Bob Wilson: I fear Arsenal are the 'nearly team'

Gunners legend says Wenger will never have a side to match Invincibles – but we will miss him when he's gone.
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The Independent Football

It has been a painful fortnight for 69-year-old Bob Wilson. There have been training stints of up to 30 miles for his forthcoming charity cycle ride to every Premier League ground; a back spasm from playing golf; and, of course, heartache caused by Arsenal, whom he served for almost 40 years as goalkeeper and coach.

The bike ride aims to raise at least £250,000 for the Willow Foundation, set up after the death from cancer of his daughter Anna at the age of only 31. His doctor said that a knee which will eventually need replacing "should just get me round" the 600 miles and, looking at the x-rays, asked when he broke his leg.

Wilson had no knowledge of having done so, and was startled to be told there was a clear stress fracture, which he now realises must have occurred "when Alan Gilzean, who didn't like me, volleyed me across the leg in the dirtiest-ever North London derby, the League Cup semi-final against Tottenham in 1969".

Arsenal came through that tie of "unabashed hatred", yet somehow managed to lose the Wembley final against Third Division side Swindon Town when a mix-up between Wilson and centre-half Ian Ure gave Swindon's Don Rogers the opening goal. History repeated itself two weeks ago as Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny handed Birmingham the trophy in identical fashion.

Since then, Arsène Wenger's team dropped points to Sunderland in controversial fashion, causing Wilson to remount a hobby horse about technology dating from his time as a TV presenter – "rugby has it 100 per cent correct" – and, of course, there was elimination from the Champions' League the night before Spurs reached the quarter-final.

After yesterday's FA Cup defeat to Manchester United, which was the third cup competition that they have been knocked out of within two weeks, Wilson asks: "Is this team that's grown together and is the youngest in the League going to be the nearly team? Or can they crack that first trophy that would open the door for more?" Whichever outcome materialises, he would happily hold up the banner regularly seen at the Emirates Stadium which reads: "In Arsène We Trust."

"For me as a fan, I just think we'll only really understand what Arsène contributed when he's gone," Wilson says. "The Invincibles season of 2004 was one of the greatest feats ever in British football and I never felt he got sufficient credit for that. I'm sure that in the summer two or three players will go and two or three will come, including one huge signing, because of the healthy way the club is run. They're still a terrific side."

Not quite as terrific, he readily admits, as Barcelona – "probably the best side I've ever seen" – even if the most bizarre thing about Tuesday's game was that Arsenal were one lucky break away from going through on aggregate. He does, however, make a shrewd point about the Catalan team and their coach Pep Guardiola: "I think he has a problem, which is that just as Arsène is never going to have a side to match the Invincibles, Pep won't ever have one either to match the current side."

His admiration for Wenger sets aside the occasional disagreements between them in his long stint as the club's goalkeeping coach, most notably over the manager's preference for foreign keepers like Rami Shaaban and the long-forgotten Gus Warmuz ahead of young English prospects. Wilson is generous in his assessment of the current crop, even if the four senior goalkeepers on Arsenal's books are all foreign.

"I think Szczesny will be Arsenal's goalie for quite a few years. His size is a huge advantage at 6ft 5in and he's a cheeky lad with huge confidence. It was an awful way to lose the Carling Cup final, though I think Koscielny could have volleyed clear. Having said that, Lukasz Fabianski was being pretty solid until his long-term injury. Then Manuel [Almunia] did exceptionally well when he came on the other night. I'd thought of him mainly as a shot-stopper but he had three or four really good blocks to keep them in with a slight chance."

The close-range block, more than a flying save, is still what excites Wilson most, being as much of a trademark for his own career as the rolled-up sleeves. Throwing himself at the feet of onrushing opponents brought him a punctured lung, a broken arm, eight broken ribs, an almost severed ear and – it now transpires, courtesy of Gilzean – a fractured leg. He did at least avoid the broken neck sustained in the same manner by the man who was his early and enduring hero, Manchester City's German keeper Bert Trautmann.

Trautmann was an unlikely choice to idolise for someone whose two older brothers had both been killed in the war, causing their father and grandfather lifelong dislike of Germans. Wilson, however, was captivated by the former POW who won over Manchester hearts as well, and he needed no second bidding to take part in a documentary about him to be shown on the Yesterday channel on 24 March.

"My hero was this guy who dived headlong at people's feet and totally inspired me. It's a great story. When he initially received all the abuse after signing for City, it was a rabbi who helped him by saying publicly that he could be a good man.

"And I loved the quote from the journalist Frank McGhee, who wrote that Bert kept his German nationality because he felt that what a man is is more important than where he was born."

British teams in Europe

Champions' League:


Manchester United v Marseille (Sky Sports 2, 7.45)

United have been beaten before after a goalless draw in the away leg, so they should be forearmed for atie in which Rio Ferdinand and Nani will still be missing. "Defence is the key," says their manager Sir Alex Ferguson, which may mean not being too gung-ho early on and risking conceding an away goal.


Chelsea v Copenhagen (ITV1, 7.45)

Confirmation that Chelsea had been favoured with the easiest draw in this round was provided by their comfortable 2-0 win in the first leg and they seem certain to join United, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid as winners of this week's ties. Carlo Ancelotti could even offer experience to some of his squad players.

Europa League:


Liverpool v Braga (Five, 8.05)

Had Liverpool, like Manchester City, conceded a second goal in their away leg last Thursday, they would have been in equally serious trouble. They had a bad first half in Portugal and will be grateful that Braga, who were beaten 6-0 at Arsenal this season, do not enjoy trips to England.

Manchester City v Dynamo Kiev (ESPN, 6.0)

There is a big week ahead for City, who are seeking places in the FA Cup semi-final and the last eight of the Europa League followed by a trip to Chelsea in the League next Sunday. The prelude was poor, however, in going 2-0 down to former Chelsea man Andrei Shevchenko's boys, who must be favourites to qualify.

Rangers v PSV Eindhoven (8.05)

The goalless draw in Holland was an excellent result for Rangers, who must have been pleased that their goalkeeper Neil Alexander had so little to do. Marcelo squandered the Dutch side's best chance with a wasteful header, leaving them fearful of the outcome in Glasgow.

Steve Tongue