Ode To Former England Captain Ray Wilkinsby Colin Millar / 04 April 2018, 15:42Tweet
Chelsea, Manchester United, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Rangers. The collection of clubs fortunate enough to enjoy the playing career of Ray Wilkins is a roll of honour to bless football’s finest and was befitting of a man who was well-liked and genuinely respected throughout the sport.
Going on to captain England, it is no surprise that the once distinguished central midfielder is best remembered for a sparkling playing career.
However, his fine football brain was utilised after his playing days and he went on to manage at West London’s three most prominent clubs. Few have such an unusual, unplanned start to their coaching career as Wilkins. Signed in the summer of 1994 in a player-coach capacity by Crystal Palace, the midfielder broke a bone in his foot in his debut and would never play for the Eagles again.
Less than six months after leaving Queen’s Park Rangers, Wilkins returned to Loftus Road in November to replace the sacked Gerry Francis. Playing himself infrequently, the Londoner guided the R’s to an impressive top eight finish and to the quarter finals of the FA Cup. The turning point in his stint in the dugout came when Les Ferdinand was sold to Newcastle the following summer and, failing to find an adequate replacement, relegation followed.
In an unusual turn of events, Wilkins left the dugout at QPR but continued his playing career with stints at Wycombe Wanderers, Hibernian, Millwall and Leyton Orient before retiring, at the grand old age of 41, in 1997.
The former England captain then returned to management in West London but this time at Fulham, who were then languishing in the third tier. Chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed had pumped plenty of money into the Putney-based side and Wilkins instantly guided them into a promotion playoff spot, yet he was dismissed in May, before the playoffs commenced, after his side lost the final few games of the season.
He was succeeded at Craven Cottage by Kevin Keegan and vowed never to return to management, but he was adamant he would not quit the game. Wilkins formed a close working relationship with boss Gianluca Vialli and was named as his assistant manager firstly at Chelsea and then Watford. After the Italian was sacked at Vicarage Road, Wilkins joined forces with Dennis Wise at Millwall and spent 18 months at the Lions, who reached the FA Cup final as a second tier side.
Constantly valued for his ability to bridge the gap between management and playing staff, he then returned to the England set-up as number two to Peter Taylor with the Under-21 setup for three years, before returning to the club where he began his professional career - Chelsea.
Wilkins replaced the outgoing Steve Clarke as second-in-command at Stamford Bridge to Luiz Filipe Scolari and was retained when the Brazilian was sacked after six months. Indeed, he stepped in as caretaker manager for the 3-1 FA Cup victory over Watford before Guus Hiddink was appointed until the end of the campaign.
Carlo Ancelotti was appointed permanent manager at the Blues at the end of the campaign and was keen to retain Wilkins, who was hugely popular among the playing staff and whom the Italian relied upon for his knowledge of the club. Despite the managerial changes, this was a period of success for Chelsea with successive FA Cup titles and the 2010 Premier League title.
Ancelotti later wrote of him in his autobiography The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius:
“Ray is one of those select few, always present, noble in spirit, a real blue-blood, Chelsea flows in his veins ... without him we wouldn't have won a thing.”
Wilkins would go on to have brief and unsuccessful coaching roles with both Fulham and Aston Villa, alongside a short spell in charge of the Jordan national side. However, just as in his playing career, it was his coaching role at Chelsea which earned the most plaudits and when he was unexpectedly removed from his role in November 2010, the side’s form nosedived.
Familiar in recent years with a punditry tone which was often insightful, measured and enlightening, Wilkins commanded both the respect and friendship of those who worked alongside him, and he will be sorely missed.