Foot in both camps: Graham Wilkins
feature Fri 27 Jan 2017
Graham Wilkins came through the ranks at Stamford Bridge and went on to make 149 appearances for the Blues. Having finished his career with Brentford, we caught up with our former defender ahead of tomorrow’s FA Cup fourth round meeting between the two sides.
It’s fair to say the Wilkins family have a strong connection with Chelsea Football Club.
Graham Wilkins came through the ranks and was in and around the team for 10 years, while his younger brother, Ray, a talented midfielder, made his debut at 17 and was made club captain a year later.
There was also a third brother, Steve, who played for our younger sides but didn’t make an appearance for the first team.
Graham, who was primarily a full-back, remembers his own early days at Chelsea.
‘I joined the club when I was 10, back in the olden days as they say,’ he tells the official Chelsea website. ‘We had players such as Gary Locke and Ian Britton in our group coming through, and then just behind us were the likes of Steve Finnieston.
‘I joined when we used to train under the old North Stand at the Bridge and we used to have to run around the pillars. They were great times, though.
‘Myself and Ray were picked up very early. We were living in Hayes, Middlesex, and trained every Tuesday and Thursday night.’
Quite the footballing family, as well as having three brothers on the books at Chelsea, there was a fourth who played for another team in west London.
‘Yes, Dean was at QPR,’ says Wilkins. ‘He played for them quite a few times and then went on to Brighton. From there he went overseas, to Holland, where he played for a team called PEC Zwolle. He had a very good career and then he came back and managed Brighton for a while.
‘Myself and Ray played together in the Chelsea first team for about five years before he moved to Old Trafford. It was difficult for my mum because she had us three at Chelsea and Dean at QPR. She didn’t know what to do when the games came around.’
Graham broke into what was a talented Chelsea team in 1972, just a year after we had won the European Cup Winners’ Cup by beating Real Madrid.
His debut came on Boxing Day, in Suffolk, but it wasn’t the most enjoyable introduction to the big time, as he recalls.
'It was away at Ipswich and we lost 3-0,’ he says. ‘I remember I tried to play a back-pass to Peter Bonetti and it didn’t work out. I had to lob it over one of the Ipswich forwards and it didn’t really come off. I remember getting so much abuse from the other players.
‘Peter pulled me to one side after the game, gave me a bit of praise and then, in a soft but firm way, told me not to try anything like that again.
‘John Hollins was very good towards me all the way through my career, as was John Dempsey,’ he lists, when asked about the influence of the senior players. ‘Ron Harris was the ultimate. He guided me through and I still keep in contact with him.’
The break-up of a side which had achieved so much led to a downturn in fortunes for the club as we were relegated to the old Second Division in 1974/75, but it wasn’t long before we were back in the top flight.
Wilkins played during the 1976/77 campaign when we regained our First Division status by securing automatic promotion, finishing two points behind eventual champions Wolverhampton Wanderers.
‘It was a very good season for us and we had a lot of players in the team who had come through the ranks,’ says Wilkins. ‘To do what we did was brilliant and the camaraderie among the players was superb. We had a real togetherness and we always stuck together.
‘At that time we were a bit of a yo-yo club, we were up and down quite a bit and there were a lot of young kids in the side.’
One of the stand-out victories from Wilkins’ time at the club came in the FA Cup, the competition in which we face Brentford tomorrow.
In 1978, European champions Liverpool visited the Bridge in the third round and a team which included Ray Clemence, Kenny Dalglish and Ian Callaghan were swiftly sent packing as we recorded a memorable 4-2 victory.
‘I was up against Steve Heighway in that game and he didn’t get a kick,’ laughs Wilkins. ‘It was a fantastic day for us, Clive Walker scored a couple of goals and the atmosphere at the Bridge that day was unbelievable.’
Wilkins only scored one goal during his time as a Chelsea player but it was one which sticks in his mind, not only for the quality of the strike but also due to the fact it was a move which was started and finished by the Wilkins’ family.
‘We won 2-1 against Middlesbrough and I got the winner,’ he remembers. ‘Ray crossed the ball from the left and I was coming in from the right-hand side because I was playing right-back that day. I caught the ball on my chest, hit it on the volley and it flew into the top corner.
‘I didn’t know where to run, I didn’t have a clue. It was a good goal, I was very pleased with it and moments like that stay with you.’
Having spent so many years at the club Wilkins eventually departed in 1982, and his switch to Griffin Park was largely down to a former Chelsea team-mate who had made the same move a couple of years earlier.
Sadly, it was a transfer which would bring an early end to Wilkins’ football career, as he explains.
‘Ron Harris was the assistant to Freddie Callaghan,’ he says. ‘I had two years left on my Chelsea contract, I had a word with John Neal and he didn’t fancy me. He said if I could find a club I could go. I’d kept in contact with Ron and he told me to go and join him there.
‘It was the worst two years of my life. I dislocated my shoulder, had seven teeth kicked out, ruptured my cruciate ligaments and that was it. I had to finish in 1983 even though I was contracted until 1984, I just couldn’t make it. I tried to build my leg up in order to keep going but the injury I had was too bad, I had to pack up.’
Unsurprisingly, Wilkins still holds Chelsea in great affection and he has enjoyed watching his former club in action this season.
‘Chelsea were my life, so I always keep an eye on them,’ he says. ‘I’ve been very impressed with the team and Antonio Conte this season. He has a lot of passion, a lot of ambition and they look a very good side at the moment.’