September 29, 2020

Arsenal Legend Bob Wilson on the Loneliest Role in Soccer

Op-Docs

For the Arsenal legend Bob Wilson, goalies must have “a desperate sense of courage.”

Video

transcript

The Lonely Goalkeeper

Arsenal legend Bob Wilson on the loneliest role in soccer.

[MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] Hello, chaps. My name’s Bob Wilson. Arsenal goalkeeper, Arsenal legend, if you like. “Wilson leading off Liverpool once again. Bob Wilson Cup. Rock solid once again.” [CROWD CHEERING] “Oh! And a great save by Wilson.” I was a nervous goalie. And that was the buildup. The day before I started to get worked up about it. And I went off into this unknown world. By the time the bell went in the dressing room to go out, I was a bag of nerves. My stomach was churning. I’d been to the loo four times. And then I’d go down the tunnel, and I hit daylight — [CROWD CHEERING] — and the 40 … 50 … 80,000 and went, yep, this is what you’ve chosen, boy. This is great. Football is a team game. It’s 11 players gelling together, understanding each other. The whole purpose of a game of football is to score goals. And the one villain in the piece is the bloke between the sticks, the goalie. They’re the only individual in what is a team game. There is an incredible loneliness about it. The other 10 guys can make numerous mistakes in a game. Even the star striker, he can miss five, six, eight chances in a game and score a winning goal in the 89th minute of a match, and he goes home the hero. “Oh, that was beautiful!” On the reverse situation, you are putting yourself in this position where for 89 minutes you play brilliantly. And in the 90th minute, you make a positional error, or the ball moves, swerves and dips. And it looks as if it’s your fault because it just makes you look a fool, an absolute total fool. And everybody behind the goal goes home casting dispersions about your parentage. You know you think about it, this thin tightrope that a goalie walks. You’re underneath your crossbar in between your posts, which is a massive area anyway. People don’t realize it’s eight yards wide, and it’s eight foot high. And it’s a chasm! It’s not just a big area. It’s a chasm! And you are very capable of falling off at any opportunity. I think you have got to be different. All great goalies need a desperate sort of courage within their makeup. When all is lost, when their defensive barriers and their structures and playing 4-4-2 or catenaccios, like the Italians do. When all else fails, those guys in front of you, those 10 guys, need to look ‘round and say, “The goalie will save us. The big man will save us.” That’s when you’re tested. And that’s why I went head first, hand first, for the sake of winning a game of football. It’s suddenly that belief in yourself. I belong. That is the ultimate. You have the respect of all of your team. And that was my greatest reward, and it’s the greatest reward any footballer can ever get. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Video player loading
Arsenal legend Bob Wilson on the loneliest role in soccer.CreditCredit…Andre Andreev

Video by

Mr. Andreev is a filmmaker.

Is there any lonelier position in sports than goalie?

In the film above, the legendary goalkeeper Bob Wilson reflects on the “desperate courage” required to serve as the last resort against an onslaught of unpredictable shots from his opponents. Originally a teacher who played as an amateur, Wilson moved up to professional soccer later than his peers — but spent 1963 to 1974 playing for Arsenal, a storied club in the English Premier League. In 1971, Arsenal honored him with player of the year following the historic season when it won both the league title and the FA Cup. He ranks among their 50 greatest players.

As Premier League clubs compete in empty stadiums this summer after a 100-day pause, Wilson’s memories take on new resonance. They remind us that even though their work is often undersung, those on the last line of defense can be the greatest heroes of all.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Andre Andreev is a filmmaker and founder of the production company Dress Code.


Op-Docs is a forum for short, opinionated documentaries by independent filmmakers. Learn more about Op-Docs and how to submit to the series. Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.