'Ray Loved Goodison – He Absolutely Loved It'

by Paul McNamara
@Everton

The Dixies

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A World Cup winner with England, Ray Wilson was one of Everton’s greatest-ever players. A left-back who redefined the defensive role, he helped the Blues to FA Cup glory in 1966. Last November, Everton magazine was invited to his home in Huddersfield to speak with his wife Pat, and meet this authentic Everton Giant...

(Please note: The below article was first published in November 2017)


Ray and Pat Wilson’s story is one of enduring love and happiness. Of laughter and achievement. Of coping and sorrow.

The emotions are fleeting, coming and going depending on the mood of the day.

Except the love… that is ingrained and abiding.

Joe Royle’s face lights up at the mention of his former Everton team-mate. Ray Wilson, says Royle, was a “world-class footballer, the best of his kind at the time”.

Wilson won the 1966 FA Cup with Everton. Seventy-seven days later, he was back at Wembley, one of 11 Englishmen joining forces to overcome West Germany in the World Cup final.

He is an authentic Goodison Park great, anointed as an Everton Giant in 2002.

His stature at Huddersfield Town, who he represented with some distinction before joining Everton in 1964, is such that the Yorkshire club played in a kit designed in his honour during the 2016/17 season.

It was wonderfully appropriate that the tribute to their legendary former player coincided with Huddersfield stitching together their finest campaign in 47 years, culminating with promotion to the Premier League.

Wilson was invited to Goodison for the meeting of his two former teams on 2 December 2017. The day, Pat tells Everton magazine, would be “too long and stressful” for her husband, who, as a pioneering, electric left-back played 154 matches for the Blues.

Ray Wilson was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2004.

“A friend of ours used to come and stay every Saturday night,” says Pat. “We would have our dinner, then play cards.

“We noticed Ray was repeating himself quite a bit. Eventually, he realised. We talked about it and he went to the doctors.

“He has been very good about it. He hasn’t denied it and tried to say, ‘there is nothing wrong with me’. It is a case of, ‘this is happening, so I need to do something about it’.

“He had medication – he is still on medication. But it is 13 years, now. It has been pretty slow.

“That has been good for him – for both of us. We still have a laugh. But he doesn’t communicate.”

Wilson’s determination to confront the issue head on was consistent with the inveterate ‘can-do’ attitude he was born with in Derbyshire 83 years ago. 

This is the man who organised for his car exhaust to be repaired hours before playing in a World Cup final. Pat doesn’t know how, nor was she ever intrigued enough to ask.

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In life and in football, if Wilson put his mind to something, he typically achieved his desired outcome. Pat chooses the word “cruel” when she describes the manner in which that mind - sharp, alert, driven and compassionate - has been diminished by this invidious disease.

Ray and Pat celebrated their 60th anniversary in December 2016.

The couple met in 1955, shortly after Ray had completed two years’ national service in Egypt.

He was handed his Huddersfield debut by Bill Shankly, away at Manchester United on 22 October 1955. The match at Old Trafford was the first of 283 games he played for the club.

Wilson, by common consent, was a footballing visionary, the man who redefined what it meant to be a full-back. He didn’t, however, see his transfer across the Pennines coming.

He was six months short of his 30th birthday and concerned his prospects of playing in the top-flight were dwindling, at best, when Huddersfield unexpectedly sanctioned his departure.

“In those days, if people didn’t want you to go, you didn’t go,” says Pat, perching on the edge of her armchair, ensuring Ray remains in her eyeline. “That was it, no matter what you wanted to do.

“Huddersfield had told him he couldn’t move. But then he came back from a tour in the summer – I can’t remember where he’d been - and they said they were letting him go.

“We had bought a house in March because we thought we were staying there. We sold it in August.”

Wilson’s first year at Goodison was blighted by a hip problem. It would have been a source of immense frustration, reaching the proverbial mountain top, only to be immediately slung back to its foothills?

“I presume it was, when he had just moved there,” says Pat, as if the thought had never entered her mind, and unwittingly throwing a light on her husband’s equanimity and admirable refusal to trample his professional travails through a contented home.

The fit-again Wilson was a man in a hurry, as befitted a footballer so rapid across the ground. He needed no time to locate his A-game and promptly established himself as one of manager Harry Catterick’s go-to men.

By the time a 16-year-old Royle gatecrashed Everton’s first-team in the second half of the 1965/66 season, Wilson was in his pomp.

“Ray Wilson led the onset of a new breed of full backs,” says Royle, back at the Club’s Finch Farm headquarters and enthusiastically warming to his subject.

“Prior to Ray, they had all been sentinels, big, tall lads. Maybe third centre-backs, rather than full-backs.

“Here, you had a speedy ex-winger who certainly wasn’t going to be beaten for pace. He is a World Cup winner and played in the last England team that had four, maybe five, world-class players… and he was certainly one of those.

“He was the best of his kind at the time. And he was a top guy, always there with a smile or a helpful word. I played a few reserve games with Ray and it was like listening to a maestro. He knew his stuff.”

Pat remembers travelling to London by train to watch Ray and Everton win what remains one of the great FA Cup finals.

Catterick’s team scored three times inside 15 second-half minutes to overturn a 2-0 deficit against Sheffield Wednesday and take the trophy back to Merseyside for the first time in 33 years.

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“It was a wonderful weekend,” she says, before using the same five words to describe the final two days of July 1966.

Albeit, Pat’s own World Cup final preparation hardly got off on the most auspicious of footings.

“I picked up Bobby Charlton’s wife, Norma,” she says. “The exhaust went on the way down, so it was quite a noisy drive!

“Then I dropped off the car at Hendon Hall (the hotel England used the night before the final) for Ray. He got it fixed the next day. I don’t know how, but he did.

“Norma and I went out shopping before the game. Times were different then!

“We had stayed overnight (at Kensington’s Royal Garden Hotel), and a coach took us to and from the game.”

In the hours between the two journeys, England became world champions. The country was spellbound as Geoff Hurst scored twice in extra-time to complete his hat-trick and win the match 4-2.

Well, most of the country.

“I was terribly, terribly nervous,” says Pat. “I didn’t watch extra-time at all, I just read the programme.

“The fellas went to a banquet afterwards… but the wives didn’t. We had a meal on our own, sadly.

“Then we went out to a club somewhere in the evening. And we had a good night… as you do!”

Pat is jolted back to the present.

Ray is sat in his own armchair, no more than 10 feet across the Wilsons’ lounge, watching episodes of The Big Match on television, absorbed by footage of late 1970s football. Chelsea are playing Wolverhampton Wanderers on a mudheap of a pitch, at a spartan Stamford Bridge, unrecognisable from today’s plush edifice.

Ray occasionally breaks out into laughter, a booming, heartfelt, contagious laugh.

He intermittently turns to the cameraman, sat on the sofa in between the couple, in this most homely of homes, located in the beautiful Huddersfield village of Slaithwaite, set against a backdrop of green, rolling hills.

“Can’t you get a word in edgeways,” says Ray, before repeating; “Can’t you get a word in edgeways.” Then he is immersed in his football, once more.

“When anybody comes to the house I just chatter away,” says Pat. “That is the only time I have a conversation.”

Pat’s mention of Ray’s closest friend from his Everton days, Jimmy Gabriel, prompts a one-word response: ‘Evertonian,’ shouts Ray. Pat laughs.

Ray left Everton in 1969, although Pat had settled back in Yorkshire one year earlier. “Ray wanted to come back to Yorkshire once he had finished playing,” says Pat.

“He loves Yorkshire and so do I. It is too flat for Ray over there.” She waves in the direction from which we have driven, privileged to be invited into the Wilsons’ home.

“It was a big deal for us when we went across to Liverpool – a massive change.

“We moved to a club house in Lydiate, it cost us one-pound-a-week in rent. I loved it. So did Ray. And he loved it at Goodison, absolutely loved it.

“He still does. If they are on television, that is it. He sits there and watches it, transfixed. He still remembers Goodison.”

Ray eventually returned home via a short playing spell with Oldham Athletic. He managed Bradford City on a caretaker’s remit for two months in 1971.

“He didn’t want to be a manager,” says Pat. “Bradford did ask him to do it, but he didn’t feel he could be on that side of football.”

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She doesn’t know the reason.

Asked why Ray opted to pursue a career as an undertaker, when he stepped outside the football world, Pat was charmingly nonplussed – exactly as she had been when it was suggested life might have assumed a faster pace, with a dash of hitherto unencountered glamour, after her husband added World Cup winner to his personal roll of honour.

“I can’t think it really changed an awful lot, no.”

Really?

“I don’t think so, no. Nothing changed. We did not live any differently, or go anywhere different. It was euphoric. But I cannot remember much changed.

“It was a job. It wasn’t publicised liked it is now. Ray went out to work, doing a job. He always said: ‘I am so lucky, I get paid for doing something I enjoy’.”

We switch to the topic of her husband’s singular move into the rather more sombre business of funerals.

“Well, what else would he do?” says Pat. “My father was a joiner and funeral director. Ray went to work for him, labouring.

“He used to go to work with my dad in the close season anyway, for something to do. Then, when my dad retired, we took over the funeral business. He was good at his job as well.”

Ray’s health has declined in recent weeks.

“He would sit here, drawing all day” says Pat, motioning to the small table in her compact kitchen, with its wonderful views towards the Peak District, sunshine filling the room on a bracing winter’s afternoon.
  
“From 9am to 11pm, he would draw, only stopping to eat.

“He has been drawing for three years. They are all strange, but that has come from his Alzheimer’s.

“But he has stopped now. Whether he has forgotten about it, or isn’t interested any more, it seems to have gone by the by, sadly. He stopped about three weeks ago – it might come back.”

Following Ray’s retirement from the funeral trade 20 years ago, he and Pat would holiday in the Lake District.

“We have never been ones for going off,” says Pat. “The only place he would go was the Lake District, because of the walks.”

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Ray hums along to the theme music blaring from the television and signalling the start of another episode of The Big Match. He frequently bursts into song.

Brian Moore looks out from the screen, his distinctive, reassuring tones introducing the next game. Ray sinks back into his chair, ready to watch.

“We have always had two or three dogs. We wouldn’t kennel, so we couldn’t just go off and leave them,” continues Pat.

“Ray and a friend did the Pennine Way, Coast to Coast… and all the other long ones. They would go away for long weekends.

“That was his pleasure: going out and walking. He loved it.

“Now, he won’t walk three steps outside.

“He has walked for 40 or 50 years. But after our last dog was put to sleep, we went out for a walk and he said, ‘what’s the point without a dog, it’s a waste of time’.

“So that was it: no dog, no walk. He doesn’t really get an awful lot of exercise these days.”

It is nevertheless fitting that Ray Wilson still derives so much pleasure from watching sport. Apt that this “maestro” retains a certain footballing intuition.

Son Russell – one of two Wilson ‘boys’, with brother Neil – takes his father to every Huddersfield home match.

“That is another afternoon out for him,” says Pat. “It is somewhere he will go. As soon as he is home, he hasn’t a clue what the score was, or anything.

“But I know he enjoys it at the time.

“He does understand the football – and snooker, because he used to play snooker as a lad. He will watch tennis, anything… and he understands it.

“But put a programme on and his concentration is such that he hasn’t a clue what’s going on. The television is tuned to sport day and night.

“I put that on for him, because if it keeps him happy, that’s fine. And it’s better than just sitting, staring into space. I have a television upstairs I can go and watch at night.”

Wilson is one of three of England’s World Cup winners diagnosed with Alzheimer’s: Nobby Stiles and Martin Peters are also living with the condition.

Jeff Astle, the former West Bromwich Albion striker who scored the goal which beat Wilson’s Everton in the 1968 FA Cup final, died aged 59 in 2002. His death was attributed to degenerative brain disease caused by heading footballs.

Pat refuses to blame the sport her husband loved playing, and which remains such a source of fascination today, for his illness.

“There is no point, is there,” she says. “There is no point being bitter. It is nobody’s fault. It is just something that happens.

“My dad had Alzheimer’s and he never headed a heavy football. A lot of other people who suffered with it hadn’t seen a leather football, never mind headed one.

“But, as Ray said, in training they used to hang these balls down from the ceiling, then you would run and head one, run and head another… and another.

“So, you were heading these balls. And when they were wet, I imagine they were pretty heavy. But I can’t imagine it is the cause of it, no.”

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Huddersfield improbably won promotion back into the top-flight for the first time since 1970 last season.

Their third strip featured Wilson’s signature, both below the club badge and on the back of the shirt, underneath its collar.

Its colours were chosen in honour of England’s 1966 kit: red shirt, white shorts and red socks.

The tribute further opened Pat’s eyes to the esteem in which her husband is held by his former employers.

There is one caveat, though, which makes Pat laugh as she introduces it into conversation.

“They brought out this red strip – and if anybody wears red, he will say ‘what are you wearing that colour for?’” she says.

“I bought a red jumper last year. I got it home and thought, ‘why have you bought this?’

“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?’

“But we are all very proud of the kit.

“And he is so highly regarded at Everton, isn’t he? You don’t realise that at the time. It is only in the past few years, you realise how much he was liked there.”

Ray sleeps well, says Pat. That is a blessing. Two days each week he attends a day care centre, where he eats lunch and participates in various games – Bingo and Play Your Cards Right are two favourites – intended to stimulate the mind.

“They are all happy there and have a good time. He absolutely loves it,” says Pat.

She pauses to consider life today.

“It is not bad. You have to cope, don’t you? You cannot do anything else. Ray’s has been a very slow decline, so it is not too bad, really.

“I have noticed a deterioration in the past couple of weeks. When you listen to somebody and see somebody every day, you see the changes.

“We are fine. Ray loves his day care because he is with other people
.
“He doesn’t want to go anywhere else, we don’t go out very much. That is not a complaint. That is how it is.

“It is a cruel disease. From being who he was – I don’t mean the footballer, the guy he was – to what he is now, it is just so cruel.”

Can Pat describe the guy he was?

“He was the life and soul of the party,” she starts, but quickly returns to there here and now. “Having said that, he is still very happy, albeit very quiet. But he is happy and, as long as he is happy, I can cope with that.”

Royle has his own, special memory of his old team-mate.

“He had a great smile,” says the former Everton manager, beaming at the mere thought of Wilson’s sparkling features.

As Pat shows us out, Ray bids his visitors a jovial “cheerio”. He still has a great smile.

“I just feel so sorry for him, to be quite truthful,” says Pat. “But there you are. He is happy. That is all that matters.”

Happy and loved, unconditionally.

The above article was first published in November 2017.


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