Bob Wilson is a true footballing legend as a goalkeeper, a coach, and a tv sports presenter.
His playing career at Arsenal saw him amass over 300 first-team appearances for the Gunners, the club that he loved and still loves today.
After his retirement from playing in 1974, Bob remained at Arsenal for a further 28 years as a goalkeeping coach and only Pat Rice has been involved with more trophies than him in Arsenal’s history.
Whilst playing, Bob ventured into the television world, aided massively by his education at Loughborough University, and he soon was given the opportunity to become a presenter.
Bob Wilson remains as articulate and humble as ever, and the Football Pink spoke to him about his truly fascinating life.
‘My dad said to me ‘football’s not a proper job son’’
After clubs began to take interest in a young Bob Wilson, Bob thought that a career at Old Trafford loomed; his father, however, had different ideas.
‘I played in the 1957 England Schoolboys team and the most memorable other player in that side was definitely Nobby Stiles, an England 1966 World Cup winner. Anyway we got to know each other quite well and as a result of that he and I were the two players that Matt Busby, manager at that time with the famous Busby Babes, were the two that he tried to sign for Manchester United.’
‘So Nobby signed, he was a local boy, and I went with my dad to a particular game and obviously was also really keen to join. On the way home my dad told me ‘I’ve said no to them. Football isn’t a proper job son.’
‘He really thought that out of every thousand boys that want to be a footballer, you probably get two or three only that ever make it. So he was insistent that I continued school until I was 18 and – make sure I had a job that could see me through life and not just two years, four years, five years, or whatever years you might have as a professional player.’
‘Ultimately his decision was a good one because I went to Loughborough University, which is one of the great universities and certainly if you are a sportsman as I think I was meant to be. But ultimately it’s also the fact that when I entered the television world for 28 years it came as a result of my education at Loughborough.’
‘I always joke about it and say I obviously did it better than Bert because I never broke my neck’
Bob’s hero was Bert Trautmann, and it was Bert’s style of play that attracted Bob to him as a youngster and in later years Bob fulfilled his ambition to meet his hero.
‘If anybody described Bert’s style of play and mine it would be ‘stupid, crazy, reckless’ in so much that we were prepared to go head-first into challenges. In other words dive at people’s feet and which ultimately, in that 1956 Cup Final famously he broke his neck.’
‘I always joke about it and say I obviously did it better than Bert because I never broke my neck. But I had serious injuries. My left ear was torn badly at Ipswich in one game, numerous head injuries, cuts around the face, punctured lung, 8 or 9 broken ribs during my playing career. I would always say and still say to youngsters who talk about their style of play you have to trust your instinct. It’s what made me ultimately stand out.’
‘There was a little bit of an issue with my dad about my hero worshipping a German prisoner of war, because my two eldest brothers Jock and Billy were killed during the 2nd World War and my dad fought in the First World War. So he did find that a bit difficult early on. I wish my dad had been able to meet Bert and he would have been able to see what a great guy he was, who was forced to join the Nazi Youth.’
‘I met him when he was coming up to give his opinion before Man City were playing Spurs in the FA Cup Final. I was waiting for him because I wanted his autograph. He looked at me and said, ‘Bob I know what you are going to say and I’m very pleased and proud that I was your hero’.’
‘I actually played in Arsenal’s goal as an amateur schoolteacher. Do you think you’ll ever see that again?’
Bob Wilson is widely regarded as an Arsenal legend; however, things weren’t always plain sailing for Bob with the Gunners, and he spent his first year at the club as an amateur balancing football with teaching.
‘I came very close to leaving Arsenal when I didn’t think I was getting anywhere. This was after I had to qualify as a teacher for a year. I actually played in Arsenal’s goal as an amateur schoolteacher. Now do you think you’ll ever see that again?’
‘So it was a long journey for me there because I’m always introduced as having played 310 games for Arsenal but I actually played 536 games – 310 in the first team and the rest for the reserves.’
‘I was in the side before Arsenal signed Jim Furnell. But then the players sort of rebelled. Of the nine games I played as an amateur schoolteacher, we only lost one at Chelsea but it was after that when the senior players went to the manager Billy Wright and said ‘We’ve got an amateur schoolteacher that we don’t even see on a regular basis’
‘The one year at Rutherford School near Paddington station saw me teach physical education. So this was me in my first year at Arsenal having to teach every day and only training on a Tuesday and a Thursday evening at the ground, never seeing the first team players at all apart from preseason or holiday time. So I can understand what they were getting at, but it didn’t help me, and I went into the wilderness at this point.’
The double-winning side ‘was like a jigsaw puzzle’
After Bob had established himself as Arsenal’s No.1 goalkeeper, there is no doubt that the pinnacle of his playing career was the 1970-71 season, when he played every single game and was named Arsenal’s player of the season as they triumphed in the First Division and FA Cup to win the double.
‘It was obviously the greatest season in my life. That particular season for me was extraordinary in that I did play every minute of every game and I was the only one of the 17-man squad who did that.’
‘That season for me was as if I could do little wrong. However I go to my grave with people always asking, ‘what were you doing in the Cup Final when Liverpool’s Steve Heighway scored inside your near post?’. Well, all goalkeepers face our bad moments. Fortunately, we equalised within five minutes, and we went on to win the game.’
‘The most amazing moment of that was obviously to win the league. It’s a fairy-tale, to go to the last game of the season where we went to of all places our local rivals, Spurs at White Hart Lane. We either had to draw the game 0-0 or win the game. If we drew 1-1 Leeds would have won on goal difference. We won the game 1-0 so that that for me will never ever be surpassed really.’
‘As a team we were like a jigsaw puzzle. We had smooth edges and rough edges and they all fitted together perfectly.’
‘What I’m trying to say to you is that there were 2 if not 3 really elegant players like George Graham or Charlie George, who was just born to be a match winning cup final player. Then there were rough diamonds like the incredible leader we had – Frank McLintock. Every side had a player who always used to tackle strongly and you had to have one of those in the side. ‘
‘We were moulded into this perfect fit of players who understood each other. It came together after we had lost badly in the 1969 League Cup Final against Swindon. Out of that came the determination and the camaraderie and the teamwork. We knew we were getting close and in fact the following season in 1970 we won the European Fairs Cup against Anderlecht in the final. The following season we then won the double.’
‘There was no dedicated goalkeeping coaching at any club until I did it’
After his retirement from playing in 1974, Bob remained at Arsenal for a further 28 years as a goalkeeping coach, working with goalkeepers like Lukic, Jennings and Seaman, as he helped goalkeeping coaching progress to what it is today.
‘I was what you can only describe as the honorary goal keeping coach because it was only in the last two or three seasons that I actually was paid by the club.’
‘It was Terry Neill, who was the manager of Arsenal at the time, who came to me and said ’I’ve heard you are doing these coaching classes’
‘Loughborough gave me the ability to teach initially so teaching coaching, coaching teaching, there is little difference. I was able to convert the schoolteacher into a football goalkeeping coach.’
‘The one thing I’m really proud of is that I received recognition from the FA. There was no goal keeping coaching at any club until I did it on a daily basis and even when I was working on the television, I’d go from the television studio if I was doing Breakfast News Sport and go straight to the Arsenal training ground or occasionally elsewhere.’
‘I went to Watford when Graham Taylor asked me and show them what goal keeping coaching was all about. I also went to Southampton when Lawrie McMenemy was manager. A few sessions and Queens Park Rangers also which is where incidentally I had a bit to do with telling George Graham about David Seaman. I remember saying ‘you’re not even taking a chance signing him because this lad is going to be the next England goalie’
Arsene ‘didn’t just change Arsenal football club, he changed football in this country’
During Bob’s time as a goalkeeping coach at Arsenal, he witnessed a monumental change at not just Arsenal but in English football as Arsene Wenger came and revolutionised football.
‘He didn’t just change Arsenal Football Club, he changed football in this country. That is a really extravagant statement, but it is true. Arsene came and made every manager in the country, every coach in the country sit up because it was immediate success.’
‘He came to a club that like so many clubs in the country had a group of players who once games were finished would have several pints of beer. Not much thought about what food they would be eating Arsene was immediately talking about the sort of foods that you eat and the sort of stretch routines and how to maximise your potential.’
‘It was extraordinary to watch but what was more extraordinary was that guys, who I’m not going to name, were really known to be heavily into booze but they really bought into what he was putting on and saying.’
‘Arsene is a bit like a professor.’
‘He even put into the players’ minds about them being close to going through a season and not losing. You’re going to go through 38 games and okay you might draw some but you’re going to win the rest and they did it. But he called it the year before they did it. People were laughing at him, journalists laughing at him but blow me he achieved it.’
‘So Arsene Wenger is truly one of the two or three greatest individuals I’ve ever met.’
I was like ‘a block of wood’
Aside from his coaching, Bob had a hugely successful career in broadcasting, presenting programmes like Football Focus, Match of the Day, Grandstand, along with many World Cups. However, Bob admits he found the transition into a presenter ‘scary’.
‘The difference between being a pundit and being the presenter of the programme is massive. If you’re the presenter you’ve got to get the programme on the air, you’ve got to get the programme off the air, you’ve got to be the one who’s continually thinking about the game itself, to ask the right questions or the history of a club. You’re constantly thinking on your feet.’
‘I survived and that’s the word that needs to be used. There’s a lot of ego involved all the way around the television world but I survived for 28 years – 20 at the BBC and 8 at ITV.’
‘When I worked for the 8 years at ITV, it became more challenging because they had adverts to go to. You are always under a time limit. ‘Bob 8 seconds until you go to an ad’ It used to drive me mad but that’s what you had to learn and it was very scary initially.’
‘I had help thankfully. The guy who really thought I could succeed on television was called David Coleman. It was David who believed that I had the ability to become the first footballer to present Grandstand and Match of the Day and so I owe him an enormous debt and somebody like Frank Bough.’
‘On my first day presenting Frank told me to look at the tv screen. This is before we went on air, and I was on the screen. He said, ‘that’s all people see of you, your face up to your shoulders. You’ve got to get some form of animation into it so occasionally just tug your ear or just scratch your nose or certainly bring your hands into the vision otherwise you’re like a block of wood.’
‘I would say that was a very good description of me when I first started presenting.’
‘The L was missing, and I was thinking no Jimmy you must realise that you’re talking about the clocks are going back tonight’
Bob worked alongside Jimmy Hill on Match of the Day for many years and Bob, doing an excellent Jimmy Hill impression, shared some funny stories of times when things didn’t go according to plan.
‘He was an immense character and thankfully I got on really well with him. It was Jimmy Hill that came out with the very famous one at the end of one particular programme. I was sitting alongside him, and I could see that the L was missing out of the last line which was, ‘Oh and don’t forget to put your clocks back.’ The L was missing, and I was thinking no Jimmy you must realise that you’re talking about the clocks are going back tonight.’
‘It was the end of a Match of the Day programme, and he came out with, ‘Don’t forget to put your cocks back,’ and before he had chance to say ‘Oh I’m sorry, that’s clocks’, it went into the Match of the Day theme tune. That was probably one of the funniest ever.’
‘But yes, things happened again with Jimmy. Once the fire alarm went off during Match of the Day in the studio. They were about to come back to us at the end of a game.
‘ Jimmy said, ‘What’s going on?’ so I said, ‘ It’s a fire alarm,’ and he went, ‘What do you think we should do?’ and I said, ‘I think we should get the hell out of here,’ and he said ‘No, no, no, the nation needs us Bob, come on the nation needs us’.
‘He was a great character.’
‘It was horrific’
There were also very challenging times for Bob in his broadcasting career – the hardest of all was having to report live on the Hillsborough disaster.
‘The most difficult time was definitely the day I was presenting Grandstand on the Hillsborough disaster day. We weren’t allowed to say that there had been any deaths because it was all about the fans of both clubs still being in and around the ground.’
‘I was basically going between Hillsborough and the World Snooker Championship which was also in Sheffield. I was hearing things in my ear all the time, about the amount of bodies that there were and it was horrific. Only towards the end of that programme did the Head of Sport come through to me to say I needed to say something about people having now lost their lives and if you have a concern about your loved ones, here’s the number you need to call.
‘I think it was under 10 people that we had said we knew had lost their lives when in fact as we came off air the BBC News came on. They said around 24 people had been lost. Ultimately it was 96 because one person died after the year. It’s now become 97 because recently they classified a person who died had never fully recovered.’
‘Without doubt that was the most challenging of times to be sitting in the chair talking to the cameras and trying to get things out about the World Snooker while in my ear I am hearing how serious the situation at Hillsborough was.’
‘Special days for seriously ill young adults’
Tragedy away from football resulted in Bob and his wife, Megs, setting up the Willow Foundation in 1999 in memory of their daughter Anna, who sadly passed away after a long battle with cancer. The charity is still going strong today and has provided nearly 18,000 special days out for seriously ill young adults.
‘Willow provides Special Days for seriously ill young adults in the age group 16 to 40. The reason that it has been the success it has is because it’s the only UK charity that dedicates itself to that age group.’
‘There are so many wonderful children’s charities going up to the age of 16 or 18 perhaps but there had been nothing in our age group. Anna, our daughter, was a community nursing sister. She became ill when she was 26 and she died six days before her 32nd birthday.’
‘But it was the way that she dealt with her illness, always having something in her diary to look forward to, whether it was a Take That concert – she adored Robbie Williams, and she also loved her retail shopping with her mum.’
‘She would have an adrenaline rush when it came to the days leading up to her going out and doing whatever she was going to do and the days that followed it. We could see that on her face, the way she responded before the illness then took over again.’
‘We’re now into 22 years since we created Willow and we are over 17,500 Special Days given It’s always within the UK, whether it’s meeting celebrities, whether it’s going to the theatre, or having days in London, overnight stays, going to Centre Parcs. Whatever is requested, we try and achieve that.’
Bob was rewarded for his work with the Willow Foundation with an OBE in 2007 but Bob says that it shouldn’t have been him.
‘It did take a day or two of discussions with family. It should have been my wife Megs not me. But it was a case of – look this is recognising the work of Willow and on that basis, I would say that appeased me. But the amount of work she has put in was more deserving.’
‘Arsenal do not have owners who are prepared to do that’
Bob said that he does have concerns about Arsenal but maintained that it is too early in the season to judge them. The reason he believes Arsenal are struggling at the moment is due to their inability to compete with the investment of other owners.
‘It’s too early in the season but I definitely have serious concerns at this moment in time.’
‘In the modern game, you have no chance unless you have got owners that invest heavily in the team. You only have to look at Chelsea who had won little until Roman Abramovic came. He’s still investing hugely in them. You look at Manchester City with Sheikh Mansour. Manchester United are slightly different, but they have American owners, and they are investing and ever since Munich they will always be one that can afford to buy the very best players.’
‘It’s about investment.’
‘It is not like when I played where you could have Burnley winning the First Division. Can you see Burnley winning the Premier League? I’m just giving you an example. Unless you have that massive backing now and it’s also about salaries as well, can you afford to pay a special player £350,000 or £500,000 a week?
‘It’s also why everyone loved Leicester City doing what they did 5 seasons ago and how we all admired how they went out and won that league. That was an amazing achievement by them at a time when money is the dominating factor.’
‘The highest paid salary I ever got as a footballer was £135 a week. People shake their heads and go, ‘Wow!’ Well we were able to exist and live on that and I make them laugh by saying, ‘we had bonuses.’ ‘Oh yeah what were your bonuses?’ ‘£4 for a win, £2 for a draw!’ And that’s what it was. Would we have changed anything? Of course not. We were lucky enough to be part of a winning set-up and a club like Arsenal.’
‘One lucky boy’
Bob spoke to me of his frustration of how journalists often don’t show both sides of the story in their desire to get a ‘scoop’. The ‘scoop’ here, however, is quite simple, Bob Wilson is a footballing legend and a true gentleman but that we already knew. It was an absolute pleasure to speak to him.
‘I’m going to be 80 in October. I’m going to be 80 years old. I think how the hell have I got to where I’ve got to? But I am finding it quite difficult because I’m at an age where two of my best pals have died recently.
‘I have had the most extraordinary life from childhood to school days to Loughborough days to Arsenal days to the Beeb, ITV, and beyond with Willow. So I always say one lucky boy’
‘I still find it incredible that I can be in a group talking and someone will turn around and say weren’t you on the telly. I mean crazy. Whatever I went for there has been an element of success about it which has made it all worthwhile.’
‘You might have been surprised about some of the things, the way we played in our days and the things that happened that aren’t allowed to happen nowadays. But you actually might well have enjoyed it more.’