We grew up 10 miles from each other and went to school in Omagh as 11-plus failures – he to the Academy, I to the High. His allegiance would have been to the green and white hoops of the local Academicals rugby club, while I wore the No.6 red and black shirt for neighbouring Dunbreen Rovers in the Fermanagh & Western soccer league.
Our paths didn’t cross until he touched down after that ill-fated escapade in Argentina, and even then it was only fleetingly. We haven’t met since.
I was an ambitious Press Association journalist, just settling into Fleet St, and was waiting for Willie with the rest of the media pack which had crowded into the airport arrivals, when the man from The Sun (Peter Bond) posed a typical tabloid type question about whether the farmer’s son from Sixmilecrosshad got up to any other out of hours antics while in Buenos Aires. “Come on big man, tell us?” he shouted.
Willie Anderson fired him, and the rest of us, a Haka-style look of such intensity that it was amazing we didn’t freeze on the spot. Not so much as a “No comment.” That was a stand-out moment for me on that October day in 1980 when he brushed past us in his Dungannon RFC blazer as only a giant lock forward could.
Not much of a story, but it made for a huge and lasting impression as I followed his career, especially when he played for Ireland, and I often wondered about him. What was he really like?
Brendan Fanning, a rugby writer with the Sunday Independent, who ghosted Willie’s autobiography has done a brilliant job, and he should be eternally grateful that his subject matter was so accommodating and frank about his life on and off the pitch.
Anderson has taken us to places where he didn’t necessarily have to, and it’s his sheer honesty that makes this book so compelling. He doesn’t step back, just like the afternoon he faced down the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road. The good, and the not so good. It’s all there. He’s had a remarkable career and life. He didn’t allow religion and politics to define him, and coming from a similarly rural and domestic background I can empathise with many aspects of how he has, and continues to live out his days. I even find them strangely comforting.
Now after all these years, following that brief encounter at Heathrow, he’s very kindly agreed my invitation to the lunch table and give of his time so we might reminisce about growing up in Tyrone;discuss his book which is surely set to become a best seller on the shelves this Christmas, and maybe reflect on the day he gave me the bum’s rush.
** Crossing The Line – The Flag, the Haka and Facing My Life. (Reach Sport, £20) Willie Anderson with Brendan Fanning.