James Rowe spoke to Arsenal legend Bob Wilson, exclusively for WFi. They discussed his hero Bert Trautmann, the advice he was able to pass on the David Seaman and Pat Jennings as a coach, and his time playing for Scotland.
You are well known from your time as a goalkeeper at Arsenal, Bob, having spent 11 years at the club. Firstly I want to ask you about the 1970/ 71 season. What qualities and characteristics did that group of players have in order to go on to achieve a domestic league and cup double?
“Before the 1970 / 71 season we had been to two League Cup finals and lost both. One of them absolutely miserably against Swindon Town, famously on a pitch that would have never been allowed nowadays. The match was played after the Horse of the Year Show and we discovered that the pitch was a muddy field.
“On the day Swindon Town deserved their win but I have always believed that the criticism we received from the 1969 League Cup final defeat was the starting point for what happened immediately afterwards.
“Everybody said things such as ‘shame of North London’ and we were slaughtered without people taking into consideration the conditions.
“We had a group of players lead by our captain Frank McLintock who were absolutely determined that the bad headlines would be stuffed down their throats.
“The team became like a family with intentions to prove people wrong, and the next season Arsenal won the first European trophy in their history and the first trophy in 17 years.
“On the way to winning the Fairs Cup, we beat a Johan Cruyff inspired Ajax team in the semi-final, and then beat Anderlecht in the final which became a forerunner for what happened in the ’70/71 season.”
“In all honesty you could never call us the most attractive side to watch. We had a great defence that did not let in many goals. I believe we let in 26 goals in the league all season.
“You are never going to win anything if you do not have a solid defence. Okay, you have to score the goals, but it should always be based on your strengths.
“We were an incredible group and we have to give credit to the two guys at the top in Bertie Mee and Don Howe.
“Our Manager, Bertie Mee, was a scholar and a gentleman. He was a great one with words, motivating you, as opposed to Don Howe who he had alongside him and who is without doubt one of the greatest coaches ever.
“He was in your face all the time and he proved that later in his career going with Bobby Gould to Wimbledon and winning the FA Cup in 1989.
“You had to respect and be able to stand up to Don Howe and a lot of players went under because they were not able to fight back.
“The inspirational talk came from manager Bertie Mee, When we were getting very close to winning that double he had us in the dressing room and talked about putting ourselves in the history books and what this would mean as an individual and to the supporters.
“He was sort of Churchillian in the manner in which he spoke, especially in the last week leading up to the double, because it was Tottenham on the Monday night and Liverpool in the FA Cup Final on the Saturday.”
I wanted to follow on and ask about your time as a goalkeeping coach at Arsenal. You trained some of the greatest goalkeepers in Arsenal’s history, such as Pat Jennings and David Seaman. Did you have a specific way of being able to encourage and help tremendous goalkeepers such as Jennings and Seaman?
“The great advantage for me, of learning a trade and becoming a school teacher before entering football, helped me because there is very little difference between being a school teacher and being a coach.
“There have been no changes in the basics of goalkeeping since day one. You are in the massive great cage 192 square feet, eight yards by eight feet, and what I tried to do was that I never had a set style for my goalkeepers.
“In other words, I had to assess what they were like individually. Take for instance, David Seaman. I remember saying to George Graham ‘If you sign David Seaman you are signing a goalkeeper that will go on to play for England’.
“I had a style that was like my hero Bert Trautmann: crazy, head-on, prepared to get injured. My style worked for me and although I sustained massive injuries such as a punctured lung, and a broken arm etc. My style was totally different to say a David Seaman or a Pat Jennings.
“I had both of those under me at Arsenal. I remember saying to Pat Jennings when he arrived: ‘There is nothing that I can teach you.’
“I would analyze very quickly the style of a goalkeeper and then I would hone in on their strengths and weaknesses.
“In the modern game, they are now playing with a ball that moves all over the place just when hitting it hard. I also used to look for the ‘diamond in their game’ of the goalkeepers I coached. The thing that made them truly outstanding.
“Both those goalkeepers were calm and had incredible presence. The word for goalkeepers when you are in this massive area is presence.
“Do you have a presence when you are in that goal? Do you look scared or agitated? Every goalkeeper has their own style. I loved my coaching and I miss it too.”
You were capped by Scotland on two occasions against Portugal and the Netherlands. How do you look back on your time representing Scotland?
“The first thing to say is that everybody always asks me ‘how come you played for Scotland?’ I played for England schoolboys with Nobby Stiles. The rule back then was you could only play for the country in which you were born.
“In 1971 the rule changed. My mother and father were so Scottish till the day they died, and the whole of the Wilson family were Scottish.
“My middle name is ‘Primrose’, where the tradition in Ayrshire was receiving your Mother’s maiden name.
“It was an amazing thing to be eligible to play for Scotland but it was really difficult when I got picked because the Glasgow press had a go, stating that this is not right, and ‘listen to him speak’.
“If you heard the way my mother and father spoke you’d understand my Scottish blood. It was my uncle John who was the Lord Provost of Perth who had a right go at the Scottish papers and said: ‘Look, the whole of his family and the Wilson family are Scottish, and that this is great ruling.’
“When I played at Hampden Park in that first international against Portugal nobody knew, including the Scottish press, that the stadium had been opened by my great uncle, Sir John Ure Primrose, who was the Lord Provost of Glasgow and the chairman of Glasgow Rangers. He opened the stadium in 1902.
“I never knew him but people would talk about it when they found out. They warmed to me after that.
“During that first game when I lined up in the tunnel I looked to my right and there was Eusebio captaining Portugal. He went off at half- time and we won the game 2-1.
“Then my second international was against a Johan Cruyff inspired Netherlands team in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. We lost in the very last seconds of that game. It was just after that I sustained the cartilage injury which led to the end of my career.
“Tommy Doherty would still include me even though I was injured, just to be around the squad, as he saw me as the future.
“But he then became manager of Manchester United and Willie Ormond became manager of Scotland and he, I don’t think, agreed with the ruling.
“Even though I played up to the World Cup in 1974, I was never included in one of his squads. I have never really spoken about it but I was aggrieved that Willie Ormond never came to watch me play.”
How do you feel that the game has changed since your playing days?
I think the first thing you have to say is the disturbing side, having just seen the [Mesut] Ozil and [Sead] Kolasinac situation.
“Also, let me give you an example of monetary change. As you know my wife Megs and I set up a charity when we lost our daughter Anna. A little while ago we were having one of our fundraising events. I was on the finishing line and a guy in his 20’s came up with his Mum & Dad and said: ‘Bob, Can I ask you a question? When you finished playing did you ever have to work again?’
“I replied: ‘I retired in 1974 which was a long time ago.’
“I asked him: ‘I was the highest-paid player at Arsenal at that time. So what do you think my salary was?’
“He replied: ‘6,000 – 8, 000 pounds a week.’
“I replied: ‘How about 130 pounds a week, which was a top salary at Arsenal in 1974.’
“He looked at me and said: ‘I am not sure I believe you.’
“I said: ‘I am telling you the truth, but we also received bonuses four pounds for a win and two pounds for a draw!’
“So what I was trying to say was that the game now in that respect, and which television has created means that the current day players are very lucky.
“I believe that most of them do understand how fortunate they are. All the youngsters think they are going to be the next world star player, benefitting with the great financial side of the game.
“Everyone player of my era had to go out and find a job. I was fortunate to go into television for 28 years so I was able to earn a living. The financial side of it has become the biggest change.
“From a goalkeeper’s point of view, the crazy thing is the ball that they play with now which bears no resemblance to the ball we played with, other than the shape. So if somebody like Alan Woodwood or Martin Chivers smashed the ball, and who could really hit a thick leather ball at you, the ball never moved in the air.
“Nowadays if you apply the same power, on its way it will go up or down, north, south, east, and west in its movement.
“But you don’t know as a goalkeeper what it is. Before, during, and after my era, you prided yourself on being able to catch everything, but today with any amount of power on a ball, goalkeepers do not attempt to catch it.
“So from a goalkeepers point of view, the game has massively changed. You have also asked me at a time when VAR has come into play and there will be teething problems. If they can get it like it is in rugby and cricket, great.
“I thought VAR decisions on the opening day of the Premier League were a farce. Because of the money in football, it is now about bums on seats and getting the crowd in and entertainment, and you would not get that unless you get goals.
“So they have a ball that creates problems for goalkeepers and brings errors into play.
“They are looking for areas to try and make sure that you get more goals to make sure that people come and watch the game. So although I am for some of the changes I think they have got to be really sensible and assess very carefully that they do not ruin the purpose of the game that we have loved since 1880.”
Finally Bob, As someone who once coined the phrase ‘once an Arsenal man always an Arsenal man,’ what are your thoughts on how the club is at this moment in time?*
“I don’t think there had been much of a change from the Arsene Wenger era. They reached the Europa League final, and I accompanied the club to Baku.
“Chelsea were there for the taking and Arsenal played it almost like it was a practice game. It was disappointing. The biggest disappointment was our defence, which I mentioned during your first question.
“Look at Liverpool with Virgil van Dijk. Manchester United have gone for Harry Maguire. Arsenal had a defence that conceded 50 goals last season — just unbelievable really.
“Yes, they got to the final of a major competition and had there been VAR they would have been two points ahead of Spurs, not one point behind them, due to Jan Vertonghen clearing the ball after the penalty save by encroaching four yards.
“Arsene Wenger is a hard act to follow with everything he achieved and everything he changed in the game. For me, Arsene Wenger will always be one of the greatest men that I have ever met in my life, as a thinker, individual and as a human being.
“I am not saying that it was not time for him to go, but I loved Arsene Wenger in all sorts of ways. What he brought to the game in this country and what he achieved at Arsenal, winning ten major trophies in 20 years.
“When you think back to us winning the Fairs Cup in 1970, that was the first trophy that Arsenal had won in 17 years.
“I owe so much to Arsenal. When I arrived at the club I always liked the family aspect and the pride. I can’t tell you how many times ex-players, and guys that move on from the club, are in touch to say they never forget how Arsenal did things.
“The way we travelled, flew, the hotels we stayed in… Whether we were winning trophies or not there was an Arsenal way of doing things.
“What has heartened me is our recent transfer window. Attack wise with Nicolas Pepe and defensively with David Luiz, who is a personality in the dressing room.
“Peter Cech was crucial as the experienced guy in the dressing room. He would always have a say and you have got to have people like that. A modern-day Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira, or Frank McLintock in my time.
“We did not care too much when we played how we won, although the game has changed where you now have to try and entertain.
“We took the league title by winning matches 1-0. In our double-winning season of 1971, we only let in 26 goals in 42 games, not 38 games like there are now.”
*This interview took place before Unai Emery was sacked as Arsenal manager.