Sport Soccer

Tuesday 22 May 2018

True gent and hero Wilkins a 'player ahead of his time'

Ray Wilkins during his Chelsea playing days in 1976. Photo: PA Photos/PA Wire.
Ray Wilkins during his Chelsea playing days in 1976. Photo: PA Photos/PA Wire.

Jim White

Last month, when Chelsea played Crystal Palace, Ray Wilkins was making his way to the seat he always occupied at the front of Stamford Bridge's East Stand.

As he passed the press box, he spotted his old QPR team-mate Paul Parker on radio duties. For most of us a quick wave and a thumbs-up might have sufficed as a greeting.

But not for Ray Wilkins. He piled across the desks, politely excusing himself as he went, and engaged in a long, substantial bear hug with his old chum.

What was more remarkable was what happened next. It took him another 10 minutes to reach his seat as he posed for selfies and shook hands with ordinary Chelsea fans. That was Wilkins writ large: friendly, approachable - he was a man with time for everyone.

The tributes which poured in following his death yesterday at the age of 61 were universal in their warmth.

Never mind that he had secured 84 caps for his country, never mind that he had been Chelsea's youngest captain at the age of just 18, never mind that he had gone on to play for clubs as celebrated as Manchester United, AC Milan, Paris St Germain and Rangers, this was a football gentleman.

"A delightful man, it was a pleasure to have played alongside him with England," said Gary Lineker. "No team-mate was more supportive or helpful. I'll be forever grateful."

Terry Butcher said: "He was such a charismatic character, great in the dressing room, great on the pitch. It was an absolute pleasure and a real privilege to play with him."

Peter Reid, who played alongside him for England added: "He was an absolutely outstanding, outstanding human being. His legacy would be 'win, lose or draw, you've always got to have class'. And that's what Ray Wilkins was."

He could also play a bit. Former Chelsea team-mate Clive Walker remembers that he was head and shoulders above his contemporaries - a man while everyone else was still a boy.

A brilliant technician, he could read the game with a natural ease. No wonder Chelsea made him captain when he was still a teenager.

When, in later life, he was asked what it was he did as captain, Wilkins characteristically insisted that a good captain didn't shout or chivvy. He should be kind, helpful, relentlessly supportive.

Blessed not just with a wand of a right foot that could pick out a colleague at fifty yards, he was also implausibly good looking. But he was never swanky, never full of himself, never arrogant, always a team man.

Qualities

It was those qualities which Manchester United valued when Dave Sexton took him to Old Trafford in 1979. And he showed them in abundance for club and country: always calm, unflustered, in control.

In 1981, Sexton left the club and was replaced by Ron Atkinson. The new manager made some derogatory comments about his inherited player's enthusiasm for the sideways pass, christening him 'The Crab'.

However, Wilkins was adamant that possession should never be squandered. And while capable of playing the most Hollywood of passes, he would rather be seen as dull than to relinquish the ball.

Wilkins didn't hold it against his manager: he scored one of the finest goals ever seen in an FA Cup final for him in 1983, a scorching long range shot against Brighton that he celebrated with an unfettered sprint to the corner flag. It was, Atkinson reckoned, the fastest he had ever seen him run.

Atkinson believes Wilkins was ahead of his time. "He'd have been an absolute superstar in today's game," the former manager said.

"Given a bit of protection from referees, on the pitches they have now, he'd have sprayed the ball around from deep, keeping possession, everything you want in the modern game."

Lineker reckoned a mark of his quality was evident in the fact his next club was Milan, then at the top of the most sophisticated league in the world.

Wilkins flourished in Serie A, his game perfectly suiting the Italian rhythms.

The one blemish on his record is the most puzzling: he is now renowned as the first player ever to be sent off for England. It happened in the 1986 World Cup group game against Morocco, when he reacted over-vigorously to a pedantic referee.

It was the most uncharacteristic moment of his career. But it demonstrated, for all his gentlemanly qualities, he was a competitor at heart.

After a fine spell at Rangers, he ended up at Loftus Road, where his wonderful passing underpinned an ambitious Queens Park Rangers team. But when he became player-manager, despite Atkinson's belief that he was destined for a career in the dug out, he found himself on the wrong end of a relegation struggle.

From there, he worked in the media and had spells coaching - most notably at Stamford Bridge, where he was a perfect partner for Carlo Ancelotti; a traditional, amiable player-focused coaching team who guided Chelsea to the double in 2009-10.

In later years drink took a toll on his health and he had entered rehab just before his death.

But wherever he went, whoever he met, he was uniformly courteous, polite and kind. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport