Cheltenham Town: Big Nev walked in and said we will not lose if we score
CHELTENHAM Town's forthcoming FA Cup clash against Everton next month has brought back some fond memories for Kevin Willetts.
Gloucester-based Willetts served the Robins with distinction between 1985 and 1993, making 367 starts and 14 substitute appearances.
He played in the only previous meeting between Cheltenham and Everton, a testimonial match for Nick Jordan and Ray Baverstock in April 1990.
A crowd of 3,050 gathered at Whaddon Road to see Cheltenham enjoy a 1-0 victory courtesy of Simon Brain's goal, but for Willetts the performance of one great man stands out.
"We had Neville Southall in goal for us and he was just incredible," Willetts said.
"He strolled into the dressing room before the game and said 'we'll win this tonight if we score, because nothing's getting past me' and he was right!"
Willetts recalled how Southall took aside central defender Anton Vircavs, who was dominant in air, telling him to stay out of his way because he'd come and catch everything.
"It was virtually Everton's first team against Cheltenham Town so as to be expected they had a few shots, but Southall made it look easy and it was an unbelievable experience to see just how good he was.
"Everton's manager Colin Harvey had them straight on the bus after the game as he wasn't happy they'd lost and I am sure Yatesey (Mark Yates) would settle for the same result for Cheltenham this season!"
Willetts, who turned 50 this year, described his departure from Cheltenham as "disappointing" but he said he does not hold any grudges.
"They were struggling for money and I'd had a knee operation, so I went to Forest Green on loan to get fit," he said.
"I never came back and nobody ever told me what was happening, which wasn't great in the middle of my testimonial year and I wasn't happy with the way it was handled.
"I went to Gloucester City, but I didn't enjoy that much and I became disillusioned with football really."
After 18 months at Meadow Park, Willetts joined Weston-super-Mare, rediscovering his love for the game.
"Weston rekindled by faith in football and then Graham Allner phoned and invited me to Kidderminster, where I spent the next five years," he said.
"We were top of the league all of one season and 19 points clear at one stage, but Macclesfield caught us and pipped us to the title in 1997."
Willetts was part of a midfield trio alongside Yates and Paul Webb, who was captain of the England non-League side at the time.
Willetts played some of the best football of his career at Aggborough, where he relished a chance to play regularly in midfield.
"At Cheltenham I'd come in from Sharpness, who were three or four leagues lower and I couldn't get into the team at first," he said.
"John Murphy then used me at left-back, chucking me in against Enfield, who were Conference and Trophy holders at the time I think, so it wasn't easy, but I did all right and ended up playing most of my games for Cheltenham there.
"Dave Lewis liked me in midfield and when he was caretaker manager he played me there, but other than that it was left-back."
Willetts wore the armband many times during his time at Cheltenham and featured in big FA Cup ties against Wolves and Birmingham City, but a first round replay victory at St Albans in 1992 stands out as his favourite occasion, with him scoring probably the most important of his 45 goals for the club.
"We were 1-0 down and won 2-1, with Jon Purdie coming on and winning a penalty, which I scored and then he got the winner," Willetts said.
"That set up a game at home to AFC Bournemouth, which was great for the club."
Willetts' form also earned him a call-up to the Middlesex Wanderers squad, with whom he toured Japan.
He was involved in the England semi-professional squad, but missed out on a cap.
He played with the likes of Vircavs, Peter Shearer, Steve Brooks and good friend Brian Hughes, but one man stands out from his time at Cheltenham.
"If I am pushed to pick one, I'd go for Mark Boyland because he was a dream striker," he said.
"He should have played so much higher and if Cheltenham had him and Neil Grayson up front in their primes, they'd be in the Championship, nevermind League Two.
"I only had the pleasure of playing with Grayson once in an charity match against Arsenal at Whaddon Road, but he was running around all over the place and he's not much younger than me!"
Willetts, a plasterer away from his football commitments, is currently number two to former team mate Hughes at Cirencester Town.
"I remember I'd tried to retire from playing, but Hughsie made me play for him at Witney and the same happened at Cirencester when I was about 40," he said.
"I sometimes struggle with work commitments now because I run my own business and it's taken off well, but I'm still at Cirencester."
Willetts was involved in the Cheltenham youth set-up when it was devised by Brian Forsbrook after the club's promotion to the Football League.
He still speaks regularly to Yates and his assistant Neil Howarth and said he would love to be at the Everton game to cheer on his old club.
"Cheltenham's result is still the first I look out for," he said.
"It's good to see so many people there now who have the club at heart.
"I'd love to get along to the Everton game, but I don't want to take the ticket of a regular fan because they are the lifeblood of the club.
"Having said that, if someone offers me one I won't turn it down, otherwise I'll be watching it on TV."