WHEN I first saw Ray Wilkins in the flesh playing for Chelsea against my beloved Nottingham Forest in 1977, I thought he was a flash, precocious cockney.
One out of three wasn’t bad, I suppose.
Red-tinted glasses clouded my view as the richly-talented youngster was the X factor in Chelsea’s 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge.
There are more important things in life than the results of football matches and, as tributes pour in after the sad news of the former England captain’s passing at the age of 61, it is the man’s true character that we can all learn from.
Flash and precocious he was anything but. This guy was so obviously genuine, you simply couldn’t miss it.
Winning is great and Ray Wilkins was a winner on the football pitch playing for teams such as Manchester United, AC Milan and Rangers as well as winning an impressive 84 caps for his country.
But it is still harder and rarer to do so with the class and style with which Wilkins is being rightly lauded.
In the light of the recent Australian cricket scandal, in which world class sportsmen fragrantly ignored the rules, the example of Ray Wilkins was a shining beacon.
For a whole multitude of reasons, football, both on and off the pitch, has been as far removed from its image as the ‘beautiful game’ as it is possible to imagine.
Cheating, greed, lack of respect for authority and childish behaviour is the norm.
It is one of life’s crazy ironies that one of my personal memories of Wilkins was when he threw the ball in the direction of the referee during a World Cup match in Mexico in 1986.
It wasn’t just because it happened in the early hours of the morning in British time that I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.
One player I never, ever expected to see getting himself sent off was Wilkins.
It was akin to watching Gandhi being involved in a pub brawl.
The only time I met Wilkins was in similarly unlikely circumstances.
He was far too gentlemanly a bloke to be manager of Millwall – but gave his after match press conference with the same level of courtesy the world came to associate with him.
I felt much sympathy with him not so long ago when his battle with alcohol was highlighted on TV.
I recoiled in anger when he had to plead with reporters to allow him some privacy.
The media treats heroes and villains in much the same way and Wilkins deserved so much better.
It was with much interest that I last heard him on Talk Sport summarising a match between Arsenal and Spurs with humour and great knowledge.
The heart-felt nature of the tributes to Wilkins has been remarkable.
So often you can sense a person’s death gives their reputation a total makeover.
That wasn’t necessary in his case.
I’ve cried buckets today and I don’t really know why.
But sometimes it truly is the way the game of football and life is played that speaks to the heart……