IAN WILSON is recalling the time when his life was turned upside down, one Friday in April 2019. He had spent that morning at his local gym running 5km on one of the machines. Pounding the treadmill was a daily occurrence for Wilson. Then aged 60, the Leicester City legend and one-time Scotland international was as fit as a racehorse.
That night he had a prior engagement – the Cove Rangers annual sportsman’s dinner at the luxury Marcliffe Hotel in Aberdeen. Ruud Gullit, the AC Milan and Netherlands legend, was the guest speaker, there was a three-course meal laid on and it was a chance to catch up with some old friends. Wilson was driving because he was coaching the next day at the football school that bears his name and which he has run since 1999; so he stuck to mineral water for the evening. But as the pleasantries wore on, Wilson began to feel increasingly unwell. He told the boys at his table that he was going to the toilet – but he wasn’t. By now, he felt so ill that he was almost in tears; he walked straight out of the hotel, jumped into his car and drove home. He shudders at the retelling of events.
“I phoned my wife; she was out with a pal for a bit of dinner as well,” he says. “I asked her if she could get home because I didn’t feel great. I had a sore head – but it wasn’t a sore head. That’s the last I remember. I woke up in intensive care at ARI (Aberdeen Royal Infirmary) after being operated on for a brain haemorrhage. There was no indication. I was at the gym on the Friday morning and I’d run a 5k, dinner at night and that was me. Bang. I was very lucky to get out of that one. Only 30% of people survive it.”
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Wilson’s health scare did not end there, though. A few weeks later, he was back at his soccer school when he started to feel dizzy and his wife drove him home.
“I couldn’t get out of the car. When I went to stand up my legs just collapsed. My wife managed to get me upstairs and another ambulance – so I’m back in the hospital again and they said ‘you’ve had a stroke’. They’ve done every blood test, they’ve done every heart scan, brain scan, lumber punctures, everything and they just said it looks like you’ve just been a bit unlucky.”
He has been on the mend for a while now but lockdown has prevented Wilson from accelerating his rehabilitation. Nevertheless, he is in the throes of doing his bit for Doddie Weir’s Active Inter-District Challenge, launched by the former Scotland rugby international to fund research into Motor Neurone Disease and has waled 91 miles since January 1. He aims to take the figure up to 100 by the end of the month.
“I’m not back to what I would like to be,” he says. “I like to go to the gym, I like to run, I like to potter about. I’ve got grandkids now and they are the most important thing so it gives you a completely different outlook. It’s been two years, I’m still doing rehab. I’m back to a happier place than I was but it has curtailed my coaching.”
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Newcastle United and Scotland winger Ryan Fraser, Wycombe Wanderers full-back Jack Grimmer and Aberdeen first-teamer Dean Campbell have all passed under Wilson’s watchful eye but since his illness he has had to pass on more responsibility to his head coach, Blair Bowie.
“He’s been brilliant,” says Wilson of Bowie. “He’s taken a lot of our stuff on.”
Those who saw Wilson play in the 80s and 90s will recall a skilful left-sided midfielder who won five caps for his country. He was durable, too, boasting more than 400 appearances for Leicester in a 15-year career that also took in spells in England with Everton, Derby County, Bury and Wigan Athletic. Sandwiched in between, he had two years in Turkey where he won a league and cup double at Besiktas. When he finally hung up his boots – back in his native Highlands – he was 36 and player-manager for Peterhead. Understandably, the biggest space in his heart is reserved for Leicester.
Brendan Rodgers’ side briefly topped the table in midweek after a comprehensive win over Chelsea that had everyone recalling events of five years ago when Claudio Ranieri’s 2000/1 outsiders pulled off the biggest shock in living memory to win the Premier League. There’s evidence to suggest this Leicester team is better than the side Ranieri guided to the title and one that has borrowed some pragmatism from them along the way. Idealism was a criticism levelled at Rodgers during his time as Celtic manager, particularly when on the receiving end of Champions League thrashings at the hands of Paris St-Germain and Barcelona.
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Wilson feels the Northern Irishman has learned from those chastening experiences.
“Brendan did a great job at Celtic. He’s doing a better job at Leicester,” he says. “There was a big furore about him when he moved. One pundit said it was like going from Manchester United to Crystal Palace. But it’s been proved that he made the right decision to go there. Brendan has taken over a fantastic club, they have huge finances and he’s proved that they had the potential to be where they are now. He’s well equipped to adapt his tactics to whatever suits the games he’s playing and the teams he’s up against.”
Wilson reels off the names of some of the old guard who remain from the Leicester team that stunned the world and the coterie of creative players, such as James Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Youri Tielemans, who have added a panache that was absent from Ranieri’s side.
The lead conductor is Maddison, no stranger to fans of Scottish football from his time at Aberdeen and a player whom Wilson says was given a good grounding at Pittodrie.
“I went and watched him a few times when he was up at Aberdeen. He’s got that cockiness about him. He’s got that ability to try things and they’ll come off. When he came here on loan from Norwich, the fans loved him because he was totally different; he gave a wee bit of flair that the football club hadn’t seen for a while. The game up here is a lot quicker, you’ve got to think a bit quicker, it’s more aggressive and people get a bit closer to you so he gained a lot of experience in the short time he was here.”
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Today, Rodgers takes his players to London for an FA Cup fourth-round tie against Brentford. The winners of that game will face a home encounter against Brighton or Blackpool in the fifth round. It’s a favourable draw that gives Leicester realistic ambitions of reaching the semi-finals for the first since 1982, when they lost to eventual winners Tottenham Hotspur.
Wilson played in that game, scoring his first goal of the season at Villa Park. Alas, it was into his own net, chipping goalkeeper Mark Wallington from 20 yards. It is still something that the good-natured Wilson feels strongly about to this day.
“I keep getting reminded almost 40 years later about that goal but nobody comes to me and pats me on the back for the one that I scored at Fulham that got us promoted [in 1983],” he laughs. “That’s just life. People will always remember that one. I was directly up against Glenn Hoddle. Garth Crooks played up front, Stevie Archibald played. Tony Galvin was on the left. They were a cracking team at the time.”
Watching the game on YouTube is to transport one back to an era of sand-encrusted pitches, thunderous challenges and throbbing crowds. Also sticking out in the footage are the darting runs of a youthful Gary Lineker and one Maddisonesque through ball by Wilson which Steve Lynex, the Leicester winger, dragged wide.
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Lineker remains a friend to this day, aiding Wilson in his efforts to raise £25,000 for new equipment at the stroke units and neurology department he attended at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
“Gary has been very good to us, in terms of my fundraising. Gary put in his own personal money and he gave us a prize for two people to go to Match of the Day in the Manchester studios to watch him recording Match of the Day live on a Saturday.”
Lineker infamously promised to do Match of the Day in his underpants when Leicester won the title almost five years ago. This week he joked that he would wash his own hair – a reference to stories about Bernard Tomic’s girlfriend emanating from the Australian Open – if Rodgers’ repeated the trick.
Wilson thinks they have a good chance of doing just that.
“I wouldn’t bet against them,” he says. “I think Man United, Liverpool, City, even Spurs – they’ll be quite happy with themselves. But fingers crossed Leicester can do it. It would be amazing.”