed to prove Billy Wright wrong.
However over the next three and a half seasons you could count the number of first team games Bob played on one hand. Three things kept him going. His love for Arsenal, his faith in his own ability and last but not least he had to provide for his wife and young family.
Bob worked like a Trojan to become so good he couldn’t be left out. In March 1968 Jim Furnell had a shocker against Birmingham City in the FA Cup. Bob Wilson came in for the replay and never looked back, becoming Arsenal’s number one for the rest of the season and for the next six seasons after that and he ended up playing 308 games for Arsenal.
In 1968-69 Bob played every game firmly cementing his place in the team, conceding just 27 goals in the League. But there was one dark day at Wembley against Swindon, in the League Cup Final, when there was an almighty cock up involving Bob and Ian Ure. The pitch was a quagmire. Ian Ure had the ball at his feet, with Bob screaming at him to play it. The pair of them got too close to each other and when Ure finally passed the ball it got stuck in the mud and Roger Smart nipped in and scored.
Bobby Gould snatched a late equaliser and as the two sides rested before extra time. Don Howe was pleading with the referee to abandon the game. The mud bath of a pitch had drained the seven flu ridden Arsenal players, who were out on their feet. The game went on and Don Rogers like a mudlark, made light of the conditions scoring two to win the League Cup for Third Division Swindon Town, in one of the biggest cup upsets of all time.
The following season the team made amends with Bob Wilson playing his part in Arsenal ending a 17 year barren spell and winning the Inter Cities Fairs Cup on a wonderful night at Highbury. Bob was the last Arsenal player on the pitch, doing a lap of honour, with no top on and getting so many slaps of congratulations from the Arsenal fans his upper body was redder than an Arsenal shirt!
1970-71 Arsenal used the success they’d had in winning the Fairs Cup as a springboard for their tilt at the Double and Bob Wilson was absolutely outstanding that season playing a huge part in winning the Double, he also won the supporters player of the year award in 1971.
To reach the FA Cup Final Arsenal had to overcome Stoke City. Bob Played a big part in making sure we got there. Tony Waddington the Stoke manager said to Bob after the game “You bastard. If you hadn’t have dived at John Mahoney’s feet we’d have been 3-1 up and in the final.” Instead Peter Storey scored a dramatic late penalty and we easily won the replay 2-0 and it was The Arsenal going to Wembley.
I was at White Hart Lane, along with about 30,000 other Arsenal fans to see us win the Title and I’ll never forget the bombardment on Bob as Spurs desperately tried to equalise Ray Kennedy’s goal and prevent Arsenal from winning the Title. But Bob bravery stood up to the onslaught the Spurs players put him under. He ended up having two stitches in his head from Alan Mullery’s boot.
At the final whistle Bob ended up doing a jig with the referee Kevin Howley! We fans invaded the pitch. I’ve still got a bit of the White Hart Lane turf in a plastic bag somewhere. Although it’s turned to just dirt now with only two or three blades of grass left!
In the dressing room two telegrams arrived. One from Leeds United’s manager Don Revie saying “Leeds have not lost the title, Arsenal have won it. You are true champions.” The other was typical from Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, Arsenal’s opponents in Saturday’s FA Cup Final, which read “Well done, you might even give us a bit of a game on Saturday.”
After leaving White Hart Lane the Arsenal squad headed for their usual boozer the White Hart in Southgate. Bob isn’t much of a drinker but the rest of the lads insisted he stayed. So Bob had to make his escape by climbing out the window in the gents toilets!
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Don Howe meticulously prepared the Arsenal team for the FA Cup Final on a pitch specially marked out to the exact pitch dimensions as Wembley. Another thing the squad had to do was record a cup final record. As the lads were belting out the first take of “Good Old Arsenal” the producer suddenly stopped it, saying, “Sounds great boys, but sorry to say there’s a voice that’s a bit flat.” The rest of the lads broke out in laughter as Bob was named as the culprit! He was promptly removed to the back row and told to sing softly, or preferably mime!
In the 1971 FA Cup Final, over the 90 minutes Arsenal had the best chances and were the better team. Bob saved well from Alec Lindsay going full stretch to keep the ball out, but we hit the woodwork and had one cleared off the line as well. Extra time and Bob made an error thinking Steve Heighway was going to cross; instead he went for the narrow angle and best Bob at the near post to give Liverpool the lead. Bob then pulled off a great save from Brian Hall to make amends and prevent us going 2-0 down; we then went up the other end, Radford knocking it on over his head for Eddie Kelly to equalise.
Charlie George then hammered the ball, which took a slight deflection and flew past Ray Clemence, crashing into the back of the net to give us the lead and the Arsenal fans went wild. With seconds left Liverpool won a corner which was their last chance. Bob McNab shouted to Bob above the din of the fans “Be first Willo!” Bob came for the cross and claimed it. He volleyed the ball down the pitch and the referee blew the final whistle. The last kick of the last game of the 1970-71 Double Season was Bob’s.
Arsenal complete the Double
Bob was also picked for Scotland twice, against Portugal and Holland, by Tommy Docherty, who took advantage of the new rules, where a player could qualify to play for the country of their parent’s birth.
The following season 1971-72 Bob raptured his cartilage and damaged his ligaments in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Stoke, He tried to play on but his mobility was gone and his leg kept giving way. Stoke took advantage of this and equalised George Armstrong’s opening goal for Arsenal. Bob eventually had to go off and as there were no substitute keepers back then John Radford had to hold the fort in goal for the last ten minutes. Arsenal went on to defeat Stoke again in the replay 2-1. Bob was out of the replay and missed the final, against Leeds United which we narrowly lost 1-0.
The 1972 FA Cup Semi-Final
In the 1972-73 season Bob didn’t recover from injury till late November with Geoff Barnett playing 25 games that season. But Bob returned to play his part as Arsenal finished runners-up in the League, just three points behind Liverpool.
1973-74 was Bob’s last season for Arsenal. His missed just one game all season, his final appearance was at Highbury, against QPR, on the 30th April 1974. Before the match, Arsenal showed a touch of class, when Bob was presented with a silver cannon by Arsenal Chairman Dennis Hill-Wood. Bob was only 32 years old, which is relatively young for a goalkeeper and no doubt he could have played on. But Bob was thinking of the future and a career in television broadcasting would give him far greater longevity than a few more seasons keeping goal for The Arsenal.
But it wasn’t to be the end of Bob’s association with Arsenal as he returned as the club’s first goalkeeping coach. Training the likes of Pat Jennings, John Lukic, David Seaman and Jens Lehmann. Bob always said he couldn’t teach Pat Jennings anything about the art of goalkeeping. But Pat said that Bob prolonged his career by five or six years. I’m sure David Seaman would say something similar.
Tragedy struck the Wilson family again when Bob’s daughter Anna passed away with cancer. Bob and his wife Megs showed what remarkable people they both are, when they not only somehow coped with the terrible loss of Anna, but went on to create the Willow Foundation, in her memory. The charity does wonderful work helping young people aged 16-40, who are suffering life threatening illnesses.
Once again thanks for reading. Sorry this week’s Highbury Hero was a bit late. But I had get my spanner out, to make some minor adjustments to the time machine, as it nearly took us back to Wembley to the 1961 FA Cup Final and we can’t be having none of that can we!
Started going to Highbury in ’66. Season ticket holder since ’76. Love The Arsenal. Need I say more?