Bert Williams: Footballer who was central to Wolves' glory years of the mid-'50s and became England's oldest living international

 

Bert Williams of Wolverhampton Wanderers and England, the oldest surviving England international, was one of the most spectacularly acrobatic goalkeepers the domestic game has ever known, and rejoiced in the nickname of "The Big Cat". In his fanatical quest for fitness he would often walk the several miles between home and training ground, striding on tiptoe for most of the distance as a means of strengthening his calves and thus reducing his reaction time when making saves. When recovering from serious injury he would repeatedly dive full-length on to concrete to test his progress; and as a diminutive youngster yearning to be a few inches taller he spent hours hanging from door-frames attempting to stretch himself.

It was that level of dedication allied to tremendous natural ability which moved Wolves' demanding manager, Stan Cullis, a man accustomed to dispense praise sparingly or not at all, to describe him as "the most brilliant of all English goalkeepers." That opinion was shared by the Italian national side, who came up with the feline sobriquet "Il Gattone" after he had given a superlative display to prevent them becoming the first foreigners to win on English soil.

On a foggy afternoon at White Hart Lane in November 1949 the visitors' slick attack waltzed through the hosts' lumbering defence seemingly at will, only to be denied by breathtaking saves from Williams. After he had appeared to parry one goal-bound drive by changing direction in mid-air, the Italian forwards threw up their arms in disbelief; his heroics were rendered all the more meaningful when England stole victory with two late goals.

Though he was recognised by most impartial judges as the natural successor to the majestic Frank Swift, there were detractors who criticised Williams as being unnecessarily flashy.But it is inconceivable that the earthy Cullis would have had any truck with an exhibitionist, and the blond Midlander's minded Wolves' net throughout the most glorious period in the Black Countrymen's history up to that point.

Williams' first League club was Walsall, with whom he became associated as a promising 15-year-old, albeit one who stood only 5ft 2in, in 1935. He signed amateur forms a year later and he had grown by the time he made his Third Division South debut in 1937-38, though not even his rigorous and unorthodox exercise regime would ever take him beyond 5ft 101/2in. Still, he shaped up impressively at Fellows Park, making 26 senior appearances while benefiting enormously from the attention of two former goalkeepers, manager Harry Hibbs, England's finest during his Birmingham City heyday between the wars, and coach Harry Waite.

During the conflict Williams served in the RAF as a physical training instructor and afterwards was sought by several big clubs, including Chelsea, but in September 1945 Walsall struck a deal with Wolverhampton Wanderers, the £3,500 fee a record for a keeper at the time. At Molineux he flourished apace, his background as a schoolboy sprinter becoming apparent – for several seasons he was the quickest player on the staff.

As well as embarrassing his outfield colleagues in training, his fleetness of foot enabled him to leave his line at startling speed and to intercept crosses which seemed to be out of reach. A graceful and adventurous stylist, he also possessed the strength to withstand the heavy challenges from which goalkeepers were not protected by referees in that era, and he was unfailingly courageous.

Williams graduated straight to the first team and retained his place for the next dozen seasons, playing more than 400 times for one of the dominant postwar footballing powers. The highlights were winning the FA Cup in 1949, beating Leicester City 3-1 at Wembley, and lifting the League championship in 1953-54, though there was also immense kudos in a series of pioneering floodlit friendlies against top continental opposition in the mid-1950s. Williams was involved in rousing triumphs over Spartak Moscow, Moscow Dynamo and Honved, the crack Hungarian Army team.

In the international arena he got off to the worst possible start when he conceded a soft goal after 28 seconds of his England debut, against France in Paris in May 1949. Possibly his acknowledged tenseness before matches had played a part in that, but he demonstrated his doughty mettle by turning in a splendid display as his side recovered to win 3-1.

Thereafter Williams, who had represented his country in four wartime games for which caps were not awarded, and also enjoyed outings with England "B" and the Football League, cemented his place with further exemplary showings, though more trauma lay ahead.

During the 1950 World Cup finals in Brazil, England were beaten 1-0 by the United States at Belo Horizonte, and there were observers who felt the keeper was partly to blame for the goal. In fact, it was a freak: Williams had covered a speculative shot, and the USA's Joe Gaetjens ducked but failed to evade the ball, which glanced off him and into the net. In 1951 he was replaced by Birmingham's Gil Merrick and it was not until 1954, when he hit superb form during Wolves' title-winning campaign, that he regained it, winning the last of his 24 caps against Wales in 1955 at the age of 35.

That Indian summer was all the more creditable in view of Williams' remarkable comeback from a shoulder injury, sustained in 1952. For a time he lost all feeling in his arm and there were even fears that he might be disabled for life. He embarked on a severe fitness programme which preserved his club place, though it took an immense effort of will to overcome anxiety about suffering further harm.

After retirement in 1957 he ran a successful sports goods business in his hometown of Bilston, and launched a goalkeeping school, which foundered in 1971. That was a frustration which upset him deeply, as he felt passionately that his project was on the right lines – indeed, 13 of his first 24 pupils later joined League clubs. He was an enthusiastic member of the Wolves Former Players Association, serving a stint as president.

Bertram Frederick Williams, footballer: born Bilston, Staffordshire 31 January 1920; played for Walsall 1935-45, Wolverhampton Wanderers 1945-57; capped 24 times by England 1949-55; MBE 2010; died 19 January 2014.

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