Alan Wilks joined Queens Park Rangers on a free transfer from Chelsea in May 1965. A forward, he went on to play a total of 44 league games (plus five as sub) for Rangers, scoring 14 goals. A fairly unremarkable QPR career you might think, as you digest the bare statistics. So why, then, have I felt moved to write this article? Well, let me tell you about ‘Wilksy’...
Rangy of build, florid of face, with an extraordinary shock of dark, curly hair, Wilksy was always destined to stand out in a crowd; indeed, the appearance of his hair suggested regular exposure to a few thousand volts, comparing favourably with the hairstyle of the young (pre-tax hassled) Ken Dodd! As for his footballing aptitude, Wilksy possessed a certain amount of ability. He displayed the odd deft touch, scored the occasional goal - but was fairly one-paced. A total lack of confidence, however, resulted in this moderate player looking, more often than not, an awful one.
Why was he so short of confidence? Quite simply, because of the Rangers crowd. No player in the 24 years that I have supported Rangers has ever been subjected to as sustained, vociferous and vitriolic a campaign of abuse as Wilksy suffered. He remains unchallenged as the number one QPR ‘stick man’.
From his early days as a regular goalscorer in the old London Midweek League, playing alongside contemporaries such as Dave Clement, Mick Leach and Mike Kelly - and, later on, in the Football Combination, with the embryonic talents of Gerry Francis and Martyn Busby, Wilksy received stick from all quarters. Cheeky, lippy kids could rile him, driving him to distraction. Groups of loutish men, alive to the fact that the sensitive Wilksy was a skin short, cruelly and mercilessly crucified him. But then wasn’t this their source of enjoyment - their reason for being there? Sustained barracking, usually targeted at pre-selected individuals, was rife in football in those days, particularly in reserve team football. The decline in this ugly aspect of the 60s’ football scene coincided with the advent of an even uglier phenomenon - hooliganism. The hardened yobs now found a new diversion.
Rangers’ phenomenally successful season of 1966/67 saw Wilksy making his debut, scoring one of the goals in a 2-2 Christmas holiday draw at Brighton. He subsequently went on to play in a handful of games before the end of the season, scoring the solitary goal at Oldham that clinched promotion to Division Two, and two more in his home debut against Oxford, on the day that Rangers were presented with the Third Division Championship. Yet, the stick that Wilksy had endured in the reserves proved only an inconsequential prelude, compared to the incredible degree of abuse that he was subjected to in this, and subsequent, first team games. The pattern had thus been set for the rest of his QPR career. Even his brace of goals were not enough to assuage a crowd deprived of their favourite son. Wilksy was pilloried for no other reason, it seemed, than the obvious one - for not being the genius Marsh.
The crowd, you see, never forgave Wilksy for periodically having the effrontery to wear their injured idol’s celebrated no.10 shirt, no matter how well he might have performed on occasions. If Rodney was the hero, then Wilksy was cast very much in the role of anti-hero. The peak achievement of Wilksy’s career arrived the next season (67/68), in a Football League cup-tie against Oxford. Filling in once more for the injured Marsh, Wilksy triumphed by scoring all five goals in Rangers’ 5-1 victory.
All told, Wilksy played in a dozen or so games (scoring three league goals) as Rangers went straight through to Division One.
Wilksy was to suffer like everyone else on Rangers’ disastrous excursion into First Division football in 1968/9. He had the distinction of scoring the R’s first-ever First Division away goal (in a 1-4 defeat at Leeds) and, unusually, of scoring with his first touch seconds after coming on as substitute in the 2-1 defeat at Arsenal. Another goal, against Sheffield Wednesday, helped to secure a rare First Division win (3-2 - one of only four). Further goals followed, against Newcastle away and Manchester United at home, giving him a sequence of three goals in three games - but even these were still unable to avert defeat. Rangers were duly relegated, with a miserable tally of 18 points.
Back in Division Two, Wilksy’s first team opportunities were now fairly restricted. One of his rare outings came in Easter 1970, at home to Carlisle, by which time a hugely entertaining but highly erratic Rangers team had blown their promotion chances. In this match came perhaps the nadir of Wilksy’s QPR career. The match ended in a 0-0 draw, principally by virtue of Wilksy perpetrating the worst miss I have ever witnessed from a Rangers player. It made Derby’s Roger Davies’ celebrated and much-televised howler of the early 70s at Chelsea look difficult by comparison!
So, to this miss: a cross cut back from the left-wing byline cleared everyone except Wilksy, standing unmarked, directly under the crossbar at the Loftus Road end, an open goal at his mercy. The merest of contacts was all that was required to convert the chance, but Wilksy somehow contrived to volley wildly over the bar. It had seemed impossible not to score, but Wilksy had managed it. He couldn’t even fall back upon the traditional face-saver of an offside decision - it fell to a totally nonplussed and head-shaking Carlisle goalkeeper to take the resultant goal-kick. This feat of colossal ineptitude marked the beginning of the end for Wilksy. He was mothballed for the rest of the 1970/71 season (in which he had totalled seven appearances for one goal).
A new season saw a new image for Wilksy. The shock of hair was noticeably longer and shaggier, and flattened down. He had grown a bandit moustache which, before long, was accommodated in a full beard. The effect of this was that Wilksy now took on a morose and brooding appearance - quite appropriate perhaps, as he was to play only three league games (no goals) in what was to prove his final season with Rangers.
The close season prior to 1971/72 brought a transfer to Gillingham for Wilksy. He went on to play a total of 138 league games for them, scoring 29 goals. On the rare occasions that Brian Moore could wangle his team onto the box, there he was - long, shaggy hair and a now thick, bushy beard to the fore. He played for Gillingham until the end of the 75/76 season and, after that, I have some vague recollection of him appearing for Folkestone in the FA Cup. Thereafter, I have no trace of his subsequent whereabouts.
To illustrate the polarisation that existed in Rangers supporters’ affections for Marsh, the feted hero, and Wilksy, the unreasonably despised anti-hero, I refer you to a little incident that occurred many years ago - August 1968 to be exact. The setting? Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush. The occasion? The grand opening of our venerable goalkeeper of the time’s new sports shop, predictably titled ‘Ron Springett’s Sports’. A large group of enthusiastic kids flock around the assembled QPR players, thrusting autograph books, shirts, etc at them, to sign. But disappointment pervaded... where was the King?
Then a persistent, mischievous rumour began to circulate of an event comparable in magnitude only to the Second Coming (well it seemed that important to us!) - the imminent arrival of a certain Mr R. Marsh, via nearby Percy Road. So the scene shifts to Percy Road, where a horde of star-struck kids swiftly descend, and engulf... Wilksy! So how was the bewildered Wilksy to handle this seemingly unprecedented popularity? Well, actually, he didn’t have long to entertain this notion, as most of us did a smart about-turn, muttering our disgust, and cursing him for being Wilksy and not Rodney! Only the more polite amongst us sought out the Wilks’ moniker. Poor old Wilksy!
That was not the end of the matter for your correspondent, however. A demon cyclist was to emerge from nowhere (and on the wrong side of the road at that!) like a bat out of hell, to lay waste to my right foot. Could this have been a fanatical Wilks’ henchman meting out a swift and painful retribution for this snub? Was the wrath of Wilks being visited upon me? Well, no. Perhaps not.
Alan Wilks was essentially a victim of the extraordinary QPR era in which he played. As understudy to the one and only Marsh, he could only suffer by comparison. These were dramatic times for Rangers (indeed, the ground was often referred to by the press as a ‘theatre of football’ in the 60s); and, like any great drama, the existence of a great hero, Rodney Marsh, demanded that there should be an arch-villain - an anti-hero. The unlikely figure of Wilksy filled the role.
Why Wilksy, though? Well, he stood out. He was vulnerable, and therefore easy prey - and he had the misfortune occasionally to wear the King’s no.10 shirt. In the future it seemed appropriate that only geniuses (Stan Bowles, Tony Currie) and gifted ball players (Simon Stainrod, John Byrne) should wear it. The no.10 shirt to this day still has a special aura about it. Most unfairly of all, he was denigrated for being Wilksy and not Rodney. Mediocrity was simply not tolerated by a crowd spoilt by exposure to genius. Also it seems that the excesses of adulation had somehow needed to be counter-balanced by excesses of abuse. Curious, indeed.
A curious situation maybe - but dull, never. With a bizarre character like Alan Wilks around, how could it be? Here was a player who managed to go through the gamut of footballing experiences at Rangers - from the sublime to the ridiculous.
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