Premier League Clubs Managed: Queens Park Rangers (1994-1996)
One of football’s all-round nice guys, the game has been left in mourning after the tragic death of Ray Wilkins. Wilkins passed away on Wednesday 4th April 2018 in hospital after suffering a massive heart attack. He was just 61-years-old.
A much-loved coach, well-respected pundit and talented player, Ray represented all of his clubs with class and dignity. You simply couldn’t say a bad word about him. He won many friends in the game and this has been made further evident by the tributes that have pouring in for him since his sad passing.
In the Premier League era, Wilkins will be always associated with Queens Park Rangers. He was a much-loved character at Loftus Road but his most enjoyable times were with Chelsea, the club where he made his first significant breakthrough.
A young skipper
Born in Middlesex, he made his name at his boyhood club in the 1970s. At just 17, Wilkins made his debut in the Chelsea first-team, appearing as a substitute in a 3-0 home victory over Norwich City. Just over two years later, he was given the captain’s armband by manager Eddie McCreadie. Still in his teenage years, this could have overwhelmed many players but it just made Ray a stronger presence.
He skippered the club for the next four seasons, helping them win promotion to the First Division. By now, he was already a regular in the England international set-up but in the late 1970s, Chelsea were not one of the English superpower clubs. When they were relegated in 1979, they were going to have to sell Wilkins to help soothe the financial hit from their relegation out of the top-flight.
He signed for Manchester United for £825,000, becoming one of the most expensive players at the time in British transfer history. He made 160 appearances for the Red Devils across five years and won his first major honour too. In 1983, Manchester United defeated Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup final, although they needed a replay to get the job done. In the first match, Wilkins scored his most iconic goal – a curling long-range strike which just highlighted what an excellent midfielder he was.
His performances at Old Trafford caught the attention of Serie A giants AC Milan and in 1984, he moved to Italy for £1.5 million. Like Chelsea and United, Milan weren’t enjoying their most wonderful time in terms of results. They’d actually experienced relegation to Serie B as recently as 1982 but it was still a glamorous city and a historic club to be a part of. He played 105 times for Milan between 1984 and 1987 and won plenty of praise for the way he could control the tempo of a game and his ability for an eye-catching pass.
England highs and lows
On the international stage, Wilkins won 84 caps for England and captained them on 10 occasions. He was part of the squads at the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals and won caps from Don Revie, Ron Greenwood and Sir Bobby Robson.
He scored just three goals but one of them was an inspirational individual goal against Belgium in the 1980 European Championships. He first lobbed the ball over the entire Belgian defence and then, when clear on-goal, he lobbed the ball again over the advancing goalkeeper and into the back of the net. It was a wonderful goal in England’s first major international competition in a decade.
The lowest point of his international career came at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. England were enduring a frustrating tournament, having lost their first match to Portugal and were drawing 0-0 with outsiders Morocco. Wilkins showed a rare piece of frustration when he threw the ball at referee Gabriel Gonzalez after feeling he had been unfairly flagged for being offside. Gonzalez took no-nonsense and promptly dished out the red card. It made Wilkins the first England player to ever be dismissed at a World Cup.
He was suspended for two matches and Robson left him out of the quarter-final defeat to Argentina. His last appearance came against Yugoslavia a few months later. His international career ended on a rather sour note.
Beginning his coaching days
In 1987, Ray left behind Milan and joined Paris Saint-Germain but it was an unsuccessful spell. After just 13 appearances for the Parisians, he left them behind and moved back to the British Isles, joining Graeme Souness at Rangers. He had two excellent seasons with the Glasgow giants, winning the League Cup once and two championships.
In August 1988, he scored one of the most memorable goals in the history of the Old Firm Derby as Rangers enjoyed a 5-1 victory over Celtic at Ibrox. He returned to London in 1989 and joined Queens Park Rangers which is where he spent the bulk of his latter playing days.
In the summer of 1994, he joined newly-promoted Crystal Palace in a player-coach role under manager Alan Smith. He made his debut against Liverpool FC on a horror day for Palace, who lost 6-1 at home to Roy Evans’ young chargers. Wilkins played over 80 minutes but broke his left foot in the match and he wouldn’t play again for the Eagles.
That was because in November 1994, he got the opportunity to return to Loftus Road as player-manager of QPR following Gerry Francis’ resignation. He appeared another 21 times as a player and focused more on a management style that was initially successful. Under his guidance, QPR finished eighth in 1994-1995 and reached the FA Cup quarter-finals. However, star striker Les Ferdinand was sold in summer 1995 to Newcastle United and not properly replaced. Although they still played an exciting brand of football, QPR struggled and on the final Saturday of the season, they were relegated.
Ray’s long association with the club ended in September 1996 when he parted company following a change in ownership. He continued playing after his departure from west London, experiencing brief periods with Millwall, Hibernian and Leyton Orient before hanging up his boots for good at the end of the 1996-1997 season.
Two stints with Chelsea
He returned to management with Fulham in 1997-1998, working alongside Kevin Keegan but Keegan’s influence saw him take over at the end of the campaign. After two decades away, he returned to Chelsea in his first coaching spell, serving as Gianluca Vialli’s assistant following the imprisonment of Graham Rix.
After leaving Chelsea following Claudio Ranieri’s appointment as first-team manager in 2000, Wilkins went on to have spells as assistant manager at Watford and Millwall, assisting Dennis Wise when the Lions were shock FA Cup finalists in 2004. He also returned to the international spectrum, serving as Peter Taylor’s assistant on the England Under-21 coaching staff between 2004 and 2007.
In September 2008, Ray returned to Chelsea as assistant manager after Steve Clarke’s defection to West Ham United to work with Gianfranco Zola. He served as no.2 to Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti. He played an important part in Chelsea winning the league and cup double in 2009-2010.
In his autobiography, Ancelotti wrote: “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.”
He was mysteriously axed by the club in November 2010 just days before a 3-0 home humbling by Sunderland. Ancelotti would be dismissed himself at the end of the season.
Wilkins finished his coaching days with brief spells at Fulham and Aston Villa, as well as a spell as head coach of the Jordan international football team. His last stint in a Premier League dugout ended in October 2015 when he was sacked by Villa alongside their manager Tim Sherwood after a home loss by Swansea City.
Throughout his coaching days, he was a fantastic pundit and someone who you could listen to for constructive advice on how to improve your game. Wilkins was a regular commentator for Channel 4’s coverage of Football Italia in the 1990s. He also worked as a pundit for ITV at the 1994 World Cup finals and was a regular analyst for both talkSPORT and Sky Sports over the years.
In 1993, he was made an MBE for services to football.
Despite all his success, Wilkins did fight a battle with alcohol. In March 2013, he was stopped whilst driving and found to be four times over the legal drink limit. This led to a four-year driving ban and in 2016, he admitted to his battle with the bottle on talkSPORT.
On Friday 30th March, Wilkins suffered a massive heart attack and had a fall. He was placed into an induced coma at St George’s Hospital and was reported to be in a critical condition. On 4th April 2018, news came through that he had passed away in hospital. One of football’s good guys had been taken far too soon.
Ray Wilkins was a wonderful man, a gifted footballer and a top coach. Football is a poorer place without Ray Wilkins around. My thoughts are with his wife Jackie and the rest of his family.
Ray Wilkins – 14th September 1956 – 4th April 2018