AS every Tartan Army foot soldier knows, Ray Wilson, who has died, after a long battle against that curse of footballers of his generation, dementia, was one of “The Boys of ’66”, the World Cup-winning England team of that iconic tournament. But, Scots and Scotland played a big role in Wilson’s career.
He was born in Derbyshire, but moved to Huddersfield as a child, after his parents’ marriage failed. Leaving school to work with British Railways, he played for the wonderfully-named Langwith Junction Imperials, where his form attracted the attention of local club Huddersfield Town. They signed the young Ramon – so named because his mother liked Ramon Novarro, a huge star of the silent film and early talkies era – on an amateur form in 1952, the club’s Scottish manager Andy Beattie signing him on a professional form in September of that year.
Becoming a full-time footballer meant Ray had to do his National Service, which he largely spent with the British Army in Egypt. He hated Egypt so much he had a tattoo: “Egypt – never again” on his left arm. This spell in khaki set-back his career and Beattie had been replaced by another Scot, Bill Shankly, who converted Ray from a wing-half to a full-back, and gave him his debut against Matt Busby’s great ‘Busby Babes’ side, in October, 1955.
Wilson took a wee while to establish himself in a Huddersfield Town team which also included the teenaged sensation Denis Law, and other very good Scottish players in Gordon Low, Les Massie – both Aberdonians like Law, and Scotland cap Jimmy Watson, but, establish himself he did and by 1960 he was on England manager Walter Winterbottom’s radar.
The England left-back spot had been a problem since Roger Byrne was killed in the Munich air crash and, for the Hampden match in April, 1960 the relatively unsung Wilson was given his chance. It did not begin well: he broke his nose in a first-minute challenge on immediate opponent Graham Leggat, who then proceeded to fire Scotland ahead in 16 minutes.
The Scottish press corps, those “fans with typewriters”, to a man castigated the home side for failing to beat what they concluded was one of the worst England teams to come to Hampden, but newcomer Wilson escaped criticism. It took him a wee while to establish himself, but, by the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile, he was England’s undisputed first-choice left-back. He was lauded for the exemplary way he faced the magical Garrincha as England went out in the quarter-finals, Kenneth Wolstenholme in commentary said: “Wilson has played Garrincha as well as anyone I have ever seen.”
When Alf Ramsey succeeded Winterbottom after those finals, Wilson was one player to survive the change of manager and hold his place, so, that by the time of the 1966 World Cup, he was approaching 50 caps for his country.
He was also now an Everton player. The Toffees had lost out to Huddersfield when Wilson was a young player; in 1964, they finally signed him for £40,000 and he enjoyed four great seasons at Goodison Park, winning the FA Cup with them against Sheffield Wednesday in 1966, and being a losing finalist against West Bromwich Albion in 1968. His team mates at Goodison included former Hearts star Alex “The Golden Vision” Young, and ex-Ranger Alex Scott; while he enjoyed full-back partnerships there with Scots Alex Parker and Sandy Brown.
That FA Cup win was merely the prelude, however. Just 11 weeks later he was back on that same Wembley turf, winning his 51st England cap in the World Cup final against West Germany. As with his first cap, it did not start well, his mistake, heading the ball straight to him, allowed Helmut Haller to fire West Germany in front. But it all came right for England and Wilson, having as in 1962, played every minute of every England game, was an English football immortal. He was the oldest member of the victorious 1966 team.
His final game for England came in the 1968 European Championship third-place play-off, against the USSR, in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico which England won 2-0. At that time he was England’s most-capped left-back and the outfield player with England who had gone the most games without ever scoring.
At the start of the following season he sustained a bad knee injury and in 1969 he left Everton for Oldham Athletic, before going back to Yorkshire to run-down his career with Bradford City.
He coached City for a time, after hanging up his boots with over 500 senior games to his credit. He had a short spell as caretaker manager, before cutting the link with football in 1973.
His father-in-law was a funeral director and Ray joined the firm, eventually taking it over and he worked in this profession until his retirement. The story is told of him telephoning his England full-back partner George Cohen, when Cohen was diagnosed with cancer. Cohen apparently told him he was in remission, to which Wilson replied: “Pity that George, I was going to offer you a good deal on your funeral.”
His “third age” was spoiled when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2004, but, maintaining the low profile he enjoyed both before and after his illustrious career, he got on with life. To his 63 England caps he had added a further 10 for the Football League XI, he was chosen for the Rest of Europe side which faced Denmark to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Danish FA, while he was one of the previously “overlooked for a gong Boys of ‘66” to receive retrospective MBEs in 2000.
At his peak in the mid-sixties, he was probably the best left-back in the world.
He is survived by Pat, his wife of 60 years and their sons Russell and Neil. They, and football, will remember a quiet, modest man, who was a wonderful footballer.