The “phenomenal” technical ability of Ray Wilkins, who has died aged 61, would have made him one of the leading players of the modern game, according to England manager Gareth Southgate.
Former Chelsea captain Wilkins, who won 84 international caps, died in hospital on Wednesday morning following a cardiac arrest having been treated at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, south-west London since Friday.
Southgate and former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson led the tributes to a ‘gentleman’ of football, who won friends on and off the pitch during a career which spanned some 11 clubs, from the likes of AC Milan to QPR and Leyton Orient, before then moving on to join the coaching staff of several more.
Chelsea, for whom Wilkins broke into the first-team as a raw teenager during the early 1970s, plan tributes to their former midfielder ahead of the home Premier League match against West Ham on Sunday.
Southgate, 47, was a youngster at Crystal Palace when Wilkins – known in the game by his childhood nickname ‘Butch’ – took on a player-coach role in 1994 under Alan Smith.
Now preparing to lead the England senior team into the 2018 World Cup finals, Southgate recalled the impact Wilkins had on the squad at Selhurst Park.
“I’ll always remember the humility that he had, coming into that dressing room, having played for Manchester United, AC Milan, PSG and being a multiple-capped player for England. He just fitted into the group so easily and had the complete respect of everybody,” Southgate told www.thefa.com.
“I felt privileged to play with him and even though he only joined us for a six-month period, he was a really good influence on all of the guys there at the time and he had a big influence on me in terms of his professionalism and outlook on training – and he’s always kept in touch.
“He was one of the great English midfielders. Until you work with somebody, you don’t necessarily know how technically good they are.
“He would have been one of the earliest to go abroad and play in the Italian league. At the time, it was at a really high level, so being able to transition into a club like AC Milan and be as popular as he was there speaks volumes for his ability.”
Ferguson, speaking as a board member of the League Managers Association said: ““Ray was a great football man, who was well respected and liked by all who knew him and he always had a kind word and time for people.
“Ray was an impressive football talent and had a fantastic career representing some of the biggest clubs. As a manager, Ray was so popular amongst his LMA colleagues and I know that he will be missed by us all.”
Wilkins, who in recent years battled alcohol issues and health problems with ulcerative colitis, had carried out media duties on talkSPORT and Sky Sports – he was a regular pundit on both platforms – shortly before suffering the cardiac arrest.
London’s St George’s Hospital confirmed the death and issued a statement on behalf of the family which read: “We would like to thank St George’s staff for the amazing work they have done to care for our beloved Ray.
“We would also like to say thank you for the many goodwill messages we have received from Ray’s friends, colleagues, and members of the public.
“Ray leaves behind his loving wife, Jackie, daughter Jade, son Ross, and his beautiful grandchildren, Oliver, Frankie, Ava, Freddie, Jake and Archie. We are asking for privacy at this very difficult time.”
While playing for England, he was dismissed during the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico in a game against Morocco.
Wilkins won the FA Cup with Manchester United in 1983, scoring a memorable goal in the first tie against Brighton at Wembley, which ended 2-2. He also won the Scottish title with Rangers in 1989.
Later, he would also have numerous stints as assistant manager at Chelsea. On one occasion, he led the side on a caretaker basis.
A statement from Chelsea read: “Everybody associated with Chelsea Football Club is devastated to learn of the passing of our former player, captain and assistant coach, Ray Wilkins. Rest in peace, Ray, you will be dreadfully missed.”