APRIL 23 1975. A few days earlier, Ray Wilkins had been appointed captain of Chelsea. The Blues had lost 2-0 at Tottenham and the writing was on the wall. I was in the City of London, having an interview with Barclays Bank and decided to visit Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play Sheffield United. It was looking desperate for the club I had supported since I was eight years old.
I walked along Fulham Road from the tube station and saw a youthful, thoughtful-looking man with a kit bag. It was Ray Wilkins. “Good luck tonight, Butch,” I said, trying to give the impression I was on more than nodding terms with the new skipper of the club. “Thanks, son. We’ll do our best,” came the reply. He was barely a year or so older than me.
For the next two seasons, at the least, Ray Wilkins was the hero of Stamford Bridge. An old head on young shoulders, he captained Chelsea to promotion in 1977 before leaving in the summer of 1979 for Manchester United.
Wilkins was the much-needed successor to Peter Osgood as the “king of Stamford Bridge”. The fans chanted the song usually reserved for Ossie, who had left the club just over a year before Wilkins was handed the job to lead Eddie McCreadie’s team of promising youngsters and remainers from the golden age of the early 1970s.
There was no doubt he had talent – vision, accuracy, a hard shot and the ability to take responsibility for his team. In fact, Wilkins had so much of the latter laid upon him that it was a wonder he didn’t buckle under the pressure. It wasn’t just on the field that pressure came, it was also from the boardroom, where the club was sinking under the weight of debt – a financial burden that almost killed Chelsea.
There was a tendency of “give it to Butch” as the team grappled with winning back a place in the first division, seen as a prerequisite for the club’s survival, but McCreadie’s youngsters, despite a few wobbles, won promotion with a style of football that delighted the fans, pushing the average attendance up to a very respectable 31,000.
Chelsea were so proud of Ray Wilkins when he was capped by England, it was symbolic in suggesting talent could still be found in London SW6 – arguably the best home-grown player since Jimmy Greaves, they said – and that the club, which was wallowing in second division mid-table, was still alive and kicking.
In those days, Wilkins was an attacking force, but he didn’t have the pace to continue in that role, especially after a couple of injuries. In 1976-77, a season held in great affection by Chelsea fans of a certain age, Wilkins was outstanding, scoring and creating goals for his team-mates. We all knew, with Chelsea’s huge and crippling debt, he would be on his way at some point.
That came after Chelsea’s limitations on the field had been cruelly exposed in 1978-79, which prompted more speculation that Wilkins might be sold in mid-season to provide the funds needed to rebuild the team and stave off relegation. Chelsea kept hold of their prized asset, but when relegation came, it was accepted that he would not return to the second division.
Manchester United paid £ 850,000 for the 25-year-old, reuniting Wilkins with his old boss at Chelsea, Dave Sexton. Under Sexton, he became a more defensive, cautious player, but then the hopes of the entire team and support base were no longer dependent on him. He was part of a star-studded United team until he departed for AC Milan in 1984.
Winning 84 England caps, Wilkins had an excellent career and it was good to see him return to Chelsea in some capacity. In fact, Carlo Ancelotti revealed that his role was more influential than people might have realised: “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.”
Chelsea fans will undoubtedly remember the teenaged, liberated midfielder, sweeping forward, picking out a runner on the flank or coming up behind the frontmen of Finnieston and Swain to take a pot shot from outside the penalty area. He was a genuine, much-appreciated and much-needed talent.
Words: Neil Fredrik Jensen