Robert Wilson was not only a big part of one of Fulham’s most iconic teams under Malcolm MacDonald, he is also a Fulham fan through and through. Fulham Focus’ Daniel Smith caught up with the former midfielder to look back at his memories of representing his boyhood club…
DS – Robert, what was Malcolm MacDonald like as a manager?
RW – Well, Supermac, what can I can say other than it was a great time for me and many of the lads! He came in on the back of the outgoing Bobby Campbell who I have the upmost respect for as he gave me my debut at 18 away at Blackburn in Jan 1980 in the FA cup tie. My job was to man-mark their player-manager, Howard Kendall, who went on to manage Everton very well but has now sadly passed away.
Malcolm was very good with the lads, liked the banter but had the very good coach Ray Harford (another who sadly passed away and another manager I went on to play for at Luton Town in the first division who I had so much respect for as a fantastic coach.) The training most of the week was taken by Ray. Malcolm was there now and then, it was just a rumour that he only ever turned up on Fridays for our famous 5 a sides which were very competitive and set us for Saturday’s game. Make no mistake about it Malcolm deserves the credit he should get for that team and those 2 years he gave us the confidence to play the way we did and I know the first year was great in that magical night at home v Lincoln getting promoted. Then going into the following season in the second division and as we all know doing so well and going so so close.
DS – Despite not being born until some 5 years later, I know from my Mum & Dad telling me thousands of times what you mean by so so close. So that leads perfectly to the next question. From a players perspective, what was that Derby game like? In particular being kicked by a fan as you went to take a throw in?
RW – The Derby game is still very much in my mind and that of many players and supporters and family members who were all there. If I was honest we should never have been in that situation as we blew many games before that. People talk about the Leicester home game then the bank holiday weekend of the Sheffield Wednesday away and QPR games but hey, we went there with a chance at Derby.
I can remember the build-up was as normal as usual, everyone was as relaxed as they could be. Derby needed to stay up which didn’t help us and once the game started it was a very tense atmosphere. On the day we were not at our most fluent and maybe the nerves got to us but that last 15-20 mins was unreal. I have never played in or seen such scenes like it. I noticed fans were slowly being let out of the penned gates and encroaching around the pitch. I can remember Browny and Galey saying to the ref that this can’t be right but the ref was having none of it. As we all know, it continued and as you say we broke away on the left hand side I had the ball under control heading towards the touchline, probably 4 yards in though and this fan came out and lunged a kick on the side of my arse. Initially I was shocked but as the TV footage shows, I did lose it a bit and headed towards him pointing. By this time the game has been halted. Lew runs over, the ref arrives and really did not know what to do. There was still many minutes left and we all know what happened when the ref blew the whistle some 90 seconds too early. The Derby fans all ran on the pitch. It was very frightening and trying to get towards the tunnel was scary and many including Jeff Hopkins were assaulted. Once there it was mayhem. We were in the changing rooms knowing that our fate was over but Malcolm and many Fulham officials were trying to liaise with the ref saying the game was not finished but all to no avail. I went to all the hearings to appeal for a replay as I had been involved in the incident and when the news finally broke that we had no case we were all gutted.
DS – Do you think it should have been replayed and have you ever forgiven Derby for costing us promotion in such a distasteful way?
RW – As mentioned, I went to all the hearings but deep down I felt we were never going to get the replay. As for Derby, I’ve hated (oops, disliked them!) ever since. I did go back some years later playing for Luton Town and again I did not enjoy a good experience as Mick Harford was sent off after 15 minutes and the gaffer, Ray Harford, sacrificed me as a substitute to put a player on. You can imagine I was not best please! So it’s a team and set of fans I have no time for.
DB- Who was your room mate when staying in hotels etc. and which players were you closest to in the team?
RW – My room mate was my best pal while there, Tony Gale, and he was a key figure-head in the team both on and off it. I still to this day keep in contact with him. We had a great team spirit and unlike today there was no cliques, we all stuck together.
DS – Do you still keep in touch with any of your old team mates?
RW – I still and in the past have kept in touch with a number of the lads, notably Tony Gale, I still speak very regularly with him when he is not on Sky or radio!! Ray Lewington too, he looked after me with tickets for many years under Roy, both home and away games. As did Mike Kelly, another great guy I admired. I kept in touch with Sean O’Driscoll and met him many times while he was managing and also while he was at Liverpool with Brendan Rogers. Ray Houghton was an old next door neighbour of mine in the early days down in Wokingham. Perry Digweed came to my mum’s 80th in Putney Bridge back in January, along with Galey. I see Les Strong, the legend, (well – according to him!!) at his bar at homes game. When he invites me in…! Gordon Davies the same, but not so much now we are not in Premier League as they dropped the bar he was looking after. I keep in touch with many of the other lads via social media, notably Jim Stannard, Jeff Hopkins and Paul Parker.
DS – Who was the most skillful player you played with?
RW– Well at Fulham I would have to say George Best and Rodney Marsh! I was 16 and an apprentice in 1977 when they were around and watching them in training was brilliant. Really again at Fulham I would have to say Ray Houghton. He glided with the ball and could go inside or outside. A really classy player that went on from us to have a fantastic career.
On another note, Ricky Hill at Luton had super skills, and was a joy to play with.
DS – Your second spell was a troubled time at the club, how did the players cope with staying focused?
RW – Yeah when I returned in 1987 Ray Lew was manager. As I had a bit of a fall-out at Luton he convinced me to come back. Yes it is true what they say second time round is never the same and it was difficult at times, but I still enjoyed it although we were never like the previous year’s team.
DS – What are your memories of Jimmy Hill at the time and how involved was he?
RW – Jimmy Hill was chairman at the time and although I was club captain (and I don’t think Jimmy agreed with Lew in making me that, I’m not sure why!) I personally did not have much to do with him other than to say hello but I know Lew had some very tough times with him and the board behind the scenes. But that’s football, and the club survived!
DS – How do you think the brilliant 82/83 side would have faired in the Championship last season?
RW – Danny I feel the side of 82/ 83 would have done well. That’s not taking away from this seasons side who also did well to get themselves in the frame, but I’m biased!
DS – Did you ever consider getting into coaching or management?
RW – I did not at the time. It was many years later while up in Huddersfield around 1999 my son was training with them in their school of excellence and I came across the the head of their academy, Gerry Murphy, and he invited me to coach the under 12s. I went on to gain my EUFA coaching badges and spent 6 years coaching at various age groups, which I really enjoyed.
In the last 4 years have been coaching at Brighouse Town FC in the Evo-Stick league but again left there the season before last to watch Fulham more, as my son Adam is a mad Fulham fan and wants to watch every game home and away! He managed more home games than me!
DS – We’ve seen with the likes of Jimmy Bullard what a joker can bring to team spirit. Were there any jokers in the team you played in and if so, can you remember anything specific happening like a prank on someone?
RW – We had a few at Fulham in my time, notably Les Strong, Kevin Lock and Tony Gale. The one that particularly springs to mind (which Strongy will always tell in his mini after speaking role!!) was with Malcolm in a team talk before a game. We had those boards with all the little discs and he would say how we would set up and how they might play as well so Strongy and maybe Galey (don’t quote me on that!) took the sticky bits on the back of them all off and they are on the table as he is starting to present his team picks the first one up puts in the goal keeper area it drops to the floor and we all say “hooray” and laugh he then picks up another to try and (you guessed it) it happened again! “Hooray” was the shout from all the lads, we are now howling with laughter, Malcolm tries one more and yes, hat trick! “Hooray!”. By this time Malcolm is getting a bit mad and I think he just threw the lot in the direction of Strongy!
DS – What was your favourite and/or best goal that you scored for the Whites? Please pick two separate ones if your favourite wasn’t the best goal!
RW – Best goal has to be Shrewsbury away. Not many Fulham fans would have witnessed this! I think it was in the 1981/82 season. I picked the ball up on the half-way line, I always say that I beat at least 5 players on a mazy run as the keeper came out I dummied him went round him and stroked in to empty net. It was a class goal and I even have Sunday newspaper clippings saying it was as good as Ricky Villa’s cup final goal v Man City. But who out of the fans out there remembers it?
The favourite goal is one I scored up at Newcastle. A great crowd and stadium, and a goal I always enjoyed.
DS – What was it like playing at the Cottage for the first time as a supporter? All fans dream of it but you were lucky enough to do it.
RW – Well as a kid I grew up with 3 other brothers supporting Chelsea. As a 12 year old I used to go with my dad’s friend to watch West Ham back in 1974 / 75. It was not until I signed school boy forms with Fulham in 1975 as a 14 year old and we had just got to Wembley v West Ham that I really did set my sights on becoming a Fulham player and fan so for it to all come true was a dream and getting a chance so early at 18 I was overwhelmed, as were my mum and dad who followed my career from then onwards. Every time I represented Fulham it was a privilege, and now in later years watching varying teams although its different now, I hope some of the home grown lads feel the same way!
DS – You also played for Millwall, Luton, Huddersfield and Rotherham. How did it feel playing for someone else after leaving your club? And if you had to pick, which of the 4 was the best club to play for?
RW – I had spells as you say at Millwall, Luton Town, Huddersfield and Rotherham.
When I left Fulham in 1985 after the Supermac team started to split up I had a few offers to sign for notably Crystal Palace and Ipswich as well as Millwall! I met George Graham at Heathrow Airport for lunch and they had just got promoted to the 2nd division. I was excited by his plans and I duly signed. I am not going to lie, whilst I scored 12 goals in 36 games, and we had a good season finishing around 8th I think, and we had some great players in John Fashanu and Teddy Sheringham (who played the back end of my one season there), I did not enjoy it at all! I was travelling from Berkshire to Dartford every day, the fans can be great when you are winning and not so good when you are not (I am being kind here in case any Millwall fans read this!!). It was an experience that’s all I will say Luton Town was a great time on the plastic pitch playing in the 1st division, scoring on my home debut v the legend Peter Shilton for Southampton. Luton had some great players at that time like Steve Foster, Mick Harford, Les Sealey, Ricky Hill, Brian Stein, Peter Nicholas, Mal Donaghy, Danny Wilson, Ashley Grimes… And many more! The social side was…wow…they liked a drink that lot!
I loved being at Huddersfield and we had a good set of lads and a good manager (Eoin Hand) who I had worked for Republic of Ireland and we had 2 years of just missing out of play offs.
I was only at Rotherham for one season, we got promoted out of the 4th division, it was ok.
DS – Is it more stressful being a player or a supporter of Fulham?
RW – Definitely as a supporter! As a player I could always do something about it! As a player there have been more times than others but hey that’s Fulham for you. The season in Europe… Wow, me and Adam came down to every home, travelling 9-hour 500 mile round-trips and the Juventus night will live long into my memory. I could not make any of the away legs that season but we went to Krakow the following season and could not make the final due to the ash cloud and my daughter was getting married on the Friday and she would not let us go in case we could not get back.
DS – Which eleven players and manager make up your favourite team of your time associated with the club?
RW – Always a hard one this as I played and are friends with lots of the lads but I will be honest
BEST MANAGER MALCOM MACDONALD / RAY HARFORD COACH
KEVIN LOCK / LES STRONG
SEAN O DRISCOLL
PETER O SULLIVAN
I think that will do!
DS – Whats your favourite Fulham goal other than one of your own?
RW – Tom Cairney this season vs Leeds at the Cottage in the last minute.
DS – Roger Brown’s header at the Putney End vs Lincoln City goes down in our history as one of the clubs most important goals and is accompanied by the most iconic picture as he smokes his cigar. Can you describe the atmosphere for our younger fans and explain your emotions knowing we had achieved promotion for the team you support, again a dream so few have been able to do for real?
RW – Well what a night that was! I remember the legend rising to power it home. I was just behind him. It was a tense night but those celebrations in the changing room and on the cottage balcony will live with me forever and the after party down at J Arthurs, we all went drinking till 7am in the morning.
DS – Here’s a time machine, you can go back in time and change one moment in the clubs history. Where would you pick and why? That must be a tough question considering the oh so nears as both a player and a supporter?
RW – I never like to go back but if you pushed me it would have to be the Derby game or that season. I would have loved one crack at the top division with that team because I feel we would have taken it by storm and the type of football we played would have held us in good stead.
DS – Finally, pie or pasty – Which filling?
RW – Pie all day long – filling has to be meat and potato but now all these balti pies are nice in the middle of winter when watching the mighty Whites in the baltic north!