To get a measure of Ray Wilkins as a footballer and man, you can look after his glamorous peak, after Chelsea, Manchester United, Milan and PSG, after the two World Cups he played in, after he had mastered Italian football, won the Scottish title with Rangers and then returned, at the age of 33, back into the English game.
Many players are retreating towards retirement at that point, shedding responsibility, especially almost 30 years ago when sports science could not elongate careers as it does now. But to speak to anyone who knew Wilkins from Queens Park Rangers, the club he joined in 1989 and went on to manage in the 1990s, is to learn how committed and passionate he was: to his own game, to his team-mates, to their well-being and their success.
There were so many players in that QPR side – Les Ferdinand, Andy Sinton, Clive Wilson, Kevin Gallen, David Bardsley – who benefited from the leadership, instruction and advice of a man who had won 84 England caps as well as having the stellar club career that he did. So as soon as Wilkins arrived at Loftus Road, after five years out of the English game, he started to make a difference.
“I had always looked up to him, and seen him play for England, Milan, Chelsea and United,” Sinton told The Independent, “so when he arrived at QPR, I couldn’t believe I was playing him. From the moment he walked in the door, he was engaging, just a joy to be around and always so enthusiastic.”
At 33 Wilkins was still a very effective midfielder, maybe not as mobile as he was in his 20s, but one able to run the game for QPR and with a range of passing few could match. Ferdinand described Wilkins as “a joy to play with” thanks to their “almost telepathic” relationship, and Wilkins’ ability to find Ferdinand wherever he ran.
But then Wilkins was always a special player, leaving England for AC Milan in 1984 and flourishing there. His success in Italy was a testament to his own skill, and a patient, thoughtful, precise style that was in one sense more European than typically English. Franco Baresi described Wilkins as “special, a gentleman on and off the pitch”.
That spell in Milan also gave Wilkins an insight into Italian preparation methods, and so when he arrived at QPR his new team-mates were struck by how there was not an ounce of fat on him, and by his diligence in training. All this is taken for granted in English football now, but in the 1980s Wilkins was ahead of his time.
All that experience gave Wilkins a perspective on the game that was invaluable to the QPR youngsters, and that he was always willing to share. “Everyone looked up to him because he had so much experience,” Ferdinand recalled. “We learned so much from him and the way he conducted himself,” Sinton says. “The way he spoke, the way he dressed, how he went out of the way for you, remembering names, making sure you were OK, your wife was OK.”
These were not just words either. They had a transformative effect on the players around him, guiding them to places their careers may not have otherwise gone. “He made you believe in your own ability, with what he would say, on and off the pitch,” Sinton says. “When he said I was a good player that would go on and play for my country, and say it day in, day out, it fills with you self-belief. He knew when to compliment you, when you give you a kick up the backside. Because he wanted you to do so well.”
These were the skills – football skills and people skills – that made Wilkins so loved everywhere he played and worked. He was a very popular choice when he became QPR manager in 1994 and went on to have more success in coaching, especially at Chelsea. There he was a perfect partner for Carlo Ancelotti, a traditional, amiable player-focused coaching team who guided Chelsea to the double in 2009-10, an achievement no English club has done since.
Wilkins’ affection for his former clubs – Chelsea, QPR and the rest – was always very clear, not least in the column he wrote for The Independent in late 2016. His love for football, the players, the fans and the game itself never dimmed through his whole life.
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