An ode to Ray Wilkins: Remembering the man on the field as well as off it

In a modern game, where English talent is so rarely nurtured or even transferable abroad, we should salute Ray Wilkins for his ambitions and successes further afield.

Perhaps the most touching tribute to Ray Wilkins came from Nigel Quashie. While journeymen of world football are plentiful in their numbers, few are so balanced and sincere with their words at times of mourning. No one will begrudge the tributes paid by the wider footballing world to Mr. Wilkins MBE following his tragic death last week from a heart attack, but among the usual (and warranted) talk of ‘a top man’, ‘too soon’ and ‘sorely missed’, one tribute to Ray Wilkins from a former player at QPR sticks out like a sore thumb, for all the right reasons.

A day Quashie would never forget

Then player-manager, Wilkins had named a 17-year-old Quashie in his midfield, deliberately leaving the news until the last minute so that the young man wouldn’t overthink the moment: “your [sic] number 18, here are your boots and shin pads , just go and play, have fun and treat it like your [sic.] over the park with your mates ”. It is hard not to read those words without applying Ray’s frank but friendly diamond geezer accent.

The thought into nourishing this young player’s confidence hadn’t ended there. Wilkins had had the club pay for Quashie’s mother to travel to the game, buy her ticket and bought her their first mobile phone, none of which they could remotely afford off their own backs in 1995, all as a surprise gift to them both to mark the day he was making his professional debut as a footballer. It was a day Quashie would never forget and it speaks volumes that his tribute on Instagram was moving and emotional whilst remaining concise, genuine and void of any hyperbole. This is the sort of tribute we should expect for Ray Wilkins.

The voice of the neutral

Having passed away suddenly at the age of 61, people remember the man most recently. He was polite and courteous and what his commentary and punditry may have lacked in erudition and head-turning stats or searing analysis, it more than made up for in its consideration and balance. His punditry, in this sense, mirrors Ray Wilkins the player.

It was also helped by his aforementioned ‘geezer’ accent: he was the voice of the neutral in many ways, never over the top or carried away but accurate, to the point and rational. This didn’t make him one to shy away from criticising players and managers either, mind. Antonio Conte was criticised harshly for not shaking José Mourinho’s hand after a fiery touchline battle at Stamford Bridge in November 2017, but Wilkins still remained appropriately tactile, demanding more ‘dignity’ from Conte. Only in February, less than 8 weeks before his passing, he scathed Chelsea’s players for their lacklustre performance against Watford and implored the club to answer fans’ calls for more trust to be put in its myriad of talented youngsters. He was the voice of the people.

Born in East London, Wilkins was spotted by Chelsea and signed as an apprentice in the early 70s before making his debut at 17 in 1973. The club were relegated in 1975, which saw many of the club’s big names leave. This lead to Wilkins being handed the club captaincy at 18. But what drew Eddie McCreadie to heap such expectation on these young shoulders?

In short, because he could handle it.

Manchester United’s £825,000 fee for Wilkins

Wilkins, at 5’8”, wasn’t the archetypal English midfielder. In an age where Britain produced big, strong, hustling and bustling, end to end footballers, he was short and technical with a wand of a left foot. But he wasn’t one to be bullied about by more physical opponents, he was so tactically aware that his size was more than made up for by an ability to read the game faster than less astute but more aggressive opponents. Had he not, he would not have enjoyed 6 successful years at Chelsea followed by 4 more at Manchester United after a club record fee was received for his services in 1979.

In a world where million-pound transfers were scarce, United paid £825,000 for Wilkins’ services. It was not an easy decision to make to leave his boyhood club, where he had twice been voted player of the year but it was a deal that suited all parties as he hoped to add some silverware to his trophy cabinet. United, often second best to a dominant Liverpool, managed and FA Cup triumph in 1983. Rather than move to Merseyside in controversy with the certainty of silverware when his contract at United expired, at the age of 28 Wilkins had half an eye on life as coach after his playing career and set about improving himself as a footballer technically, tactically and intellectually.

This lead to the great man signing for AC Milan in 1984 and enjoying three successful seasons there on a personal level, if not a particular high point for the club who were trying to get themselves back among the big time after an unthinkable relegation from Serie A in 1983. The 80s and 90s saw something of a boom in terms of British players making the move to Italian football and Wilkins’ move, along with compatriot Mark Hateley, pathed the way for fellow midfielders Paul Gascoigne and Paul Ince to make their high profile, big money moves in the same direction a few years later.

A quiet boy from East London

British defenders had long been recognised as among the best of their kind by Serie A clubs, Jordans and Sounesses make good cases in point, and strikers in these parts had to be tough too in order to compete with them. The midfielder, however, needed more, less even; he needed to be defter, more rounded, and there was none more rounded than Ray. He could take care of himself and offered plenty of the more traditional aspects of ostensibly alpha midfielders of his era, but had the craft and guile Italians appreciated in a way the British didn’t at the time, and that was what Milan saw in Wilkins that could make him a top-level midfielder in Serie A.

The Curva Sud at the San Siro applauded before the Milan derby last week, with banners bidding farewell to a ‘Legend of Black and Red’.

Only two league goals but 73 such appearances were not a bad haul for a quiet boy from East London in what was, at the time, the most the most important league in world football. His final season saw limited gametime as the likes of a certain Roberto Donadoni were brought in for big money moves as Silvio Berlusconi sought a more authentically Italian squad in his first season as the club’s president. Wilkins is fondly remembered at Milan, even during this more testing period, as a consummate professional and hard worker. A move to PSG followed before, after just 13 appearances for the Parisians, he returned to England and London at the age of 31 to help guide QPR to promotion and sustained status as a top-flight club.

Thereafter, after an odd (injury-induced) one-game stint at Crystal Palace, Wilkins re-joined QPR, this time as player-manager where he would give Nigel Quashie his debut. His expertise in the wider aspects of football, honed in Italy along with an obsession for fitness and diet, made him the ideal candidate, particularly given his legs weren’t quite what they used to be but mentally he was as sharp as ever. Here was a man who had done it not just at the very top, but abroad as well. He was the safe pair of hands who knew the English game like the back of his hand, who had plenty of the requisite exotic about him given his performances in Serie A and Ligue 1. No wonder, then, that he went on to become one of the safest bets for an assistant manager in the country. From 1994 to 2015, he held 12 different positions, including 4 separate ones at Chelsea.

A midfield maestro who bucked the trends

His ability to put an arm around the young and old British lads as well as the foreign players made him one of the most balanced deputies you could ask for. Young British players in this county are by far the highest paid in world football and, until recently, very few ever went abroad. Reece Oxford, Ademola Lookman and Jadon Sancho have all sought to improve their knowledge of the game in the Bundesliga, but since Gazza and Ince in the 90s, no Englishman has enjoyed any notable success abroad save David Beckham and only Gareth Bale can be noted from Britain as a whole, if you can truly call his time at Madrid a success, that is.

So what do we owe to Ray Wilkins? A wonderful coach, commentator and gentleman, no doubt, but let’s not forget the midfield maestro who bucked the trends. Let’s remember the Briton who dominated the midfield in Milan derbies, the man who defied stereotypes about English football without negating them either. The man who, as well as all this, won 84 caps playing for his country and captained them 10 times, including while he was in his absolute pomp in Serie A. Let’s remember a man who lead the way for superstars to be made out of Paul Gascoigne and Ince in 90s Serie A, the Premier League of its day. A man who was cultured and refined as well as bullish and quick. The man who was club captain at 18. Let’s salute him for the player he was as well as the man he was. A wonderful man as he was, that seems to have detracted a little from what he represented on the pitch.

As Chelsea’s team of superstars wade limply towards the season’s closing titles and look set to struggle to retain a Europa League slot, a player and personality like local lad Ray coming through the academy would bring some cheer among the Stamford Bridge faithful. Perhaps, in his memory, Roman Abramovich will look towards bringing some stability and optimism to an otherwise mechanical ‘winning machine’, as Petr Cech put it recently. Perhaps in his memory, British footballers will look to improve their ability in foreign leagues.

We can but hope, but that would be a fairer testament to the man Wilkins was. He was a gentleman and a genuine, honest guy, but he was so much more than that with the ball at his feet.

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