As a player, Ray Wilkins ranks among England’s very best, with a glittering career that includes stints with Chelsea, Manchester United and Glasgow Rangers.
Capped 84 times by the Three Lions, Wilkins is also one of only a handful of English stars to really test himself on the continent too, playing for both AC Milan and Paris Saint Germain and coming across as something of a forward-thinking footballer – or at least that was what many thought.
As a pundit, however, Wilkins is in serious danger of carving out a rather unsavory niche for himself as England’s premier post-Brexit football pundit.
While Wilkins has always been keen to promote young English talent over foreign imports – as anyone who recalls his incessant championing of ex-Chelsea youngster Josh McEachran will recall – in more recent times his stance has gone a bit, well, Nigel Farage.
It all started a few weeks back when Manchester United secured the services of Benfica defender Victor Lindelhof for the princely sum of £32 million.
Wilkins, you see, was far from happy and used an appearance on Sky Sports to vent his frustrations at United for signing the Swede over defender Michael Keane from Burnley
“This guy [Lindelhof] has done nothing. Absolutely nothing. Yet Keane has played a season exceptionally well in the Premier League, but we’re talking £25m. This guy’s coming in at £32m, £33m. Can he do it? We know Keane can, yet we’re prepared to spend…
“It always starts with a three, or a four, or a five. No one gets anything cheap from Europe because it’s the Premier League.”
His comments generated the desired headlines, with Wilkins seen as a bastion of all-things English in a Premier League increasingly dominated by “Johnny Foreigner” yet much of what he said was ill-informed to say the least.
Lindelhof, for example, has done far more than “nothing” at the age of just 22, winning back-to-back Portuguese titles, including a double with Benfica last season, and earning 12 caps for Sweden along the way.
Banging The Drum
Yet it was clear that Wilkins had touched on some of the anti-foreigner sentiment residing on these shores in the wake of the Brexit vote meaning that, just a few short days later, when it became clear Chelsea were targeting Monaco midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko, the England man already had his angle.
“I was really disappointed to read they are looking at Bakayoko from Monaco. He is 22 years of age, French and doesn’t get near the national side, but it was quoted Chelsea might be paying £32million,” Wilkins told Alan Brazil during an appearance on the Talk Sport presenter’s breakfast show.
To Wilkins way of thinking, an English youngster should be given the opportunity to play, nevermind the potentially outgoing Nemanja Matic, a two-time Premier League winner with the Blues, still at the club and yet to secure a move.
Wilkins had the perfect player in mind too: Nathaniel Chalobah.
“In Nathaniel they have got a footballer that can play exactly the same but just needs an opportunity to get in there and play.
“You have seen already in the two games he has played up to now [at the European Championship] he looks a class act in and amongst people of his own age. Playing with the top quality players that they have at Chelsea, he can only improve week to week.”
Again, Wilkins was found to be banging the drum for England, while seemingly ignoring the facts.
Like Bakayoko has just starred in a Monaco team that won Ligue 1, against big-spending PSG, or the fact that Bakayoko was instrumental in the Principality Club’s surprise march to the semi-finals of the Champions League, ousting both Tottenham and Manchester City along the way.
Chalobah, while undoubtedly an exciting prospect only has one thing in common with Bakayoko – they are both 22.
While the Frenchman has been busy wowing on the continent, Chalobah has played a bit-part role in Chelsea’s Premier League title-winning campaign, while also impressing for the England Under-20 side – hardly a comparable level of experience.
Of course, he could improve if played week to week but chances are a fair few more pundits would be up in arms if Chelsea sold Matic and didn’t bother replacing him based on little to no evidence of Chalobah’s suitability in the role.
Brits, Brits, Brits
It feels like, in these quiet summer months, Wilkins is desperately trying to channeling some of the ill-will generated by Brexit into footballing matters and, in the process, producing viewpoints that are both short-sighted and dangerously ill-informed.
His latest target is another former club, Glasgow Rangers, and manager Pedro Caixinha, who has opted to sign a raft of players from the lower reaches of the Portuguese game rather than do what Ray suggests and bring the British onboard.
““I don’t quite agree with bringing in B players from Benfica, B players from this and B players from that,” Wilkins told Rangers Fans Channel.
“My way forward would be to take some Chelsea young men up there who aren’t quite getting into the Under-23 side and stick them in and give them a proper grounding in football.
“Because up there they will get sorted out quite a bit as well.
“It’s very physical, the referee is totally different to what it is down in England and I think it would do them a world of good.”
But would Caixinha not risk similar ridicule if he simply raided Chelsea’s reserves in the way the club did previously under Ally McCoist, who signed a number of unknowns from Newcastle during the club’s brief dalliance with Mike Ashley and was roundly condemned for it.
It could also be argued that Caixinha was simply investing in players he had some knowledge of, in a way a certain Jose Mourinho has done throughout his career.
Even if the Rangers experiment fails, and the early signs following their Europa League exit suggests it might be, the answer is not necessarily to be found within the English game or by recruiting young British talent.
Not that Wilkins will be told. In the wake of the Gers’ shock defeat to Luxembourg’s Progres Niederkorn, he was back banging the same drum.
“It’s Brits, Brits and Brits again for me, you need more British players in your side not foreigners,” he told Alan Brazil. “Foreign players don’t understand the ferocity of Scottish football.”
The comments were baffling to say the least, not least because Rangers had lost to a team from Luxembourg rather than Scotland. If anything, it served to highlight just how low Scottish football has sunk that his Gers team was even good enough to qualify for Europe.
Also, with “Brits” floundering in European competition last term, save for a cosmopolitan Manchester United team made up of several nationalities, the question remains: just what is Wilkins talking about?
The Bottom Line
Foreign players have helped make the Premier League the success it is today. It’s partly Europe’s interest in the Premier League that has made it such a global force while countless world-class players from across the continent have come to this country, not just for the money, but the chance to prove themselves in a great league populated by masses of adoring fans.
And yet, in the space of the past few weeks, much like Farage, he’s been allowed to spout lie after lie on the topic and has rarely been challenged for it either.
Of course, there will be those who report his claims as contentious and others that challenge him on Twitter but, in doing so, they may merely be playing into what increasingly looks a cunning game.
Eager to establish a niche, Wilkins may have finally found it, as Britain’s premier post-Brexit pundit and a role as the Nigel Farage of football, full of one-eyed opinions designed to generate debate and unrest rather than actual change.