‘A lot of sweat, tears and hard work’: Bob Wilson on his career and tragic family story
“ONCE you wind me up I don’t stop,” grins Bob Wilson after delivering 90 minutes of his life’s edited highlights – from mixing with the doomed Busby Babes of Manchester Utd to his TV rivalry with Des Lynam.
It’s a breezy day when we speak on the balcony of his home in Christchurch where for nearly three decades the 75-year-old Arsenal goalkeeping legend has holidayed and now lives with his wife Megs, whom he first met when they were 12.
The wind threatens to whisk away my list of questions. But it would have made little difference as Bob dives from topic to topic in an almost uninterruptable stream of reminiscences and opinions that flies well beyond our allotted hour.
Like the three days he took to decide whether to accept his OBE from the Queen, why Primrose is his middle name, his public spat with Piers Morgan, family tragedies, and anchoring live on Grandstand as the horror of the Hillsborough disaster unfolded.
To younger viewers, he’s best known as a presenter on BBC and ITV. Older sports fans will remember him as Arsenal keeper during the 1960s and 1970s in the famed double-winning side of 1970/71 – earning him a place on the legends wall of the club’s modern Emirates stadium.
Now he supports Megs to run the Willow Foundation in memory of his daughter Anna who died of a rare cancer in December 1998 just six days before her 32nd birthday.
The charity is named after Anna’s nickname, Little Willow, which in turn comes from Bob’s football moniker based on his surname. It offers special days to people aged 16-40 suffering a range of incurable or life-limiting conditions.
Since launching the year after Anna’s death, it has grown nationally to provide a combined 14,000 days at a current cost of £2.5m a year from non-stop fundraising, which puts Bob and Megs on the road about three times a week.
Through Bob’s contacts, beneficiaries have enjoyed days out behind the scenes at Arsenal, relaxed on activity holidays, and even met David Beckham and Richard Branson.
As Megs points out, Bob says, the work of their 50-strong team has touched the lives of enough patients and families to fill Arsenal’s 60,000-seater stadium. High-profile ambassadors include newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky and footballers David Seaman, Ian Wright and Theo Walcott.
Would Anna be proud? “She would think we were slightly bonkers,” he replies. “But she said very clearly to make use of what we have learned. She said to both of us not to let this thing destroy us. She knew time was running out when she said that.”
Bob and Megs have two sons, Robert and John, who followed their father’s footsteps into the media; Robert a photographer and John a presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme.
It’s the Willow Foundation that earned Bob’s OBE rather than his footballing success or the trail he blazed as a speciality goalkeeping coach – which “needles” him, he admits, and almost led to rejecting the award completely until he was talked round after three days.
“I had to have people yelling at me and shouting at me: ‘Bob, where you’re wrong is that this is for Anna and Willow. You’re part of it’.
“I was sort of ordered. I am totally uncomfortable that I have it. The real person who deserves it does not have the award. I would have been delighted if Megs got it, because she created Willow almost by herself.”
Bob was working on TV as Anna’s condition worsened but they had a secret code where he would pull his ear or scratch his nose live on camera to show he was thinking of her.
He almost missed appearing on This Is Your Life when the TV crew appeared at a training session he was conducting. “I swore and went, ‘What’s going on?’ They could not use that bit. Everyone was applauding and I took a breath and said, ‘I can’t do this, Anna’s too ill’.
“They got me onto the phone quickly and at the other end was Anna saying, ‘Dad – I am ready to party’.”
She died the next month, tragically followed 12 years later by her then husband, Mitchell Carey, who was killed by food poisoning from a corned beef sandwich.
Bob himself got through prostate cancer three years ago – which sparked an unfounded fear that he had been the cause of his daughter’s illness. But now he says: “I laugh at it. You should not because it’s cancer. It’s the dreaded word.”
Family tragedies have followed Bob. The Second World War claimed two of his five siblings, Jock and Billy, who were killed aged 19 and 20 flying for the RAF in the Second World War.
“They’re my heroes. I would say that everything I have done in my life would never ever get near to what they have achieved. If you read their letters, they freely and gladly went to war. I try to tell my grandchildren – it’s about passing it on to future generations.
“When I got miserable and let in a lot of goals and things were going wrong, I compared it to what Jock and Billy did. Jock only saw me two times from the time I was born to the time he died. He held me in his arms.”
The professional football that unlocked the rest of his career almost never got off the ground, however, when his father, Bill, refused a contract with Manchester Utd when Bob was just 16.
Bob was outside the meeting and oblivious to what had just been turned down when he was approached by chief coach Bert Whalley – who was to perish later in the Munich air crash of 1958 that almost wiped out the Busby Babes.
“He came up to me and did a very strange thing. He put his arm round me and he said, ‘I want to tell you something, son. Do not ever forget how good you can be.’
“I did not understand what he meant until my dad revealed he had said no to my being a professional footballer.”
Bob wept on the back seat as they drove home to Chesterfield. But there was no anger at his dad – a strict military man “damaged massively” by his First World War experiences and losing his two eldest sons. Professional footballer was not deemed a proper career.
Bob wishes his father, whose losses had turned him against Germans, had lived long enough to meet his German goalkeeping hero Burt Trautmann, famed for playing through the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck – and who appeared on This Is Your Life with him.
Instead of Man Utd, after school Bob went to Loughborough University to become a teacher and for about a year afterwards taught PE and history on £12 a week, simultaneously playing as an amateur for Arsenal having been traded in 1963 by Wolverhampton Wanderers, becoming the first non-pro to be sold.
He remembers arriving at his new home ground: “I went to visit Arsenal and when I walked out onto the football pitch, I said, ‘This is not a football pitch, this is a cathedral’.”
He turned pro in 1964 and wore the green jersey for about a decade, hitting the heights of his footballing career in the first team between 1968 and 1974 when injury lowered the curtain at 32 years old. He played 308 times at the top level – but is keen to point out his reserve games bring it to 525.
“You make the saves and you’re laughing at people who are holding their heads and saying: ‘how did he save that?’ That’s when you know you have made it.” But he adds: “I’m glad I had the brains to pack it in at the right time.”
The decades were a “golden era” for football, he says. Kept out of the England side by the World Cup-winning Gordon Banks, he made the national stage playing two games for Scotland when a rule change qualified him by his Scottish parents.
Those family roots explain his middle name, Primrose, from the tradition of giving children their mother's maiden name. He smiles: “It was the best kept secret in football until it came out and now it leads the quiz questions. I’m old enough, I can take it now. But it’s a bad name when you play in goal.”
His studies at Loughborough put a brake on his professional footballing career, but they gave him the academic skills to step almost immediately into the world of TV, working alongside famous names such as John Motson on flagship shows such as Grandstand and Football Focus.
He was put forward for the BBC as a presenter rather than the traditional ex-pro’s role of pundit, he says, “because I was a university boy and did not have to say ‘you know’ after every sentence”.
One day stands out above the rest: “I presented Grandstand on the day of the Hillsborough disaster. The most taxing and emotional programme.
“I could not say that anyone had died until near the end. We kept going back to the Crucible for the snooker. There were still people on the ground but we could not say there were deaths.
“Only eight to 10 minutes towards the end of the programme did the head of sport said, you have to find the right words and say this is the number of people who have lost their lives. It went up to 30, 50 and finally 96 people. We knew we were being patched through to Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street. We all cried afterwards.”
He recalls Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, for whom he later gave favourable expert evidence in a match-fixing court case, screaming for the police to open the gates.
“That day will always stay with me. That was the worst challenge, the worst day.”
His successful BBC career ended with him feeling badly treated at the new contract he was offered so he in 1994 went to ITV where he is still proud of presenting the England vs Argentina match in the 1998 World Cup which drew a record audience of nearly 24-milllion.
Things soured later, however, when his promised position as lead presenter was overshadowed by the arrival of Des Lynam. “I had been dumped on from a great height,” he says.
He still makes the headlines occasionally, speaking out as an Arsenal legend over the club’s recent mixed fortunes including a public row with Piers Morgan over fan loyalty to Arsene Wenger, whom he supports and later imitates accurately.
“That was a massive tiff,” Bob clarifies and reveals he was talked out of responding on Twitter by his son, John. “But it finished with [Morgan] agreeing to do a charity evening, so that ended well.”
He has strong views on the future of the game: “I have been apprehensive and scared about it. The people who make football what it is [the fans] are having every year to pay more.
“I buy four tickets for the grandchildren and the boys and then there’s programme costs, and a bit of food. I do not know how mums and dads are going to sustain that if clubs are going to keep increasing prices.”
But he argues it’s not fair to blame the generously paid players of whom those at the top level, he admits, can now be set up for life after just four to five years of “reasonable success”.
“It’s the agents,” he says, whom he accuses of taking up to £20m as a cut of some deals and holding up agreements.
The modern game’s worst aspect? “The diving thing. There are certain players and everyone knows who they are.” He names the biggest offender and says: “He has got to get it out of his game. They have to learn.”
Looking back at his varied careers – which cost him “a lot of sweat, tears and hard work” – he reveals that the “most natural Bob Wilson” is surprisingly as teacher and coach.
He worked for free to blaze a trail as a specialist goalkeeping coach, including for a spell at Arsenal’s arch-rival Tottenham. Before, keepers were just part of the general training regime. “Now goalkeeping coaches will come up and say thank you for giving me a job,” he says proudly.
At the start of the interview he’s just waved off a guest, one-time Arsenal teammate and former England player Bobby Gould, who also once managed Wimbledon and Coventry.
Bob points out some of the 1966 World Cup-winning side still need financial support and adds: “At the end of our careers every one of us has had to find a job. There are a lot of players who have never been able to get over losing the sport or been able to get a job.
“I have been incredibly fortunate.”