Ray Wilson obituary

Pacy, mobile left-back who gave an extra attacking drive to the England World Cup-winning team of 1966

Ray Wilson, who has died aged 83, had the lowest profile of any player in England’s 1966 World Cup final-winning team, and generally liked to keep it that way. He was a fast, skilled, mobile left-back who was capped for his country 63 times, played in every England game in the 1966 finals, and was one of the best defenders his country has produced. Yet he kept firmly out of the limelight and, unlike most of his peers, made no attempt to make a living from football after retiring from the game – preferring instead to pursue a career as an undertaker.

Wilson was an important member of the 1966 World Cup team, not only for his resilient defensive qualities, his pace and his powers of recovery, but for the extra drive he gave to the attack. In the absence of true wingers, he and his right-back partner George Cohen offered the England manager Alf Ramsey some degree of speed and penetration on the flanks.

Thus, in the semi-final against Portugal at Wembley, it was Wilson’s shrewd, long pass to Roger Hunt that set up England’s first goal. Costa Pereira, the Portuguese goalkeeper, raced out desperately, reaching the ball at full stretch, only to play it straight to Bobby Charlton, who promptly sent it into the net. In the final, too, undeterred by an early error when he contrived to clear the ball weakly to the feet of Helmut Haller, who drove it home to give his team the lead, Wilson was eager to join in attacks.

He was one of only eight in the 1966 squad who played every match in the finals, and was on the pitch for all 570 minutes of England’s campaign. Such was his prowess that even the supremely self-assured England captain, Bobby Moore, declared that “it was a comfort to play alongside him”. Of the 37 England matches that Wilson and Cohen played together as a full-back partnership, they lost just three.

Wilson had also figured in all of England’s games in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, but even he could do little against the remarkable wiles and devastating pace of Brazil’s right-winger, Garrincha, who tormented the England defence in the quarter final, which they lost 3-1.

Although at 31 Wilson was the oldest member of the 1966 World Cup squad, he continued to hold off younger challengers for his England place until 1968, when he was still first choice and ever-present in his position at the European Championship in Italy as England finished in third place. However, the third-place play-off match against the USSR in that tournament proved to be Wilson’s last appearance for England, as an increasingly troublesome knee and the emergence of the young Leeds United full-back Terry Cooper combined to bring the curtain down on his international career.

Ray Wilson could do little against the devastating pace of Brazil’s right-winger Garrincha during the 1962 World Cup quarter final.
Ray Wilson could do little against the devastating pace of Brazil’s right-winger Garrincha during the 1962 World Cup quarter final. Photograph: Topham Picturepoint/PA

A Derbyshire man, born in Shirebrook, Wilson became an apprentice railwayman after school, and when Huddersfield Town signed him he was playing as a left-half. He made scant impact in that position – so much so that he was thinking about giving up the game. Called for national service in the army, he was posted to the Middle East and detested it. On his forearm he sported a tattoo that read “Egypt never again”.

Once demobilised, he was bedevilled by a series of injuries, but the crucial event in his career was his translation to left-back by Huddersfield’s then manager, Bill Shankly. Having made just half a dozen league appearances in the 1955-56 season in Division Two and only 13 the season after, Wilson became a regular member of the team from 1957-58 onwards, and made his debut for England, against Scotland, as a Second Division player in 1960.

In the 1964-65 season, after 266 league appearances for Huddersfield, he was transferred to First Division Everton for what was then the considerable sum of £40,000. In 1966, shortly before the World Cup finals, he was a member of the Everton team that beat Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup final. He was at Wembley again two years later in the same competition, although that final was lost to West Bromwich Albion.

Ray Wilson, second from left, and Everton players Jimmy Gabriel, Brian Harris and Alex Scott celebrate beating Sheffield Wednesday in the FA cup final, 1966.
Ray Wilson, second from left, and Everton players Jimmy Gabriel, Brian Harris and Alex Scott celebrate beating Sheffield Wednesday in the FA cup final, 1966. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock

By 1969, after more than 100 league games for Everton, he had moved to Oldham Athletic in Division Four. But he was there for just a season. He appeared twice in the 1970-71 campaign for Bradford City, where he had a 10-match spell as caretaker manager, but then left football altogether to set up an undertaking business in Huddersfield with his father-in-law.

He ran the firm until retirement in 1997 and, perhaps because of his many years in the profession, was noted for his gallows humour. When his old England colleague Cohen was struggling through a bout of cancer in later life, Wilson phoned him to ask how he was getting on. Cohen replied that he was doing just fine, but, detecting a slight air of disappointment in his friend’s voice, asked what the matter was. “Well, I was ringing to offer you a deal,” he replied.

Like several other members of the victorious 1966 England team, Wilson had to wait many years before receiving any honour for his achievements, but eventually, in 2000, he was appointed MBE. In 2004 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

He is survived by his wife, Pat, whom he married in 1956, and their two sons, Russell and Neil.

• Ray Wilson, footballer, born 17 December 1934; died 16 May 2018