Former goalkeeper and Co-Founder of the Willow Foundation Bob Wilson, who is into his 79th year, was an Arsenal legend. Having spent over eleven years with the Gunners and well over 300 appearances, he has also had to suffer the loss of his daughter and has bravely fought of prostate cancer back in 2014.
His main time now is spent committing himself to a charity that was set up by the Wilson Family. The Willow Foundation is now in it’s 21st year and like many other charities is feeling the effect of the economic situation we are all faced with.
“We are the only UK charity that gives special days to seriously ill people specifically in the age group 16-40.” he said. “We are in to our 21st year with Willow, but it is a difficult, challenging and worrying time at the moment with no money coming in.” “At this moment in time we have 600 of our special days on hold, with the beneficiary’s all of which have life threatening illnesses, and we are ourselves at the moment incredibly worried.”
“We have built the charity now to where we need over three million pounds every year to sustain where we are at.” he added, “We now do between 1,200 and 1,400 special days a year, we also have a staff of fourty odd along with five shops which are closed at the moment, we have rents to pay and we are not like the big charities and with regards help from the government we are not in the hospice area either, and we’ve got a battle on our hands at the moment.” “We do hope it will be sooner rather than later that we won’t have to do some fairly drastic things.” “At the moment we are assessing things from month to month.”
It was all down to his daughter Anna that the Willow Foundation was formed.
“Anna was a community nursing sister in Hertfordshire.” he said , “then one year into her marriage at the age of 26 she developed symptoms of short of breath, she was then diagnosed with one of the rarest cancers known to man- malignant schwannoma- 16 life saving operations later and chemotherapy.” “Unfortunately, Anna died six days before her 32nd birthday, and very poignantly she said to her mum, you mustn’t let this thing destroy you, use what you’ve learned.”
“Anna had this amazing philosophy of having fun, and her way of having fun was to always have something in her diary to look forward to, and if Anna had something to look forward to, her symptoms seemed not to disappear, but diminish.”
As regards his footballing career, he feels very lucky to have played the wonderful game.
“I’ve been one lucky boy because of things that have happened to me in my life.“ he said.”I had two heroes, my two eldest brothers who were killed in the war, a spitfire pilot and a rear gunner in a Lancaster.”
“From the time I signed on at Arsenal, I was there for 12 years.” “In the first year I was still the amateur schoolteacher, and I think I was the last amateur to play at the top level.” “I don’t think in the Premier League era we are ever going to see a school teacher who referees a game in the morning and then goes and plays at a ground in the afternoon, but that’s what I did on my debut for Arsenal against Nottingham Forest in the first division in 1963.”
He reflected on his best memories in an Arsenal shirt.
“Nothing could ever beat winning the league title at White Hart Lane on the very last game of the season.” he said, “we were 0-0 with eight minutes to go then Ray Kennedy scored a headed goal against Pat Jennings and that is without doubt the most memorable occasion for excitement, and we had a wonderful year the year before by winning the first European trophy at Arsenal, after no trophies for 17 years.” “Then of course five days later we achieved the double after beating Liverpool in extra time with Charlie George’s rocket shot and won 2-1 and that’s a very close second.”
In terms of differences to todays football in comparison to when he played.
“The massive difference to start with would be the pitch.” he said,” as we played in mud heaps, which wouldn’t be allowed to be played on now days.” “What needles me in the modern game is some of the playing out from the back.” “The goalkeeping situation to me is ridiculous.” “How many times do you actually score a goal from playing out at the back, it’s minimal.”
Bob was fortunate enough to be awarded the OBE back in 2007.
“It was an extraordinary thing to receive the letter.” He said, “but I will be honest with you it shouldn’t have gone to me in my opinion as it was for services to charity, and that really deserved to go to my wife who listened so carefully to what Anna had told us before she died and she put so much into creating Willow, and she deserved it more than me.”
Full interview with Bob Wilson