The John Wilkie Story
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The John Wilkie Story
John Wilkie joined Wigan Athletic in time for the 1976/77 season. It was a difficult season, the club was forced to cut costs and the team was a mixture of experience and young local lads. Wigan were bottom of the league at one stage but recovered well in the second half of the season finishing 14th and won the Lancashire Cup Final v Chorley with a Joe Hinnigan header.
It was a far cry from our usual position of league challengers but it was understandable in the circumstances. John Wilkie ended up top scorer with 17 goals. The 1977/78 season was in complete contrast to the previous campaign and the old swagger was back in Wigan Athletic. To everyone’s surprise it was also the clubs last season in non-league football and John Wilkie had the honour of scoring the last ever non-league goal at Springfield Park in a vital 2-1 victory against Bangor City. He also played in the clubs first ever Football League game at Hereford United a day never to be forgotten. I managed to get an interview with John and here’s his story in his own words.
How did you first get into football?
I really just got into it on my own. My Uncle Frank, who was eight years older than me, would kick a ball about with me at my grannies house. It was only a tennis ball but I took it from there and always played from then on just messing around. They had no coaching schools back then or anything like that; you got by on your own ability and people noticed you from a young age. I went to a catholic school St Pius in Douglas and the teachers were all priests. One of the teachers was keen on football and he organized trials for the team. I got picked for the side, I was aged ten at the time, and in our first season we won the cup against all the other schools in Dundee. I scored a couple of goals in the final and in the crowd was two representatives from the Dundee Schoolboy Association and I got picked for the Dundee Schoolboys. I also played for Douglas Amateurs until I was 13 or 14 and in Scotland they have “Junior” teams that play just before the level of the senior teams, like Dundee, Dundee United etc. The problem was with the Junior League was you had senior players coming to the end of their careers and it was… well robust for a 14/15yr old so I returned to the amateur level.
I got picked for Scotland Amateurs and that’s when I realised I could be a footballer for a living. Stanley Matthews was manager of Port Vale at the time and he invited me down for a two week trial. I was 16 and working so I asked the firm could I have the time off to play in the trials. They said no so I packed the job in and went anyway. Stanley Matthews picked me up from the railway station in his limousine; it was in the Dundee local paper when I got back home. I did well at the trials and Stanley Matthews offered me a contract. I was made up but a bit unsure about living away from home, I’d never been away before. So I asked Mr Matthews if it was okay if I asked my Mum first, he said “Yes you go on and ask your Mum and let us know” When I got back home I had no job, no money and some teams up there offered me trials and I would get £7 expenses so that’s what I did not thinking I was doing any wrong. Anyway Port Vale didn’t approve of this and I got a letter from Stanley Matthews saying they had cancelled my contract. That was one big mistake of mine and I’ve always regretted that. I should have signed the contract, my Mum even said “Go for it” but I didn’t think I was doing any wrong by playing these trials but that was it.
Where did you go from there?
I got invited for a trial by Dundee United and I played in a game against Dundee. After the game Dundee asked me to go for a week’s training up at Dens Park and I said yes but the very next day Arbroath asked me to sign for them so I joined Arbroath and I was there for around five years. We won promotion to the top league while I was there and I played against Celtic when they were reigning European Champions at the time. Alex Ferguson was another I played against when he was at Rangers, yes I played against some great players and I had some good times at Arbroath. I was due a loyalty bonus after 5 years along with my friend and teammate Jimmy Jack who had signed at the same time has me. So Jimmy goes in and he gets his bonus then I follow and ask for mine. I’m told that I couldn’t have one yet and I’d have to wait so I asked them could I have a free transfer so that I would get a signing on fee and they agreed. I signed for a club called Keith in the Highland League but just before that I had played a few games for Raith Rovers but the club were in administration and could only sign players from week to week.
I’d always played as a left winger but Keith wanted me to play as a centre forward. I enjoyed playing up front and scored 15 goals in ten games and people began to take notice. Morton came in for me and I signed for them. I ended up only playing one game because they put me on the wing and I thought they had signed me as a striker. I went to see the manager after the game and said “You’re not going to play me on the left wing are you?” he said “Yes that’s where I want you to play” so I said “Well I want to leave, I don’t want to be a winger” Ross County had been interested in signing me but I ended up at Morton so the manager phoned Ross County to ask them did they still want to buy me? They did and the manager was Ian McNeil who went on to manage Wigan.
You had a spell at Halifax Town too, how did that come about?
I was part time so I had to work as well and I got sent on a course in Warrington. In my hotel they had this pretty receptionist and I asked her out and I fell in love with her. When I got back to Ross County I explained to Ian McNeil that I wanted to be nearer this girl. Ian understood and he phoned his old friend George Mulhall who was manager at Halifax Town. I scored a couple of goals against Preston North End on trial and Halifax signed me, big mistake. I didn’t get on with the manager and he didn’t get on with me so when it came down to re-signing at the end of my contract I asked to leave. He phoned Ian McNeil and Ian wanted me back at Ross County so I went back. I had got married to the girl from Warrington and we both moved up to Scotland.
I’d only been back about five months when Elgin City signed me for a record fee back then in the Highland League. I was at Elgin for about 18 months when Ian McNeil then at Wigan Athletic signed me for the latics. It was ideal because my wife had her family in Warrington.
Life at Wigan under Ian McNeil
Ian McNeil was a great manager and I loved him to bits. I still keep in touch with him; in fact I’ll phone him after this interview. I loved it in the Northern Premier League, we didn’t do too well in my first season but the second season was very good and we finished second in the league behind Boston United. The players were fantastic and it was the best club I’d ever been with. Everyone and I mean everyone, got on together and we were all good friends, brilliant, brilliant times. Boston United’s ground was deemed unsuitable for League Football so as the NPL league runner up we were put forward for election to the Football League. When we got voted in and I was asked if I wanted to be a full time professional I jumped at the chance. The wages weren’t great but I wasn’t bothered, full time footy, you can’t beat it. I could understand Mickey Worswick not going full time, he had a decent job and he was coming to the end of a great career.
I enjoyed that first season in the league but come the second year I just felt I wasn’t the same player, I was 33yrs old then and I was disappointed when Ian McNeil decided to release me but I perfectly understood why. Wigan had younger, fresher players coming through and that’s football it happens to every football player. I went to Chorley, Les Rigby was the manager, but my heart wasn’t in it and I left after a few games. I did carry on playing football for my mate’s team in Warrington, a pub team. I scored 50 goals in my first season.
Life after football
I had studied accounting throughout my career and in fact spent two years at Wigan College while I was full time at Wigan. I got a job in accountants in Wigan and I used to get an American magazine that claimed “What happens in America today happens in Britain tomorrow” One article that caught my eye was about video rentals and how it was going to be the next big thing. So I started up my own video delivery business, posting them out £2 for two nights. The business got so big that I was coming home from work and still be sorting videos out until 11pm at night. So I opened a shop in Penketh in Warrington and it mushroomed from there it was brilliant. Then I bought a nightclub in Warrington and had both businesses going at the same time. I also bought 3 houses in Spain to rent out and everything was going hunky dory then tragedy struck…
My wife died suddenly, she became ill on a Saturday and she died the same day, totally unexpected. I had two young boys, aged 3 and 5 so I had a decision to make about the business because I couldn’t carry on with it and look after my boys at the same time so I sold everything to look after the boys. All the old Wigan players came to my wife’s funeral even though seven years had passed since I had played there.
I couldn’t get a job to fit time in with the boys but I had a caravan in Rhyl that we used at weekends and one weekend when we were there I asked the site owner if there was any jobs going that I could do that would still enable me to look after the boys. So they gave me a job has a lifeguard round the swimming pool and the boys went to a school in Rhyl and I was always there for them. Eventually I moved on to become a compere, then a kid’s entertainer, bingo caller and a singer. I used to dress up as Crocodile Dundee because people said I looked like him, all the kids thought I was him! I stayed there until I retired last year and I really enjoyed it.
I’d like to thank John for his honest and interesting interview. John took the time to phone me and we spent a good 40 minutes talking about his career. Sadly the day after this interview took place John phoned me again to tell me that Ian McNeil would have to go into care because his Alzheimer’s had got really bad. On behalf of all our supporters I would like to wish Ian all the very best. He played a prominent part in the Wigan Athletic story.
Since this article was first published in the Mudhutter I’m sorry to say that the great Ian McNeil has since died. His contribution will never be forgotten or underestimated. God bless Ian
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