Bert Williams: 1920 – 2014
Peerless Keeper Who Remained Hands-On
By David Instone
He spent a lifetime striving for perfection and utter fulfillment and, as near as makes no difference, it was mission accomplished.
An FA Cup winner’s medal from 1949 and the honour of being Wolves’ regular goalkeeper when they lifted the League Championship for the first time stand as the most acknowledged of the many achievements in a fabulous club career.
There were also 24 England caps and various other representative honours from the war years as well as peacetime. But these accolades tell only part of Bert Williams MBE’s rich story.
For all his gentlemanly ways, daring and sheer brilliance over more than a decade and a half, he was a restless soul, afflicted by an engaging insecurity that he confessed came from his hatred of losing.
In a fit and able state, for example, he would have been in high demand for interviews in the countdown to this summer’s World Cup. He was tortured to the end by defeats and virtually ANY goal against, believing he might just have done something different and kept them out. So imagine how he felt about the one planted past him by Joe Gaetjens, a Haiti-born dry cleaner, on the day England lost to the United States in the 1950 finals in Brazil!
The country’s home and away thumpings against Hungary also hit him hard, although he wasn’t even playing, and he shared the belief that the Wolves team he helped defeat Honved in 1954 had restored some much-needed national pride. Fast-forward to the infamous FA Cup defeat against Bournemouth in 1957, when the woodwork wasn’t the only thing in pieces. His heart was broken as well that afternoon by what proved to be the last of the 38 games he played in the competition.
It may surprise those lucky enough to have savoured him in his pomp that he experienced occasional self-doubt. As a lad, he thought he was too small to live out to his dreams of being a goalkeeper and used to swing from ceiling beams in the hope that it would stretch his body and make up the vital extra inches.
Bert was never more than a fraction over 5ft 10in but thankfully lived in an era when the human frame was shorter and those intent on wearing a different coloured jersey to the rest of the team didn’t need to be built to basketball-court proportions.
An Albion fan in his youth despite his roots in Bradley, near Bilston, he was a fitness fiend. He believed strong calf muscles were the key to the athleticism he showed in diving or leaping, so he slavishly practised the sprinting that had once seen him run 100 yards in ten seconds in the Staffordshire Championships.
He also avoided drink and cigarettes at all costs in his pursuit of peak physical condition – an obsession that meant he gave a miss to what he saw as another demon; dancing!
“Perfection can’t be reached without absolute physical fitness,” he once wrote in his regular Daily Express column. And, when he and I met in 1990 for the purposes of the Wolverhampton Wanderers Greats book I was writing, he said: “I always used to be in bed by about quarter to ten. I believed physical fitness and mental alertness to be absolutely essential and didn’t want to do anything that would threaten my sharpness.”
Along with Dennis Wilshaw and his close pal Johnny Hancocks, Bert was part of the trio who famously served Walsall before making it big at Molineux, the first of his 28 Saddlers appearances coming in a 3-1 Third Division South defeat on October 16, 1937, away to a Bristol City side who put eight past him in the return at Fellows Park four months later. Wonder what he made of that!
Williams’ wartime service took him far and wide in the RAF and, as well as his 100-plus games for Walsall during the hostilities, he hitch-hiked so he could also guest for Chelsea and Nottingham Forest. He was well used to improvising – he once ran the six miles to Fellows Park to play in a Christmas Day game after waiting at a bus stop until being informed there was no public transport that day.
Bert actually agreed to move permanently to Stamford Bridge and disappointed hovering Wolves directors by telling them so. As fate would have it around that time, though, his wife Evelyn cut herself – with a hairbrush of all things – and it was the thought of being powerless to help with any domestic emergencies if he was 130 miles away in London that convinced him his future was instead on the doorstep at Molineux.
It took the princely sum of £3,500 to secure his services and his League bow in new colours was not the worst there has ever been. On the day the list of League debutants also included Hancocks, Billy Wright and hat-trick hero Jesse Pye, Ted Vizard’s Wolves thrashed Arsenal 6-1.
Wolves had been on the verge of greatness before the war and threatened again straight after it with successive finishes of third, fifth, sixth and second, the 1948-49 campaign being illuminated by the winning of the FA Cup – a bigger prize back then in the eyes of many footballers than lifting the League title.
Bert played in all seven ties in that triumphant run and the club’s first Championship followed five years later, plus the first few of those famous full-house floodlit friendlies. He was a fixture, not to mention a star name across the world.
Just as it’s mind-boggling to wonder how many more League games he might have played had it not been for the war, so older watchers are left to ponder how big his haul of England caps might have been. Stan Cullis rated Williams the second best keeper he had ever seen and, unfortunately, the top man was the still-active Frank Swift.
The Manchester City legend played in 19 full internationals out of 21 before Bert’s debut came in Paris three weeks after Wolves’ Wembley conquest of Leicester. In the mid-1950s, another top performer came along in Birmingham’s Gil Merrick and he took another chunk of what Bert might justifiably have anticipated as ‘his’ caps, with an inopportune injury to the latter a key factor. He later referred to the loss of his England place as the biggest disappointment of his career.
The Molineux man’s tally of England outings nevertheless narrowly exceeded that of both his rivals and the tributes poured in. When he played brilliantly in a win over World Cup holders Italy at White Hart Lane in which Wright scored one of his three England goals, visiting journalists adorned him a nickname that stuck; Il Gattone (The Cat).
When I was a fortunate fly on the wall in 1999 as Bert was about to pass on to Mike Stowell the honour of being the man to have played more games in Wolves’ goal than anyone else, alive or dead, the advice to the younger pretender was to carry on playing as long as he could.
Bert, having played his last England match in 1955, grew to regret calling time on his Wolves career in the summer of 1957 and told Stowell he wished he had played for another five years rather than getting out and doing something else well – very well, as it happens – while he was still relatively young at 37.
Those of us who didn’t see Bert play have nevertheless heard about the era in which he played, in particular the buffetings match in match out from the likes of Trevor Ford and his good England pal Nat Lofthouse, muscular forwards both. Aware of the protection from officials to which men in his position became accustomed, he insisted dedicated keepers should be able to continue playing until 45 in the decades after the shoulder-charging of them was thankfully outlawed.
Not that he had a particularly healthy regard of Mike’s contemporaries. He rated Neville Southall and Peter Shilton very highly but dismissed many others as showmen, exhibitionists even; he had not especially rated what he regarded as the ‘flamboyant Continentals’ either – the opponents and counterparts who preferred to punch the ball rather than catch it.
With his 420 League and cup games for Wolves and his habit of regarding every goal against him as a personal affront, he had pretty high standards!
Financially at least, Bert was even more successful in business than in football; initially with sports shops and then with a sports centre he developed on the site of an old Bilston vicarage. Another has followed in his name in the same town in recent years and the factory units that formed the family business have been prolific.
His capacity to sacrifice meant family holidays were sometimes overlooked and he owned up to spending one or two Sundays in his dressing gown, catching up on the book-keeping. But the trappings of success included luxury cars, guns that indulged his love of shooting and a wonderful house on a hill in Shifnal that prompted ‘Corcovado’ as a choice of name – a nod to the mountain in Rio de Janeiro which had taken his breath away when he saw the huge statue of Jesus on top of it.
He wished he and Evelyn had kept the property but he chose to stay on the move. I visited him at three other Shifnal houses over the years – he once moved virtually next door when there was nothing else to do to the garden and he needed a fresh ‘project.’
He was well into his 80s then but still occasionally stripped to the waist and dressed in shorts as he soaked up the sun and got stuck into a new challenge. Living with him must have had its breathless moments, with Cullis having revealed him as ‘tense and highly strung’ before games.
Even more recently, Bert admitted that his refusal to fully acknowledge the passing of the years had been a bugbear. He had several falls, including one that prevented him going to the funeral of 1949 Cup final team-mate Bill Crook, and said: “I forget I’m in my 90s. I still try to do things I was doing years and years ago. My brain still thinks I’m 19.”
One of his mishaps was on Shifnal High Street en route to buy screws to fit some rails for his magnificent collection of pictures. There’s that restlessness again. His last home was an unbelievable shrine to his football career and, for a brief while, he admitted visitors for a tour in return for a small donation to the Alzheimer’s Society.
The illness had taken his wife in 2002 and the magnificent Cat In Wolf’s Clothing book he wrote five years later was the forerunner to some astonishing fund-raising efforts for the charity.
We at Wolves Heroes were delighted to support, both with publicity and custom, his sale of a huge collection of glassware amassed from all over the world – a push that took his charitable efforts past the £150,000 mark. No less a figure than Gordon Banks, a boyhood worshipper of one of his predecessors as England keeper, also lent a hand and the two were featured in a delightful TV item by BBC Midlands’ Ian Winter on the Late Kick-Off programme.
The year 2010 was a momentous one, indeed, in Williamsworld. Not only did he turn 90 in the January – an occasion marked by a star-studded party at Molineux – but he was awarded the MBE and inevitably inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame. All this for a man who has had one of the corporate rooms named in his honour at the stadium since the redevelopment of the early 1990s. Yes, he was popular!
“I had around 400 congratulatory messages following my MBE,” he said. “I must have more friends than anyone in the world. I also had over 200 cards for my birthday and always try to reply if people leave any kind of written note with their address on.”
Bert Williams, fearless and formidable, is already assured of a place in Wolverhampton Wanderers folklore. His charisma and film-star looks just underline what a star he was.
* Wolves Heroes’ John Richards interviewed Bert for our Q & A area a few weeks after after attending his 90th birthday party. His piece can be seen again here https://www.wolvesheroes.com/2010/04/08/a-friendly-barrage-for-bert/