Friday, 16 February 2018

A groundhopper like no other: the story of George Willmott


Who is the most obsessive football fan you’ve ever known? Not the most fixated with one particular club necessarily, but the person who was the most fanatical about the game of football. I’ll wager I can top yours… though for some reason it’s taken me 15 years to put the story in front of a wider audience.

In 2003, while studying for a postgraduate journalism qualification, I was doing a project on obsessive football supporters. I sourced a few diehard fans, typically meeting them in the pub of their choice and letting them spill their guts about the lengths they would go to in support of their club. These were largely formulaic affairs – how they got the bug, how many games they’ve been to, most memorable away trips, how many seasons it was since they missed a game and why they missed it (generally it was because somebody died). However, one fan stood out, not only as the most interesting person I spoke to for my project by a distance, but also as genuinely one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.

His name is George Willmott and for at least seven consecutive seasons he set out on a quest: to attend a match at all 92 English league grounds in one season without missing an Arsenal game. Below is the article I wrote about George in 2003, published today for the first time.

*****

George Willmott is a football addict. His addiction began in childhood and has stayed with him to this day. Now, ten years into retirement it is consuming him more than ever and has almost completely taken over his life. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

George, 75, is an Arsenal fan. [NB – this article was written in 2003. If George is still alive, he’ll be 90 now.] If he told you that he goes to every Arsenal game in this country you might think that was impressive. If George then said that he can count the number of Arsenal home matches he has missed since the late 1940s on his bare hands you would say it was extremely commendable. But that isn’t even the half of it.

Since retiring, George has devoted his football seasons to an annual groundhopping quest which is quite possibly unique in this country.

Every season, while never missing an Arsenal game in this country, George endeavours to make an annual pilgrimage to watch a match at every single one of the 92 stadiums in the Premier League and Football League. It is worth considering the logistics of such a challenge for a moment.

Just as an experiment, next summer when the fixtures come out, consider how you might visit all 92 grounds for a game IN ONE SEASON without missing a single game of the team you support. Consider the ticketing, travel, accommodation, not to mention the inevitable solitude of the quest and, quite frankly, the not inconsiderable risk of a nervous breakdown.

Some people prefer things broken down into bite size chunks, so here’s some bullet points for you. Imagine doing all of this in one season: 
  • Every Arsenal home game, including European games
  • Every (domestic) Arsenal away game
  • Every other league ground among the 92 where Arsenal don’t have a fixture.
Reckon you could do it? You’ve got about 270-280 days to do the lot. Arsenal games take up typically a minimum of 43 of those days (38 league, 2 cup, 3 Europe), often far more, so you’re left with about 230 days, maybe less. And – bad luck – friendlies and reserve games don’t count towards the quest. Then imagine attempting this over and over again each season.

In the seven seasons to date that George has attempted this daunting task, he has succeeded five times, falling just short on two occasions. It’s a wonder that he’s ever achieved it at all. Most football games are played on Saturdays. Arsenal play most Saturdays.

George agrees to be interviewed at his Clapham home. His little kitchen is full of commemorative mugs, one for every team in the league. It’s colourful and endearingly quaint.

Those who like to think they are hardcore football supporters may now be realising that they never knew what the top end of the scale was. To use a footballing analogy: George is Thierry Henry and we are the trainees who clean his boots. But then all groundhoppers have to start somewhere – even George.

“My first game was at Chelsea on 15th October 1938, against Arsenal,” he says. “It was 4-2 to Chelsea. I was only ten at the time and couldn’t see much. It was a bit overwhelming, all these massive men around me. So they engineered it that I went down the front and sat on the tarpaulin around the pitch. My boyhood hero Ted Drake scored one of the two Arsenal goals that day.”

Chelsea keeper Vic Woodley under pressure from
Arsenal's Ted Drake during George Willmott's
first taste of live football in October 1938.
George’s passion was born. However, he didn’t start going to games seriously until he had completed two years of military service in the Army in 1948. Highbury was rarely without him subsequently.

“Between 1957 and 1965 I had eight seasons where I saw every match home and away,” says George. “That’s my longest unbroken record. Getting married then curtailed my efforts going to away games somewhat, but I still went to the home matches.”

So how does George plan out each season? There must be so much admin required. Allowing for Premier League and cup games, he goes to around two dozen grounds each year when Arsenal are playing away. But what about all the rest?

“I have one or two friends who go to matches with me,” he says, “so I find out where they want to go first, to see if it fits in with my plans. I try to get the midweek matches at grounds where I can get back to London after the match.

“I’ll spend an hour planning from time to time, getting some ideas. It’s really not until after Christmas that I sit down and make a list of all the grounds I haven’t visited and put possible dates against them. Before then a lot depends on which cup ties come up and which get replayed. You couldn’t do what I do by just going to league games. You need to go to cup competitions, too. After Christmas I’m hopefully getting down to the last 30 or 40 grounds.”

One thing that strikes you about George is how normal he is. For someone to attempt something this unusual, season after season, you would think they would have to be at best eccentric. George is just a charming, well-spoken, mild-mannered gent. Far from having a one-track mind, he is a keen fan of opera, enjoys reading and particularly relishes getting stuck in to a crossword.

The one sign of obsessiveness is his fondness for accuracy. He has a filing system of several boxloads of index cards, detailing every game he’s ever been to. Any time I ask about a particular fixture, George likes to be able to tell me exactly when it was and what the score was.

Yet this trait of wanting to get his facts and figures absolutely right is perhaps just force of habit. George spent much of his career as an accountant, including five years at the FA.

In January 1995, George needed a heart operation to replace a faulty aortic valve. (Coincidentally, the same operation that Arsenal’s Nigerian striker Nwankwo Kanu needed while playing in Italy for Internazionale in 1996.) George also needed a triple heart bypass at the same time.

Understandably, as a pensioner, George needed some rest after his operation. To put things in perspective, Kanu didn’t make his comeback on the football field until a year after his equivalent procedure. With the operation a success, George put his feet up for just over a month and was back at Highbury for the 1-1 draw with Leicester in mid-February.

George Willmott required the same heart operation to
replace a faulty aortic valve as Nwankwo Kanu
had while playing for Internazionale in 1996.
The operation appears to have been the catalyst that has driven George on to even greater achievements. Since the Leicester game in 1996, a European tie with Deportivo in 2000 is the only Arsenal match George has missed on UK soil. He doesn’t travel abroad to watch Arsenal, though. When they are away in Europe, George has to settle for watching on television – unless there’s a game on somewhere. He doesn’t much care for watching football if he can’t actually be there in the flesh.

“I can’t abide football on television,” he says. “I find it terrible. I don’t have Sky. I can’t see any point because if there’s a match on I want to go to it. People ask if I tuned in for Manchester United against Real Madrid – you know, great matches like that – and I say ‘No, I was watching Swindon play Plymouth’.”

On 9th November 1974, George completed his set of all the league grounds at Exeter City as they drew 0-0 with Scunthorpe United. He became the 13th member of a select group of journeymen football fans known as The 92 Club.

His achievement inspired his daughter (Ellen) and son (Simon) to follow in their father’s footsteps. Though Simon had already visited certain grounds, he and Ellen visited every ground together with their father. They completed the 92 in 1983 while in their teens, becoming two of the youngest members of the club.

“Since then I gather that somebody has actually taken a child aged two around the grounds,” says George. “That will take some beating.”

It was also after the heart operation that George started trying to visit all 92 league grounds annually. He succeeded at the first time of asking in the 1996/97 season and has repeated the feat another four times since. Only twice has he fallen short, on both occasions by just one or two grounds.

“I’ve done it five seasons out of the last seven which is pretty good going really,” he says, modestly. “I shall try again next season. I’ve been bitten by the bug now. I’ll at least want to see how many grounds I can get to.

“So much depends on the fixtures that are chosen for television,” says George with a heavy sigh. “It was annoying from my point of view last season that so many of the Football League’s televised games were kicking off Saturdays at 5.30pm, which is hopeless. If they stuck to Friday nights and Sundays I’d stand a much better chance of getting to them.”

In 65 years of watching football, George has been to a staggering 1,628 games at Highbury (including friendlies). One wonders how high the total number of games at all grounds might be. Short of totting up all of the entries on each of his countless index cards, this would be almost impossible to work out. One thing is certain, though. Over six and a half decades, George has seen some great games, countless wonderful goals and many tremendous players.

“My favourite ever Arsenal player was a goalkeeper, Jack Kelsey,” says George. “He played from the early 1950s for about ten seasons. He was a Welsh international who unfortunately got injured in a friendly match against Brazil which ended his career.

“Although it has been said about a lot of goalkeepers, he had enormous hands. If he went into a full-length dive for a shot, he wouldn’t push it round the post, he would catch it at full stretch."

Jack Kelsey, the former Arsenal and Wales
goalkeeper and George Willmott's all-time favourite
player, demonstrates his enormous hands.
“Tommy Docherty took a free kick once up at Preston and it was going right into the top corner of Kelsey’s net. As Docherty started to celebrate, these enormous hands came out of nowhere and caught the ball.”

So does George appreciate the enormity of his achievements? You would be hard pushed to find anyone else with the determination to match his feats. Most fans (this writer included) couldn’t stomach long trips to Carlisle, Plymouth, Hartlepool and Swansea every year, even if their own team was playing. To go on such long journeys as a neutral – just for the love of the game – requires something more than enthusiasm. You wonder if he realises that he is totally addicted to football. This question is put to George as gently as possible.

He grins. “I think one can safely assume that, yes.”

*****

Postscript (Feb 2018): I sadly lost the telephone number and address I had for George many years ago, so I’m sorry to say I don’t know if he is still alive. If he is still around, I hope he is still enjoying his football. But if he has passed on then I hope all who knew him will remember him for his incredible dedication to watching football. I told George back in 2003 that I hoped to get this story published somewhere with a sizable readership of football fans, so I hope he wasn’t too disappointed that I failed. I did at least pass him a copy of the above article at the time it was written, which he said he’d enjoyed reading.

I sat on this story for years after I graduated, with the idea of getting it published in a national newspaper, football magazine or website. Observer Sport Monthly were impressed with his accomplishments but didn't want the story. At one point, The Guardian were quite keen but they said they needed something to peg it on, such as a strong Arsenal angle in the news that this could sit neatly alongside. In retrospect, I probably wasn't pitching it very tactfully and editors must have wondered what sort of copy they'd receive if they commissioned me. I never really found a suitable peg and the years sort of drifted away. Eventually it felt like the moment had passed and the story has sat on various laptops of mine ever since.

Fifteen years since I wrote it, I thought I should probably publish it for posterity, rather than George’s unusual story be lost. At least this way there is one account of his impressive achievements on the internet.

If you’d like to use George’s story anywhere, you are free to take it, edit it, use excerpts, or do what you like with it. I’ll appreciate a credit as the author, of course, but on this occasion I mainly just want people to know the story and imagine themselves in George’s shoes. 

George was obviously not groundhopping for recognition, but simply out of a deep love for the game. But hopefully in future the occasional groundhopper will stumble across this story and be inspired in some way by his accomplishments. Even groundhopping, a pursuit that is both endlessly nerdy and yet strangely pleasurable, needs poster boys and George Willmott is certainly that.

Nice one, George.


1 comments:

Anonymous said...

A warm tribute to an extraordinary lover of the game - well done.

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