England Caps: 84
Player: 1976 - 1986
Ray Wilkins started as a prodigious teenage talent at Chelsea and matured into the backbone of the Manchester United and England midfield gaining 84 caps over a ten-year period with the national side.
Chelsea CaptainKnown as ‘Butch’ Wilkins during his early years at Chelsea, he came to prominence when he replaced veteran Ron Harris as captain at the age of 19. He was being picked up for his incredibly accurate long passes from midfield, which made many Chelsea goals. He scored a fair few as well, one in particular being effectively a long ball over the head of the keeper from near the half-way line, reminiscent of the goal that brought Beckham to the fore early in his career. Wilkins scored 30 goals in 179 appearances for Chelsea, before moving to Manchester United in 1979.
Debut Under RevieDon Revie picked Wilkins for his England debut in a tournament game against Italy in the USA, in the summer of 1976. It was the start of a decade in the national side. Not known for his speed but renowned for his finesse, control and accuracy, he would prove to be the perfect partner for Glenn Hoddle and Bryan Robson in England’s midfield.
Belgian Wonder GoalHe only scored three goals for England as he played more toward the rear of midfield, but his second, against Belgium at the 1980 European Championships, underlined his vision and skill. In order to spring the Belgian offside trap he lobbed the Belgian defence and ran straight through them as they streamed out of their area, collected the ball and coolly lobbed the keeper.
Dismal OutcomeUnfortunately the match ended in a draw, and England, although they’d qualified very strongly, could not graduate from the group stage of the tournament proper. It was to prove to be a familiar story for most of Wilkins’ England career, along with the hooligan element of the English supporters who continued to bring shame on the country.
Next up was the World Cup of 1982 in Spain under Ron Greenwood where an inability to score in the second league phase saw them go home early once more.
Captain’s ArmbandUnder new England manager Bobby Robson, Wilkins was appointed captain, but England didn’t qualify for the 1984 European Championships. Despite only losing one match, they lost out to Denmark by one point at the top of the qualifying group table.
The CrabWilkins had not played for most of those games, and in fact he only appeared in one international game in 18 months between 1982 and 1984 as he struggled with injuries. At club level, after recovering from injury Wilkins moved to Italy with AC Milan and settled quickly, winning the 1985 Coppa Italia in 1985. His time with Manchester United hadn’t been as spectacular as with Chelsea. He was fulfilling a different role, only scoring five goals in and earning himself the nickname ‘The Crab’ for his square passes.
Midfield StrengthWilkins’ midfield colleagues were, at various stages in his England career, Bryan Robson (when fit), Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Trevor Brooking, Terry McDermott, Peter Beardsley and Steve Coppell, so there was strength and skill in midfield, but the lack of goal-scoring talent at the front caused the problems, Trevor Francis never really finding the right strike partner to allow him to fulfil his potential.
In the 1986 World Cup that problem was resolved with the emergence of Gary Lineker and his partnership with Peter Beardsley. The tournament in Mexico ended prematurely for England when they were fooled by Argentina’s Maradona, first by his guile, and then again by his skill.
Moroccan NightmareBut for Wilkins the tournament would have very different memories. In the second group game against Morocco, Bryan Robson was carried off with a recurrence of a shoulder injury, and handed the captain’s armband to Wilkins. Less than a minute later, having only just received a yellow card, Wilkins threw the ball away in disgust at a refereeing decision, and unfortunately it hit the referee.
The second yellow card meant instant dismissal and an automatic two-match ban, which meant that England were without him for the final group match against Poland and the second round game against Paraguay.
Formation Change Brings DividendsBecause of the loss of Robson and Wilkins, Bobby Robson was forced to change formation and the 4-2-4 layout seemed to work better for Lineker and Beardsley. So Wilkins wasn’t recalled to the squad for the Argentina match.
End of an EraAlthough Wilkins played on in the league until the age of 41, he only performed a couple of times for England after that World Cup. Robson was rebuilding for the next tournament and Wilkins’ last match was a qualifier for the 1988 European Championship. The 2-0 win at Wembley over Yugoslavia, was Wilkins’ 84th cap, ten of them as captain.
Punditry AwaitsPositions as a manager and coach and appearances as a TV pundit waited for him when he hung up his boots, and he always regretted the incident that was a blot on an otherwise distinguished decade with England. 'The worst moment of my career,' he later said, 'I had always been proud of my self control, but this time I just lost it.'
Far better to remember him for that cheeky goal against Belgium!