A few years ago, I was working late one evening in Liverpool. It was 10pm and I didn’t have the patience to wait around for a bus. I stood for ten minutes outside the Philharmonic Pub; taxis were occupied or drove straight past me. Then destiny with a ‘for hire’ light pulled up.
The cabbie tells me he was about to go home until he saw me. He drives on silently as we make our way to Aigburth. About halfway down Prince’s Avenue, the cabbie asks “Are you into footy?”
“Yes.” I said.
‘Who do you support?”
“Leicester City.” I replied.
The cabbie seemed to get excited by this fact and proceeded to test my Leicester trivia knowledge. “Do you remember the playoff final in 1993/94?”
“Was that the one where Steve Walsh scored the winner from an Ian Ormondroyd headed rebound after the best cross Simon Grayson ever produced?” I opined breathlessly, strangely eager to impress this Scouser who had an unhealthy interest in the perennial East Midlands yo-yo club.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Tommy Johnson scored the first goal for Derby.” I added referring to the very red-headed forward of our hated local rivals.
“He had a shot stopped on the line in the first minute, can you remember who blocked it?” The cabbie left the words hanging, eyes straight ahead on the road. Half-remembered rumours started swimming around my head about a Liverpudlian ex-Leicester defender who had retired and became a taxi driver in his hometown.
The realisation dawned on me “You’re not Jimmy Willis, are you?!?”
Like the scene in Total Recall where the robot cabbie turns his head to face Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Jimmy Willis’ grinning visage slowly rotated into my view.
I had spoken with friends about retired sports stars in Liverpool, foremost amongst them was Earnie Shavers. He took on the great Muhammad Ali in his heyday, and was known for having the hardest punch in boxing.
Earnie eventually found his way to becoming a doorman at the Queen’s Square Yates’ Wine Lodge. As an avid Leicester City fan – starting during the Brian Little years of the 90’s – here I was, faced with my own encounter with a very personal slice of sporting history.
Now, Jimmy Willis was one of those players who was cursed with injury problems. To say Jimmy was unlucky is a severe understatement – as a young central defender winning the Conference then the old Division Four titles at Darlington, he was being monitored by Arsenal until a potential move was scuppered by the first of the many serious injuries that blighted his stop-start career.
In the summer of 1991 he followed his Darlo manager, Brian Little, to Leicester City, who were looking to rebuild after avoiding relegation to the old Third Division on the last day of the previous season – thank you Tony James.
Jimmy struggled to adapt to the higher level of football following his £100,000 transfer and was derided as a figure of fun by the club’s fans, suffering yet more injury setbacks and being farmed out to Bradford City on loan.
However, by 1994, his early promise and his confidence returned as he played a vital role in the run-in to the play-offs. Leicester City were the losing finalists in the two previous play-off finals, thwarted by controversial penalty decisions against Blackburn and Swindon.
I remember vividly the commentary from Alan Parry explaining to his co-commentator and Anfield great, Kevin Keegan, that Jimmy Willis was once a Liverpool ball boy in an FA Cup final. “I played in that one, I remember him.”
Keegan went on to select Willis as his Man of the Match, a decision that could be described nostalgic bias had it not been for Jimmy’s courageous defensive display in a game fraught with tension and against the more attractive Derby County. Back in the cab, I reminded Jimmy of the accolade and how the Leicester fans finally accepted him.
I told him one of my few highlights of 94/95 relegation season was the 3-1 defeat of Tottenham and Ossie Ardiles’ ‘Famous Five’ of Klinsmann, Sheringham, Barmby, Anderton and Dumitrescu. Whilst Leicester’s Iwan Roberts, Mark Draper and Julian Joachim grabbed the headlines, Jimmy quietly got on with his job and kept German World Cup winner Jurgen Klinsmann quiet bar a late, meaningless consolation.
But it was his record of being the first player to score in every division from the Conference to the Premiership that will stand the test of time. A record that he was and still is fiercely proud of. He told me that when Liverpool’s Steve Finnan equalled that feat in 2007, Sky Sports wrongly praised the Irish full back as the first player to achieve this until Jimmy, through the Liverpool Echo, set the record straight.
I had reached my house but there was no way I was going to leave the taxi now, and we talked for another half an hour reminiscing about the ups and cruel downs of his fleeting career.
Jimmy spoke with pride about his son’s blossoming in Blackburn’s youth team, where he himself started his professional days. He also regaled to me some of the behind-the-scenes gossip during his time at Leicester (all of it too salacious to publish) and the regret he felt at not being part of the club’s most successful era after falling out with Martin O’Neill. He was on the verge of a move to Burnley before his hopes were again dashed by injury and he was sadly forced to retire in 1997.
When I finally got out of the taxi, in my surreal daze I had forgotten to pay the fare. Jimmy, always sharp into the tackle, jokingly chastised me for taking advantage of a retired footballer and his war stories until I paid up. I immediately texted my friends from back home and reported my brush with greatness.
Looking back, it’s hard to escape the feeling that he’s probably eager to recount his stories to all of the passengers he picks up. But I like to think that when Jimmy Willis turned around and beamed that proud smile through the partition, that I was one of the lucky few who truly appreciated the stories of his greatest achievements, especially those in blue shirt of Leicester.