Bob Wilson: Life is a struggle right now – but Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson have been brilliant

Bob Wilson at home in Dorset - Bob Wilson: Life is a struggle right now – but Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson have been brilliant

“It was like a scene from The Godfather – wake up, pillow covered in blood and ear hanging off,” says Bob Wilson, grimacing, as he recalls the injuries that came with being the bravest – Michael Parkinson would suggest “barmiest” – goalkeeper of his generation.

“We kicked lumps out of each other,” says Wilson. “I’ve got scars all over my head, two artificial hips, dislocated fingers, broken ribs, torn cartilage, dislocated shoulder, a broken elbow – but the one thing that made me stand out was the ability to dive head first at an attacker’s feet. It was my trademark. I played like my footballing hero Bert Trautmann.”

Bob Wilson and Peter Osgood in 1970
Wilson was known for his fearless approach in goal, seen here diving at the feet of Chelsea‘s Peter Osgood – Getty Images

It is striking, then, to hear how this symbol of football’s most physical era, a self-confessed “old school” professional long before he became best known for a stellar television career, assesses the current jewel in Arsenal’s crown.

“What drives me demented is we have one of the best young players and, if we aren’t careful, football will lose him by the time he is 24 or 25 because Bukayo Saka will have been kicked out of the game,” says Wilson.

“Referees don’t seem to see or understand it. There are always a minimum of two players within five yards of Saka and often a third. If they can’t stop him, they kick him.

“People say, ‘What do you mean? That’s too dramatic’. I say there has not been a more kicked player in the Premier League than Bukayo Saka. If he is facing in an attacking position, and he is taking them on, that is the time I worry. I really worry for Bukayo.”

The fear is also a consequence of how highly Wilson rates Saka, a winger he talks about in the same breath as Sir Stanley Matthews or any of the Arsenal Invincibles he knew personally while part of Arsene Wenger’s coaching staff. “I see Saka up with the greats… if he is not kicked out of the game,” says Wilson. “He is clever, dangerous, and knows when to release it. I love him on one side and [Gabriel] Martinelli, with his sheer pace, on the other.”

Bukayo Saka against Porto

Wilson is a huge fan of Bukayo Saka but is worried Arsenal’s new hero might get kicked out of the game too soon – Getty Images/Charlotte Wilson

‘It showed Arsenal’s class’

Wilson is now smiling at the thought of watching Mikel Arteta’s table-topping team but, throughout our three hours together inside his Dorset home, the distracting comfort that is provided by football can only ever be fleeting.

“I’m happy to be here, even though it’s a struggle at the moment,” he says, reflecting on a traumatic six months in which he lost Megs, his beloved wife and partner ever since they became boyfriend and girlfriend after taking title roles as The Princess and The Woodcutter at their primary school play aged 11 and 12.

They were together for exactly 70 years and, amid the still raw grief, there is also a resilience in Wilson’s determination to uphold a legacy that began some 25 years earlier.

Cancer had tragically also claimed their daughter, Anna, at the heartbreakingly young age of 31 and Megs became such a driving force behind their Willow Foundation charity that Wilson initially wanted to refuse his OBE in 2007 because it had not gone to his wife. “I said, ‘You deserve this more’. She went berserk. She said, ‘It’s not just for Willow, it’s what you have done in football’.”

Wilson dutifully performed a U-turn but the esteem in which Megs was held was evident from her recent Memorial Service at a full St Albans Cathedral. Arsenal also dedicated a full page of their matchday programme in her honour.

“It showed Arsenal’s class,” says Wilson. “Alex [Ferguson] drove four hours, came to the service, went back. I made sure Frank McLintock and George Graham were right by him. I got a message two days after from a close friend who said, ‘There were these three Scottish blokes in the row behind me and I gather one of them is very famous. Well, my husband and I could not understand one word they said!’”

Ferguson had shown similar empathy after Anna died in 1998, midway through Manchester United’s treble-winning season and a period when the rivalry with Arsenal – for whom Wilson was the goalkeeping coach – was at its zenith.

“Three nights after Anna died, the phone rang. ‘Hiya Bob, it’s Alex’. I was, ‘Alex??’ He was, ‘Yeah, Alex Ferguson’. He spoke to me, said, ‘You sound as if you are holding up but where’s Megs?’ He then spoke to her for 20 minutes. I’ll never forget that.”

Bob and Megs Wilson

Bob Wilson was with his wife Megs for 70 years – inseparable since primary school – Bob Wilson

The Wilsons at Highbury

The Wilsons – seen here at Highbury in 1969 – endured tragedy when Anna, seen here front right, died of cancer aged 31 in 1998 – Bob Wilson

On the day of my visit, Natasha Kaplinsky, Wilson’s old BBC Breakfast colleague, has just made what has become a weekly telephone call. Mary Nightingale and her husband Paul had recently visited while David Seaman and his wife Frankie have been over several times.

Such an eclectic breadth of wellwishers is a reminder not just of how Wilson makes friends wherever he goes but how he excelled, often in genuinely unique ways, across four quite distinct professions.

A man of many talents

Wilson began his working life as a PE teacher after being instructed by his father to turn down Matt Busby’s offer to join Bobby Charlton, Duncan Edwards and Nobby Stiles in the Manchester United youth team. “He said, ‘Son, football is not a proper job’. It broke my heart,” says Wilson.

And so his on-field career finally began when he became English football’s last top-flight amateur while making his debut in 1963 under Billy Wright. Wilson had taken the school football team to a match at Wormwood Scrubs earlier in the day. “But I couldn’t referee because I had to leave at half-time to get a taxi to Highbury,” he recalls.

The Arsenal years would peak with not missing a minute of the 1970-71 Double-winning campaign, when he was voted the club’s player of the year, before ending his on-field career in 1974 after being asked to present a new BBC show by the name of Football Focus.

Wilson would also front Match of the Day, Grandstand and Sportsnight before becoming the main face of ITV football in 1994. And all that while working as Arsenal’s goalkeeping coach for almost 30 years and mentoring the likes of Seaman, John Lukic and Pat Jennings. “Well, I liked to be busy,” he says.

Bob Wilson with Jim Rosenthal and Brian Moore

Wilson – seen here with Jim Rosenthal and Brian Moore – was a mainstay on TV screens throughout the 1980s, 90s, and early noughties on BBC and then ITV – PA

A typical day in the 1980s and 1990s went something like this: Alarm at 3.20am. In the BBC studio for 4.30am. On air at 6.30am for the first of three sports bulletins that he anchored for many years alongside another great friend in Jill Dando.

It was then away just after 8.30am. Arrive at Arsenal’s training ground for 9.15am. Train the goalkeepers before afternoons spent preparing or interviewing for Football Focus and Grandstand ahead of an evening match either in his capacity as a television presenter or an Arsenal coach.

‘Jimmy Hill was a law unto himself’

Despite the inevitably dwindling audience, he is pleased that Football Focus is still going 50 years after he became the show’s first presenter and then spent two solid decades in the chair. “I was 33 – I had injuries all over – and I said, ‘If I don’t take this opportunity now, it won’t come up again’,” he says. “Motty [John Motson] came up with the name Football Focus and I love the fact that it is still going. Long may it continue. Of course I watch. I’m always keen to see who is presenting sport and the manner in which they are presenting.

“It’s a brutal business. You are there to be shot at – we all had our own ways of presenting. You can’t all be like Des Lynam with that impish grin. David Coleman was a really up front presenter – someone I admired massively – who always thought I could do more and was the one who got me thinking about television. Frank Bough was instrumental in teaching me the mechanics of presenting.

“Jimmy [Hill] was a law unto himself. He always worked off the autocue – that was why he never presented Grandstand – and he failed to check his autocue one year on Match of the Day when the clocks went back.

“The ‘L’ was missing from ‘clocks’ so he was ‘That’s all from Bob and me tonight, hope you enjoyed it, and don’t forget to put your c—- back’. I could hear the gallery in hysterics but, by the time Jim realised, the music was going. Jimmy was brilliant – an amazing personality. I can still see that jaw of his.

“I think Alex [Scott] has done really well – the first female Football Focus presenter. Gary [Lineker]’s great timing was that he was starting when Des went [to ITV] and he has done absolutely amazing since.”

Wilson’s ability to write scripts and ad-lib meant that he also presented live sport, notably Grandstand but World Cups, the Olympics and memorably the London Marathon, where he revolutionised the coverage in his tracksuit and trainers. “I said, ‘Look, I’d like to run with them’. I was still fit enough. I’d pick them up on the upward slope of Tower Bridge, ask ‘Why are you dressed as a snowman?’ or whatever, shout, ‘Good luck, bye’ and then back over the bridge and pick up the next one. I was knackered by the end. The best one was when I started chatting and it was a Japanese fella. He was speaking back in Japanese.”

One particular Grandstand experience remains forever etched on his mind.

“I don’t think you can have anything more challenging than being in the chair, totally working off the top of your head, for the Hillsborough disaster,” says Wilson. “You had that developing, and we were showing the World Snooker Championships – both in Sheffield. I can still hear our producer saying, ‘There are now bodies outside’.

“I wasn’t allowed to say during the afternoon – the crowds were still there and they were worried about that – and only when we were about to go off air could we say that we have now heard that several people have lost their lives. Ultimately it was 97. It was dreadful… horrific. Some of the [Grandstand] team were crying. We knew it was a major, major disaster.”

‘I hit it off with Wenger right away’

Wilson’s 20 years at the BBC ended when ITV came in with a treble-your-money bid to front their football coverage. The BBC instantly agreed to match Wilson’s financial offer but Lynam would remain the lead football presenter. Wilson opted for the new challenge in an ambitious ITV team that acquired Champions League and FA Cup rights. It meant that Wilson was presenting when Manchester United beat Bayern Munich to so dramatically become European champions in 1999 but it would all again change five years later when Lynam was also poached from the BBC.

Wilson took legal advice over the abrupt end of his contractual role as ‘principal presenter of football’ and continued until 2002 but “says that was the end of my television career really”. There are no regrets. “I was 28 years on the box – Euros, World Cups and Olympics – I did OK and I loved the job,” he says. “It’s a cut-throat business…Des was recognised as the best presenter there had been.”

For all this time on television, Wilson was also Arsenal’s goalkeeper coach. His opening gambit when Jennings arrived from Tottenham in 1977 was simply, “Pat, I can’t teach you anything about goalkeeping – I’ve idolised you – but I’m here to help.”

He was the first specialist goalkeeping coach at any club and it would be an entirely voluntary position until Wenger personally insisted that Wilson be paid for his work.

Bob Wilson and David Seaman

Once he had finished presenting BBC Breakfast Wilson hotfooted it to the Arsenal training ground where he acted as goalkeeping coach and mentor to the likes of David Seaman – PA/Nick Potts

“I hit it off with Arsene right away,” says Wilson. “He’s a genius with professorial intelligence. It didn’t matter what topics you turned to – politics, football, just something in everyday life – he had an opinion that made you think. He has the most extraordinary brain and is so humble. We have an amazing new stadium – a huge part of Arsene’s legacy.”

Now aged 82, Wilson has been afforded the privilege of a life-time invite to that stadium and he does not intend to miss any games of this season’s knife-edge finale, partly because he knows that Megs would want him there. He then again smiles as he recounts the welcome he invariably receives across the directors’ lounge from a certain Ian Wright – “PRIMROSE!!” – in reference to a middle name that, according to family tradition, was his mother’s maiden name.

It was a fate he shared with most of his siblings and, as I leave, Wilson points out some family photographs which include the poignant image of two men in service uniform hanging above the stairs.

“My heroes are two guys I never knew,” he says, pointing. “My brothers Jock and Billy. I was four months old when Jock was shot down and killed in his Spitfire. He was head boy at his school. And I was two when Billy died as rear gunner in his Lancaster.

“My mother was so proud of them. Ultimately Hitler and that regime were booted out, and it was thanks to hundreds of thousands of guys like Jock and Billy. Nineteen-years-old, and their lives were over. They will always be my heroes. Whatever I do will never come near what those guys did.”

And, as Wilson now adjusts to this new phase of an extraordinary life, there is a particular focus. “Anna was an amazing girl – only married a year or so when she was diagnosed – and she lived much longer than they expected,” he says. “It was Megs who said, ‘Why don’t we do something in Anna’s memory so it’s not wasted?’ The Willow Foundation give special days to seriously ill young adults between the ages of 16 and 40. Anna taught us that quality of time and quality of life is paramount. We saw a noticeable uplift – like an adrenaline rush – whenever she had a special occasion to look forward to.

“The charity was built out of a bedroom and we are up to 21,000 special days given now. I’ve got to go back on the road and do some fundraising. It was Anna’s legacy. And it is Megs’ legacy now too.”

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