Ray Wilkins, Remembered

After the sad news of Ray Wilkins’ passing, RealSport reflect on his life and career.

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(Photo credit: Vedi Sotto)

Ray Wilkins, who captained Chelsea as a teenager and later played for Manchester United, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Rangers, has died at the age of 61 following a cardiac arrest.

There was a sense of disbelief and palpable sadness upon the news of his passing. The tributes were widespread and unanimous: Wilkins was respected and admired throughout the footballing community.

His former club Chelsea, where Wilkins’ career began, said they were “devastated to learn of the passing of our former player, captain and assistant coach.” They added: “Rest in peace, Ray, you will be dreadfully missed.”

As a player, Wilkins was an elegant and skillful midfielder. He was an aestheticist, a precocious talent while at Chelsea, clearly destined for a successful career.

A life at the very top

Having excelled with his boyhood club in London, Wilkins took his enviable ability elsewhere. Throughout the 1980s, first for Manchester United then Milan in Italy, he was at the top of the European game.

When he left Old Trafford in 1984, Wilkins had made over 150 appearances and been named as the supporters’ player of the season. He was popular everywhere, including at Milan, where he moved following his Manchester United exit and stayed for three years.

Not content to remain in England, Wilkins joined PSG in 1987 but left after just one season in France. Then it was to Scotland and Rangers, where he lifted the league title and cried after his last game for the club.

Wilkins was capped 84 times for England – only 13 players earned more – from 1976 to 1986. He played under Don Revie, Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson, but was often utilised in a deeper role and was, to an extent, stifled.

Hitting the heights

Nevertheless, the 80s were the zenith of Wilkins’ playing career. It was a decade in which he had established himself as one of the country’s most talented footballers.

Yet he was always unassuming and unspectacular. There was an assumption that he lacked flamboyance or the imagination of some others of that era. 

He was nicknamed “The Crab” by his manager at Manchester United, Ron Atkinson, for his perceived tendency to scuttle sideways with the ball, laying it off to teammates.

It was a nickname that belied Wilkins’ ability on the ball. He did not score many goals but those he did were often memorable: a left-footed effort against Brighton in the 1983 FA Cup Final for Manchester United stands out.

The consummate professional

Wilkins, having passed his peak years, was content to see out the 90s with a number of less reputable clubs. He dropped down the divisions and played for QPR, Crystal Palace, Wycombe Wanderers, Hibernian, Millwall and Leyton Orient. By the end, he had made close to 700 career appearances. 

Wilkins took his experience as a player into his coaching career. He first took charge at QPR, who he guided to the heights of eighth in the Premier League. A relegation followed and he moved on to Fulham.           

It was at Chelsea, though, where Wilkins enjoyed his most success. He was a reliable assistant to Gianluca Vialli, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti, and with the latter secured a league and cup double in 2009/10. 

“Ray is one of those select few, always present, noble in spirit, a real blue-blood,” Ancelotti later wrote in his autobiography. “Chelsea flows in his veins.”

In his later years, Wilkins turned his attention to punditry. He did not shy away from voicing his opinions – and on occasion they were unpopular – but there was never any sense of conceit or self-importance.

Into the twilight

Wilkins suffered from ulcerative colitis and required a double heart bypass operation last year. He had been treated at St George’s Hospital in London when he passed away on Wednesday.

“Deeply saddened to hear that Ray Wilkins has passed away. A wonderful footballer and a delightful man. It was a pleasure to have played alongside him with England,” wrote Gary Lineker. “No teammate was more helpful and supportive. I’ll be forever grateful.”

Wilkins approach to football, and indeed life, was refreshing. His philosophy, encapsulated in a 1999 interview, was simple: “I don’t find being considerate – and trying to help people – a weakness.” 

Amongst the plethora of tributes the prevailing sentiment was that Wilkins was a humble, courteous and affable man. That, more than anything else, is what matters most.

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