A Tribute: Ray Wilson

by Paul McNamara
@Everton

The Wilson family asked that guests did not wear black. The message was unspoken but clear - this was to be a celebration of Ray Wilson’s extraordinary life.

And Ramon ‘Ray’ Wilson’s life really was extraordinary.

Very few people can say they were the best in the world at their job. For a period in the 1960s, Wilson, who passed away last month aged 83, was indubitably the greatest left-back on the planet.

Just ask Gordon Banks, who maintained his former team-mate would “stand out like a sore thumb” in today’s game.

“He would be great,” former goalkeeper Banks told evertonfc.com. “He would be a really great player, without any question. I knew he was great when he played in front of me.”

The crowning glory of Wilson’s football career came in 1966 when, aged 31, he was the oldest member of England’s World Cup-winning team, one of 11 Englishmen, Banks among them, who has scaled football’s highest peak.

Wilson’s head for heights was ingrained. His loyal and dedicated wife, Pat, sat in her living room in the beautiful village of Slaithwaite last year and spoke of how her husband adored Yorkshire, where he originally moved from his Derbyshire home in the early 1950s after being invited to join Huddersfield Town’s ground staff.

“Ray wanted to come back to Yorkshire once he had finished playing,” said Pat. “He loves Yorkshire and so do I.”

She waved a hand in the direction of the Red Rose county. “It is too flat for Ray over there.”

It felt right, then, to drive past a sign denoting “The Highest Motorway in England”, as the M62 reached 1,221 feet, en route from Merseyside to Huddersfield Crematorium. Fitting, too, that the final stages of the journey covered undulating terrain.

It was standing room only inside the chapel, which Wilson’s coffin entered accompanied by Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable.

Wilson’s former Everton teammate Derek Temple, a goalscorer in the final against Sheffield Wednesday when the pair won the FA Cup with the Toffees in 1966, was among the enormous congregation.

Likewise Wilson’s fellow World Cup winners, Geoff Hurst, the Charlton brothers, Bobby and Jackie, and Banks.

Reverend Canon David Ward, conducting the service, immediately announced his intention to dispense with “ecclesiastical protocol” and drew a large Huddersfield Town scarf around his neck in order to comply with the ’no-black’ rule.

“The colours are right for Everton, too,” he laughed, before adding his voice to those declaring Wilson one of football’s “finest proponents”.

One of the most famous sporting pictures of them all, triumphant captain Bobby Moore perched on the shoulders of Hurst and Wilson and clutching the Jules Rimet Trophy in his right hand, is “part of 20th-century history,” said Reverend Ward.

“Will it happen again?” he asked with a nod to the forthcoming World Cup and leaving the question hanging in the air.

Wilson is etched into this country’s footballing fabric. But he was so much more than a footballer.

A devoted husband to Pat for 61 years and beloved father to Russell and Neil, Wilson entered the working world as an apprentice railwayman and had completed two years’ national service in Egypt before making his professional football debut for Huddersfield Town in a match at Manchester United in 1955.

His close friend Andrew Ward told a rapt audience how Wilson had been asked to list his three preferred destinations ahead of his military posting. He had mischievously written ‘England’ beside each of the numbers, one, two and three.

Wilson played for nine years with Huddersfield. A few supporters of the Yorkshire team attended the service in club colours, some in the red shirt designed in his honour for the 2016/17 campaign.

The decision to choose red was still drawing a smile from Pat when she considered it last year. Even in the grip of the Alzheimer’s disease with which he was diagnosed in 2004, Wilson was blue to the core.

“They brought out this red strip,” said Pat. “And if anybody wears red, he will say ‘what are you wearing that colour for?’

“I bought a red jumper last year. I never wore it. I took it back. I couldn’t keep that.

“My granddaughter has a red car – he’s always saying, ‘when are you going to change your car?’”

After retiring from football in 1971 Ray joined Pat’s father’s undertaking business.

“He was deft, thorough and professional in both his careers,” said Reverend Ward.

Andrew Ward recounted tales from a football dinner at Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground which he attended with his friend. Wilson’s hero, the former Preston North End and England forward Sir Tom Finney, came across for a chat. Far from being starry eyed, Wilson asked Finney, a plumber by trade, if by any chance he had a spare plunger in the car with which he could unblock his lavatory.

The ex-Blackpool centre-forward Stan Mortensen was next to join the pair. “Are you well, Stan,” asked Wilson.

“Actually, not really, I don’t feel very good at all,” replied Mortensen.

“I thought you looked a bit off colour actually,” said Wilson. “You might be needing this”. Wilson reached across and slipped his undertaker’s business card in his friend’s top pocket.

“Ray,” said Andrew Ward, was “intelligent, humorous, sharp and with a devilish streak”.

There was no attempt in death, as in life, to shy away from the illness which afflicted Wilson in later life. Reverend Canon talked of how Alzheimer’s “never robbed Ray of his spirit”.

Andrew Ward echoed the thoughts of anybody privileged enough to have had their lives touched by the Wilson family, Ray, Pat, Russell and Neil, when he called Pat a “hero”.

“She looked after her hero through the most vicious of diseases,” he said.

Wilson developed a deep passion for walking before Alzheimer’s took hold. Andrew Ward calculated the two men covered 10,000 miles on foot together – conquering more than 200 Lake District fells – after forming their friendship in the early 1980s. They clicked owing to a shared love of the countryside, terrier dogs, hill walking and, by Wilson’s judgement, “because we were both good looking”.

Wilson’s competitive nature extended beyond his sporting life. Andrew Ward related how the ex-footballer’s pursuit of “perfectionism” outed itself on the golf course with Russell and Neil, or playing dominoes in the Griffin Inn pub of a Friday night.

For all that he was a winner, Wilson retained his humility. “He was humble,” said his friend, “reticent to talk about his achievements, but he would acknowledge them with pride”.

Wilson remained proud of his Shirebrook birthplace and, said Andrew Ward, was “elated” to be asked to open the village football team’s new changing facilities in 2004.

“He loved a joke and a laugh,” said Banks. “You are so tense in the dressing room before an international match and he would be the one to crack a joke or take the mick out of somebody.

“He was a lovely guy, a smashing guy.”

As a moving service concluded, the voice of Frank Sinatra filled the room.

“Fly me to the moon.

“Let me play among the stars…”

Ray Wilson belongs in that company. He was a Galactico long before the word was dreamt up.

“How could we ever forget such a person?” asked Reverend Ward.

Impossible.

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