Long time readers of the site will be aware that during most summers I tend to produce a series of history articles on the site. Past series` have included Arsenal`s most crucial figures, the places most associated with the club, as well as having taken a forensic look at every single major trophy we have ever won. It`s getting harder to think of things to parts of the club`s history that remain undocumented. I did consider taking an in depth look at each and every Arsenal manager, but information on the 19th Century watchmen of Woolwich Arsenal is so scarce and, in any case, Tony Attwood has done an excellent job covering them already, to which I could only offer light plagiarism in response.
However, I`ve decided to finish a process I have unwittingly already started. In the last 6 months I have written biographies of the great Tom Whittaker who almost literally killed himself in service of the club, spending 37 of his 58 years on earth in Arsenal`s employ. This summer of course, we also said bon voyage to the retired Pat Rice after 44 years of service. I`ve decided to take a look at the men who have spent near lifetimes with Arsenal. A club such as ours is fastened indelibly to its history and tradition, of which it is rightly and fiercely proud. There are men who have steadfastly tied themselves to the club`s principles and raised its sense of values still higher through their own endeavour. Kenny Samson once famously said, "You can leave Arsenal, but Arsenal never leaves you." There are men however who never cared to find out.
I shan`t go in chronological order necessarily. We begin with one of Arsenal`s most familiar faces. His amenable demeanour and well educated tongue made him a very popular figure in the dressing room as player and coach. Those qualities were also spotted by eagle eyed media companies that adopted his avuncular tones, making him a familiar national presence on the nation`s key sporting events. Even upon his retirement as a coach ten years ago, he is a very familiar and regular face around Arsenal. Whenever the club needs a compeer or a raconteur for their media outlets or public interactions, his number is the first they call. But as a player, it was his fearlessness that separated him as a quality goalkeeper and his persistent appreciation of the supporters forged a bond that has lasted close to half a century now. No stranger to tragedy, he dedicates himself to his charity work now. I`ve had the pleasure of meeting him on the odd occasion and I`ve come to regard him as Arsenal`s cheery Uncle.
Robert Primrose Wilson was born on October, 30th 1941 in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. His middle name has been the source of much mirth during his career, but it in fact originates from an old Scottish tradition of taking your mother`s maiden name as a middle name. Wilson was born to Scottish parents. His mother was a Magistrate and his Father an Engineer. Wilson was the youngest of six children, most of whom were a good deal older than him. Indeed, two of his brothers died in combat during the Second World War- one as a rear gunner in Lancaster, the other as an RAF pilot. Bob showed a talent for sport at an early age, captaining the Derbyshire Juniors at cricket. But it was in football that his real passion lay. Football and family were to be the two most important presences in Bob`s life from an early age.
He met wife Mags at Tapton House Grammar School and married her in 1964. They had three children in quick succession; John, Anna and Robert. Whilst at Tapton House Bob showed a real knack for goalkeeping; the concentration and hand - eye coordination honed on the cricket field, together with his bravery marked him out. So much so that Manchester United came knocking when Bob was still a teenager. But Bob`s father did not believe professional football to be a secure and steady enough profession and he made his son reluctantly refuse United`s advances. Instead, Bob went to Loughborough College where he studied to be a teacher. He had shown a good academic flair throughout his school years and his warmth in interaction with people seemed to make him tailor made for the profession.
But the bug was still well and truly under his skin and Bob represented nearby Wolverhampton Wanderers` Reserve team whilst studying. He caught Arsenal`s eye when he came down to London for his summer sabbatical in July 1963. He had only signed amateur forms for Wolves, so for him to sign as an amateur with Arsenal was straightforward. However, by January 1964, Wilson felt his calling and the Gunners thought they had a good thing on their hands. He wanted to register as a professional. The F.A. accepted his registration, but the Football League would not initially. Wolves became irritated at the news that he planned to sign pro forms with Arsenal and demanded a transfer fee. In his book, Arsenal From the Heart, long time Arsenal Secretary Bob Wall reported that the League Management Committee arbitrated that a fee of £7,500 should be paid to Wolves by Arsenal. The F.A. gave their approval and thus, eventually the Football League consented. Wolves were paid and Wilson signed as a pro with Arsenal, defying his father`s wishes of some years earlier. He became the first amateur player ever to command a transfer fee.
With his new career path now set in stone, Wilson quickly settled into family life, but professional life would test his patience. Despite making his first team debut in a 4-0 win against Nottingham Forest on 26th October, 1963, Wilson waited in the wings for several years as understudy to Jim Furnell. But Bob wasn`t one to sit idle, in fact, he actually took a part time job teaching PE at the Holloway School- amongst his students in his time there was an impudent young firebrand named Charlie George. Wilson was very popular with teammates due to his relaxed and friendly presence, but beneath that he concealed a steely desire. Much like his mentee and great friend in his coaching career David Seaman. On the 'The Highbury Years` DVD, Wilson confesses to suffering terribly from nerves before games, all of which evaporated once he appeared through the tunnel and heard the supporters.
"I was as nervous as any goalkeeper you`d seen in the tunnel. But as soon as I got onto the pitch, I thought, 'This is what you`ve chosen to do Bob. Go and show them you can do it." Perhaps disobeying his father`s wishes redoubled his desire to succeed. His bond with the supporters was legion. In researching this article for soundbites, one sees him mention how much their support helped him at every turn. Nevertheless, around 1968 Furnell was starting to flag. In the 1968 League Cup Final, Leeds United adopted bully boy tactics against Furnell which bore significant fruit. Mee saw Wilson`s immense bravery as a worthwhile counterbalance in a bruising age for goalkeepers. Furnell made a stoppage time fumble in a Cup tie against Birmingham at St. Andrews to gift the home side a win. Mee had every reason he needed to give Wilson his chance. He took it.
He became Arsenal`s undisputed first choice keeper, helping the club to 6 clean sheets in a row at the beginning of the 1968-69 season. But it wasn`t all plain sailing for Bob. It never really has been. Arsenal`s virus ridden side humiliatingly lost the 1969 League Cup Final to Third Division Swindon Town. The pitch was reduced to a quagmire as an international friendly was played on it the day before. Wembley also hosted the Royal Artillery Show a week previous and the divots from the chariots still pocked the pitch. Nevertheless, it was an embarrassing reverse for a side that had not won silverware in 16 years. The bog of a pitch caused Wilson no end of problems as a mix up between he and Ian Ure gave Don Rogers Swindon`s first goal. Due to his unmistakable style of rushing head first at a player`s feet, Willow, as his teammates called him, was always prone to injury and he broke his arm at the end of the 1968-69 season.
But he, like the rest of his teammates that bore the scars of Swindon, healed quickly. Physically and mentally. In 1969, Bob Wall would say of Wilson, "I don`t think many of our regular followers would disagree with the assessment that he is the best Arsenal goalkeeper since Jack Kelsey....Courage and intelligence are essential goalkeeping qualities and Wilson is richly endowed with both as well as great ability." Bob and the team proved their mettle, against all odds winning the 1969-70 Intercities Fairs Cup in remarkable fashion against Anderlecht at Highbury. As the supporters invaded the pitch in delight, despite the pandemonium, Bob told supporters, "I`ll do the lap of honour if it kills me."
Wilson was always quick to acknowledge the support he got from behind both goals. He would later admit that, when he would run towards the North Bank goal and the supporters would chant, "Wilson, Wilson!" at him that he would milk it. The tradition back then was for each player to have their name sung in turn until the players turned and applauded. It`s a tradition seemingly faded away since the stadium move. Wilson would wait until he got into his six yard box before applauding the fans, building their chants to a relentless crescendo. He told Jon Spurling in 2005, "We would all listen out for the crowd sang your name," pausing, before saying, "Of course we did, it was important."
Wilson`s finest moment came in the opening weeks of the 197-71 season. Match of the Day`s cameras were on hand to capture Arsenal ravaging Manchester United 4-0 in colour. The holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton all humbled. The highlight of the game came as Best bore down on Wilson`s goal in the opening twenty minutes. Best had a way of feinting past a goalkeeper that fooled even the game`s finest custodians. But not Wilson, he torpedoed from his line at Best`s feet just as the Irishman threw the feint. Wilson emerged with the ball. Nobody outwitted Best in those situations. Wilson has a framed picture of the save in his house signed by Best. "Dear Bob, sooner or later you get a lucky one, George."
Wilson`s finest sporting achievement also came that season as Arsenal won a league and cup Double in 1971. Willow was named Supporters Player of the Year, even if he did blot his copybook somewhat by allowing Steve Heighway to score from a narrow angle in the Cup Final. His performances brought him to the attention of Scotland manager Tommy Docherty. FIFA changed the rules around eligibility, allowing players to represent their parents nation. Wilson`s Scottish parentage saw him selected for the Scots twice in 1970. He became the first English born player to represent Scotland since 1873.
But 1970 and 1971 were to represent the threshold of his playing career. In 1972, he was injured in the F.A. Cup semi final win over Stoke City. It prevented him from playing in the centenary final against Leeds. Once again, Willow would watch from the sidelines as a fellow Gunners keeper took the brickbats in defeat, Jeff Barnett this time allowing Alan Clarke`s header beyond his reach as Revie`s side won out. In 1974, at the tender age of 32, having only become professional ten years earlier, Wilson retired from playing as the Double side was broken up. But his career was far from winding down. Mee instantly offered him a role as Arsenal`s Goalkeeping coach. His jocular warmth was valuable on the training ground and as a trained teacher, he was a gifted communicator. He held the post of Arsenal goalkeeping coach until 2003, when his great friend and colleague David Seaman left for Manchester City.
But Wilson polished other skills to a high buff shine too. In his 1969 autobiography, Bob Wall perceptively studied an articulate interview Wilson gave to London Weekend Television. "He could perhaps make a mark on television and journalism." He did exactly that. Picking up on his avuncular, approachable style, BBC asked him to present Grandstand. He remained on BBC`s staff as a presenter, anchoring World Cups and England internationals for 20 years. In 1994, he made a big money move to ITV to front their new Champions League package. His soothing Derbyshire tones and ease of anecdote made him a familial presence in the nation`s living rooms. Arsenal too have benefitted from his comfort with a microphone, employing him on Arsenal TV, paying him to take stadium tours and to compeer just about any club event that demands one. He even narrated the 2004-05 season review DVD.
In the mid 80s, his playing career was fictionally revived by the popular comic strip Roy of the Rovers. A 44 year old Wilson won the Milk Cup with Melchester Rovers and set a record for clean sheets in a season! However, real life wasn`t as good to Bob as it ought to have been. In 1997, his daughter Anna was diagnosed a malignant schwannama- a kind of cancer of the nerve sheath. In December 1998, at the age of 32, Anna lost her fight. Bob`s public response was typically positive. He set up The Willow Foundation which focuses on helping young people diagnosed with life threatening illnesses. The charity began as a regional concern in Wilson`s Hertfordshire locality. But having retired from coaching and full time media commitments, Bob began to donate more of his time to the charity, which was relaunched nationally in 2005. Wilson was awarded an OBE in 2007 in recognition of his charity work.
Bob Wilson maintains a deep affection for the club he appeared for 308 times. Indeed, he shares the distinction with Pat Rice of having been involved on all three of Arsenal`s domestic doubles as player and coach. Bob often boasts about having 'N5` as part of his car number plate. He still attends every home game and can often be found fronting the Member`s Day Q & A`s as well as the club`s AGM. Wilson`s dulcet tones play ominously over the stadium tannoy as the player`s enter the pitch with his timeless quote, "It was this feeling you were wearing this big gun on your chest and everywhere you went, my word, you felt proud to be wearing it." Bob was voted by readers of arsenal.com as the 39th greatest player to ever represent the club. Whether as a fearless goalkeeper, a sapient goalkeeping coach, kindly stadium tour guide or renowned broadcaster, Wilson is very every inch part of Arsenal`s furniture and one of the greatest ambassadors Arsenal F.C. could ever ask for. LD.
If you would like to donate to the Willow Foundation, you can do so by following this link
With thanks to Jon Spurling's 'Highbury: The Story of Arsenal in N5' and 'Arsenal From the Heart' by Bob Wall.
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