Midlands journalist and former Sports Editor - and now renowned football author and historian - Steve Gordos takes a considered look at the life and times of Wolves legend Bert Williams, who died today at the age of 93.
Bert Williams was one of the finest goalkeepers in football history. His ability to twist and turn and pull off what looked like impossible saves earned him a lasting nickname – The Cat.
That was what the Italian players dubbed the Wolves legend – “Il Gattone” – after they had seen him make incredible save after incredible save playing for England at White Hart Lane in 1949.
In only his fourth international he defied everything Italy could throw at him in the prestige friendly, enabling England to win 2–0. The man who had achieved national acclaim had come a long way from St Martin’s School in Bradley, Bilston.
Bert was just a few days short of his 94th birthday at the time of his death and was the oldest former England international. Though his fame spread worldwide he was always fiercely proud of his Black Country heritage. He had run a sports outfitter’s shop in Oxford Street, Bilston and would later expand his business in the town to include a goalkeeping school and indoor cricket nets.
It was therefore totally appropriate that the new leisure centre built in Bilston a few years ago was named after Bert. His pride in what was once an independent borough never faded and he was always happy when returning to his old stamping ground.
He grew up in Bradley, the son of an Albion-supporting father who would have loved him to sign for the Baggies. However, a scout from the club reckoned Bert was too small to make it as a keeper and he did not get even a trial at The Hawthorns.
Albion’s loss would eventually prove Wolves’ immense gain but Bert began his career with Walsall. At Fellows Park he blossomed and was fortunate to have the guidance of former Saddlers keeper Harry Wait, who was the club’s trainer and knew more than a thing or two about the art of goalkeeping.
Yet Bert’s football career might never have happened. He once explained to me: “When I was working at Thompson Brothers at Great Bridge I broke my finger in one of the grinding machines. I went to hospital and they wanted to amputate the finger on my right hand but my dad would not let them. I don’t think I would have been as good had that happened.”
After joining Walsall in 1937, the 17-year-old Bert made his debut in October that year in a 3–1 defeat at Bristol City in the Third Division South. Thanks largely to Bert it had not been a rout. A report of the match noted “The feature of the game was the goalkeeping of Williams. He won repeated rounds of applause as he thwarted City’s forwards.”
Bert made 20 appearances that season but only five the next with former England amateur international Ken Tewkesbury being first choice. By then, Bert had been joined at Walsall by another future Wolves legend – winger Johnny Hancocks.
In the latter years of the Second World War, Bert was able to make more appearances for the Saddlers, plus a few guest appearances for Chelsea, and his displays caught the eyes of the England selectors. He was chosen for the England team who beat Wales 3–2 in Cardiff in May, 1945, and played in the 2–2 draw with France at Wembley later the same month. These wartime games were unofficial internationals.
Walsall could obviously not hold on to such a talent but Wolves were not the only club who wanted to enlist his services. Bert’s brief stint for Chelsea during the war meant their boss Billy Birrell made a bid for him. Bert was tempted but ultimately decided his heart was in the Black Country and opted to go to Molineux.
That paved the way for a little piece of Wolves history as they supplied both goalkeepers for the Victory International at The Hawthorns in October, 1945, with Cyril Sidlow in goal for Wales and Bert for England. The Welsh won 1–0.
Bert established himself as first choice for Wolves, ahead of Sidlow who soon moved to Liverpool. Bert played in another Victory International at the Colombes Stadium in Paris in May, 1946 – a 2–1 defeat by France – but would have to wait a further three years for his first full cap.
It was at the same stadium that Bert finally made his full international debut at the age of 29. Once the legendary Frank Swift had retired, the search was on for his successor in the England goal and Bert took over from him against France in May, 1949, in a 3–1 win.
Despite conceding a goal in the first minute, Bert played well and it was clear he was in the England team to stay. The summer of 1949 had been good for Bert as three weeks earlier he was in the Wolves side who beat Leicester City 3–1 at Wembley to bring the FA Cup back to Molineux for the first time in 41 years. It was a lasting joy to Bert that in the Cup-winning team with him was another former pupil of St Martin’s, Bradley – centre-half Bill Shorthouse.
Then came that display against Italy which established Bert as world class. Respected sportswriter Clifford Webb of the Daily Mail, was typical of those who heaped praise on him, writing “If we all had our way I think we would have swarmed on to the pitch with the hundreds of small boys to pat the back of Bert Williams who saved the day with one of the greatest displays of goalkeeping seen for years.”
Bert added to his reputation three days later when at Highbury he saved a penalty from Arsenal’s Walley Barnes, who had never before missed from the spot.
The following year, there was nothing to celebrate when Bert was in goal as England infamously were beaten 1–0 by the USA at the World Cup finals in Brazil. However, it was only an injury that saw him lose his international place in 1951.
Birmingham’s Gil Merrick stepped in and the selectors kept faith with him until poor displays in the 1954 World Cup finals saw him dropped. At the start of the 1954–5 season Manchester United’s Ray Wood was given a couple of games before the selectors again turned to Bert at the age of 34.
He was recalled to face World Cup winners West Germany at Wembley and showed he was still in his prime as he helped England win 3–1 and five more caps took his total to 24.
The season before, Bert had been a key member of the Wolves side who at last became champions of England, taking the title by four points from local rivals Albion, the team who had been Bert’s boyhood favourites. Bert also helped Wolves win their famous Molineux floodlit contests with Hungarian maestros Honved and Soviet aces, Spartak and Dynamo.
Bert’s final Football League game was against Villa at Villa Park, in April, 1957, almost 20 years after he had played his first. He was inducted into the Wolves Hall of Fame in 2010, the same year he celebrated his 90th birthday with a party at Molineux, when England’s 1966 World Cup-wining keeper Gordon Banks, a lifelong admirer, was among the guests.
When Bert decided to call it a day at the end of the 1956–7 season he had amassed 420 appearances for Wolves. That meant he held the record for most appearances by a Wolves keeper. The figure was eventually passed by Mike Stowell who reached 448. However, there are some schools of thought that believe the 29 games Bert played for Wolves in the Football League South in 1945–6 should also count in his record which would take him one ahead of Stowell.
What is not in dispute is the fact that Bert, who received the MBE in 2010 for his services to football and charity, can rightly take his place among the greatest goalkeepers the game has seen.