OLIVER HOLT: Even for a suffering man like Bill Turnbull, it’s belief that keeps us fans coming back… plus find out my predictions for the upcoming season
- Wycombe fan Bill Turnbull was one of few at their Wembley play-off final
- The club defied all odds to gain promotion to the Championship next season
- Bill was diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer, but the belief in him is strong
- Predictions are a mug’s game but Man City should pip Liverpool to the title
Bill Turnbull’s house sits off a narrow country lane amid the rich earth of ploughed fields a stone’s throw from the Suffolk coast.
The promise of the sea lingers beyond the row of trees that flanks the main road to Aldeburgh where staycationers queue in long lines outside the two fish and chip shops on the high street and visitors sit in deckchairs and crunch across the pebble beach, enjoying the last of the summer sunshine.
Turnbull is sitting on the terrace at the back of the house. We talk about the beauty of the hills above Macclesfield, where he lived when the BBC Breakfast show he presented for 15 years moved to Salford.
Wycombe fan Bill Turnbull, who was diagnosed with incurable cancer, was able to see the Chairboys win promotion to the Championship
Wycombe Wanderers defied all odds to gain promotion to the Championship next season
Now and again, he throws a tennis ball across the lawn for Lola, one of his black Labradors, to hunt down. Each time, she brings it back and gazes at him expectantly, tail wagging furiously, and the game begins again.
There is something reassuring in the repetition of an action and its cycle of accomplishment and renewal and his mind takes him back to mid-July when he stood on his feet in a near-empty stand at Wembley for the last 10 minutes of Wycombe Wanderers’ League One play-off final victory over Oxford United and chanted his team’s nickname over and over and over again in the echoing stadium until the full-time whistle blew and tears began to stream down his face.
It is three years since Bill, 64, was diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer and attending the staging posts in the improbable rise of the Chairboys, who he has supported for more than 20 years, has become one of his favourite distractions.
He was one of only a couple of hundred people inside the stadium when they had their finest hour that summer evening and there was something about their against-all-odds victory that unlocked his emotions.
Sadly for fans it had to be inside an empty Wembley, but Turnbull got to see his side win
One of the mantras I have,’ he says, ‘is that you should try to have a moment of joy every day. Everybody should but particularly if you are dealing with an illness. Try to have a moment of joy. I had moments of joy to last me for months from that night.’
It was football that got to him that night at Wembley, he says. It was the feeling of togetherness and family and home and community that you get when you support a club through thick and thin, particularly a lower league club like Wycombe.
It was all the shared history, all the matches he had been to at Adams Park with his children, all the people at the club he knew, all the kindness the manager, Gareth Ainsworth, has shown him since he has been ill, the way the club have included him through all their vicissitudes, all the memories he has.
He remembers the time he and his wife, Sarah, and their three kids gathered in a circle and held hands in the darkness of a power cut as they listened to the radio and willed Wycombe to a famous FA Cup penalty shootout win over Wimbledon in 2001. He remembers being in the Holte End at Villa Park when Wycombe held Liverpool to a draw for 78 minutes in the cup semi-final the same season.
He remembers all the years he commentated on home matches for the club website. He says: ‘It was spectacularly unprofessional and biased, especially against refs.’
He remembers the relegations he witnessed, the great escape from the drop on the last day of the season at Torquay in 2014 that he missed because he had not been able to bear the thought of more desolation if it had gone wrong.
And he remembers how, for a spell one season, partridges would alight on the Adams Park pitch that nestles in a nook in the Chilterns as the light faded in the second half on winter afternoons. ‘They’d been shot at all day, probably,’ he says.
He mocks me gently when I suggest that maybe there is an emotional link for him between Wycombe’s fight against adversity — they were tipped to be relegated at the start of last season when they were up against giants like Sunderland and Portsmouth and had one of the smallest budgets in the league — and his own battle with cancer.
That makes us both smile. A journalist of his standing can see a journalist like me coming a mile off. He does, though, talk about belief and the power that it can have. ‘Before the final against Oxford,’ he says, ‘I’d been saying for a few days to Chairboys fans with whom I correspond on Twitter, “You have got to believe this is going to happen but it will only happen if you believe it is going to happen. It will happen if you believe. It will happen”.’
‘The reason I’m banging on about that is that people who have incurable diseases need a lot of psychological stuff to keep them going and a lot of it is belief. It is the power of positive thinking but it is more than that. Don’t just say “I might get better” or “I can get better” but say “I will get better”.’
He adds: ‘I am not the world’s greatest exponent of that theory because there is some voice in my head that sometimes says “What if?” but in the here and now, I believe I will get better. Put that in a football context and I was saying, “We are going to get promoted, we are going to do it”. I like to think that the collective thinking — this is all getting a bit whacky now — of the Wycombe fans who follow me on Twitter pushes the team on.’
Bill looks well. He says he woke up that morning feeling stronger than he has done for some time. He no longer eats sugar or dairy products or bread. He does not drink alcohol. He has lost weight. He practises yoga. He has a playlist of Tibetan chanting that brings him great comfort and joy. And he is on a new drug called Enzalutamide that is helping him make significant advances against the disease that had spread to his pelvis, spine, hips and legs by the time it was diagnosed.
Jubilant scenes met Wycombe’s promotion, with boss Gareth Ainsworth beaming with pride
It is peaceful here in his garden, aside from the spatter of the fountain of water that climbs up from the surface of his pond and falls back into the water to feed the fountain again.
He is relishing the thought of Wycombe’s first season in the Championship and, even if he has to be wary of the threat of the coronavirus, he is encouraged by the characteristics of Adams Park. ‘It can be awfully draughty in those corridors,’ he says.
He is reading Neil Harman’s excellent book on Wycombe’s triumphal season, Close Quarters, and he and his son, Henry, have bought season tickets for the campaign ahead. He laughs at the fact that FourFourTwo magazine has predicted Wycombe will be relegated.
‘They said we would be relegated last season, too,’ he says. The biggest obstacle to his attendance is the fact that it is a three-hour journey to the ground. ‘It’s the only thing I don’t like about living here,’ he says.
So they will go as often as they can. ‘One of the reasons I love Wycombe so much,’ Bill says, ‘is that it feels like family. When I go there, it feels like I am going home. I’ve been going there for 20 years and I’m so familiar with it and I know that some of the personnel change but some things just don’t change.
‘And it feels warm and caring and just being there is part of the experience, regardless of what happens on the pitch and I get a lot out of that and it’s a great comfort to me. A really great comfort to me.’
Our trips to Barca must continue…
So it appears Lionel Messi will not be coming to the Premier League after all.
It is a shame that we will be denied his presence but even in its current embittered and fractious state, there is something beautiful about the idea of him beginning and ending his career with Barcelona.
And if he is not coming to us, the pilgrimages to Catalonia will just have to continue.
Lionel Messi’s failed exit means the trips to Catalonia to see his brilliance must simply continue
You won’t be able to make a mug out of me!
Predictions are a mug’s game but you’ll have forgotten mine by the time next May comes around, so here goes…
Premier League champions: Manchester City.
Champions League places: Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United.
Relegated: Fulham, West Brom, Southampton.
Premier League top scorer: Harry Kane.
Championship promoted: Watford, Stoke City.
Play-offs: Nottingham Forest, Brentford, Middlesbrough, Cardiff City.
Pressure is now on Pep Guardiola to make Manchester City champions of England once again