For Bob Wilson, Arsenal’s last visit to Japan in 1968 remains one of the truly unforgettable experiences of his life.
Taking the bullet train, staring in awe at Mount Fuji, tasting the culture, immersing himself in the rich history - the tour left a lasting imprint that he recalls with enthusiasm more than 40 years later. And yet it could easily have ended his Gunners career before it had really started…
Japan Tour Programme 1968
When Arsenal flew out to the Land of the Rising Sun at the end of the 1967/68 campaign, some doubt still surrounded the goalkeeping position. Wilson, who had been at the club since 1963, had finally displaced regular No 1 Jim Furnell in March, weeks after Arsenal had lost to Leeds United in the League Cup final.
He went on play 13 times in the run-in to the campaign as the Gunners finished ninth in Division One, and yet he knew he still had much to prove as Bertie Mee’s squad arrived in Tokyo.
“I arrived at the club in 1963 from Loughborough University, played five games in the first team while I was still a schoolteacher and then I was in the wilderness really,” Wilson told Arsenal.com.
“I had lots of injuries because I was a crazy goalie, I used to go head first at everything and Bert Trautmann was my hero. That was my style and ultimately it worked for me. I always felt you got there quicker, but you risked serious injury.
“After those first five games I waited another season and a half for my chance, [I played three times more] and then I was picked to face Fulham on Boxing Day 1966. I dislocated my elbow in the fourth minute but I played on because we had no goalkeepers on the bench. However, that was me out injured again and I was No 2 to Jim until a few weeks after the 1968 League Cup final.
"The Arsenal fans knew that Bob Wilson was a piece of the furniture at Highbury - but it was a bit of second-hand furniture, it wasn't polished and new"
“While I was No 1 by the time we went to Japan, they were clearly not convinced that I would be the answer. It was a very significant tour for me but I felt quite calm about the situation. I had enough confidence to believe that if they stuck by me, I would make it. I just needed to start the next season fit.
“I had played the final 13 games of the campaign and by then the Arsenal fans knew that Bob Wilson was a piece of the furniture at Highbury - but it was a bit of second-hand furniture, it wasn't polished and new.
“They never really anticipated that the amateur schoolteacher that began in 1963 was ever going to be the guy who would eventually appear on the outside of the Emirates Stadium, arm in arm with Dennis Bergkamp!”
Mee’s side opened their last visit to Japan with a 3-1 win against an All-Japan XI in front of 50,000 supporters inside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, then travelled to Fukuka Kyushu to beat the same side 1-0. So far, so good for Wilson, whose assured performances reflected his quiet confidence that he would take his big chance.
But then came the final match of the tour, played in front of 70,000 fans at the Olympic Stadium, in which the young goalkeeper left the field in agony and fearing for his Arsenal future.
“I dived head first at someone's feet as usual and hurt my shoulder!” Wilson said. “If I came off worst it usually meant quite a bad injury. The amazing thing was they just said to let it settle down, but by the evening, I could not even lift my left arm above my head. I was X-rayed and it showed that my collar bone was cracked - until we flew home I was in so much pain.
"The amazing thing was they just said to let it settle down, but by the evening, I could not even lift my left arm above my head. I was X-rayed and it showed that my collar bone was cracked"
“That was the last game of the season, and I had six weeks of close season to try to recover. This was my big opportunity, but on the first day of training at Underhill I landed on my shoulder and it popped completely.
“I was in agony, but I told the physio not to tell Bertie Mee about it. He used to take me into a little room for five minutes before a game and inject my shoulder with cortisone, all without the manager knowing. I knew that if I didn’t make it then, I would never make it so I was determined to take my chance."
Luckily Wilson was able to play through the pain and establish himself as a true Arsenal legend. But he admits that he still bears the scars of what happened to him in the Far East.
“I now have a little tremble in my left hand, all because of what I went through in Japan and after we came back. That is how dramatic that tour was for me!”
Arsenal Tour of Japan, 1968
|May 23, 1968. Tokyo.
All Japan XI 1-3 Arsenal
Scorers: Gould, Radford, Neill (pen)
Arsenal: Wilson, Rice, Storey, McLintock, Neill, Simpson, Radford, Court, Graham, Gould, Armstrong.
May 26, 1968. Fukuoka, Kyushu.
May 29, 1968. Tokyo.
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