Ray was a popular and much-loved figure among fans, players and staff throughout his long association with the club.
Our thoughts are with Ray’s wife Jackie, children Ross and Jade, and the rest of his family at this sad time.
Ray Wilkins was the young jewel in the Chelsea team of the second half of the 1970s, shining like a beacon of hope during dark times for the club. When he later returned for two spells as a coach, he helped the Blues win the silverware his talents as a player had deserved. He was widely regarded by the many people who met him as one of the nicest guys in football, possessing a wonderful turn of phrase and a contagious love for the sport.
A natural leader and student of the game, Wilkins is perhaps most famously known at Chelsea as our youngest ever permanent captain, and it was in that role he drove a youthful Blues to promotion at a time when the odds were stacked against us. After leaving, he played for a succession of Europe’s biggest clubs and amassed 84 England caps, his international career having started while at Stamford Bridge.
After his playing days, as well as his coaching, Wilkins was known to millions of football fans for his punditry and co-commentating on TV and radio. He was one of the most recognisable, and loved, voices discussing the game.
Ray was a west London boy. Born in Hillingdon, he followed his older brother Graham through the Chelsea youth system and his precocious talent was clear when he made his debut in the same month he signed as a professional. This was in October 1973 – he had just turned 17.
The team the young substitute came into had Peter Bonetti, Ron Harris, Alan Hudson and Peter Osgood as its spine and Norwich were beaten 3-0 at Stamford Bridge. Wilkins’ full debut came in April that same season, a win at Tottenham, but this was a famous Chelsea side in the process of breaking apart.
The young midfielder established himself as regular in the 1974/75 season, filling the considerable boots of Hudson in the midst of an ultimately unsuccessful fight against relegation from Division One. It was at White Hart Lane, almost exactly a year after and on the same ground as his full debut, where he captained Chelsea for the first time at the age of 18, and he would retain the armband for the next five years.
For the next two seasons, Ray was ever-present and voted Chelsea Player of the Year. Our midfield general, his passing was superb whether long or short. He had energy, he could shoot, and he could score goals. He was top scorer with 12 in all competitions in 1975/76 and found the net seven times in the promotion season of 1976/77. A club close to bankruptcy had to rely on a small pool of largely home-grown young players, and it worked, with Wilkins, or ‘Butch’ as he was often known, the star.
Pushed up into a freer role behind the strikers, his lob from outside the area over the Hereford keeper on a terrible New Year’s Day pitch is one of the most iconic goals of that cherished season, and indeed the whole era.
Wilkins made his international debut in May 1976 and achieved something unthinkable today by establishing himself in the England side while playing in the Second Division. He won 24 of his 84 caps while at Chelsea which at the time made him our most-capped player.
Life back in the top division was not easy for the Blues and after two seasons there, with Wilkins used in a more defensive midfield position, we were relegated. For the benefit of the club’s parlous finances he was sold to Manchester United in the summer of 1979, with the £825,000 fee the highest received for a Chelsea player at the time. He had played 198 games for the Blues and scored 34 goals.
Wilkins stayed at Old Trafford for five seasons, winning the FA Cup and scoring in the 1983 final, before moving to AC Milan. One of the most technically accomplished English players of his generation, he was suited to Serie A and enjoyed his time there, learning to speak fluent Italian that would later prove invaluable.
Paris St-Germain and Rangers followed before he returned to England, eventually finishing his playing career in 1997. He also managed QPR and Fulham.
Ray’s Chelsea story resumed in 1999 when he joined Gianluca Vialli’s coaching staff and his experience was priceless in our first Champions League campaign, which included a memorable draw at his former San Siro home. At the end of that season, we won the FA Cup.
Wilkins left after Vialli departed but chapter three began in 2008 when he replaced the departing Steve Clarke as one of our assistant managers. That was initially under Luiz Felipe Scolari but when the Brazilian left midway through the season, Wilkins very briefly took the reins (as he had done at the end of Vialli’s tenure), leading us to an FA Cup victory at Watford, before teaming up with interim boss Guus Hiddink.
They quickly revived the team’s fortunes and throughout his time as a member of the Chelsea background staff Wilkins was a source of positive energy, a friendly face who knew everyone’s name and was generous to all with his time.
We lifted the FA Cup at the end of that season and the one that followed, 2009/10 was even better. Carlo Ancelotti had taken over from Hiddink but retained Wilkins as his trusted lieutenant and under their management, Chelsea made club history by winning the Premier League and FA Cup Double.
During the 2010/11 season, his time on the coaching staff ended but, always welcomed back to Chelsea, Ray could often be seen at our games, watching and enjoying them from a regular seat in the East Stand lower tier. He remained a cheerleader for ‘us’, as he constantly referred to the Blues, in his many media roles.
Without question one of Chelsea’s greatest, most famous and most admired home-grown players, Ray was a much-loved icon and ambassador. He will be dreadfully missed.