I was a Butch Wilkins Babe

When the untimely death of Ray Wilkins was announced I, like many other supporters, was instantly transported back to my youth. We mourn the loss of all Chelsea greats, but Ray’s playing time at Chelsea is reminiscent of a remarkable and turbulent time in the club’s history. It’s hard to put into words what I feel about that era, but I’m going to try.

I was one of the incoming supporters of 1970. April 11th that year marked the formal announcement to my family that I was a Blue. My parents laughed, thinking that I’d forget about Chelsea after a week or so. Little did they know that they’d given birth to a die-hard. And, pretty soon, I was going to learn, in the harshest possible way, about what what being a football supporter really meant. 

My first heroes were Peter Bonetti, Peter Osgood and the rest of the great team that won that FA Cup, following up with the Cup Winner’s Cup in 1971. It was pretty good being Chelsea then. I’d rope my school friends into playtime imaginary match scenarios where we’d thrash Leeds, Gary Sprake letting in about ten goals, and Billy Bremner being sent off. But then Chelsea slid into decline on the pitch and into financial crisis off it. My support never wavered, though. The club had captured my heart and, despite their relegation and near-liquidation, I ignored the taunts from supporters of other teams. Chelsea was for life.

Then, out of the turbulence, came the fresh young kids under the guidance of manager and former player Eddie McCreadie. Ray ‘Butch’ Wilkins was centre stage. Captain at 18, he showed remarkable maturity as well as an abundance of talent. What was different for me, was that I was now a teenager. You know, hormones and all that. Ray was a pin-up, my first heart-throb. Like countless other young Chelsea girls, I swooned over him with his dark, soulful eyes and his trendy clothes. 

My favourite girls’ magazines would regularly feature a poster of Ray. But I wasn’t content with just one on my bedroom wall; I would swap sweets with my friends in exchange for their duplicate posters. Mostly, these friends weren’t into football, so the arrangement worked very well. Nowadays, I suppose, I might have been described as a wag wannabe. Except, it wasn’t quite like that back then. I was fifteen, but didn’t have access to the type of makeovers that fifteen year olds have today. I had no clue how to apply make up, and I had spots which I covered with orange-tinted Clearasil. I sported a boyish haircut that definitely didn’t make me look chic. I was also a realist, knowing that I didn’t have a hope in hell of marrying Butch Wilkins, but I could still adore him. 

Carol Bedroom copy

Back in the mid-seventies, there was little chance of post-match photographs with players – film was expensive, and we didn’t bring cameras to every game. I was, however, often to be found pitch-side with my autograph book, there being no replica shirts to get signed. And players rarely gave their own shirts away. One shirt had to last, rather than having two per game as is the norm now. The club was on its knees financially – even the subs bench didn’t have a roof. Young supporters are always incredulous when I recount how substitutes sat huddled in sleeping bags when it rained.

I expressed my own adoration of Butch with a homemade badge displaying his photo, and a satin scarf proclaiming ‘I’m A Butch Wilkins Babe’. The scarf was bought from the temporary club shop, which was actually a caravan, accessible by only five supporters at a time. But, oh, the inventiveness of the memorabilia back then! So much better than the bland, unimaginative, over priced tat of today’s Megastore. 

My excitement knew no bounds, when my dad promised to take me to Chelsea’s Mitcham training ground during the Easter school holidays in 1976. I bored my friends silly with the talk of meeting Ray properly, and yes, getting a photo. I had a Chelsea pen friend by then. A girl of around my age, whom I got to know via Fab 208 magazine. (Sally Harlow, from Witham, Essex, if you’re out there, I mean you!) I told Sally that we were going to Mitcham, and she arranged to meet us there with two of her friends.

Of course, meeting Ray was as wonderful as we’d imagined, and even my mother developed a middle-aged crush on him, because he was so articulate and charming. Footballers didn’t always have a great reputation, but he was a model professional. I even took my cassette recorder to the training ground, and taped snatches of the conversation that we had with Ray, and his brothers, Graham and Steve, as they returned to Graham’s car – a Cortina, I think. How I wish I still had that tape.

I do still have the treasured photo of me and Ray. It’s a bit blurry because my dad wasn’t a great photographer and basic cameras weren’t very sophisticated. Oceans of water have passed under Stamford Bridge since then, of course. It broke my teenage heart when Ray was transferred to Manchester United, but I tried to understand, because the club was in a precarious position and we had to sell our best assets. Little did I know then that we would see him return three times in a coaching role, the favourite period of which has to be as assistant to Ancelotti.

Carol & Ray Wilkins

Ray had his demons and his tough times, but I’m not going to dwell on that. I didn’t always agree with his match analysis of late, but it doesn’t mean that I didn’t respect his opinions. He was honest and spoke eloquently. Moreover, he always spoke as one of us, a supporter who loved the club as we do. Even when you have a shared passion and ultimately desire the same outcome, you won’t agree on every point.

My ‘I’m A Butch Wilkins Babe’ scarf will be taken for its final outing at the Bridge on Sunday when we pay tribute to Ray. I noticed one in the Chelsea museum recently, and remarked on the fact that it was in such pristine condition compared to mine. Mine is much-faded, because it was clutched, waved, and cried on a lot during Ray’s Chelsea career. But memories don’t fade. This weekend, I will be fifteen again in my heart, and I will wave that scarf, on which tears will once more fall.

RIP Raymond Colin Wilkins

© Carol Ann Wood April 2018

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