Football's Pioneers: Ray Wilson
Born in Shirebrook in Derbyshire in 1934, Wilson became an apprentice railwayman after leaving school. He signed professional forms for Huddersfield Town in 1952 but struggled to make an impression. He did his two-year National Service but felt he had been forgotten by the club and considered leaving the game.
It wasn’t until Bill Shankly arrived at Leeds Road, first as reserve team coach and then from 1956 as manager, that Wilson’s career caught fire.
He had originally been a left winger, then a left-half, but his move to left-back was a turning-point. By the 1957/58 season, he was Shankly’s first choice in that position. Within two years, Wilson was playing for England and went on to win an extraordinary 30 caps while still playing for Huddersfield in the old Second Division. He remains the club’s most capped England international.
Wilson was settled in Huddersfield but his desire to play at the highest level led to a move to Everton in 1964. He had five successful years at Goodison Park, winning the FA Cup in 1966 and narrowly losing another final against West Bromwich Albion in 1968.
For all his achievements in club football, Wilson’s career high-point was the 1966 World Cup. At 31, he was the oldest member of the squad and an influential figure in the dressing-room and on the training ground.
Ray Wilson in action for England in the final of the 1966 World Cup at Wembley.
He had already played at one World Cup and was highly valued by manager Alf Ramsey for his pace, resilience and calmness on the ball. Bobby Moore regarded it as ‘a comfort to play alongside him’ while Nobby Stiles noted that ‘he never blinked or flinched at a moment of heavy pressure’.
This would stand him in good stead in the final against West Germany when his weak header let in Helmut Haller for the first goal. Typically, Wilson just shrugged his shoulders and got on with the game, joining in attacks as well as defending resolutely to help England to extra-time victory.
His last game for England was the third-place play-off against the USSR in the 1968 European Championship. A year later, he left Everton too, moving to Oldham Athletic and Bradford City before retiring in 1971.
Wilson loved football but it wasn’t his life. The obsessiveness of men like Shankly was just not part of his nature.
After a short spell as caretaker manager at Bradford City in 1971, Wilson moved away from football entirely. He set up an undertaking business, staying out of the spotlight in his retirement as he had for most of his career. He died in May 2018.
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