By Tony Attwood
The Billy Wright era ended in May 1966, so players signed before then were in theory at least signed by Billy Wright.
Although that statement is obvious, I think this is important because some interesting players were signed and started playing before May 1966 – players who are associated with Mee but who were there in the Wright reign.
Which leads to the question, was Wright just unlucky in that he was building a great squad but didn’t stay long enough to see them come through, or was it that the scouts were doing the business, but Wright just couldn’t make the team work?
Here are some players signed in the Wright era, with the season they played their first game…
- Jon Sammels 1962/3
- Ian Ure 1963/4
- Bob Wilson 1963/4
- Jim Furnell 1963/4
- Peter Simpson 1963/4
- John Radford 1963/4
- Don Howe 1964/5
- Frank McLintock 1964/5
- Peter Storey 1965/6
That is one hell of a list. Ure, Furnell and Howe didn’t make it to the Double season, but the rest did, which means that Mee did indeed inherit quite a squad.
Let’s start then with one of the two greatest ambassadors that Arsenal have ever had. The two men who been part of Arsenal’s heritage. One of course is George Allison. The other is Bob Wilson.
Bob Wilson went to Loughborough College (now university) to train as a teacher, before signing in 1963. Maybe that’s why I feel such an empathy with Bob – I trained as a teacher too, although sadly I didn’t have any talent as a footballer, and so the only time I got onto the pitch at Arsenal was for a five aside tournament.
But back to Bob. He had been playing reserve games for Wolverhampton and made his début for us while still having the status of an amateur. Indeed it is said that the £6000 we paid for him was the first transfer fee paid for an amateur.
His first game was against Forest in October 63 but he did not become the first choice keeper until 1968. It is suggested that a mistake by Jim Furnell in a cup match with Birmingham in 1968 meant another season with nothing to show, and that gave Bertie Mee a chance to bring Bob in, and Bob was given a chance to prove himself. So in this regard it was indeed Mee who made use of the resources at his disposal, setting aside one keeper signed in 1963 for another signed the same year.
Bob took his chance not only by staying in goal for the rest of that season but by keeping his place for the whole of the 1968-9 season. From this point on Bob Wilson was central to the show, and by the Double season he was probably the most mentioned Arsenal player alongside McLintock and Kennedy in the press reports of each match.
Bob also played two matches for Scotland under Tommy Docherty, on the grounds that his parents were born there, but a change in manager led to a feeling in Scotland that only “real” Scots should be used and Bob only got the two caps. He clearly should have had many more.
Bob suffered two long term injuries during his career, but remained the first choice until retiring at the age of 32. There has always been debate about why he stopped playing then – long before the normal retirement age for keepers. One possible reason that has always struck me was that he was amazing in diving at the feet of oncoming attackers. Indeed reading the press reports of his exploits 40 years on it is amazing that he only had two long-term injuries. At 32 maybe he feared that he really could do himself some harm as his reflex speed started to drop.
Thus he won the three trophies of the Mee Decade – the League, the FA Cup and the Fairs Cup.
Bob moved on to be goalkeeping coach at Highbury and stayed in that job at Arsenal until 2003 and so became one of only two men to be part of all three Arsenal Doubles. (The other is Pat Rice).
During his time as a player, Bob would regularly speak to the press and TV about the games he played in, (there was some amusement and disbelief in the press when he failed to do his usual analysis of the match following the 0-5 defeat to Stoke in the double season. Bob cited “technical difficulties), and he was also the business manager of the side for the 1972 cup final which he missed due to injury. He was a pundit on the 1970 World Cup for the BBC, and hosted Football Focus for the BBC, and then Champions League coverage on ITV.
A final note – and one thing I discovered in putting this little review together: one of Bob’s sons (John) is a presenter on Front Row on Radio 4. Well I never.
I know of course Bob won’t read this – there are billions of words about him everywhere and many much more insightful than my little piece – but even so, I’d like to say how much I like the man even though I have never met him. When I was teaching in north London I was told he would turn up at schools and give talks to the boys about life as a footballer – although sadly he didn’t do it at the schools I taught at. I have so many memories of watching him play, initially with my father by my side, and then with my mates. He is part of my life-memory.
Every memory of Bob is good. If only the world was always like this.
Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football. Have your name in the book as an official sponsor. Updated information here
When Arsenal and Fulham were within moments of merging into one club… full details in “Making the Arsenal”
The Bertie Mee Decade
Swindin, Wright, Mee: Out of the Darkness and Into the Light
Bertie – the life and times: The trophies, ballroom dancing, left hook and OBE
The First Double: a series of five quizzes to test your knowledge on 1971