From the past or present, we catch up with a different Fulham personality. This week, Dennis Turner talks to Robert Wilson.
Supporters have a special affection for players who are born locally and come through the ranks of our junior sides, but it’s something of a decreasing trend in modern football. However, Robert Wilson was one of a number of home-grown youngsters who made the breakthrough in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when our youth scheme seemed to provide the nucleus of our first team.
Now a professional northerner - “with a flat cap and a couple of whippets to prove it,” he claims, Robert was happy to look back on his two spells at the Cottage, two contrasting periods during which he made 256 appearances in midfield.
“I was born in Fulham and was a supporter as a boy,” Robert said. “My Dad took me to Chelsea, where we used to watch the likes of Bobby Tambling from the Shed, me perched on my Dad’s shoulders. But my Mum, one brother and I were all Fulham fans. I played schools football for St Edmund’s and represented West and Inner London Schools and I used to get time off from school to play. I joined Fulham as a 16-year-old in 1977, when Ken Craggs was in charge of the youth side and from there the likes of Tony Gale, Dean Coney, Paul Parker, Jeff Hopkins, Jim Stannard, Peter Scott, John Marshall and many others all progressed to the league team.
“Bobby Campbell was the Manager who gave me my opportunity in the first team. He put me in for a cup tie at Blackburn Rovers in January 1980 and said I was to keep an eye on someone named Howard Kendall. We got a draw that day. I then got a handful of games in the rest of that season, but it was a difficult time. We ended up being relegated with a pretty good set of players. Nobody can really explain why we went down that year, but when the 1980/81 started, I was in the team.
“A couple of months later, Bobby was gone and Malcolm Macdonald took over. He brought in several coaches, first Roger Thompson and then George Armstrong and Ray Harford, who all helped turn things around. By the following season, we were pushing for promotion and I missed very few games. The midfield was Sean ‘Noisy’ O’Driscoll, me, Ray Lewington and Peter O’Sullivan and between us we got 17 goals as well as creating chances for Dixie [Coney] and Gordon Davies up front.
“That was a good team, as we proved the following season. We won our first away game at Shrewsbury Town 1-0, a match that has special memories for me. I got the only goal, and it was probably the best one I ever scored. Malcolm likened it to Ricky Villa’s goal for Tottenham Hotspur that won the FA Cup against Manchester City. I remember going past player after player and then slipping the ball into the net. I’ve got some newspaper cuttings of the match but no film. I really wish I could see that again. I also remember getting two goals against Grimsby Town and two against Carlisle United in the run-in.”
But the story of that season was, of course, how we fell away in the closing weeks and squandered a 12-point lead. In the end, we finished fourth, a point behind promoted Leicester City having looked odds-on favourites for most of the season.
“I don’t think we bottled it,” Robert claimed. “The pressure probably did get to one or two of the players but there were some key events which cost us. Early in the season, we led Barnsley 3-0 at Oakwell but somehow managed to lose 4-3. Then, over Easter, we went to Sheffield Wednesday and I got a goal which looked to have earned us a vital draw. But in the very last minute we conceded a goal which cost us a valuable point. Then, 48 hours later, we had to play Queens Park Rangers on the plastic at Loftus Road and Lew was harshly sent off. We lost that 3-1. I know most people still think the Leicester game was the turning point but we still could have made it after even after that defeat. Those two Easter games meant we were always chasing the third promotion place.
“And then came the Derby County fiasco, which I saw again recently on television on the Big Match Revisited. It really was a frightening experience and several of us were roughed up by the crowd. To have spectators forming the touchlines was ridiculous and would never be allowed today. Even the referee said he hadn’t played the full 90 minutes. We were certainly intimidated but, in truth, we never looked like winning and only had a couple of shots on goal. Malcolm pressed really hard to have the match re-played and I went up to League HQ with him and Jeff Hopkins but in our heart of hearts we knew we were clutching at straws.”
Not surprisingly, the Macdonald team lost momentum after that near miss. It took several months to get going again the next season, the highlight of which was three League Cup ties against Liverpool.
“We were all devastated after missing out on promotion,” admitted Robert. “But at least against Liverpool we showed there was real quality in the side. I have a photo from the Anfield match with me challenging Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson. That’s a great memory.”
Soon after that, Macdonald went and the team broke up, prematurely from the point of view of Fulham supporters. Robert joined the exodus. “My contract was up,” he explained. “And I was looking for a better deal. I spoke to Lennie Lawrence at Cardiff City but George Graham persuaded me to sign for Millwall. They had just been promoted to the (old) Second Division and had some very good players, like Neil Ruddock and John Fashanu. A young Teddy Sheringham was used as an occasional substitute in those days. We finished ninth and I got 12 goals in 28 league appearances. The crowd at the old Den were hard to please and I think I did reasonably well. But in the summer of 1986, George Graham went off to Arsenal and I didn’t really see eye to eye with his successor, John Docherty. So, hearing I was unhappy, Ray Harford called me and it suited everybody that I moved on to First Division Luton Town.
“Ray was coach at Kenilworth Road and John Moore was manager and there were some good players there, with big reputations and big egos. Although I wasn’t a regular, I really enjoyed playing in the top flight and scored on my home debut – a header past Peter Shilton against Southampton. After a while, Ray took over as manager. It wasn’t an easy job and he was under pressure and I found I was getting subbed a lot. He took me off in a midweek game and I made a silly gesture to show my disapproval. I regretted doing it, but it was frustration as much as anything but it annoyed the Luton chairman who didn’t want me in the side again. Ray did pick me, however, although it was difficult for him.
“I played against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and Lew was watching. By then he was back at Fulham as Player-Manager and phoned to see whether I fancied going back. He, Jim Stannard and Ivor [Davies] had all gone back and I think Ray wanted people around him he could trust.
“People say you should never go back, and it was different, but I still enjoyed it. We made the Play- Offs in my second season back but blew up against Bristol Rovers. It was Lew’s first managerial role and a tough job. I think we felt he didn’t have an entirely free hand which made his job even harder, but he’s done well since and I’m delighted for him.”
There were two more moves for Robert in the league; Huddersfield Town in 1989 and then Rotherham United in 1991. “At Huddersfield, Eoin Hand was in charge with Peter With as his assistant and it was an ambitious club,” he recalled. “We came close to the Play-Offs when I was there but only made it the year after I left.
“At Rotherham, we did win promotion in my only season there, from the Fourth to the Third Division. After that, I went non-League, on a part-time basis, with Altrincham Town, Osset Albion and Accrington Stanley. But a neighbour of mine had a company involved in workwear and offered me a job and I got involved in selling. That lasted 12 years and then I went to another company making similar but a wider range of products. Football was always part of the conversation when I was selling and I found people loved talking about it.”
Leaving football after his playing days ended is a decision Robert now regrets. “I wanted a break,” he explained. “I’d done nothing else since I left school and had moved around the country a lot with the various transfers. But I’d done all my coaching badges and should have thought about coaching earlier. But I wasted a few years until, in 1999, I got invited back to Huddersfield to help on the youth development side.
“This was only part-time but I loved doing it and we were successful. In the seven years I was there, we had high-profile managers like Neil Warnock and Steve Bruce and we worked hard to get the club its academy licence. Gerry Murphy was the main man on the youth side until Andy Ritchie came in as manager. He changed things a lot. Gerry got sacked, and a lot of youngsters were released he hadn’t even seen play, including my son Adam. I know letting players go is all part of the job, and more are released than make it, but it got me thinking whether I wanted to be part of this system. So I decided to take a step back. I didn’t have a falling out with the club and they’ve asked me back since but I’d had enough.
“Instead, I watch Adam in non-League football with Brighouse Town and my company also has season tickets at Old Trafford. I watch Fulham whenever I can and will be at the Reading game with my son. We both followed the Club all round Europe in 2009/10 but had to miss the Final because my daughter was getting married a couple of days later and she was worried we wouldn’t get back in time.
“Fulham still means a lot to me. My Mum lives in the area and a brother is a Season Ticket Holder and every time I go back I’m reminded what a friendly Club it is and how welcoming the supporters are. I think Martin Jol is doing a terrific job, gradually fashioning the side the way he wants it. On more limited resources than many Premier League clubs, Fulham continues to punch above its weight. I look back on my time at the Cottage with great affection. I scored 75 first-class goals - and probably got as many bookings - in over 400 appearances, a record I’m proud of, and the Fulham years were very special.”