A Cup of Tea then Blank
How a badly installed boiler almost killed the Fulham midfielder Robert Wilson
“I was unconscious for 24 hours. I woke up in intensive care and had no idea where I was or how I’d got there.”
7 December 1983 began as an ordinary Wednesday in the life of the Fulham footballer Robert Wilson. He would end it unconscious and close to death. Then 22, the midfielder had attended training with the club that morning before heading to his three-bedroomed semi-detached home in Woosehill, near Wokingham, Berkshire, after lunch. “I went to training as normal,” he said. “It was a cold, crisp day. I arrived home about 2pm. My wife Lesley got in a couple of hours later from her job as a dental nurse in a practice near Wokingham.
“We’d moved into a Wimpey Home on a brand-new estate two weeks before. Hardly anyone else had moved in so it was more or less a derelict site. It was chilly, so I put the heating on, as you do in the winter. I remember being in the kitchen and making a cup of tea about 5 or 6pm. I recall feeling felt a bit headachy and a bit fluey but after that, everything is blank.”
Unbeknown to Robert and Lesley, leaking carbon monoxide gases from a faulty central heating boiler were silently poisoning the couple. When they failed to show for an arranged dinner date with Wilson’s uncle Charlie and aunt Helen, his concerned relatives took action. “They lived in Farnborough, about 10 miles away,” explained Robert. “We didn’t have a landline at that point – I had to go to a phone box to make calls – so they couldn’t ring to see where we were.
“When we didn’t turn up my aunty thought it was very unusual. My uncle said, ‘They’ve just moved in, they’re probably sorting the house.’ But my aunty kept saying, ‘It isn’t like Rob not to call, just drive round and make sure everything’s okay.' Charlie set off about 9pm. He saw both our cars on the driveway and noticed some lights on in the house. He knocked on the door but got no response. He then walked around the back but couldn’t see anything untoward.
“He went back home and said, ‘It might be that they’re in bed or they’ve gone out.’ My aunty said, ‘Something’s not right.’ She sent him to the local police station in Wokingham to voice their concerns. PC Plod came down to the house with him and they looked around the back with torches but again couldn’t see anything. The policeman told my uncle to post a note through the door to say they were worried and to make contact as soon as possible. My uncle wanted to break the door down, but the policeman insisted there was no reason to do that.”
Charlie returned home once more but was quickly on his way back to Wokingham for a third time. “It was gone midnight by now,” said Robert. “By this stage, they’d been in contact with my mum and dad and my wife’s mum and dad, who all said they hadn’t heard from us. Everyone was starting to get a bit worried and a bit tetchy. My aunty told my uncle to go back to our house and break a window.
“He smashed the back window by the kitchen which was right by the boiler. As soon as he did that, all the fumes that had built up in the kitchen hit him straight away. He unlocked the door and came upstairs. He found me unconscious on the bathroom floor covered in vomit. My wife was unconscious on top of the bed. He had to drive back to the police station and then ambulances were on the scene in half an hour.”
Robert and Lesley, who had married 18 months previously, were rushed to Reading’s Royal Berkshire Hospital and placed on life support machines in intensive care. “It is shattering news for everybody here at the club,” said the Fulham boss Malcolm Macdonald. “We are very, very concerned for Robert, his wife and their families.”
“I came around a day later,” said Robert. “I had 56% fumes inside me. But because I was so fit, it was actually about 25%. I recovered after a day or two, but my immune system was wrung out.”
Things looked bleak for Lesley. “Lesley was critical and in a coma,” said Robert. “After a couple of days, the doctors told me they didn’t think she’d survive. If she did, she’d be a vegetable, and to fear the worst. I’ll never forget those words.”
Lesley’s father, Brian Lawrence, kept a vigil at her bedside with his wife Bonni. He told the Reading Post that month, “It’s been a nightmare for us. We’ve been all the way to hell and back. First the doctors told me she was dying, then they said she was going to live but would be paralysed and not able to talk, only grunt.”
“There was a strong possibility she would have to stay in hospital for the rest of her life,” said Robert. “The doctors said it was very grim. She was on a life-support machine for a long time, but they took her off it to do some tests. I could see a flicker of life in her and I was shouting, ‘Fight, Lesley, fight.’
“After seven days her lungs started to clear. They took her off the ventilator and she was able to breathe on her own. By that time the media had got hold of the news. The Sun came in and took a picture for an exclusive. After about 12 days – just before Christmas – we were discharged and stayed with my parents in London.”
The house-builder Wimpey accepted responsibility for incorrectly fitting the heating system. "We found out that the flue in the boiler hadn’t been put in right,” said Robert. “Instead of going outside, the fumes were coming back into the house. We sued Wimpey and they settled out of court four or five years later.”
After leaving hospital, it was the long haul of returning to fitness and football for Robert.
“The incident completely drained my system,” he said. “It knocked the stuffing out of me. It exhausted all the muscles in my body and took me a long time to recover physically.
“It was such a rare thing for a footballer to have – we didn’t have dieticians or specialist trainers, so I just worked with the physio. The club monitored me on a day-to-day basis and I had regular blood tests but really it was just a case of building my strength back up. I played a behind-closed-doors game at the training ground and I made an appearance off the bench for the first team in early March. I wasn’t really ready to return but I was desperate to get back. It really took me the best part of the rest of the season – about six months – to start feeling close to normal again.”
A boyhood Fulham fan, Kensington-born Robert had joined the Cottagers at the age of 14, turning professional in 1979. The box-to-box midfielder was one of the stars of Malcolm Macdonald’s swashbuckling side that had gone close to a second successive promotion in 1982-83. Needing a win on the final day of the Division Two campaign, Fulham suffered a highly controversial defeat at Derby in a game that was abandoned because of crowd trouble with 78 seconds to go and never replayed. But that’s a story for another time.
Without Wilson for a large chunk of the following term, Fulham laboured in mid-table.
“I couldn’t say whether we’d have done better had I been available,” said Robert. “The Derby debacle really took the wind out of our sails, but we had a strong enough squad to do better than we did.
“We were still a close-knit unit. Ray Lewington, Tony Gale, Roger Brown and Gary Peters all came to see me in hospital. The rest of my teammates were great when I returned.
“A few opposing players tried to wind me up. They called me ‘the gas man’. That pissed me off. I had a fight with one player at Millwall who said something on the pitch. We had a bit of a to-do, and it carried on into the players’ bar after the game where I strung him up against the wall.”
Wilson left Fulham for George Graham’s Millwall in August 1985 for a fee of £57,500, then briefly spending time at Luton before heading back to the Cottage in 1987. He later played for Huddersfield, Rotherham, Altrincham and Farnborough, hanging up his boots in 1993. In total, he made 253 appearances for Fulham, scoring 42 goals. He subsequently became a national sales manager for work wear company Portwest Clothing.
“People used to question whether I was ever as fit as I was before the poisoning, but I still went on to have a good career,” added Wilson, who was capped twice for Republic of Ireland Under-21s. “If it hadn’t been for my aunty and uncle, who were persistent in trying to reach me, I wouldn’t have had any further career at all. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t be here today.”