Classy Ray Wilkins set Rangers on the road to nine-in-a-row
A common theme of the flood of tributes paid to the former England midfielder following his untimely death at the age of 61 has been a recognition of his ability to positively touch the lives of all who encountered him.
That was certainly true of the two years he spent as a Rangers player. Among the supporters of the Ibrox club who saw his contribution in 96 appearances from 1987 to 1989, he is remembered with a fondness and admiration normally only extended to those who stick around much longer.
When Wilkins arrived in Glasgow in November 1987, Rangers fans had become accustomed to the recruitment of high-profile English stars since the appointment of Graeme Souness as manager the previous year.
Even so, it remained a startling capture, not to mention a bargain buy. Rangers paid just £250,000 to prise Wilkins away from Paris Saint Germain where he had spent an unfulfilling four months after a £1.5 million move from AC Milan.
The personal influence of Souness, who had got to know Wilkins well when they both played in Serie A, persuaded the then 31-year-old former Chelsea and Manchester United man to make Scotland the latest chapter in his footballing travelogue.
It would prove to be a richly rewarding career choice for Wilkins, albeit only after a difficult start. He joined Rangers in the midst of a 1987-88 season which saw them struggling to emulate the success they had enjoyed in Souness’ first campaign at the helm.
A Celtic side revitalised and inspired by the return of Billy McNeill as manager claimed a league and Scottish Cup double in their centenary year, posing serious questions of Rangers’ ambitions for a sustained spell of dominance under Souness.
The emphatic response they delivered in 1988-89 owed much to the influence of Wilkins. The last of his 84 caps was already behind him but he showcased rich qualities which made a nonsense of so many preconceptions of him as an instinctively negative player, an image fuelled earlier in his career when former Manchester United boss Ron Atkinson labelled him “The Crab” for his use of sideways passes.
The reality for those fortunate enough to witness Wilkins in the flesh was a finely tuned football brain which operated on the basic premise that if you didn’t lose the ball, you were more than likely to win the match.
Wilkins had a grace under pressure in possession which shone even amidst the often frenetic nature of Scottish football. His range and choice of passing were immaculate, often penetrating and regularly providing assists for the front pairing of Ally McCoist and Kevin Drinkell as Rangers regained the title comfortably in what proved to be Wilkins’ only full season with the club. Richard Gough was named Player of the Year that season, but Wilkins ran him close.
He may have been the other side of 30, but Wilkins was as fit and durable as anyone in the Rangers squad at the time. He made 45 appearances in the 88-89 campaign, scoring three goals which included a stunning volley in a 5-1 win over Celtic early in the season which set a marker for what was to follow.
It was the first title success of Rangers’ nine-in-a-row era but Wilkins only stayed at the club for the first four months of the following season. He played enough games to earn another championship medal, but his family yearning for a return to London saw him move to QPR.
His final appearance for Rangers, a 4-0 win over Dunfermline at Ibrox at the end of November 1989, saw Wilkins receive a thunderous and rapturous standing ovation from all four stands as he left the pitch, bringing him to tears.
It would not be the end of his story in Scottish football, of course. On the very day of his 40th birthday in September 1996, Wilkins made his debut for Hibs in a 1-0 win over Raith Rovers at Easter Road.
He played under three managers in just over three months at the increasingly unsettled club – Alex Miller, Jocky Scott and Jim Duffy – before heading back south again to Millwall.
If his spell at Hibs was underwhelming on the pitch, Wilkins nonetheless earned the affection of anyone who made his acquaintance, just as he had while at Rangers. For those of us in the media fortunate enough to have dealings with him, he was unfailingly courteous and endlessly helpful.
His former Rangers team-mate Ally McCoist perhaps summed Wilkins up best of all yesterday when the numbing news of his death came through. “He was a fantastic footballer,” said McCoist, “but more importantly a far greater human being.”