‘He was a great man and a great goalkeeper’. Tributes were this afternoon paid to football legend Bert Williams, as Wolverhampton showed just how much he had meant to the city at a special service to commemorate his achievements.
The life of the former Wolves, Walsall and England player was celebrated, with fans and famous faces from the world of football coming together to pay their respects.
Hundreds of people queued in the pouring rain to remember Bert at a service at St Peter’s Church in the city centre.
Follow coverage from the memorial service as it happened:
Footballing greats, including England World Cup winners, braved fierce winds and a torrential downpour to pack out the church.
Among them was World Cup winner Gordon Banks who said Bert was one of the greatest goalkeepers he had ever seen.
“I used to go and watch him and it helped me just by looking at him,” he said.
“For his height and weight, his agility was incredible.
“I don’t know where he got it from, I wish I could have been as agile myself.
“He was remarkable and I learned so much from him.”
Along with Mr Banks, Wolves goalkeepers through the ages were in attendance to pay their own tribute to Bert.
Wayne Hennessey, who recently left Wolves to join Crystal Palace, Phil Parkes, Fred Davies, Malcolm Finlayson and Mick Kearns – better known for his long service with neighbours Walsall – were all inside the church.
They joined Wolves favourites including Peter Knowles, John McAlle, Gerry Taylor and record scorer Steve Bull.
Club England chief executive Adrian Bevington represented the national team, for which Bert played 24 times.
“It is really important as a national association that we show our respects to someone who was a tremendous servant to English football as a top class international player who played in a World Cup and for a club as great as Wolves and during their greatest era,” he said.
“I was too young to remember it but he is one of the famous clutch of players from the 1950s that people talk about along with Billy Wright, Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Wilf Mannion – he is in that bracket of classic players and this is a fitting tribute to such a great person who contributed so much to the game through his life.”
Close friends also attended the service.
Terry Edge, of Wem, who was a friend of Bert, said: “He was a great man and a great goalkeeper.
“I got to know him very well. He’s been my hero since 1949. I used to take him a birthday cake every year and he always appreciated it.
“He was without doubt the greatest goalkeeper that Wolves ever had.”
Fans who admired his footballing skills also turned out to show their respect for Bert, who was considered one of Wolves’ greatest ever players.
Supporter John Ruvy, who was born in Bert’s home town of Bradley, said: “Bert took my dad’s place in the Bradley Old Boy’s team.
“Today really brings back memories of my dad Richard and the respect he had for Bert.
“He was the original ‘Cat’ he was one of Wolverhampton’s all-time heroes and it’s good to see so many people here for him today.”
Season ticket holder Graham Charles, from Pendeford, aged 76, added: “I first saw Bert playing in 1947 against Charlton Athletic.
“He was a wonderful man and wonderful goalkeeper. The one game I remember the most was when we played Honved in 1954. He played extremely well that night.”
Around 700 people were at the church for the service, with many having to sit upstairs.
It was led by The Rev David Wright, club chaplain, who said it was a ‘fitting tribute from the city’.
“It’s a celebration of his life and that’s what the family want,” he said.
“A lot of people are here for him as a person as well as a footballer. That says so much about him.”
People who attended the ceremony entered the church to the song ‘Je ne regrette rien’ before an opening welcoming prayer from Rev Wright.
This was followed by first hymn Abide With Me.
Wolves Vice President Baroness Rachael Heyhoe Flint, who as a youngster in the 1950s had a spell working with Bert in his sports shop in Worcester Street in the city centre, did a reading.
She read a bible passage from John 1-6 and 27, which was chosen by the Williams family.
Before the service, she said: “We can show Bert and his family what he meant to Wolverhampton. Bert was a real legend. He was so wonderful I will always remember his smile.”
Reflections of Bert’s life were recounted by television presenters Bob Hall and Ian Winter, who got to know the goalkeeping icon in his later years.
Rev Wright also spoke about Bert’s life and his illustrious career. A poem called If I Should Go by Joyce Grenfell was read out by David Crawshaw, the husband of Bert’s daughter Ann, followed by hymn Battle of the Republic. All of Bert’s former teams- Wolves, Walsall and England – were represented by the 50 members of the Orpheus Male Voice Choir, who gave up their time free of charge to be there.
They donned scarves from all three clubs as they sang.
Tania Williams, the wife of Bert’s youngest son Paul, read out another poem prior to the commendation and the singing of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’.
The congregation left the church to the sounds of Land of Hope and Glory.
An eight page order of service was given out to people who attended, packed with pictures of Bert.
It showed him not only in his goalkeeping days for Wolves and England but also showed him posing happily in family pictures which his late wife Evelyn and their children Ann, Vaughan,
Paul and grandchildren. Bert’s family today said they have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love since his death on January 19.
Today’s service was bringing to a close a series of tributes which have been paid to Bert, including one minute’s applause at the Molineux where he won FA Cup and League Championship honours.
Applause also rang out at Walsall FC’s Banks’s Stadium, the club at which Bert started his career before the outbreak of the Second World War.
His son-in-law David Crawshaw, husband of Ann, said: “It has been a great comfort to the family to learn just how much Bert meant to everybody – we have found it quite overwhelming really. I think it has brought home to them all just how well-known he was and how admired he was by football fans from all over really.
“We have had cards from abroad as well as at home and the funeral on Friday was very touching.
“It’s the thing they never quite realised about Bert because he was always just ‘dad’ to everyone. They have been rather amazed at all of this.
“But I think Bert would have enjoyed it. In his later years, he enjoyed his fame. As everyone knows he was quite a modest man but it was nice little pick-me-up for him whenever he got the opportunity to talk about his playing days.”
Mr Crawshaw said the family was deeply touched by the support.
“Wolves been truly supportive and a great help to us,” he said.
“Bert’s relationship with Wolves was always very special and we cannot thank them enough.
“In his last months, I know that he was given marvellous care by the staff at Ward C 22, the dementia ward at New Cross Hospital.
“They do amazing work there and if anyone is minded to pay their respects in such a way, then I know any donation to that ward would be appreciated by our family.
“They need every bit of help and support we all can give them,” he added.
Bert played 420 times for Wolves from 1945 to 1957, which was a club record for a goalkeeper that stood until 1999.
He had signed from Walsall for £3,500.
He won the FA Cup in 1949, Wolves’ first League championship title in 1954 and was part of the famous floodlit friendly matches against Honved, Moscow Dynamo and Moscow Spartak that were a forerunner to the modern-day Champions League.
But it was not just his playing career that was remembered today.
After hanging up his boots, Bert was just as successful in business as he was in football, running sports shops in Worcester Street and in Bilston, building a sports centre in Bilston with goalkeeping coaching and cricket nets, and owning and letting out a string of factories and offices.
When his beloved wife of 60 years Evelyn died in 2002, he devoted his time to raising money for the Alzheimer’s Society and reached his target of £100,000.
In 2010, he was awarded the MBE for services to charity and football, before increasing his fundraising total to £150,000 in May 2013.
The family have lived in and around Shifnal for many years.
As well as daughter Ann, 72, sons Paul, 64 and Vaughan, 55 he is also survived by two grandchildren, James Pearson, 44, and Claire Bjerkan, 43, and seven great-grandchildren.
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