Billy Wilson: The Big Interview

Pompey Hall of Fame inductee Billy Wilson
Pompey Hall of Fame inductee Billy Wilson
Carl Baker. Picture: Joe Pepler

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On Billy Wilson’s first day in his new Portsmouth home, he served the delivery men ice-cold orange squash.

Summer had not yet arrived and the Geordie-born £15,000 signing from Blackburn Rovers had expected to pour cups of tea – such was the norm up north.

Instead, a sunny south-coast afternoon dictated that Wilson – who travelled up and down the country for a number of weeks following his January 1972 arrival – toasted his overdue permanent residence in ‘the tropics’ with a cold refreshment.

A matter of years later, the Fratton favourite had acclimatised to such an extent that he was pouring equally-chilled beers from behind the bar of the Pompey Pub he became landlord of.

It was versatile Wilson’s on-field service, though, that received the ultimate recognition recently, as he joined the prestigious club of past greats in the Blues’ Hall of Fame.

For the man now aged 68 and still living and loving life in Gosport, a place among the esteemed class of 2015 was as unexpected as it was privileged.

A fans’ favourite, Wilson was a regular in the Pompey side for each of his first four seasons at Fratton Park, and in that time proved his versatility at full-back, on both flanks and at centre-half.

Indeed, midway through the 1974-75 campaign, when it was discovered that the financial position of the club was extremely serious, then-manager Ian St John challenged The News to ‘write something cheerful for a change.’

We responded in this very publication by printing an article singing Wilson’s praises – not that he was singing the praises of his boss at this time, though.

After the Blues were relegated to the third division in 1976, Wilson, like many others, found himself sidelined by St John, who turned his attention to the younger players.

Emerging talent Keith Viney assumed the left-back spot.

Dependable Wilson was recalled when Jimmy Dickinson took over as manager, though, and back-to-back relegations were duly avoided with a game to spare.

However, the same could not be said for the following campaign, when Pompey sunk to the fourth tier for the first time in their Football League history.

Then, in one of Wilson’s last games for the Blues in an eventful seven-year stay, he made a couple of costly errors in a 3-1 televised defeat to Grimsby.

But with his retirement announced at the end of the 1978-79 season, fans rightly reflected on 216 games and six goals with fond memories of a man who understood what it meant to wear the star & crescent.

Speaking after his induction into the Pompey Hall of Fame, Wilson said: ‘I am very proud, it is an absolute honour.

‘It’s not something I expected, I didn’t even know it was coming up.

‘My son text me saying “congratulations”.

‘I had to ask him what for?

‘But yes, it was a nice surprise.’

For Wilson it’s the perfect reminder of a memorable Blues stay that began well – if unusually – on and off the field of play.

He said: ‘The gaffer (Ron Tindall) brought me in as a midfielder, although I had never played there in my life.

‘But I thoroughly enjoyed it – you’ve got no restrictions there and are always involved in the game.

‘I didn’t mind where I played to be honest, though, I just thoroughly enjoyed my football.

‘I had been at Blackburn for quite a long time and had just moved house up there as well.

‘But everything came along all at once and I fell in love with Portsmouth straight away.

‘I started off with a win (2-0 against Cardiff) which helped!

‘It was fun and games after the matches to get back up north for a while, as I was travelling up and down for the first six weeks.

‘I was coming down on a Friday and staying at a hotel, but then it got easier after that because I was travelling down in midweek.

‘I couldn’t wait to move down.

‘When we (Wilson and wife Heather) actually moved, it was like arriving in the tropics compared to where we were living – and especially me coming from the north east as well!

‘The first day we were down, I was expecting to make cups of tea for the removal men but ended up making jugs of ice-cold orange.’

The warm welcome didn’t just extend to the neighbourhood, as Wilson was immediately made to feel at home at the club by players and supporters alike.

‘When I first came down I was in digs with Joe Munks – I’ve never called him by his actual name, David,’ he said.

‘It was me, him and the animal Colin Blant – he was some character that one!

‘They were all good lads who made me feel really welcome, as did all of the supporters.’

Being made to feel welcome did not excuse Wilson from being on the receiving end of all manner of Fratton Park pranks, though.

He added: ‘It was a club and a half for taking the mickey.

‘The biggest prank I fell victim to was when I had a kipper stuck under my car seat.

‘I thought it was in the engine!

‘I looked everywhere but I had it there for nigh on a week-and-a-half until I finally sussed it.

‘They had actually taken the seat cover off in my old mini and stuck it in, then pinned it all back up so I could never find it!’

While the camaraderie remained high in the Blues’ camp, financial constraints took their toll on the field of play as Pompey – who were forced to sell players to avoid bankruptcy – were relegated to division three in 1976.

With then-boss St John preferring Viney to Wilson, as experience made way for youth, it seemed the Blues were destined for the drop in successive seasons, until club legend Dickinson took over the helm with three games to play.

‘I had to compete with Keith, who is a really nice bloke but back then he was only a bairn – sorry, kid – to me,’ he said.

‘He had a magic left foot and was a youngster who St John could order about so he got in.

‘I never saw eye to eye with Mr St John, I am afraid.

‘He just wouldn’t take any notice of what you were saying, it was his way or no way.

‘Jimmy Dick came in and brought all us old boys back in.

‘We stayed up with one game to spare and it was like we had won the cup.

‘That meant so much to the fans.

‘You couldn’t fault them, though, because as long as you were giving your guts and everything you had for the cause, they were great.’

The drop to division four was averted but only for a year as the Blues’ sorry slump continued.

With Wilson approaching his mid-30s and not playing week-in, week-out, he made the decision to hang up his boots at the end of his eighth season at the club (1978-79) to help wife Heather run the Pompey Pub they had taken over.

He explained: ‘We were having a drink at the Pompey Pub and used to be friendly with the directors and supporters alike who went in.

‘One day I told the co-licensee to change the management, though, as I felt myself and my missus could do a better job.

‘He asked if I was serious.

‘I told him that’s what I had planned to do when I finished my playing career anyway and that Heather had experience in the pub trade so could hold a licence.

‘Sure enough, there I was opening up to the fans on match days after I had played – it didn’t do trade any harm!’

Now retired, Wilson, who went on to own several local pubs, is enjoying life on the golf course.

He joked: ‘I am trying to get my handicap down.

‘My golf’s alright but it’s my putting that’s absolutely rubbish.’

BILLY WILSON ON...

...A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE

Billy Wilson returned to Fratton Park last month to be inducted into the Pompey Hall of Fame.

For the former fans’ favourite it was another chance to take in the majesty of the famous old ground or simply get lost, depending on whose side of the story you believe...

The last time I visited Fratton Park, I brought my two grandsons and my son.

We got out of the car but I turned left instead of right on our walk.

My son asked where I was going.

I told him not to worry and that I knew what I was doing.

That day I walked the length of the ground – the whole way round.

He told me I had done it for nostalgia.

I said: ‘No I didn’t, I was lost!’

...POMPEY PRANKS

Some of the things we got up to were unbelievable – little Freddie Smith was something else, he looked so little and innocent but he was behind most things.

I had my shoes glued to the ceiling but what really made me laugh one day was coming into the changing rooms to find that everybody’s socks were cut up!

...THE WAY IT WAS

After the game, we (the players) always used to mingle with the supporters – I enjoyed that.

We would all meet upstairs in the Victory rooms, which meant it was easy for me to shoot downstairs and open the Pompey Pub.

Many times the players would try and cash their cheques over the bar with me – I had to say no, that’s separate from the business!