England’s 1966 World Cup winning defender Ray Wilson died aged 83 on Wednesday.
At 31, he was the oldest player in England manager Alf Ramsey’s starting line-up which defeated West Germany 4-2 in the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley Stadium.
Wilson, who was capped 63 times by England, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2004.
His last ever interview was conducted with Sportsmail’s Matt Barlow in January 2017. Below is the brilliant piece with which Wilson spoke about that 1966 triumph, his career and his battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
When poised to win his 100th cap, Steven Gerrard said: ‘Hero status is given out far too easily. As far as playing for England goes, there are 11 heroes. The rest haven’t really delivered.’
One of those 11 heroes can be found in the West Riding of Yorkshire, although he would never have been comfortable with the accolade. Not even in the days when the details of 1966 were clear in his mind.
At 82, Ray Wilson is the oldest of England’s World Cup winners and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2004.
World Cup winner Ray Wilson was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2004
Wilson (right of front row) helped England win the World Cup on home soil back in 1966
His mental health has been in slow decline since.
He doesn’t go far beyond the confines of his cosy home on the edge of a village near Huddersfield and conversation is impossible. Yet he greets visitors with a warm handshake and an infectious smile and waves them goodbye from the window.
At a glance he appears fit, mobile and robust, the legacy of his career as a professional athlete and years of dog-walking in the fresh Yorkshire air.
‘He’s always walked,’ said his wife Pat. ‘He’s done the Pennine Way and the Coast-to-Coast and most of Hadrian’s Wall with a friend.
‘For 40 years or more he walked with our dogs. We had four at one point. When we lost the last one, a couple of years ago, he just said what’s the point of walking without a dog and he hasn’t been out since.’
He famously hoisted Bobby Moore onto his shoulders to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy
Most of his time is spent engrossed in sketching intricate designs of fantastical creatures with meticulous symmetry on A4 sheets of card. ‘If it’s not quite central, he’ll cut off the edge and make it central,’ said Pat. ‘He’s not daft.’
A pile of his art is stacked more than a foot high on a kitchen shelf. More are stored in bags upstairs and some are displayed on the living-room wall.
‘He draws all day,’ said Pat. ‘From getting up in the morning until going to bed at night, all day, just draws. There must be two thousand dotted around. I often wonder what a psychiatrist might make of them.
‘I’d never seen Ray doodle, never mind anything else. Then my son’s partner bought him an adult colouring book for something to do. He did that for a while and when he’d had enough he started drawing on pieces of paper.
The former Huddersfield and Everton man now lives in Yorkshire with his wife Pat
‘I buy him this card and we’ve gone through stacks of it. He has the patience, he has the time and he enjoys it. You can tell from his drawings that he’s happy because they’re all happy faces. He really is happy and he sleeps well.’
As he draws, Wilson is never completely out of the loop. He understands he is the centre of attention and often interjects. Sometimes it makes little sense. Sometimes it makes perfect sense.
On the subject of Yorkshire, he points out that he is not from Yorkshire. Nottinghamshire, I venture, aware he was born near Mansfield. ‘Next one up,’ he says. He was born in Shirebrook, a mining village in north-east Derbyshire, in 1934.
‘Ray’s not my real name,’ he adds. Indeed, he is Ramon. ‘Italian,’ insists Ray. ‘Spanish,’ Pat gently corrects him. He was named after Hollywood heart-throb Ramon Novarro. They laugh together about being called Ramon.
Living with Alzheimer’s is not a barrel of laughs. ‘It’s a cruel disease,’ says Pat.
She is 78 and a remarkable woman who devotes her life to caring for her husband, making sure he is clean, comfortable and fed. Twice a week Ray goes to day-care, where he enjoys the company and the games they play.
He and Pat have been married for 60 years, last month. ‘Two life sentences,’ says Pat, quick as a flash. Ray’s wicked dressing-room wit also survives. ‘It’ll be the last thing to go,’ she says. A good sense of humour helps.
Wilson was working as a railwayman when Huddersfield signed him at the age of 18, initially on amateur forms.
His debut came in a 3-0 defeat at Manchester United in October 1955 in the old Division One but by the time he had been converted from a wing half by boss Bill Shankly and made the left-back position at Leeds Road his own, the club had dropped from the top flight.
Wilson pictured alongside his wife Pat and sons Neil (left) and Russell in the 1960s
From the second tier, he broke into the England team, one of the first modern full backs, whose mobility and attacking instinct inspired Sir Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’ system.
In a moment of lucidity, Wilson explains: ‘When I joined Town and started playing in 1955, full backs were all over six feet tall and it’d take them 10 minutes to turn round. The wingers were flying past them.
‘When I started playing, I was the same height as the wingers and I’d run after them. It was a good idea when you think about it.’
The first of his 63 England caps came in 1960 and two years later he was at the World Cup in Chile. He joined Everton in 1964 — a part-exchange move worth £40,000 — won the FA Cup in May 1966 and was soon back at Wembley.
He now spends much of his time sketching intricate designs of fantastical creatures
The World Cup semi-final against Portugal was his 50th international appearance. The 51st came in the final against West Germany.
‘I don’t think it changed our lives,’ said Pat. ‘Apart from Ray being more well-known. People were more interested in him. He wasn’t interested in all the pomp. On most of the photographs you’ll find him at the back.’
One very famous picture bucks the trend. Wilson and Geoff Hurst are hoisting Bobby Moore aloft and England’s captain is thrusting the Jules Rimet Trophy as high as he can into the sky.
With Martin Peters beside Hurst, the moment has been cast in bronze and the statue can be found near the Boleyn Ground, where West Ham played until last year.
Pat said: ‘He always said, ‘I’m not smiling, it’s the weight of him on my shoulders’. He can’t remember much about the day but I know he was proud to have been part of it. He knows he did something special.’
Wilson points out his real name is Ramon – named after Hollywood heart-throb Ramon Novarro
The family politely declined invitations to the FA’s 50th anniversary celebrations last year.
Fifteen years ago, Wilson decided to sell his medals because he reasoned it would be fairer to share money between his sons Neil and Russell, who both live nearby, than to share the souvenirs.
His World Cup medal fetched £80,000. Most of his team-mates have taken the same difficult decision. The families of the ’66 team stayed close until failing health began to make it difficult and would meet annually for a two-night reunion.
‘It was Jack Charlton’s idea,’ said Pat. ‘One year we were coming back on the coach from a do in London and he said we ought to do something for ourselves, without the publicity. So we started the next year and we did it for many years, one year in the south and the next in the north.
‘We didn’t always go. We always had animals and we won’t kennel. And we had a business to run. But Ray went to most of them. We’d meet up one day and the lads would play golf the following day, then we’d have dinner after the golf and come home the next day.’
Fifteen years ago Wilson chose to sell his World Cup medals to share the money with his sons
After five years at Everton, Wilson moved to Oldham and was player-coach at Bradford, and briefly caretaker manager, before retiring and moving into the undertaking business run by Pat’s father.
Wilson attends every Huddersfield home game with his eldest son Russell. He is their most-capped England international (30 caps) and a pair of his old boots are on display in the boardroom.
This season, they have a red third kit in his honour, launched on the 50th anniversary of the World Cup win. It has a copy of his signature on the front under the badge and on the back, just below the collar.
‘We liked that,’ said Pat. ‘Football is in his blood. When he watches he gets into it and he knows what he’s talking about. He knows when it’s offside and when it’s a foul. And he loves watching tennis and snooker.’
The Wilsons are thrilled by Huddersfield’s transformation into promotion hopefuls. Fourth in the Championship under David Wagner, they have their sights on the top flight for the first time since 1972. Pat, superstitious, searches for wood to touch and taps a table. ‘We watched Leeds lose last weekend and we were delighted. Delighted for Town, of course.’
Wilson still attends every Huddersfield home game with his eldest son Russell
Wilson bursts into a fine rendition of Somewhere over the Rainbow. His voice is strong and in tune. ‘He wakes up singing,’ says Pat. He never sang before but he always enjoyed music, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior are his favourites.
‘I’m happy to talk about the disease all you want,’ said Pat. ‘It needs to be talked about. It’s good that it’s coming out.
‘People will see people like Ray and realise what’s the matter with them and understand a bit more. Sometimes if somebody’s got something wrong with them, people don’t know how to treat them. People can stop calling. But it’s difficult to tell with us. We’ve always lived so far out that not many people called anyway.’
Of the nine surviving members of the ’66 World Cup final team, three have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The others are Peters, 73, and Nobby Stiles, 74.
The Wilson family support ‘Team Dementia Friends’, a campaign promoted by Alzheimer’s Society and other dementia charities to make football a more understanding environment for those with dementia and their carers.
Wilson’s first symptoms were classic ones of forgetfulness and repetition.
‘He took himself off to the doctors,’ said Pat. ‘He knew there was something not right. They sent him off to a clinic in Bradford, where they did some trials. He went for a year or two and stopped going.
Of the nine surviving members of the 1966 World Cup final team, three have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s
‘They’d asked him questions and he reached the point where he didn’t want to answer any more questions. Also, they took blood, and getting blood from Ray has always been like getting blood from a stone. He said, ‘I’m not going any more’. I said, ‘That’s all right, you don’t have to’.’
The medical link between heading heavy footballs and brain damage has been established if notclinically proven, but the Wilsons have no desire to appoint blame for a disease which started to eat away at Ray in his late 60s.
‘Ray always said he was doing something he absolutely loved and getting paid for it,’ said Pat.
‘Football doesn’t owe us anything, why would it? I feel quite strongly about this. The world has changed. It’s a compensation age and that’s quite sad. I’m not bitter. Life’s too short to be bitter.’
Alzheimer’s Society National Dementia Helpline 0300 222 11 22.