RAMON “Ray” Wilson, who has died aged 83, was the oldest, and perhaps the least celebrated, of England’s 1966 World Cup winning team. He always maintained a low profile and the fact that he turned his back on football after hanging up his boots certainly aided him in enjoying a quiet life, away from the media spotlight.
Although born in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, and named after the thirties film star Ramon Novarro, it was in Huddersfield, to where the family had relocated, that Wilson’s footballing skills were first spotted; at the time, he was a young railwayman, playing as an amateur with the splendidly-named Langwith Junction Imperials.
Huddersfield Town snapped him up on an amateur contract in May, 1952 and he turned professional in August of that year. However, his career was put on hold for national service, some of which he spent in Egypt, and it wasn’t until he was back in civvie street that Bill Shankly – who converted him from a left-half to a left-back – gave him his debut for the Terriers, against Manchester United’s “Busby Babes” in October, 1955. Even then, it took Wilson the best part of two seasons to establish himself with Town, at around the same time as the young Denis Law broke into the same team.
But, while Law’s rise was meteoric, Wilson’s career was something of a “slow burn.” The death of United’s Roger Byrne in the Munich Air Crash caused long-term problems for England manager Walter Winterbottom; he tried various players to fill the gap caused by Byrne’s death, but nobody impressed. Finally, for the game against Scotland, at Hampden, on 9 April, 1960, Wilson was plucked from seemingly nowhere and given his chance.
His England career began badly – he broke his nose in tackling immediate opponent Graham Leggat in the first minute, and was still a bit groggy when Leggat went past him to score Scotland’s goal in the 16th minute. However, England came back to draw and Wilson never looked back, quickly making the number three jersey his own on his way to winning 63 caps between then and 1968 – a record for the position which stood for nearly 20 years before Kenny Sansom passed him.
By the time of the 1966 World Cup, the quiet Yorkshireman was an automatic choice. He had won over 30 caps with Huddersfield, which makes him, to this day, their most capped player. He was also an Everton player, having moved to Goodison in 1964. Nineteen-sixty-six was a very good year for Wilson; he helped the Toffees beat Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup Final, prior to winning the World Cup on the same Wembley turf, two months later.
He won his 50th England cap when they beat Portugal in the semi-final, although, in the final, it was his mistake which allowed Helmut Haller to fire West Germany in front. As every Scot is by now sick of hearing, England of course came back to win 4-2 in extra time.
Wilson’s England career ended after the third-place play-off win against USSR in the 1968 European Championships finals in Italy. Later that year, which had earlier seen disappointment as Everton lost to West Brom in the FA Cup final, he sustained a bad knee injury which would cost him his England place.
He left Everton – where he was named “a Goodison Giant” in 2002 – for Oldham Athletic in June, 1969, before moving on to complete his playing career with Bradford City, where he was player-coach, then assistant manager and caretaker manager until leaving football in 1971. In all, he had played over 500 senior games.
In 2008, Wilson was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame, and, in 2016, to mark the 50th anniversary of the World Cup win, Huddersfield Town introduced a special edition third strip, in England red, with Wilson’s signature embroidered on the back below the collar and below the badge on the front.
Ray Wilson was one of football’s quiet men – he did his talking on the park, where his consistent excellence had him recognised as probably the best left-back in the world in the mid-1960s.
He is survived by wife Pat, who he married in 1956 and their two sons, Russell and Neil, and their grand-children.