On the morning after Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final clash, Sport.co.uk sat down with former Chelsea player and assistant manager Ray Wilkins, to chew the fat...
“There’s a point where you know you’re not getting the ball.” Ray Wilkins’ starts tracking an imaginary ball over the top of his head, undoing the buttons of his blazer for extra mobility, “At that point in time, you’ve got to drop back and hold your position. Unfortunately, Bosingwa has eyes only for the ball, and that’s 1-0. Good player Jose, but sometimes he’s a bit too keen. “
Seeing the former Chelsea assistant manager re-enact the events leading up to Wayne Rooney’s goal at Stamford Bridge in a stylish grey-suit was quite something. But within the first few minutes of meeting him it is clear that his heart still lies in coaching, despite moonlighting as a pundit and, notoriously (#stayonyourfeet – Ray Wilkins sign’s shirts for Sport.co.uk's competition), a commentator for Sky Sports.
Speaking at the opening of Lucozade’s new title sponsorship of Powerleague situated next to Wembley Stadium, he seems at ease with the world, clearly putting the ordeal of his surprise sacking as assistant manager of Chelsea in November of last year behind him. Even questions about his commentary and relayed criticism from professional wind-up merchant Piers Morgan are greeted by a cheeky yet apathetic smile.
“It’s the same as when you’re playing, you’re always going to get grief so it’s not too much of a problem.
Anyway, Piers Morgan was saying stuff about me? I’m quite happy with that, I thought he would have bigger fish to fry?” Apparently not, as his cringe-worthy Twitter exchange with Rio Ferdinand over the weekend would attest to.
As a player, Ray Wilkins was passionate yet classy – given the captain’s arm-band at Chelsea, aged 18, he established himself as an England international before going on to join Manchester United, at a time when Chelsea were relegated from the top-flight, and United played second fiddle to the likes of Nottingham Forrest and Liverpool. A period abroad at AC Milan and then, briefly, for Paris St Germain was followed by a return to British football with Rangers and then back down to London, with Queens Park Rangers.
“I didn’t become a professional until the age of 27,” reflects Wilkins.
“When I left Manchester United to join AC Milan, I thought I was, but I wasn’t.” England currently have no representatives in Europe, while Matt Derbyshire and Jermaine Pennant were the most reputable players, plying their trade in Greece and Spain respectively, last season. Despite speaking highly of his own experiences, Wilkins acknowledges that the financial shadow cast by Premier League clubs over their continental counter-parts means players will be less inclined to challenge themselves overseas.
“It’s a great experience – I’d recommend it to anybody,” gleams Wilkins. “I honestly don’t think we’ll see players leave our shores anymore because of the pure and simple fact that they get paid much more money.
“There are hiccups when going abroad,” warns Wilkins, whose spell at P.S.G. was a short and sour one. “You look at your family situation; if you’re family are happy then the football takes care of itself. If they’re unhappy then players will find things very difficult.
It is very important that when you go to another country you need to be prepared to be one of them and immerse yourself in your surroundings, otherwise you won’t succeed. You see it when foreign players come to this country, and even some managers; the language is stumbling block. Many players come over here, and they have all the talent in the world, but they don’t get on too well with the culture and the environment.”
“At Milan, every morning, each player had a ball at his feet”
Part of every England fan yearns for more of the country’s players to throw caution to the wind and immerse themselves in a different footballing culture, so as to bridge the apparent technical gap between English players and those across Europe.
“A lot is made of the situation because we don’t win at International level, compared to Spain and Italy,” says Wilkins. “I think we’re very close anyway.”
The first point is clearly one that the FA have jumped aboard, with work officially starting on the National Football Centre in Burton upon Trent last month, partly fast tracked by the country’s disappointing display in South Africa last summer.
The project was first made public in 2001, after the FA had acquired the land, and included plans for the 330-acre site in east Staffordshire to include a 230-bed hotel and 12 full-size pitches alongside state-of-the-art training and lecture facilities. After 10 years on the drawing board, amid a series of false starts and disputes over the main function of the site, the project looks set to be completed in time for the 2012 Olympics.
FA Director of Football, Sir Trevor Brooking, strongly believes that the facility will change the culture of English football, "We don't keep the ball as well as other countries and aren't as good in the final third. You can't introduce that at 16. It has to be done before."
Wilkins agrees with the sentiment, believing a more technical approach at all levels of football will be beneficial for moving the nation’s game forward. “When I was lucky enough to play in Milan, every morning we used to play with a ball each. 20 minutes every morning centred around individual technique. A lot of technique is just getting a feel for the ball. But that’s how they do things from a young age.”
Turning around to view the pristine, newly laid 3G “false grass” pitches at the Lucozade centre, Wilkins almost gets out of his chair to preach the value of giving youngsters the best available facilities.
“If you look at players like Josh McEachran at Chelsea and Jack Wilshere at Arsenal, they are very fortunate with respect to the clubs that they play for. The playing and training surfaces that they have been brought up on are immaculate. The playing surfaces at Cobham (Chelsea’s training complex) are like a bowling green, so the youngsters are in a great situation where the quality of the pitch is an after-thought. You look at Wilshere and the progress he has made this season; he is absolutely outstanding and his performances stem from his raw talent and good footballing values and facilities at Arsenal.”
“It’s not easy being a young player in such a big side”
Having spent the last two and a half years at Chelsea, Wilkins has had a front seat to the development of McEachran. The young midfielder has been eased into the first-team this season, making 15 appearances in all competitions, 12 of those from the bench.
“A couple of years back, when i had just joined Chelsea, I was watching an Under-17 match between us and Racing, a club side from Argentina. Josh was playing, despite only being 15; I’d never seen him play before, but in the first half he cut inside someone and played an inch-perfect pass inside the full-back. I turned to the other coaches next to me and said, ‘That’s Liam Brady!’
It was the biggest compliment I could think of at the time. It was refreshing to see an English player, born and brought up in this country, who could match these young South American players for craft and technical ability. That in itself showed me that we are starting to reap the rewards of a change in focus in the coaching of your youngsters in this country. “
The emergence of McEachran is an example of the young prospects coming through the academy at Chelsea; an aspect of the club that many felt would be neglected given Roman Abramovich’s ability to facilitate the team’s needs with expensive, finished articles in a bid for instant success.
“Well I think Roman and Chelsea’s plan for the last few years has been to look to nurture youth, and now that is starting to come to fruition with the likes of Jeffery Bruma, McEachran , Fabio Borini and Patrick Van Aanholt.
“It’s not easy being a young player in such a big side – the expectation to succeed is so great that some players are overawed by it. In some cases players see it as a relief to go out on loan as it gives them a degree of freedom to play their football and showcase their talents.”
The form of Daniel Sturridge on loan at Bolton has been particularly impressive, with his brace against West Ham on the weekend taking his tally to six goals in eight games for the Trotters, and Wilkins believes that his form highlights the importance of regular, competitive football for a young player.
“First team football is vital for a player’s development, especially in teams lower down the footballing ladder because they find themselves playing regular competitive football with, good hard working players. In the case of Sturridge, it gives him the opportunity to score goals, which is everything for a striker. He’ll come back to Chelsea and be much better off for having this stint at Bolton and hopefully he can translate that into performances for Chelsea and go towards cementing a place.”
“Ancelotti will stay. That is, if Mr Abramovich wants him...”
Ray relaxing on-set...
Sitting 3rd in the league, 11 points adrift of leaders Manchester United (albeit with a game in hand), having lost to Everton on penalties in the FA Cup, means the Champions League clash is Chelsea’s last chance at silverware this season. For Carlo Ancelotti, it could be his last chance of silverware at Chelsea, period.
Sources within Chelsea believe that the Italian has not long left at the club, while many believe that he may be given a reprieve if he was to bring home the European Cup, a trophy much coveted by Abramovich – definitely more so after watching his side come so close in Moscow in 2008.
As Carlo’s right-hand man during his League and FA Cup double winning debut season, Wilkins was quick to praise the job done by the former AC Milan manager, who publicly announced his displeasure at Wilkins’ demise as his assistant.
“He’s done a good job with winning the double in his first year and he has done fantastically well at that club. He’s a good bloke – he’s got all the players behind him and he is very well respected by everyone at the club. As a manager, that’s what you want. He loves it at Chelsea and I would anticipate that he would stay.” He pauses for a second, before adding, “That is, if Mr Abramovich wants him...”
He reclines, raising his eyebrows while tilting his head, as if to say, “Well, it’s not like they’re afraid to sack anyone.” Wilkins would know as well as anyone. While watching a reserve game against Bayern Munich at Cobham, he was called to the office of Chelsea’s Chief Executive Ron Gourlay, who gave ‘Butch’ his marching orders.
It is important to note that this is the same man who came out last month and refused to back Ancelotti beyond the end of the season. Make of that what you will...
Ray Wilkins was launching Lucozade’s new title sponsorship of Powerleague. To celebrate, Lucozade are offering 1000 people the chance to play 5-a-side for free. To sign up go to www.powerleague.co.uk/powerhour