Bob Willis, Goalkeeper
Reflecting on the England fast bowler's time in goal for Corinthian-Casuals
When the news of Bob Willis’s death broke in December, cricket fans up and down the country cast their minds back to his heyday as a frighteningly quick, awkwardly angular fast bowler. He will be remembered as one of the finest bowlers his country has produced, the fourth-highest wicket-taker in England’s Test history and one of the heroes of the famous 1981 Ashes Test at Headingley. He will also be recalled for his later career as a dry, outspoken pundit on Sky Sports, where he gained a reputation for his unfiltered, forthright views. And a handful of people, somewhere in south London, will call to mind his three-month spell as a non-league goalkeeper in the autumn of 1970.
Willis had first developed a passion for football as a young boy in Manchester, where his father worked as a journalist on the Evening Telegraph in the early 1950s. Although they lived a stone’s throw from Old Trafford, Willis plumped for the side from Maine Road when it came to nail his colours to the mast, mainly due to his admiration for City’s famous German goalkeeper. “My first memory was being handed down the crowd and sitting on the white wall behind Bert Trautmann’s goal in about 1954,” he told The Cricketer in 2016.
When his father took a job at the BBC, the family moved south to the leafy Surrey village of Cobham, where they lived close to the site of the current Chelsea training ground, and by 1970 Willis was progressing quickly through the ranks at Surrey County Cricket Club. He finished that season with a few first-team appearances under his belt, but he was yet to earn his county cap when the championship drew to a close.
Still, for a 21-year-old, Willis was progressing well and as the autumn approached he began to look for ways to keep his fitness levels up. By this time, he had moved out of the family home and was sharing a flat in Streatham with his old school friend Martin Tyler, who was in the early stages of a career as a sports reporter while playing up front for the Isthmian League club Corinthian-Casuals.
The pair had played cricket together at Royal Grammar School in Guildford and, although Tyler was three years older, they found they had much in common and remained close mates into adulthood. In fact, following Willis’s death, Tyler received messages from his old friends at the University of East Anglia who remembered the young fast bowler who came to visit and kipped on the floor of their halls of residence back in the late 60s.
As winter approached in 1970, Tyler asked his flatmate if he fancied coming along to training with him, enticing him with the news that Corinthian-Casuals were looking for a goalkeeper. Willis had previously kept goal for the Old Guildfordians and the reserves of the Southern League team Guildford City, and he didn’t need too much persuading to give it another go. It wasn’t long before he was donning the gloves for one of the grand old names in English football.
The club he was joining had a long tradition of fielding great sporting all-rounders. During their late-Victorian golden era, the Corinthians could boast the likes of CB Fry, RE Foster and Leslie Gay among their number – all of whom had represented their country on both the football pitch and the cricket field. Until the turn of the 20th century, the gentleman amateur was still a towering figure in top-level football and the Corinthians were the main beneficiaries. Despite refusing to field professionals, they competed with the best teams in the country and as late as 1904 they were strong enough to defeat Manchester United 11-3 and put 10 past the FA Cup holders Bury in the Sheriff of London Charity Shield.
However, the rise of professionalism in the sport gradually brought an end to the days when ex-public schoolboys could mix it with the best players in the country, nonchalantly strolling onto the pitch with hands in pockets before dishing out a footballing lesson. The game’s growing popularity among the working class, the increasing importance of league and cup competitions and the seriousness with which professional sides prepared for matches made it more and more difficult for the likes of Corinthian FC to compete and retain their status as the most elegant exponents of the game.
Although their international tours had a major impact on the development of the game around the world, they had lost their sheen back home by the outbreak of the First World War and the pool of talented gentleman amateurs available to them was devastated by the great losses suffered by the officer class on the front.
By the end of the 1930s, the Corinthians were forced to recognise their diminished relevance and, in order to survive, merged with Casuals FC, a closely aligned fellow London amateur club, to form the Corinthian-Casuals. This amalgamated club took the Casuals’ place in the Isthmian League and had one last hurrah when they reached the FA Amateur Cup final in 1956, with the West Indies wicketkeeper Gerry Alexander and the Wisden Cricketer of the Year Micky Stewart among their number, a nod to the glory days of the Corinthian cricketers.
In fact, Stewart – whose son Alec also represented Corinthian-Casuals and captained the England cricket team – missed the final because he was on tour with England in the West Indies, but when the Wembley showpiece against Bishop Auckland ended in a draw, he made a valiant effort to make it back to England in time for the replay at Ayresome Park. After several delays to connecting flights, he was greeted by the gathered press on the tarmac at Edinburgh and rushed into a biplane to be whisked to the military airport at Middlesbrough. He arrived at the ground, accompanied by a police escort, just as the referee blew the whistle to start the game. In the end, he settled for a seat in the stands among the players’ family and friends and watched as the Casuals were beaten 4-1. “They were much the better side,” Stewart sportingly admitted.
14 years later, when Willis turned up for his first appearance between the Casuals posts, the club had become perennial strugglers. The Isthmian League, while officially completely amateur, was just as cut-throat as any other level of competitive football, with under-the-table payments contributing to an uneven playing field. It was the era of the non-league ‘shamateur’, but Corinthian-Casuals stuck strictly to their guiding ethos of amateurism.
Reversing the old proverb, they refused to join them and consequently couldn’t beat them, finishing bottom of the league six times in a row between 1970 and 1976. Even after the landmark decision in 1973-74 to permit payment to non-league players, the Corinthian-Casuals steadfastly refused to do so.
Willis and Tyler were not perturbed by the club’s underdog status, though. For the young friends, it was a chance to keep fit and play football at a decent level. Casuals were in disarray at the start of 1970-71, going through five goalkeepers in the first seven matches. A few years earlier, their goal had been entrusted to the safe hands of the England cricketer Graham Roope, who was renowned for his prowess in the field. Now, Tyler asked Willis if he fancied trying his luck in the same role, and a few days later he showed up to training with his gangling teenage flatmate alongside him, all six-foot six-inches of him.
“He was big for the time, although goalkeepers are probably that size more regularly now,” said Tyler, recalling that September evening 50 years ago. “In one of the games I played with him, we lost 4-0 at Barking and he got chipped and ended up in the back of the net! So being six-foot-six wasn’t always an advantage, but he did very well in his short time with the club and obviously it kept him fit. He came in to train, got in the team and stayed in until he was called to go to Australia in November.”
Willis played 11 games in that period, beginning with an FA Cup tie against Hornchurch that couldn’t have ended more dramatically for the 21-year-old. After taking a two-goal lead, Corinthian-Casuals contrived to concede three goals in the last 10 minutes, despite Willis saving a penalty in the same period. In his autobiography, Lasting the Pace, he described it as a “fraught affair”, but it’s tempting to imagine his mind drifting back to one of his earliest football memories, watching Trautmann keep goal in the final of the same competition.
Casuals’ lowly status made it hard for anyone to reliably ascertain whether Willis was much of a goalkeeper, but there are suggestions that he had a natural aptitude for the role. After a 4-1 defeat at Wealdstone in early November, for example, the reporter for the Harrow Observer noted that, “despite his poorer cover, Willis was the safer keeper.”
Asked what he’d have written in a pen pics profile of his flatmate, even Tyler is a little flummoxed. “I would probably say, ‘Tall, young and promising goalkeeper, and certainly brave, with a cricketer’s hands, pursuing a parallel career in first-class cricket.’”
Micky Stewart, who was Willis’s captain in his early years at Surrey and became Corinthian-Casuals manager upon his retirement from cricket a year later, remembers a less accomplished moment in his friend’s short-lived goalkeeping phase. “He wasn’t the greatest striker of a dead ball, so he didn’t take goal kicks in the game I saw,” he recalled. “The full-back took this goal kick and Bob placed the ball on the six-yard line, but instead of going back between the posts he stood by the ball.
“In those days, the centre-forward always used to stand in direct line with the goal kick on the edge of the 18-yard box in case the kick wasn’t very good. In this case, the full-back taking the kick, instead of striking the ball cleanly, hit about half-hundred-weight of mud, so the ball dribbled out to the edge of the 18-yard box and there was the centre-forward who calmly side-footed into an empty net.”
Willis himself gave a briefer assessment of his goalkeeping abilities during a 2004 interview with the Daily Telegraph, admitting, “I wasn’t very good at kicking a ball but my reactions weren’t bad.” He added that he “had plenty to do” in those few games for Corinthian-Casuals and later told The Cricketer which lessons had stayed with him from that time. “Narrow the angle, that’s the secret. Don’t get your shorts dirty unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Willis narrowed his angles and endeavoured to keep his shorts clean as his team struggled away at the foot of the table, but all the while there was a rumour bubbling under that his life might be about to change considerably. An injury to Alan Ward threatened to leave the England squad a bowler light in Australia, three Tests into the seven-match Ashes series, and Willis’s name was being bandied around as a potential replacement. “The Daily Mail did a feature on him one weekend, for which they came and interviewed him,” Tyler said. “I think it was in the Saturday morning paper: ‘Willis Ready If Required.’
“On the Monday, I went off to work and he was coaching cricket at the Crystal Palace national recreation centre – that was his winter job. I joked to him, ‘I won’t see you tonight because you’ll be in Australia!’
“Then he phoned me later on – it must have been from a call box because we didn’t have mobile phones in those days – and he said, ‘Can you come home because I’m going to Australia on Thursday and the place is going mad, the phone is ringing. Will you come back and take all the messages?’
“I blagged myself off work for the day, came back and ended up taking three or four full-scale pages of messages. Then, on the Thursday, I went down to the airport with his mum and dad to see him off, and off he went to Australia. We were left without a goalkeeper and I was left without a flatmate, so paying the rent became a bit of a problem!”
Tyler returned home on his own and a few days later settled down to watch Willis playing in the Ashes on television. “We had a small black-and-white TV in the flat in Streatham and we watched the highlights of the first Test sitting there together. I was still sitting in the same place when the fourth Test came around, and he was on the screen. That was quite an extraordinary experience – for both of us, really!”
The first two Tests had ended in stalemate, while the third Test was abandoned after a deluge, but Willis arrived in time for the fourth in Sydney, which Ray Illingworth’s England team won by 299 runs. They went on to win the series 2-0 and regain the Ashes.
It was the first of 90 England Test appearances for Willis, in which time he took 325 wickets. He never played for Corinthian-Casuals again, but there was a lasting legacy from his time there, as he married the club secretary, Juliet Smail, with whom he had a daughter, Katie-Anne.
Willis and Tyler enjoyed another summer as flatmates in 1971 before their careers took them in different directions for many years, but they were reunited when Willis took up a career with Sky Sports following his retirement.
“It’s very much a spiritual relationship,” Tyler said in an interview with the Independent in 1998. “We’ve shared so much it wouldn’t take more than 30 seconds to take up where we left off. That’s the joy of the friendships you make at school. He’s lived out my dreams as a professional sportsman, but we’ve both been lucky enough to get from our dreams to reality and, on top of that, we’ve managed to share the journey as well.”