Football People on TV: Ray Wilkins remembered…

Date published: Wednesday 4th April 2018 2:31

This was first published in February 2017. Now – in April 2018 – with Ray Wilkins tragically lost at just 61, we publish it again as a tribute to the great man. Johnny loved him and his voice; he was not the only one…


Fashion police
When I was a kid in the ’70s, Ray was never called Ray but always Butch. And, odd as it may seem now, he was regarded as a smolderingly handsome pin-up, often appearing in teen magazines looking all dark and brooding, with that slightly lopsided grin and quizzically raised eyebrow that he still uses today.

But even then, somehow you could tell he’d go bald and by the time he was in his early twenties his follicles were already handing in their notice. This meant he missed out on the wonder of the bubble perm and, later, the mullet. Poor lad.

By the time he’d retired, he’d gone the full Uncle Fester. Now 60, he’s got a suitably beefy frame and though, as we all do, he is suffering the ravages of time, his soft, dark eyes peer out in that half-amused, half-stern way they always have done, which is somehow both comforting and a little sad.

Likes a nice three-piece whistle, possibly in a pinstripe, but has never been one for the outlandish. Everything seems to be a shade of blue or a black funeral-style get-up. Dresses well for a court appearance.

When pitchside as an assistant usually went with full sportswear, which always makes an older man look a bit like a tramp who has just been given someone else’s clothes.


Lingo Bingo
He’s from Hillingdon is Ray. I have never been to Hillingdon but I imagine it’s one of those Middlesex places where social disapproval is expressed by twitching your net curtains, and clearing one’s throat a little too loudly in the Rotary Club. All-in-all, the very epitome of passive-aggressive conservativeness, polite but capable of fantastic nastiness, which was often how Raymondo played the game. As a player he was oft called The Crab for his sideways play and on the pundit sofa or in the cramped co-comm box of doom, one always senses he’s thinking a lot more than he’s saying, possibly reining in some of the more unacceptable golf club banter.

Famously, played Tony in the Tango ads for about six years, deploying comedic, postmodern football lingo.

Has a slightly arcane way of talking as though he’s a character from Biggles in the Orient, or a shopkeeper in a 1950s Ealing comedy about someone who sells brushes.

His voice has always brought a relaxed, dark brown muscovado quality to proceedings, going right back to his days on Channel 4’s Football Italia. Has several distinct go-to expressions: “Smashing”, “my word”, “stay on your feet” and numerous variations of “fit young guys”. Footballers are always “the young man”. Has been known to subconsciously stray into homo-erotic territory with talk about “strong thighs” and “powerfully built, athletic young men” and will prefix any of these riffs with the word “lovely” at the drop of an aitch. Definitely the pundit most likely to call someone “fella.”

While not the full “lightin’ up a chalice, Wee Wille ‘Arris,” Ray is distinctly London. Times is “toyms”, ball is “boul”, out is “arrt”.

Can drop an f-bomb with the best of them.


Is never short of something to say and can talk without pause or hesitation for an extended length of time. Here, he picks his best ever 11 and basically ploughs through five minutes with barely a pause for breath. Impressive.


That all being said, he can do a fantastic Keggy-style foot-in-bucket-malapropism:

“There’s lots of young British coaches who would give their right arm for that job…well, not literally…apologies if I’ve offended anyone with that comment.”

“Signori has all the tricks up his book.”

“The interesting thing about Nani is that he has two feet.”

“We could be putting the hammer in Luton’s coffin.”

“The gelling period has started to knit.”

“Frank Lampard has still got the same legs he had five years ago.”

“Fabregas literally carries ten yards of space around in his shorts.”

And we could go on and on. It’s poetry, really.


Hits and misses
Biggest hit was having an absolutely top rank, stellar playing career, turning out for Chelsea, Manchester United, Rangers and Milan, among others. He was Chelsea’s youngest captain at just 18. Over 80 caps for England, for whom he was a fixture for 10 years. Scored one of the great FA Cup final goals against Brighton and proceeded to go on one of those spine-tingling, epic celebratory runs, displaying a burst of pace that he never matched in his entire career.

Was very good on Football Italia and really seemed to know his stuff. His low key vibe was very in sync with Sunday downtime. Has dipped in and out of coaching and management, even hitching his wagon to Timothy of Sherwood during the ex-Blackburn player’s flaccid comedy stylings at Aston Villa.

Has had eight assistant jobs. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing. It either proves he’s very in demand, or that he keeps getting the sack, or possibly both. Being coach of Jordan with a win ratio of 8.33% over 12 games is an exceptionally impressive degree of non-winning.

Seems driven in his pundit work by the need not to offend anyone, especially British players, which is a nice thing, though does somewhat undermine the ability for rigorous critique. That being said, his voice just sounds nice.

Has had a few run-ins with the rozzers over drink-driving and recently talked about battles with depression and his alcoholic problems. Did a spell in the Priory. All of which hints at a bit of still waters run deep, or at least illustrates that the macho front that football people put on for the world can mask all sorts of inner tortures and torments.

Can’t help but feel it’s a win that he’s talked about his issues, if only to make it acceptable for other sufferers to feel like they needn’t hide it. You just hope it doesn’t take too much of a toll. There have been times in recent years when he didn’t look on peak form physically and that’s always sad. People with addiction problems, wherever and however they plough their furrow in life, deserve our existential loving arm around their shoulder.


Big club bias
One does rather feel that the Butch purr is all the more deep and purry when co-comming on a big game featuring big clubs. Is quick to reference his days at Milan rubbing shoulders with your Maldini’s and your Baresi’s. And why not? My word, they were lovely fit young guys. What a thing to happen to a boy from a humble Hillingdon background.


Loved or loathed?
Very much divided opinion this week. Ray’s problem is that he’s been such a ubiquitous word barfer for so long that he’s inevitably spoken as much guff as wisdom. Seems to have recently become enamoured of the more reactionary punditocracy. His recent views on Frank Lampard ascending to Premier League managerial status were quite something. But hey, who amongst us has not thought up some terrible old rubbish? And in 2017, we all know that crap is king.

But to balance that out, many enjoy his warmth and friendly uncle-ish amused, relaxed vibe and that would be my preferred position, largely because I don’t need to agree with someone to enjoy them.

‘Loved him on Football Italia. Knew the league inside out plus captured the laid back Sunday feel of the show.’

‘In a world of screeching haircuts and even louder suits he feels like soft spoken, soothing reminder of simpler times.’

‘Love his calm voice…would be my man to read out instructions for a flat-pack. Once said a player was as versatile as an egg.’

‘Lovely man. Sometimes has a look which can only be described as “have I left the gas on?”‘

‘I’ve got to say, he doesn’t like the foreigners much, Clive – big supporter of Timmy Sherwood’s credentials, which says a lot.’

‘Hearing him refer to Alan Brazil as “matey” talking nonsense about British managers is the worst possible start to a day.’

‘Looks like a potato in a suit.’

‘I don’t buy the nice guy act. Too much of what he says hints at a little Englander. And modern footballers are always ‘soft’.’

‘His tone of voice makes him seem like someone who thinks about what they are saying, but the words are complete garbage.’

‘A softly spoken jingoist. Hasn’t watched a match outside Britain since he left Serie A. Will not criticise England regulars.’

‘Seems like the sort of man who might keep playfully touching you whilst engaging in a bit of ‘joshing’. Says ‘fella’ a lot.’

‘Nowadays he looks like he should be ordering a full English in Torremolinos.’

‘I always feel he is the Spud of the PFM / Trainspotting scene.’

‘He is slippers and a big thick dressing gown, with Bill withers on in the background.’

‘Never afraid to interrupt some Analysis with a pub Chat. “How’s the wife Alan? Did the op go well…….smashing”.’


Proper Football Man?
Oh yes. A founding member with every box ticked, albeit with a few caveats.

Played back when football was for proper men and not nancy boys in dresses. Glory days when everything was perfect.

Got sent off in a World Cup for throwing a ball at the ref. Mmm, that’s quality dissent.

Played under Big Ron. Oh, my word that’s beautiful.

Played in Scotland with Souey. Gorgeous.

Can be relied on to speak up for the hard done to English manager. Quite rightly; you need to be able to dig in and know the league in this game.

Worked with Sherwoody Woodpecker. Very underrated manager.

Court appearances. Well, we’ve all had ‘em, you can’t do nowt these days.

Drink problem. That’s what the doctors told me, Jeff, just ‘cos I was sleeping on a roundabout off the A40 with a bottle of vodka stuck in every orifice. It was just banter.

The boys love Ray and are the sort of people to buy an alcoholic a drink because they think it’s funny to see a drunk be drunk, and also they don’t really believe alcoholism exists. “Nowt wrong with a good skinful. It’s good for team spirit”.

But the boys do like Butch, which is a great nickname and definitely doesn’t have a backs against the wall lads, gay connotation. They know he’s basically on their side, but also that he’s not one of the rough boys, so will be prepared to apologise to the landlord for the state of the toilets after Sam’s gone in there and done what he shouldn’t have, I’d give it 10 boys. Ha ha ha ha.

Similarly useful for smoothing out fights in casinos after one of the boys puts his hand up someone’s wife’s skirt. It’s a compliment luv. Lovely little thing, you. Look at that watch; 20 grand.

And who better to be emollient with the police when Reidy has burned down an entire Dubai 29 star hotel in a conflagration caused by lighting farts too near to his pint of Kerosene, hairspray and chlorine trifluoride strawberry daiquiri, during a quiet weekend of middle-eastern punditry?

Also, whilst the Joop drinkers go in pursuit of Miss Loofah-faced, Sh*t-Gibbon of 1978, Ray can be relied upon to look after the coats, whilst laughing a little, a sad look in his eyes, all the while.


Beyond the lighted stage
Was awarded an MBE, presumably for services to football.

Is that better, worse or just different to an OBE or a CBE? No-one knows.

Has the usual quota of charity golf, sporting events and After Dinners in his diary. Is the Patron of Cardiac Risk in the Young.

I couldn’t find any evidence of any other cultural activity orbiting the Butch universe. Appears to be one of those ex-pros who has simply lived an all-consuming life in and around football and hasn’t had time or inclination to cultivate any other interests.

But all in all, even though his punditry doesn’t always march in time with the times, it’s hard to feel that Ray isn’t a nice man who lives in a harsh world, which is quite likely why he’s always in work, one way or another.


John Nicholson

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