Esteemed goalkeeper, longstanding coach, respected broadcaster and charitable patron; Bob Wilson OBE stands as one of Britain’s most respected and admired sporting heroes.
An Arsenal legend, adored on the terraces of Highbury for his exploits in the Double season of 1970/71, he is engrained in the fabric of the club and a personification of its traditional values. Playing alongside greats including Charlie George and Frank McLintock before coaching the likes of Pat Jennings, John Lukic and David Seaman to silverware success at the Gunners, it is little surprise the north London club last season honoured the Scottish international with inclusion on a giant mural outside the Emirates stadium.
Retiring in 2002 from both coaching and his stellar television career with the BBC and ITV, Wilson now dedicates his time to the Willow Foundation, a charity set-up in tribute to his daughter Anna who passed away in 1998 after a long battle with cancer. Aiming to help some of the 12,500 people in the UK, aged 16-40, who are diagnosed with a serious illness, the organisation has embarked on several high-profile benefit events, the latest of which sees signed replica shirts from ten of the World Cup’s most high profile stars go on auction at Harrods.
Sport.co.uk were privileged to speak with the celebrated shot stopper to talk about the Willow Foundation’ s latest eye-catching fundraiser, his unusual career path, Arsenal’s current options between the sticks, his regrets as a coach and the quality of the World Cup coverage currently on our screens.
The Willow Foundation website reveals that over 6,000 days out have been organised for seriously ill young people since the charity was founded in 1999, you must be very proud of the achievements of the last ten years?
Actually the site is a little out of date; we’re up to 7,000 now. However, to be honest with you the sad thing is that if you count in those special days which were organised and arranged but the recipients didn’t live long enough to experience it we’d be well over that number. It’s a very sad situation; I’m not saying that every one of our recipients dies, but at least 75 per cent do. After all we’re talking about life threatening illnesses.
We’re proud of what we’ve achieved but also aghast at the growth of the charity; it’s been truly extraordinary. When Anna died in September 1998, six days short of her 32nd birthday, she’d told her mother to use what she’d learnt. And what we learnt over the five years of her illness was that no charity dealt with the age group 16-40. We also learnt the importance of her idea of always having something to look forward to, whether that is a Take That concert or an Arsenal cup final. Anna always had an adrenaline rush even though she was poorly, indeed when it came to her special day you wouldn’t think she was an ill girl.
Initially we only thought that we would be giving something back to the local area in which Anna had worked as a community nursing assistant. We thought it would be a local Hertfordshire charity but such was the very fast understanding that nothing existed for the 16-40 age group that we started getting requests from over the border in Essex. It eventually encompassed the whole of the south east, then the south of England, after five years we registered as a national charity. Obviously that brings with it far more staff, we now have 42 working full time and 40-50 volunteers and each year we need nearly £3 million to provide the 1,500 special days which we are now currently organising. In year one Meg [Bob’s wife] and I, out of a back bedroom, organised the money which provided just 17 – so 1,500 represents massive growth.
Four of the ten shirts on display in Harrods
The latest fundraising effort involves auctioning 10 signed number 10 World Cup shirts, you must be eager to get the bidding started?
Of course yes. The idea is really about 10, 10 and 10. We started collecting the shirts in the tenth anniversary of the Willow Foundation, we’re now in year eleven, but of course the number 10 is also an iconic number in football and associated with two of the greatest players the world has ever seen - Pele and Maradona. Add to that it’s 2010 and the World Cup is happening in South Africa and it all ties in nicely.
It’s quite amusing actually two of them, Kaka and Harry Kewell, have been sent off already - it looks at the moment as though it’s going to be a unique auction of shirts from players who have been sent off!
We really need Wayne Rooney to burst into life, Lionel Messi has already shown how good he is, Cesc Fabregas played a few minutes against Honduras, Nakamura is still waiting to start a game, but Van de Vaart is doing well with Holland. We need it now to get to the knock-out stages and for these guys to come to the fore. There is one legend in there as well...oh no, I’ve just realised he finished his career with a red card as well...it’s Zinedine Zidane.
The great thing for people is that they can get involved online from July 3rdand start with bids from as low as 99 pence. It ends two days after the World Cup final on July 13th. We’re all hopeful that the trend of famous number 10s picking up the trophy will continue and that people from across the globe will get involved with the auction.
Cesc Fabregas' signed Spain shirt
Did you used to swap shirts after matches yourself and did you pick up any good mementos?
Actually, there is one that I wish I hadn’t exchanged. When we won the first European trophy at Arsenal we played Anderlecht in the 1970 Fairs Cup final and they had a goalie called Jean-Marie Trappeniers who was a Belgian international. This guy had the worst black Fred Perry polo type goalkeeping jersey you’ve ever seen, while I had my new shiny, brand new kit but at the end we exchanged anyway. We’d had two losing Wembley finals and it had been such a long journey for me to make it to the top of the game that I memorably ran around topless. I got slapped on the back as the pitch was invaded by fans at the end and it was an amazing night.
I lost my jersey that night in the swap but I never did it again as I wanted it as a memento. My Cup winner’s jersey from the 8th May 1971 is at home and the only thing my eldest son wants from me when I die...or so he says. I proudly have that in pristine condition and also the two jerseys from my Scottish appearances, one from when I played against Holland and Cruyff and the other against Portugal and Eusebio.
In good company at the Emirates
Obviously you had a terrific career in goal for Arsenal but it took you four years to become the first choice keeper at the age of 27. Is biding your time an important factor in making it as a goalkeeper?
Not if you don’t have to. I missed my apprenticeship as my Dad wouldn’t let me turn professional. I was on Manchester United’s books for two years which a lot of people don’t realise and at the time of the Munich air crash was playing in the junior side alongside Nobby Stiles. However, my Dad told me that football wasn’t a proper job so I went to Loughborough University which was great and it has helped me to write my book, given me an education, served my coaching and ultimately aided me with what I’m doing with the Willow Foundation.
That being said when I signed at Arsenal and turned up on the first day wearing a duffel coat and college scarf, the other players looked at me like I was gone out. They were right as well; I was a very good amateur but an amateur all the same who suddenly found himself thrust into dressing-room with the likes of George Eastham and Joe Baker. They just looked at me like I was gone out. It was a long journey after that.
Although I got some early appearances I always used to break an arm and take a blow to the head. I played in quite a scary way, my hero was Bert Trautmann, who famously broke his neck in the 1956 Cup Final but kept playing, and I myself came close to doing that. I had punctured lungs and broken ribs and alike.
When I watched Spain keeper [Iker] Casillas concede in their opening game the other day against Switzerland I nearly broke the television screen. Just dive head first at the ball, you’re entitled to get hurt representing your country, instead he dived feet first at the player and then feet first again to retrieve the ball. The man is captain of his country, he was one of the goalkeepers I’ve always supported and in one minute he’d lost me. If you’re not prepared to get hurt for your country then you should not be playing for your country.
Bravery at the feet of attackers was most definitely your trade mark, which save from your career is your favourite?
There was one against Manchester United’s George Best and obviously because it was Besty it becomes even more important as 99 times out of 100 hundred or more like 999 times out of 1000 he would have scored it. Everybody remembers that one and we went on to win that game 4-0. At the time any goal would have brought them right back into it as we were only 1-0 up. It was a great result and we went on to win the Double that season which was my best season by a mile and one in which I avoided major injury. I was voted by the fans as the Player of the Year which was a massive thing to have in the Double year, or the first of three Doubles as I say.
I can remember lots of really, really good saves in the same way that you remember mistakes. I feel for Rob Green at the moment actually as I let in a bad one at my near post in the Cup Final in 1971, but it was never as near as the one he let in. In fact I don’t remember letting in anything like he did.
Bob in the company of the 1970 team
28 years as a keeper coach is some achievement, do you take as much pride in that achievement as you do in the success you achieved in your playing career?
I spent 28 years on the television as my job and 28 years as the unpaid coach at Arsenal. It was a juggle but I loved doing it. The best Bob Wilson is not the goalie or the television presenter, but rather the coach or teacher.
The greatest pride for me was achieving what as a kid I dreamt of doing all the more so having overcome a stuttering start which my dad forced upon me. I never lost the dream that I would play both for a great club and at international level and finish off winning something at the very top level. The night we were champions of England, which of course was at White Hart Lane, a fortnight before the Cup final in 1971...that and the Fairs Cup, it’s very difficult explaining to people what is going through your mind, body and soul when you do something like that. It was all the more special for me coming in so belatedly and having to prove to really great players that you can really play.
I still say to everybody that although it’s great having the medals my greatest reward without a question was the fact that people like Bobby Moore, Pele and Johan Cruyff and [George] Best and [Dennis] Law held their hands up and said of me, ‘he could play.’ That’s the biggest reward beyond medals for me. Respect that’s what it’s all about; if you don’t win the dressing-room by the way you play you haven’t got a chance in the game.
You coached some great keepers during your time at London Colney, who was the most commanding and natural presence between the sticks?
Pat Jennings, I never taught him anything. What you have to remember is that Pat arrived at Arsenal when he was 32, he’d come from Tottenham so there was an uproar and he’d never had a goalkeeping coach in his career. He knew me obviously as we’d played against each other when we won the Championship in 71, but he turned up saying ‘I’m 32 I can’t play anymore, I’m very lucky to be here’ etc...Well he played until he was 41 and his last game was against Brazil in the World Cup.
Where I claim credit is that my enthusiasm in conjunction with his ability as a goalkeeper helped him play for another nine years. With regards to teaching him anything, I don’t think I did. On day one I said to him ‘Pat, you tell me how you’re feeling on any one day and we’ll work from there. If you want a day off tell me.’ That’s exactly how we worked and some days he’d say he didn’t feel good and on others he asked for a big session – it left the other guys effing and blinding.
The nearest to Pat with regards presence and the ability to fill his goal was David Seaman. I think I had a big input during the 15 years I worked with him. Nine winners’ medals, seven runners-up, 75 England caps, a hero of Euro 96 says it all. I was and remain massive friends with him and know I had a massive input.
Seaman saves at Euro 96
Were there any individuals whose failure to become the regular number one you regretted?
Well John Lukic I put up with the greats, he fulfilled his promise. However, I had two goalies at Arsenal who I always felt I let down, I suppose you could argue that they let me down. They both had more ability than they went on to prove. One was called Paul Barron, who is now a coach up at Newcastle, he went on to play for Crystal Palace and QPR. He was at Arsenal for a while and I think he should have achieved more.
The worst of all though, and he’s still playing at a high level...I think you’ll know who I’m going to say...
No, no, Stuart I’m just disappointed that nobody would give him the chance that I felt he deserved. I definitely served Stuart well, he was ready to play at the top level. It was Arsene who decided that he was too nice a guy and didn’t have the hardness to go further. He’s always been number one reserve, but he’s never fulfilled at the top. That being said I don’t feel I let him down, in fact I feel I helped create Stuart Taylor.
The one who really should have achieved more than he did was Alex Manninger. He’s had a terrific career and he was part of our Double winning side in 1997/98, but for me he should have achieved more because he had so much natural spring. Away from training he was the nicest, brightest guy you could wish to meet...he came to my home, he was lovely.
He was also the only guy I ever lost it with in training. I used to ask all the goalies to serve in a certain way so the others could produce the save that I wanted from whoever was in goal, but Alex used to smash the ball constantly in the top corner. On one occasion I lost it in front of David Seaman and John Lukic when I was asking him to shoot in a certain way and he didn’t; the other two told me they’d never seen me lose my rag like that.
He had so much natural gymnastic ability though, a little bit like I had - I was always about gymnastics after Loughborough University – he was a natural athlete with a perfect metamorph shape. I liked diving around and not thinking about the consequences and Alex was very much in that style.
Alex Manninger in action for Juventus
Can you explain the process by which a goalkeeper is brought to the club by Arsene Wenger?
Arsene has somebody in every country and then he sends out the guys from England, particularly Steve Rowley, to go and watch specific targets. With [Thomas]Vermaelen who was captaining Ajax I think they kept tabs on him from the adjoining fields to his training ground and followed it up by watching him 30 times in the end. They obviously decided, ok he’s not 6ft 4 inches tall, but boy is he a player. That’s the way it’s done...
Funnily enough I did once put Arsenal on to a guy. I received an email from a friend in America who said he’d found a goalie called Tim Howard. He stressed we'd have to be careful though because he suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and it's true he does have a really bad twitch. Arsenal were informed but didn’t follow it up as they felt the medical thing was always going to be a problem. It’s highly debateable now when you see how well he has done at Everton.
David Seaman told Sport.co.uk recently that he very much rates Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny and doesn’t think Arsene will spend money on a new keeper this year. Chairman Peter Hill-Wood, however, hinted that the club has tried to sign the experienced Mark Schwarzer – would you rather see the youngsters get a chance or have an old head used as a stop gap for a season or two?
David has seen them more than me but for Wojciech Szczesny to be voted Brentford’s player of the season and to be brought off in the final game to receive a round of applause is an amazing achievement. He’s only 19 but still a year behind as he broke both his arms a while back. According to David though, who has coached and been with him, he has a real chance. At this moment in time to pacify fans I think there will be a senior goalkeeper brought in.
Bob talks shop
Do you have any personal preferences as to who you’d like to see fill the sticks at the Emirates next season?
Not really. I don’t think there is any goalkeeper in the world that is consistent anymore, which is frightening. It has everything to do with the balls and everything to do with the rules. The rules on the back pass situation make you look a mug, but it’s basically the ball.
Just look at the errors in the World Cup, the best description for that thing is ‘beach ball.’ The irony for me is that Adidas went to my university Loughborough to develop it. It’s a wind tunnel job with six to eight panels; it’s just a beach ball. You just watch when it’s hit a certain way and it wobbles all over. It’s been doing that for six to eight seasons but they’ve been getting progressively lighter.
When nobody can hit a free-kick over the wall in a World Cup finals, or even get close to it, and you see as many balls coming off keeper’s chests it’s obviously a problem. It’s all about bums on seats, goals and entertainment – I suppose without widening the goal the only option they have is to develop the ball in a way that makes it more difficult for the goalie.
You mentioned earlier that you felt sorry for Rob Green following his mistake against the USA; would he have been your England number one?
I would have gone for David James on the fact that it’s a World Cup. Rob Green had played in the few games before so we should have spotted that Capello was leaning that way and I suppose David has had a little bit of an injury this season and played in a side that was relegated. However, he has the experience, despite not playing any World Cup minutes before. There are arguments for all of them, indeed if you go on the ProZone stats then you’d have gone for Joe Hart. Personally I’d go for experience.
There are 32 countries at the World Cup and England are the only one who arrived in South Africa who didn’t know their number one goalkeeper. That is a joke, it’s an absolute joke.
Does this suggest an obvious dearth of goalkeeping talent in England?
Definitely yes and it’s because the managers in this country are not prepared to take the gamble. Peter Shilton was 18 when he took over from Gordon Banks, Pat Jennings was only 17/18 at Watford then Spurs; that was a day when people would take a chance. So much is at stake now that managers only go with experience.
We’ve already touched on your career in television anchoring football programmes for both the BBC and ITV, as a final question; what have you made of each channel’s World Cup coverage and have things changed noticeably since your retirement?
Well it’s not changed as a presenter, but the presenter’s role is totally different to the guys who are very lucky to be asked to give an opinion. There is nothing more wonderful than going to a World Cup, sitting on your bum and not having to do anything other than give an opinion on the game. Where the buck stops is the guy in the seat.
Gary [Lineker] has done really, really well and he’s very knowledgeable in that way. For Adrian [Chiles] it’s new. I know Adrian and his style is a totally different way of presenting to Gary or myself. It’s not exactly a Des Lynam way but it is a fan’s way - he is a fanatical football fan.
Gary Lineker lends the Willow Foundation a hand
You have to understand how difficult it is to ask about a goalkeeping error when you yourself know better than anyone on the panel the reasons for the mistake. It presents its problems when you are Gary Lineker or you are Bob Wilson so it’s nice when you have a style like Adrian’s which usually hits the nail on the head. With the England game [against Algeria] he just presented it like it was meant to be.
Where I think this World Cup has fallen down has been in the choice of one or two of the analysts. You have to remember that people are watching at home so to have Emmanuel Adebayor on the BBC panel has almost bemused me. He’s a lovely guy and I think he can express himself but you just pick up one word in five. I remember when I started and used to receive letters about perfect diction!
The ten treasured national shirts will be auctioned online from 3rd-13th July, to raise money for the Willow Foundation, a charity that fulfils special day experiences for seriously ill 16-40 year olds throughout the UK. To view the unique collection in person visit Harrods where they will be displayed in a window on Hans Crescent and in the Team Sports and the Sound and Vision departments. Alternatively you can also see the shirts online at www.harrods.com/worldclassfootballauction and www.willowfoundation.org.uk.
100% of the auction proceeds will be donated to the Willow Foundation - funds which will enable the charity to provide quality time and precious memories to many more young adults living with the difficult realities of life threatening conditions such as cancer, motor neurone disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and organ failure.