The news, I guess, wasn’t unexpected when it finally arrived yesterday afternoon, 4th April. After a few days of battling for his life after suffering a major heart attack on Friday of last week, Ray Wilkins sadly passed away in St. George’s Hospital, London at the ridiculously young age of 61 years of age. I’m still stunned that a man who prided himself on his own personal fitness levels, and had been an active ‘coaching’ assistant manager at Aston Villa as recently as 2015, could be taken at such a relatively young age.
Raymond Colin “Butch” Wilkins (born 14th September 1956 in Hillingdon, London to a father, George, who had played professionally himself for Brentford and Nottingham Forest) was, first and foremost, a Chelsea man. After serving an apprenticeship at Chelsea along with brothers Stephen and Graham, he played for his beloved Blues for almost 7 years, making his debut as a 17-year-old apprentice against Norwich City at Stamford Bridge in October 1973, and going on to make 179 appearances for a Chelsea side that were a bit of a “yo-yo” club during the 1970s, twice suffering relegation to the old Second Division under the managerial guidance of Eddie McCreadie.
After the club went down again at the end of the 1978-79 season, Chelsea received an offer of around £800,000 for (by then) club captain Wilkins from Manchester United. In the dire financial circumstances that existed at Stamford Bridge in those days (long, long before a Russian oligarch with the financial muscle of an African nation arrived to propel Chelsea to hitherto unknown heights in English football), it was an offer they simply couldn’t refuse, and so Ray moved north to join a United side under the rein of manager Dave Sexton during the summer of 1979.
By then Wilkins had made himself a permanent fixture in the England set-up, first called up for his country by ex-Leeds United boss Don Revie in 1976; he finished up with 84 England caps in an International career that spanned a decade, and included two World Cups (1982 in Spain and 1986 in Mexico), and a European Championship (1980 in Italy). Famously Ray scored a goal against Belgium in that 1980 tournament in which he first lobbed the entire Belgian defence, and then ran onto his own ‘through ball’ and lobbed the goalkeeper as well!
Wilkins joined a United side that were still very much in a transitional period, with the quiet Sexton moulding the team into his style of football, methodical and well-drilled, compared to the more kamikaze style employed by outspoken predecessor Tommy Docherty. In his debut season, as would become the tired ‘norm’ during the decade that followed, United played the part of “bridesmaid” in the league, while Bob Paisley’s Liverpool got to be the “bride”. The Red Devils finished two points adrift of the Anfield men, Wilkins (not known for his goalscoring exploits) getting 2 goals in 42 overall appearances in league and cup competitions, and forming a decent central midfield partnership with Northern Ireland’s veteran midfielder Sammy McIlroy.
However, things only got worse for both Wilkins and United the following season. Instead of building on their runners-up finish of 1980 and pushing the Merseysiders even harder for top spot, United spent big money on striker Garry Birtles from Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, yet Birtles failed to find the net a single time in 28 appearances that season as United ended up in a hugely disappointing 8th position…it was enough to persuade the board to dispense with Sexton’s services and appoint charismatic West Bromwich Albion boss Ron Atkinson as his replacement. Meanwhile Wilkins had endured a torrid year personally too, making only 15 appearances as he battled a series of niggling injuries.
Atkinson’s tenure also heralded the arrival of a man who would become Wilkins’ midfield partner at both Manchester United and England for quite a few years, namely Bryan Robson. Wilkins was ever-present the following season, as Atkinson’s United regained a lot of the ground lost during 1980-81, eventually finishing 3rd in 1982 behind Liverpool and Bobby Robson’s outstanding Ipswich Town side. Wilkins only goal during the year was the winner in a 1-0 victory over Brighton at the old Goldstone Ground… perhaps it was an omen of a special goal to come against the same opposition!
The 1982-83 season would be the highlight of Ray Wilkins’ time with United, and indeed arguably the best season of his entire club career. He scored his sole league goal in the first away game of the season, at Nottingham Forest, as United again played a bridesmaid role, eventually finishing a disappointing 3rd behind Liverpool and Graham Taylor’s exciting young Watford team. On their day United were a match for anyone, but too many games were not converted from draws into victories, which left them trailing the men in red from down the opposite end of the M62 when it came time for handing out the league trophy.
However, the cup competitions provided the side with the chance to finally put some silverware in the cabinet; the League Cup ended in bitter disappointment as United went down 2-1 in the Final to arch-rivals Liverpool at Wembley, Norman Whiteside’s excellent opener cancelled out, before Irish midfield ace Ronnie Whelan won the game with a stunning curling strike in extra-time for the Merseyside club.
Almost exactly two months later, Wilkins and United had battled through to an F.A. Cup Final showdown with Brighton, winning a colossal Semi-Final tussle with Arsenal 2-1 at Villa Park thanks to a superb volleyed strike by young Norman Whiteside. In the Final, a nervy United side fell behind to an early Gordon Smith strike and were pegged back by the plucky underdogs from the South Coast, before Frank Stapleton equalised and then Ray Wilkins scored the goal that he will forever be best remembered for, all the more surprising because he scored so few goals from his defensive midfield position!
I still have no idea why Wilkins was so far forward on the right side of the pitch, but when Dutchman Arnie Muhren won a tussle for the ball near the left touchline in our own half and looked up, there was Ray waiting for a ball over the top, which Muhren duly provided. Always a graceful player in possession, Ray brought the pass under control, cut back inside full-back Graham Pearce onto his left foot, and from 20 yards out curled a delicious shot around the helpless Brighton keeper Graham Moseley into the far corner of the Wembley net…sumptuous! I remember Ray famously commenting afterwards that he’d ran so hard towards the United hordes to celebrate the strike that he’d had no breath left for the next 10 minutes after the game had resumed!
It would be lovely to be able to say that that was the winning goal (it certainly deserved to be), but Brighton leveled late in the game through future England centre-half Gary Stevens, and should have won the Cup in the dying seconds only for United keeper Gary Bailey to improbably save from Smith at close range. Thankfully the replay on the following Thursday evening saw Wilkins pick up the first major club honour of his career as he helped United to steam-roller the Seagulls 4-0 to win the Cup in a very one-sided affair.
Ray, along with left-back Arthur Albiston, was again ever-present for United the following season, showing his remarkable ability to operate as a defensive-midfielder and yet remain injury-free (the same could certainly not be said of his midfield partner Robson, whose injury-plagued career was one of the fundamental reasons why United failed to claim a single league title throughout the 1980s, despite often being ‘in the hunt’ going into the post-Christmas period each year). Wilkins managed 5 goals in 56 appearances as Atkinson’s United side again came up short over the course of a grueling domestic league campaign, ending up 4th behind Liverpool. The highlight of the season came in the run to the European Cup-Winners’ Cup semi-finals, with United coming back from a two-goal deficit sustained in the 1st Leg of their Quarter-Final to beat a strong Diego Maradona-led Barcelona side 3-0 at Old Trafford, Wilkins very much an integral part of the team.
It was to be Wilkins’ last season at Old Trafford. During the summer of 1984 he succumbed to the lure of A.C. Milan and Serie A, joining the Italian giants during a transitional period for the San Siro side. After making 105 appearances for the Milanese, Ray moved briefly to Paris St. Germain, before hooking up with old midfield adversary Graeme Souness, who was newly-installed player-manager at Rangers, during summer 1987.
In Glasgow he became a cult hero with the Ibrox fans, scoring a screamer in a 5-1 thrashing of Celtic at Ibrox Park (always a guaranteed way to endear yourself to your own supporters in Glasgow!) and winning a Scottish Premier League title and a League Cup winners’ medal with Rangers before returning south to London, joining Queen’s Park Rangers in 1989.
Incredibly, Ray Wilkins went on to make a further 177 appearances for Q.P.R. (including a single outing for Crystal Palace) in the top flight of English football, before finishing his playing career with a handful of appearances each for Wycombe Wanderers, Hibernian, Millwall and Leyton Orient.
By then, he had also embarked on his managerial career, first with Q.P.R., then London rivals Fulham for 1997-98, before being appointed 1st team coach at his beloved Chelsea under manager Gianluca Vialli.
His coaching career is almost too extensive to list here, but included stints as 1st team coach at Watford, Millwall, Chelsea again (under Luiz Felipe Scolari), Fulham, the Jordanian national team and finally at Aston Villa under Tim Sherwood’s management.
It’s hard to put into words just how much Ray Wilkins loved football, and gave his life to the sport, particularly to those younger players under his care in his later years of coaching and management. The number of professional players who benefited in some way from his advice, assistance or encouragement MUST run into the thousands, maybe tens of thousands. He supplemented his involvement on the pitch or training ground with numerous television punditry appearances over the last 30 years, always the calm, considered voice of logic and reason, seeing things in a game that other so-called experts wouldn’t see “in a month of Sundays” watching slow-mo replays… If you needed a reliable expert opinion, Ray was your man.
Ray also revealed his fun side, doing the voice-over in a comedic TV advertisement for a popular orange soda drink which ran for a few years during the 1990s, his distinctive soft Cockney lilt giving away his involvement to anyone with even a passing interest in football during this period.
Ray Wilkins may not often be listed amongst the all-time great players that have pulled on the famous red shirt of Manchester’s finest team, but in my opinion he should be. His ability to read a game, pick the correct pass, retain possession, make himself available to his team-mates, “think” about how to win the game for his side were, frankly, as good as anyone you will ever see, and why he enjoyed such a long involvement with the professional game at such a high level. In some ways he was to 1980s Manchester United what Michael Carrick has been to 2010s United.
He may have been too ‘old’ for many of today’s younger generation to have seen play the game, but trust me: Ray Wilkins was as fine a midfield player as England has produced in the last 60 years, a legend at Chelsea, a legend at United, a legend at A.C. Milan, a hero at Rangers, loved at Q.P.R. You do not get to achieve such status at so many genuinely big clubs without having outstanding ability….and Ray did. An absolute gentleman, he will be very sadly missed by everyone in football, not least those of us who grew up watching United in the 1980s, when his partnership with Robbo was the cornerstone on which the Club’s F.A. Cup trophy success and many of our numerous victories in big games was built. I have no doubt that but for a formidable Liverpool side during that period in time, Ray would have helped United claim a first League title win since 1967, but it simply wasn’t to be.
Farewell “Butch”, and thanks for the memories. My deepest sympathy to Ray’s wife Jackie, children Jade and Ross, and extended family. He was a great football man, and is a huge loss to the game.