Ray Wilkins: Gone Too Soon

by | Apr 5, 2018

There were countless good things about ‘Gazzetta Football Italia,’ Channel 4’s ground-breaking foray into top-flight Italian club football (‘Serie A’) coverage. And Ray Wilkins’ genuine love and enthusiasm for the Italian game shining through the screen was one of the best of them.

Indeed, his combination of enthusiasm and articulacy stood him out in football, even back when he was called “Butch” Wilkins, a nickname whose origin remains unclear, beyond it being ironic, although footballers indulging in irony is itself a near-ironic concept.

My memory says I was an autograph-hunter for precisely one evening, in 1979. Our local petrol station in Hook was called ‘Jack Brabham’s.’ And maybe the organiser of the formal opening wasn’t confident that Brabham, a 1960s motor racing star, was famous enough in suburban Surrey to carry the evening. They were probably right. Ray Wilkins was there. And the young Chelsea star attracted the most attention, to an almost embarrassing degree.

I remember holding my autograph book out for Wilkins to sign. It was difficult enough keeping hold of it in the mini-crush of flared trousers and ludicrous feather cuts (a Google search of ‘Jack Brabham Garage Chessington’ throws up some pics of the event, which confirm the accuracy of my recollection and, mercifully, don’t include me). But my biggest problem was keeping hold of the book as Brabham tried to snatch it from my hand, desperate to sign SOMEthing, as Wilkins hogged the pens.

I also remember thinking Wilkins was posh, especially for a footballer. Post-match TV interviews with players were a rarity, beyond FA Cup finals and pre-lad-culture laddishness from ‘personalities’ such as Rodney Marsh on ‘special’ or ‘festive’ editions of London Weekend Television’s Sunday football highlights show ‘The Big Match.’ Wilkins was many steps up in class from all that, as a Wilkins interview during a ‘Big Match Revisited’ episode on ITV4 confirmed. My “posh,” as a 13-year-old, was merely Wilkins’ articulacy. Impressive, nonetheless.

And Wilkins was a classy player in many class-less Chelsea outfits during his six years in their first team, four as captain, a role to which he was appointed as an 18-year-old. These years included relegation in 1975 but promotion, as Second Division champions two places above Brian Clough’s soon-to-be-all-conquering Nottingham Forest, in 1978.

He wasn’t Glenn Hoddle, not to a then Spurs fan like me, and not in a club shirt. But my memory suggests Wilkins came closer to his best form in the admiral England shirt of the turn of the 1980s than the inconsistent Hod. Wilkins’ goal against Belgium in Turin in the 1980 European Championship finals was Messi/Ronaldo class and fully deserving of the re-runs popping up all over twitter this week.

Despite that class, eyebrows were raised at his £825,000 price tag when he left the Bridge for Old Trafford, around the time he met me in 1979 (the events probably connected). Even Chelsea boss Danny Blanchflower reportedly called it “a reasonable price in an unreasonable market.”

United were then a stodgy outfit, Dave Sexton’s managerial spell linking the, ahem, ‘personality-based’ tenures of Tommy Docherty and Ron bloody Atkinson. Wilkins had a respectable scoring record at Chelsea, and the goals dried up under Sexton (and for much of the rest of his career, it must be said). But he saved his best for United for English club football’s biggest stage, a Wembley FA Cup final.

The 1983 final between United and Brighton is well-remembered mainly for the Seagulls’ appearance at Wembley two weeks after relegation from English club football’s top-flight and Gordon Smith fluffing a late chance to win it. But Wilkins’ provided United’s best contribution to proceedings,

His 77th-minute goal to put United 2-1 up was three minutes plus stoppage-time from being one of the best-ever FA Cup-winning goals, a deliciously-curled effort with his ‘wrong’ (left) foot into the top-corner. Almost as surprising was Wilkins’ celebratory run to the United faithful behind the tunnel end into which he scored. Few had ever seen him move that fast in a match: so quickly, into the wind, that his slightly-receding hairline seemed to recede further with every stride.

In 1984, Wilkins benefitted from Milan’s temporary inexplicable English influx. £1.5m was by then a more reasoned price tag than the money which took him to Old Trafford, especially alongside the £1m each they paid for Mark Hateley and, ulp, Luther Blissett. He stayed longer than Blissett and settled better in Italy than the strikers because he was a better player, whose style more suited Serie A.

His three years at the Giuseppe Meazza stadium are regarded as “before Milan were good.” Ruud Gullit was reportedly Wilkins’ replacement in 1987, with Milan’s English obsession, ahem, going Dutch, Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard helped launch the Rossoneri into a golden, trophy-laden era. However, Milan staged a huge tribute to Wilkins before Wednesday’s Milan derby, shining a more realistic, and favourable, light on his Italian impact.

Wilkins’ England career, 84 games, three goals, ended in 1986 and this week’s tributes have largely defined it by the Belgium goal. However, the more defining image was previously Wilkins flinging a football at referee, Gabriel Gonzalez, a brief red mist for which he saw red, during England’s 0-0 draw with Morocco in the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, having just taken the captain’s armband from the famously shoulder-injured Bryan Robson.

By then, Wilkins had gained a reputation as a careful passer of the ball, nicknamed the ‘crab’ for his ‘sideways’ play. This was a little harsh. He was ‘careful’ compared to Hoddle, but alongside Peter Reid?? Hardly. Nonetheless, some wags suggested that Wilkins’ ‘pass’ to Gonzalez was his only forward pass of the tournament.

After Milan, Wilkins was briefly at Paris Saint-Germain (definitely before THEY were good), mostly in their ‘B’ team in France’s third-tier. This preceded fondly-remembered spells at Rangers and Queens Park Rangers. At Ibrox, he was part of another temporary English influx, a spell he recalled in 2013 as “a magnificent time,” part-due to the banter between team-mates Davie Cooper (another footballer taken too, too early) and Ally McCoist (“you’d pay a lot of money to listen to it”).

Wilkins also scored against Celtic, which always enhances a Rangers reputation, a thumping 20-yard volley in a 5-1 win against the then-champions in August 1988, a defining victory at the start of the Ibrox club’s run to nine consecutive Scottish titles.

And he had a mostly-successful time at Loftus Road, as player and player-manager. He played in the Rs’ famous 4-1 win at Old Trafford on New Years’ Day 1992 and managed them to a giddy eighth in 1994/95’s Premier League. Sadly, in 1996, QPR were relegated and Wilkins, inevitably, was sacked. The pressures of management had supposedly told on him, according to the newspaper which printed a photo of him with his face horribly contorted in apparent agony. Turned out he was just coughing.

He ended his playing career as something of a journeyman, although he was fondly-remembered this week by Hibernian, despite only 16 appearances for them. Simon Donnelly recalled how Wilkins commiserated with him immediately after Donnelly made a pitch-length run and fired narrowly wide when playing for Celtic at Easter Road, an unlikely-sounding tale but fully confirmed by video footage Donnelley tweeted.

Wilkins began his full-time management career in 1997/98 by guiding Fulham to the English third-tier play-offs, for which he received both the sack and £1m in reported ‘hush money’ from the Cottagers’ creepy owner Mohamed Fayed. Wilkins also left Chelsea’s backroom staff in 2010 under oddball circumstances. But, in-between times, he was a long-term, loyal servant to what was demonstrably ‘his’ club and, far more often than not, hugely-appreciated for that.

In reputationally fractious dressing-rooms such as so many recent Chelsea ones, a glass-half-full, see-the-good-in-everyone character such as Wilkins was always going to rub someone from some faction up the wrong way. But when Carlo Ancelotti wrote in his 2010 autobiography that without Wilkins, Chelsea “wouldn’t have won a thing” in the double-winning 2009/10 season over which the Italian presided, you suspect he meant it. And Frank Lampard, as ever-present as Wilkins in those Chelsea days, certainly meant the fulsome tribute he gave Wilkins on BT Sport on Wednesday night.

The departure from Chelsea in November 2010 hit Wilkins very hard indeed (“I just don’t cope well with rejection,” he later admitted). And his later years were pock-marked with mental and physical health troubles. There were drink-driving convictions in 2012 and 2013. And his ‘problems’ had manifested themselves in his football work.

Co-commentating on Tottenham’s 4-0 Champions League defeat at Real Madrid in April 2011, the usual calm, perceptive generous pundit Wilkins was replaced by Wilkins ranting at Spurs defenders to “stay on your feet” with increasing venom as the game progressed. And he was sacked by Fulham, along with manager Rene Meulensteen, in February 2014, after a series of incidents surrounding a Craven Cottage fixture with Liverpool which fuelled rumours of a ‘drink problem.’

However, Wilkins was both honest about his real problems and aware that he needed to address the rumoured ones. He managed both in a detailed, revelatory interview with the Daily Mail’s Matt Lawton, days after his Fulham dismissal. He did indeed suffer from the pressures of football management in his QPR days and, unsurprisingly when you think about it, the pressures of being made Chelsea captain as a teenager.

And, in 1990, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, the chronic bowel condition which threatened Scottish international Darren Fletcher’s career. Complications with the attendant medication led to many of Wilkins’ more ‘perceived’ problems. But he readily acknowledged his own considerable culpability, admitting that the medication complications were sometimes self-inflicted and that he’d labelled himself a “disgrace” after his July 2013 drink-driving conviction.

There was an element of self-preservation in Wilkins’ readiness to own up to Lawton. But he owned up to that, too: “If I don’t deal with the latest rumours my footballing life will be done and dusted.” And, quite possibly as a result, he was soon back in football, perhaps most bizarrely as Jordan national team boss for the 2015 Asian Cup, where those wondering what Wilkins was doing as Jordan manager were no wiser after watching his team play.

But his later years did next-to-nothing to diminish his legacy to the game, as revealed by the breadth and depth of the tributes to him (including Lee Dixon’s disturbing admission on ITV that “I wanted to look in my kit how he looked in his”).

Such tributes, by their very nature, are positive. But sometimes you can see that the praise and the plaudits are genuine, such as those for Cyrille Regis earlier this year. The tributes to Wilkins, as a player and as a man, were thoroughly genuine. I wish I still had that autograph book.