Even half a century later, it seems extraordinary that a player, widely considered the best in his position in the world, be consigned to spend the majority of his career in the Second Division. But in an era when player power was still a concept footballers and their clubs were coming to terms with, that is precisely the fate suffered by Ray Wilson. Only when he was in his thirtieth years, did he make the leap from Second Division Huddersfield to Everton, the top flight and the level his talents demanded. But despite this delayed ascent, the mark Wilson left on Evertonians’ memories and Goodison history remains indelible.
Born in Derbyshire, Huddersfield Town took Wilson on as a schoolboy inside forward in the early-1950s. By his twenty-first birthday Wilson had still not appeared in the first team and his career appeared to be petering out when Alan Beattie, the Huddersfield manager, converted him to wing half and then full-back. Wilson made his debut in April 1956, in a 3-0 defeat by Manchester United’s Busby Babes, and played in the subsequent five games, all defeats, as Huddersfield were relegated to Division Two.
He remained at this level until Everton signed him eight years later, nurtured by Beattie then Bill Shankly, who managed the Terriers between 1956-59, until he became the most outstanding full back in the Football League. In 1960 he won the first of 63 England caps when he was selected to play Scotland, and Wilson would collect a third of all his international appearances while playing outside the top flight. He was included in the England’s squad that travelled to the 1962 World Cup Finals in Chile.
Although footballers had come to enjoy many new freedoms since the start of the 1960s, with the maximum wage and ‘retain and transfer’ scrapped after a long running campaign by the PFA, clubs were still in a powerful position when it came to deciding the destiny of their players. Huddersfield, still mired in Second Division mediocrity, resisted repeated attempts from bigger clubs to lure Wilson away. Harry Catterick, who had once tried to sign Wilson for Sheffield Wednesday was nothing if not persistent, and in July 1964 finally got his man, when he paid £35,0000, plus Mick Meagan, for the England star.
And yet, after much anticipation, Wilson’s Everton career got off to the worst possible start. On his home debut, against Nottingham Forest, he sustained a hip injury, which kept him out for four months, limiting him to just 21 first team outings in his first season at the club. Despite such injury problems, the class which had attracted Catterick was immediately evident.
Wilson possessed the change of pace more commonly found in attacking players. It enabled him to stick, glue like, to opposing wingers and with equal proficiency he could either jockey them out of possession or dispossess them with the crispest of tackles. He had a strong tactical awareness and was blessed with precise and imaginative distribution, never playing a team mate into trouble nor making an ungainly hoof into the back of the stands. ‘Superlatives are applied too freely in football, but Ray was unquestionably world class and remains the finest left back that the British game has ever produced,’ Alex Young recalled. ‘He accelerated like an E-type Jag and no one could outpace him over short distances. He also used his foot speed to great effect in the opponent’s half and was always a threat when over-lapping. Then there was his sublime ball control. Ray was always available and had the skills to get his team mates out of trouble.’
Wilson thrived on big occasions. ‘He was one of the most resolute defenders I ever played with or against,’ recalled Bobby Charlton. ‘He was the kind of player you always knew would grow with pressure.’ 1966 was to be Wilson’s annus mirabilis with two career-defining games over the course of the summer.
In May, he was part of the Everton that defeated Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup Final. Two months later, he was back at Wembley, Everton’s only representative in Alf Ramsey’s England team to face West Germany in the World Cup Final. And yet, the day threatened to take a disastrous turn. On 13 minutes Wilson failed to deal with a German cross, making a poor headed clearance that fell to the feet of Helmut Haller, who fired home from close range to the Germans in front. Nobby Stiles reputedly called across: ‘In the 14 years I have been playing with and against you, the first time you make a fucking mistake is in a World Cup final!’ Perfection had for so long been Wilson’s trademark, that such an error seemed wholly uncharacteristic. England, of course, recovered and Wilson became a World Cup winner. A month later he and Liverpool’s Roger Hunt paraded the Jules Rimet trophy with the FA Cup and League Championship trophy before the Charity Shield match at Goodison.
Wilson was now aged nearly 32, but still retained the fitness and athleticism of a younger player. He continued to represent club and country with distinction for another two years, but during the summer of 1968 suffered a twisted knee that proved devastating. He played just a handful of appearances for Everton beyond then, and in 1969 was given a free transfer, electing to join Oldham Athletic. In 1970 he joined Bradford City and a year later served as caretaker manager for two months. Shortly after he left football to join his family’s undertaking business.