Obituary: Ray Wilkins, ‘the nicest man in football’, England captain and former player for Rangers and Hibs

Ray Wilkins has died at the age of 61. Picture: SNS
Ray Wilkins has died at the age of 61. Picture: SNS
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Raymond Colin Wilkins, footballer, coach and manager. Born: 14 September, 1956 in Hillingdon. Died: 04 April, 2018 in Tooting, aged 61.

RAY ‘Butch’ Wilkins, who has died, aged 61, just five days after suffering a cardiac arrest, was one of the outstanding ­midfield players of his era, and widely regarded as one of the ­nicest men in football.

Captain of both clubs and country, his career lasted more than 25 years across three decades, serving clubs in four countries, and amassing more than 900 games, before he embarked on a coaching and managerial career.

Only around 100 of his games were played in Scotland, where he had a spell as one of the best of the English ­talents which Graeme ­Souness attracted to Ibrox while Rangers manager. Then, in the final stages of his lengthy career, he returned for a short cameo with Hibs.

However, it is Chelsea with which he is most associated. His father, George, had been a professional with Brentford, Bradford Park Avenue, Leeds United and Nottingham ­Forest, before managing ­Hayes and his football talent was inherited by his sons, with Ray, Graham and Stephen all playing for Chelsea, the team they supported as boys. Another son, Dean, played for and managed Brighton & Hove Albion.

Ray was always seen as the best of the Wilkins brothers. He won schoolboy caps for England, before joining ­Chelsea as an apprentice in 1971. At Stamford Bridge, he was in the first team aged 17, making his debut against ­Norwich City in 1973, and winning England youth caps, before Scottish manager Eddie McCreadie appointed him club captain, while still a teenager, in 1975.

He went on to win Under-23, and Under-21 honours and was awarded the first of an eventual 84 full England caps, when he played against Italy in an end-of-season tournament in the USA in 1976.

He was an England regular for the next decade, his gift for captaincy seeing him lead his country ten times, and he helped the team to the top level of international football in the 1980 European Championships in Italy – their first major tournament since the 1970 World Cup. He also played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals. In the latter event, in Spain, he was memorably red carded by a Paraguyan referee, when, disgusted at an offside decision against Morocco, Wilkins threw the ball at the official.

While Wilkins had captained Chelsea to ­promotion from the old ­Second Division in his first season as captain, when they slipped back there in 1979, Chelsea cashed in on their brightest star and Manchester United paid £825,000 to take him to Old Trafford.

This was in the largely ­fallow years before Alex Ferguson and the only trophies he won with the Reds were the FA Cup in 1983 – when he scored a memorable Wembley goal in the 2-2 first game of the final against Brighton, and the FA Charity Shield at the start of the following season.

United then accepted a £1.5 million bid from AC Milan and Wilkins moved to the San Siro, where his failure to win trophies again followed him.

Following a short spell in France with Paris St Germain, he joined Rangers in November 1987, making his debut in a 3-2 Ibrox win over Hearts.

That season saw ­Celtic mark their centenary with a League and Cup double, but in only the third game of the following season, Rangers thrashed the defending champions 5-1 at Ibrox, on their way to the first of their run of nine league titles in a row. In that game, Wilkins, an infrequent goal-scorer, ­produced a ­memorable strike.

Season 1988-89 saw Wilkins, wearing the number five shirt, taking on Souness’s former role as midfield controller. Wilkins was often criticised as “square ball Wilkins”, or, “the Crab”, for his use of such passes, but he explained his football philosophy as “keeping the ball, making it difficult for the opposition to get it, then, when they do, make sure they are too tired to do anything with it.”

As well as the league that ­season, Rangers won the League Cup, but with Wilkins injured, they lost to Celtic in the Scottish Cup final. He was now 33 and had been away from ­London for a decade. So, when Queen’s Park Rangers came in for him in late 1989, it was an easy decision to return. He played his final game for Rangers at Ibrox in November 1989, departing after a 3-0 win on a wave of goodwill.

Souness described him as: “Pound for pound the best signing I have made – he has been a credit to himself, the club and to football.”

Wilkins clocked up more than 150 games at Loftus Road as a player, before, after just one game at Crystal Palace, returning as a player-coach, then player-manager. He took them to eighth in the Premiership, but when they slumped and were relegated he was sacked.

Now 40, and an MBE, he still wanted to play. He had short spells at Wycombe Wanderers then, in September 1996, he returned to Scotland, with Hibs. Alex Miller signed him, then gave way to Jocky Scott, before he too departed and Jim Duffy took over. Wilkins played only 17 games for Hibs during this time of ­turmoil and in 1997 returned to London and Millwall, before moving swiftly on to play out his career with Leyton Orient.

The start of the following season saw him managing Fulham, charged with getting them back into the top flight. He got them into the play-offs, but owner Mohamed Al-Fayed sacked him before these kicked off.

His next move was back to Chelsea, as assistant manager to Gianluca Vialli. He had a four-day spell as caretaker manager after the Italian was sacked, before he joined Vialli at Watford. The pair were sacked there and he joined Millwall as assistant manager.

He had returned to Millwall to assist Dennis Wise, assisted Peter Taylor with England Under-21s then, in 2005 he returned to Chelsea, where he assisted, in turn, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink and then Carlo Ancelotti, under whom Chelsea won the League and FA Cup double for the first time in 2008.

Ancelotti was particularly appreciative of Wilkins’ part in the Double win. It was therefore a shock when Chelsea sacked him in 2010. This was a huge blow but, having dipped his toe into broadcasting with Channel Four’s Italian football coverage years before, he forged a terrific reputation as a match analyst with Sky.

Fulham enticed him back to Craven Cottage as assistant manager in 2013, before he moved to Jordan for a short spell as national team manager, before his final coaching job, with Aston Villa in 2015.

In 2016, he received a four-year ban for a third drink-driving offence, and was treated for depression and drink dependency. He also suffered from ulcerative colitis.

He was widely described as “the nicest man in football”, perhaps best exemplified by the tale of how, knowing he was going to hand the teenager his first-team debut for QPR at Old Trafford, he secretly arranged for future Scotland cap Nigel Quashie’s mother to travel up and see her son play.

Wilkins is survived by his wife, Jackie, who he married in 1978, their children, Ross and Jade, and grandchildren, Oliver, Frankie, Ava, Freddie, Jake and Archie.

MATT VALLANCE