Thursday, April 05, 2018

Ray Wilkins

I first became aware of Ray Wilkins through football stickers and cards, when he was a Chelsea player.

At that time, I had a real fondness for Manchester United – most boys of my age had an English team and my school was largely divided between the Liverpool and Man United fans.

At the time, Dave Sexton was the man charged with restoring United to the top of the English game.
Ray Wilkins was just one of his key recruits, alongside the likes of Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen from the Leeds United side of Don Revie.

Later paired with Bryan Robson, the two formed a formidable midfield partnership – Robson being the dynamic “gives-it-and takes-it” box-to-box midfielder, while Wilkins was always the more considered footballer – but tough, as you had to be in those days to exist in the hardest position in the British game.

He went to AC Milan at a time when several players from the English First Division were being wooed by Serie A. It was only natural as the English League was the best in the world at the time, as six consecutive European Cup (before the post-Heysel ban) wins testified.

Ray had two good years there, which was testament to his technical skills, before spell at paris St Germain and then, to my horror, joining Rangers in 1987.

Although Graeme Souness had signed top England internationals such as Chris Woods and Terry Butcher, Celtic fans were already hoping that the sporting gods would see Rangers squander their money, as they often did.

But that was never on the cards with Ray Wilkins.

He had everything needed to shine in the Scottish Premier League and a lot more. Not just his abundant skill and the physicality to allow him to demonstrate that in the most chaotic of environments, he was every inch the professional's professional.

There was never any likelihood that he would be another complacent player looking for a big payday.

More than 80 England caps, his country's captainship and the fact that he played professionally beyond 40 are enough evidence of that.

The season after Ray Wilkins signed for Rangers, Souness recruited the next big Scottish thing, Ian Ferguson from St Mirren.

I recall many a time standing in the jungle when the home fans would celebrate Ferguson's inclusion in the Rangers team. We knew that he would likely disrupt his own team with his determination to stick one over on us, lunging into challenges and howking long-range shots over the bar.

No Celtic fan ever relished having Ray Wilkins on the pitch. We understood that he would be the direct opposite – somehow in the most frenetic of atmospheres always seeming to have time and space on the ball to use it to damage us.

I recall pictures of tears in his eyes at the end of his final game for Rangers before he went to QPR. I was just relieved that he had left them.

He played on, even returning to Scotland to play for Hibernian, seeming to just want to play the game at the highest level possible for as long as he possibly could.

I have no personal anecdotes of Ray Wilkins the man, though I have read the multitude of stories praising him as a kind and decent human being.

But, he was one heck of a footballer and his passing at the age of 61 is also a reminder of another era in Scottish football, one that was hard for Celtic fans of my generation to live through.

Ray Wilkins made that time immeasurably harder for Celtic. But he did so with skill, professionalism and honour in the best – and almost forgotten – traditions of the game.

Few of his ilk remain but football would be better for more men like Ray Wilkins.

1 comment:

FrannyBhoy said...

I remember his spectacular strike against us in an August 1988 drubbing, but I was young. What made me genuinely respect and like the man was his punditry, always intelligent, insightful, fair and respectful. You knew he wasn't bullshitting. He always came across as good-natured but knowledgeable. I always got the impression, as a Celtic fan, that he never took cheap shots against us or anyone else, when many a lesser man in his position as a high ranking pundit and former rival player may have been tempted to do so. Ray Wilkins was sheer class in every respect, and it's a tragedy, and a shock, that he has passed away so unexpectedly. My thoughts are with his family. Rest in peace Ray.