Willie John McBride interview: I had a stroke, but was back walking after three days

Willie John McBride interview: I had a stroke, but I was back walking after three days
Willie John McBride captained the British and Irish Lions to what was their greatest series win in South Africa in 1974 - Alan Lewis

Time, they say, waits for no man. Not even for the great British and Irish Lions heroes of the undefeated 1974 tour of South Africa, known forever as ‘The Invincibles’. Not even for the Lion king himself, Willie John McBride.

When we meet at his home in the County Antrim town of Ballyclare in Northern Ireland, the great man spends the next two hours passionately reliving the tour that opened 50 years ago this week with the first of 21 victories – a 59-13 trouncing of Western Transvaal in Potchefstroom – as if it happened yesterday.

It would culminate 73 days later in a 3-0 win in the Test series, with their only blemish a controversial draw in fourth Test against the Springboks in Johannesburg. It would also cement the squad’s mythical status as the most fearsome rugby warriors to have left these shores and McBride as their greatest captain.

Gordon Brown and Willie John Mcbride celebrate with Fran Cotton
McBride (left) celebrates alongside Gordon Brown and Fran Cotton after the Lions sealed the 1974 series in South Africa - Colorsport

Yet while his handshake remains bone-crushing and his stature still imposing, the 83-year-old now has a new story to tell, the teak-tough Ulsterman’s greatest triumph. And one that required him to summon all his Lions’ spirit to survive to tell the tale.

“I’ll never forget the date, it was July 14, 2020,” recalled McBride. “Just over a month after my 80th birthday.”

We had spoken just before that landmark celebration. At the time he had reported no aches and pains (apart from a replacement knee), despite a playing career that remarkably spanned four decades. That comprised 63 caps for Ireland (11 as captain) and a record 70 matches – including a record 17 Tests – for the Lions on a five tours in an era when everyone played for 80 minutes unless you had to be carried off.

Willie John McBride at his home near Ballyclare, County Antrim
McBride pictured at his home near Ballyclare, County Antrim when Telegraph Sport last spoke to the Lions great - Justin Kernoghan

Then everything changed just a few short weeks after the birthday. All he remembers was waking up wedged between the side of his bed and the bedroom wall.

“I had suffered a stroke and it had left me literally a vegetable,” he said. “I tried to call out to my wife Penny, but I couldn’t speak, and she was still asleep. My left side had completely gone. I tried to get around on to my other side but the only thing I could do was use my right hand to pull the bed clothes off her to wake her up with my right hand.”

His wife called for an ambulance, but it was his son Paul, who lives close by, who was first onto the scene. “I couldn’t speak but I could hear everything. Paul is as big as me and strong, but he couldn’t lift me. I was wedged between the bed and the wall.

“Penny was on the phone to the medical people, and I could hear them ask her if I could smile. She turned to me: ‘Can you smile?’ I tried to smile but the left side was completely dead, so it was only half a smile. Then she began to laugh too.”

He remembers Paul being concerned about whether the ambulance crew would be strong enough to lift his father, but it was misplaced as two men arrived who would not have looked out of place in his father’s Lions squad.

“Two really big guys turned up and I have never seen anything like it,” added McBride. “You would nearly think they had been hand-picked. They were just brilliant. They brought this thing up into the bedroom like a mini tank, a seat with rubber around the wheels. They picked me up no bother and sat me in the chair and tucked my arms in. Next thing it was ‘whoosh’ down the stairs in this thing. I was straight into the Antrim hospital within the hour. I was very lucky.”

He says he was put on a drip and remarkably his voice began to return within hours. “I was scanned on my arrival and then they wanted to do another scan to make sure it was completely clear otherwise I would have gone on to the Royal [Victoria Hospital in Belfast].

“The only good thing was that I did not have brain damage, which goes to show I don’t even have a brain, probably! It was clear and the doctor said that feeling should start to return within a few hours. And right enough, my arm was first, then my leg.”

Willie John McBride
McBride with one of his Lions caps - Alan Lewis

The road to recovery remained long and uncertain, however. But everything changed when a physiotherapist arrived on the second day and recognised her famous patient.

“When I went in, no-one knew who I was, and I didn’t say anything. Then on the second day the physio arrived. She looked at me and said: ‘What are you doing lying there?’

“I looked at her and laughed because I couldn’t move. But she was serious. ‘You are not going to do anything just lying there,’ she went on. I told her I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t even stand but she said she was getting me out of there. She told me to get up on the side of the bed. I did as I was told but I had no balance. I had nothing.”

The following day the physio returned and informed McBride she knew who he was. “She said: ‘I’ve been reading about you last night. What are you doing lying there?’ She was really giving me a telling off. Then she got me up on my feet and gave me a stick. I warned her that if I fell over, there was no way she and her assistant would hold me. ‘Don’t be like that,’ she said. ‘We are going for a walk.’

“I hadn’t been on my feet but she told me to put my left foot forward and then pull it back and so on. And so we went for a walk. She took me down the corridor and then after a while said to me ‘That’s not bad, right we are going to let you go now.’ She gave me a stick and I hobbled on.

“As I walked towards a recess where the nurses would write up their notes, a crowd had gathered. Someone had said: ‘That’s Willie John McBride.’ I walked on and the physio told me to go outside and walk around a circular flower bed. I protested but she said I would not do anything unless I was pushed. By the time I had walked back in, they were all applauding me.

“It was the time during the pandemic when we had all been applauding the NHS staff every Thursday night. So I thanked them and told them this time last week I had been applauding them! It was hilarious.”‌

The following day he was up walking again and on the fifth day the physio had McBride walking upstairs and then informed him he had been due to go Whiteabbey hospital for rehabilitation.

“She turned to me and said: ‘You are bluffing us. You don’t need rehab. You are going home and to work. She was great. That’s what I needed. I went home and I have never worked so hard doing the exercises. I went in on Thursday morning and went home the following Tuesday. It was a miracle.”

‘They were great days… but they were great men’

Now he is looking forward to another celebration, when his squad reassembles for a gala dinner at a hotel on the outskirts of Belfast next month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of what is regarded as the greatest rugby tour in history. McBride had been 34 when he captained the tour and some of the younger players regarded him as a father figure. It cuts him to the core to report that eight of the 32-man squad will be absent.

“Five of the Test side are no longer with us,” he says, solemnly. “It is dreadful. Gordon Brown, Mervyn Davies, JJ Williams, Phil Bennett and JPR Williams. All great men. Then you have Andy Ripley, Sandy Carmichael and Ken Kennedy. And sadly Fergus Slattery won’t be there either because of his dementia. What a fantastic athlete he was. He had to tackle for Benny [Bennett] on that tour as well.

“Stewart McKinney is not great either, you know. He has been in and out of hospital. What a tough boy he was. They were great days… but they were great men. They had a great loyalty to each other; they had a great loyalty to me and a great loyalty to the game and a pride in it.

“I remember telling them that the one thing I wanted to do before I retired was win the Test series against the Springboks. I never thought of winning every game.”

The fallen will be remembered when they gather next month, and all the stories will be retold, and memories cherished. But McBride will also take great pride that the event will also raise money for the rugby charity, the Wooden Spoon, which has raised over £1 million for disadvantaged people in Northern Ireland under his presidency, with the night also taking place on his 84th birthday.

“It is a special year and I just hope we all make it!” he says, with the mischievous chuckle turning back the years. “I keep telling them it is still a month away!” Yes, time can wait.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.