It is hard to imagine now, in this era of micro-managed media opportunities, that a generation ago, football reporters could routinely shoot the breeze with leading players, without an agenda, tape recorder, or press officer in sight.
QPR were on my local beat as a young reporter, in the days when they were one of London’s top clubs and had stars such as Ray Wilkins and Les Ferdinand.
Les had the profile Harry Kane has now, a powerful goalscorer who’d come through the ranks via a series of loans and was constantly being linked with some of Europe’s top clubs.
He was a little wary of the press in general, having had more than his fair share of treatment from the front pages of the Sunday tabloids, but once he knew you could be trusted, was good as gold.
But the real gold-dust came from speaking to Ray Wilkins, the elder statesman of the club and a true superstar.
Ray could easily have been dismissive of young whipper-snappers keen to get his take on the issues in football, not just at QPR but at any one of the big clubs he’d played for — Manchester United, AC Milan, PSG, Rangers or even Chelsea, who were considerably less successful than their west London neighbours at the time.
Instead of rushing past, though, Ray never failed to stop, always with a warm handshake and a smile, unfailingly polite and hugely entertaining. You felt better about the world after 10 minutes or more in his company.
And it was not just with the media. I never heard a fellow player, rival or team-mate, say a bad word about him, and his popularity with fans transcended tribal lines.
The outpourings of grief and messages of condolence came from afar when it was announced yesterday that Ray had succumbed to the injuries brought about by a fall following cardiac arrest over the weekend.
"He was kind, he was generous, he was class. We've lost one of the absolute best."
"Not only a great footballer, but a great man."
Clubs, players, fans, fellow pundits and journalists paid their respects. His former AC Milan team-mate, Franco Baresi, one of the greatest players of all time, laid flowers and a shirt with Ray’s name on behind the goal ahead of the Milan derby last night, and supporters held a banner proclaiming “Ciao Ray — Leggenda Rossonera”.
Rio Ferdinand paid tribute to the man who supplied so many through balls for his cousin Les, tweeting: “RIP Ray Wilkins. Always so humble & softly spoken whenever I saw him. Genuine lovely guy. Watched him live at Loftus road many times for QPR. What a great passer & teacher of the game for any young kids who watched him.”
RIP Ray Wilkins
Always so humble & softly spoken whenever I saw him.
Genuine lovely guy.
Watched him live at Loftus road many times for QPR. What a great passer & teacher of the game for any young kids who watched him pic.twitter.com/4wprZwXiuC— Rio Ferdinand (@rioferdy5) April 4, 2018
He was certainly an inspiration for the older player. Appreciating that his legs could no longer carry him from box to box in his late 30s, Ray would rarely leave the centre-circle but even from the middle of the pitch, he could inflict damage, pinging pinpoint passes for the likes of Ferdinand, Trevor Sinclair and Kevin Gallen to race on to.
“He knew what runs we would be making before we did, “ said a distraught Les Ferdinand when I spoke to him last night.
“Our understanding was almost telepathic. Simon Barker and Ian Holloway would do his running in midfield but they were happy to do it because they knew he dictated the game.
“He was the biggest single influence on me as a footballer without a shadow of doubt,” added Ferdinand. “It was not just on the pitch, but off it too. He was the ultimate professional, and taught us so much by the way he conducted himself and the demands he put on himself. Ray changed the whole dynamic of the club.”
Although Wilkins had been made captain of his boyhood club Chelsea at 18, Ferdinand believes it was in Italy that he grew into a leader.
“He was a rare succesful export from England to a top European club and he learned their professionalism, and brought it back with him.”
Not that he made a big deal of his experiences, which included 84 England caps, 10 as captain.
“He was the absolute superstar when he joined QPR but you would never have known it. He was just one of the lads in the dressing room, and as modest as they come.”
After his QPR days were over, Wilkins went on to Crystal Palace, Leyton Orient at 40 and subsequently Hibernian back in Scotland, where he had helped Rangers win the title a decade earlier.
And when he finally hung up his boots, he shared his time between coaching, management and media work, either commentating or commenting on football issues.
Again he was another anomaly — the ex-footballer who would always pick up the phone, with a politeness and charm that simultaneously put you at your ease and made you feel bad for bothering him at home.
He had an old school charm in all his dealings; Women were ‘Ladies’, men were Gentleman, and any player under 30 was ‘that young man’.
He had a great sense of responsibility, not just defending his former colleagues but as an ambassador for the game that he still clearly loved. “Smashing’ was his favourite adjective.
“He just loved football,” added Ferdinand. “He was a student of the game and dedicated his life to it.”
Ferdinand is now director of football at QPR and said the club would be honouring Wilkins in the coming days. “We’ve not decided what yet, but it will be fitting tribute,” he said.
Expect more tributes to flow in the coming days for Ray Wilkins — a proper football man.
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