After only 28 Chelsea appearances, an 18-year-old Ray Wilkins was handed the Blues captaincy. On the second anniversary of his passing, we look back at a year in which Butch went from starting his first game to taking on the armband.
When Ray Wilkins signed for Chelsea at the age of 10 on the same day as his namesake and future midfield partner, Ray Lewington, it seemed pretty clear to all concerned that the club had bagged themselves a superstar in the making.
There was no hesitation when it came to thrusting him into the Blues’ first team. He was only 17 years old when he first started a game for Chelsea, in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a London derby at White Hart Lane.
Just over a year later, with 28 first-team appearances under his belt, he was asked to captain the side for the first time. Such a scenario would be unthinkable in the modern game, but even back in 1975 it was headline news.
On the day of the Spurs game, the back page of the Daily Mirror led with: ‘Butch leads escape kids.’
Much of the focus within the article was on quotes from John Hollins, who remains the youngest Chelsea player to captain the side after deputising at the age of 18 years and three months – making him four months younger than Wilkins, who is our youngest permanent skipper.
Hollins felt it was the end of an era for a number of the older guard at Chelsea, but in his first interview after taking on the role, Wilkins felt quite the opposite.
‘I won’t worry about having to ruck senior players like Ron Harris and David Hay,’ he told the Mirror. ‘In a match as important as this I’m sure it won’t be necessary anyway.’
Interestingly, considering his rapid elevation to captain, when looking back on his early experience of first-team football in an interview for Rhapsody in Blue, a book written in 1996 by Chelsea’s official historian Rick Glanvill, Wilkins recalled a feeling of awe when looking around the dressing room.
‘The squad at that time was one of immense talent,’ he said. ‘You looked around at the faces and thought, “I don’t think I should be here.” You did. I probably cleaned all their boots at some stage.’
Big changes were afoot at the Bridge, though. Alan Hudson, the most obvious barrier between Wilkins and a regular midfield spot, was sold to Stoke City after falling out with manager Dave Sexton.
The gaffer would soon be on his way too, with his last game coinciding with Wilkins’ first appearance of the 1974/75 season at the end of September in a 1-0 home defeat to Wolves.
Sexton’s assistant, Ron Suart, took charge of a financially stricken club that was sleepwalking towards the Second Division, but he soon made way for Eddie McCreadie, our former left-back who had stepped up to the coaching ranks.
He immediately saw fit to hand a great deal of responsibility on a mature youngster who, as much as anything, would symbolically represent what he planned for Chelsea.
Wilkins had no fear on the pitch, happily drifting behind the strikers – unlike the more conservative footballer he became in later years – and affecting the game in the final third, either by playing the killer through-ball or by ghosting into the box and finishing things off himself.
‘I think Eddie’s first action was to throw me in as captain,’ continues Wilkins in Rhapsody in Blue.
‘I said, “Are you sure?” because John Hollins was still at the club, Ron Harris was there, Catty [Peter Bonetti] was still there. But the response I got off those guys as just out of this world.
‘Instead of saying, “Oh, this young upstart, we’ll show him a thing or two!” all they did was rally round: “If we can help you out in any way, Ray, give us a shout.” And that is just top drawer.’
The Blues lost 2-0 and arguably the game’s biggest moment came between those two goals, when Wilkins missed a sitter after Pat Jennings had palmed a shot into his path.
‘I couldn’t believe it when he missed,’ said Spurs defender Cyril Knowles. ‘He seemed to kick straight across it.’
According to Mike Langley, writing for the Sunday People, Wilkins wept in the dressing room after the game before delivering a defiant message to journalists: ‘We’re not giving up. We must beat Sheffield United on Wednesday.’
Alas, we drew 1-1, as we did on the final day against Everton, despite a goal from our new skipper briefly handing us a fighting chance of a win which would give us a chance of staying up.
We were relegated, sure, but with a charismatic Blues legend in the dugout and our talismanic young skipper ready to usher in a new era, we were down but far from out.
Wilkins and McCreadie led us back to the top flight at the second time of asking and the captaincy brought the best out of one of English football’s brightest talents as he twice won the club’s Player of the Year award.
He captained the club in 170 of his 198 appearances before our money woes, and another relegation, forced his sale to Manchester United in 1979.