The Benediction of Ray Wilkins – A Life Lived in Service to Others

Ray Wilkins is no longer with us. Joel Slagle writes why the idea of Ray Wilkins remains relevant; and why it is important now more than ever, to recognize those that perform a yeoman’s work for their side.
The Benediction of Ray Wilkins - A Life Lived in Service to Others
The Benediction of Ray Wilkins – A Life Lived in Service to Others

Why do we study history? Teachers of the subject love this question. It usually features prominently in the first session of the term. It is usually a rhetorical prelude to an esoteric self-justification. I know because I sat through many such lectures, and, later, I gave a few of them myself.

So, when I heard the news that Ray Wilkins had passed away, it made me ponder the role of history in the life of a football fan. There are a number of Chelsea fans that came of age in the ‘70s and witnessed him captaining the side at the tender age of 18. However, there are many more who did not. Wilkins was just an assistant coach who got the sack unexpectedly back in 2010 or a name from the club’s history.

We study history because it is us inside out. To study it is to know what is inside an individual: his or her prejudices, joys, ambitions, fears, and pain are all there. And then that person is illuminated. Studying the past no longer becomes some sort of dry, didactic exercise. To learn of the past is to love in the present. It is an affirmation of connection and brotherhood. Which is what football is all about at its best, isn’t it?

Few people knew that more than Ray. His whole career in football was spent safeguarding the mutual trust and friendship that develops within the game. Even his style of play reflected a keen awareness of others. After leaving Chelsea for Manchester United in 1979, he adapted his game and sacrificed pieces of his creative talent to bring out the best in his teammates, especially Bryan Robson. Not everyone appreciated the subtlety; he earned the derisive nickname of “the Crab” for his conservative passing style.

It is often difficult for observers to recognize greatness in working toward the betterment of the collective rather than individual glory. Claude Makelele, for example, was recognized by his teammates as one of the most essential players in the Real Madrid squad for years. However, Florentino Perez, in the midst of his Galactico project at Real Madrid famously sold Claude Makelele, saying the midfielder’s distribution was 90% backwards or sideways.

Wilkins had the talent to demand everyone’s attention but steadfastly worked to help others shine. We live in an age of YouTube highlight reels, GIFs, and banter accounts. A player’s new haircut is of more note than his actual contribution to the team. It is more important than ever to recognize those that perform a yeoman’s work for their side.

It is not surprising he went in to coaching after finally hanging up his boots. After all, a successful coach is one who maximizes the talent of his charges. However, it took Wilkins longer than most to find his way there. He simply loved playing the game too much to quit. While the first half of his career took him Chelsea, Manchester United, AC Milan, Paris St. Germain, and Rangers, the second portion saw him spend much of his 30s at QPR before bouncing around to wherever he could get a game.

“When I finished my career playing for Leyton Orient and Wycombe, I was still waking up every morning still grateful that I was a footballer,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a better life. I’ve been blessed.” Football is full of simple pleasures: the smell of the grass, the satisfying sound of a ball well struck, the joking around with friends on the training ground. Ray simply could not get enough of it, and coaching allowed him to stay with it.

His love of the game and desire to encourage others made it obvious he would end up in management. Richard Williams, the former chief sports writer for the Guardian, recalled an instance when the 18-year-old Wilkins ran back from his advanced position on the field to console the 35-year-old former England goalkeeper Peter Bonetti after a particularly damaging error. That is not just the mark of a caring teammate, but a gentleman.

Indeed, every retrospective one can read about Wilkins will feature the word “gentleman” prominently. Stories have been trickling out over the last few days of Ray’s acts of kindness. Nigel Quashie shared how he had secretly arranged for his mom to travel and watch his debut at QPR. Another man shared how he had been homeless, and the former England international sat down with him and chatted about life. Afterwards, he gave him money to find food and shelter for the night, and the man was able to get his life on back on track after finding help at the shelter.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “A gentleman is one who puts more into the world than he takes out.” It is only too true of the England legend. He was so focused on taking care of others that he often failed to take care of himself. He had to take a Valium the night before matches as he was coming through at Chelsea, and later would point to this period as one of three serious bouts of depression in his life. The second difficult period came as he finished his playing days. Suddenly, he was no longer good enough, and he didn’t take it well.

The darkest time, however, was after his sudden dismissal from the Blues’ coaching staff in 2010. Separated from the game he loved and with his confidence at an all-time low, his depression led to drinking, which sank him deeper. Two drink-driving convictions finally forced him to reach out for help. Finally, after years of taking care of others, he let someone take care of him.

The legacy of Ray Wilkins endures at Chelsea. His enthusiasm for the game can be seen in Eden Hazard’s joie de vivre, his unselfish work ethic in Cesar Azpilicueta, and his ability to make others better in N’Golo Kante. It is a rare thing to have all those qualities in just one man. It is rarer still for that player to also be such a gentleman. His memory is, in the words of Bessie Anderson Stanley, a benediction for football fans everywhere.