A week after David Wilkes’ passing, the rawness remains for Mick Wadsworth, but with it has grown a fervent determination to celebrate his life. This was not an interview Wadsworth ever wanted to give but the words still flow.

They do so from a place of deep affection, admiration and love. Wadsworth, the title-winning Carlisle United manager, knew Wilkes as a child, as a teenage footballer, as an emerging and then established coach, and as a man.

He embraced him as a team-mate, colleague and lifelong friend. The news of Wilkes’ sudden death last week at 59 has been a heavy blow yet Wadsworth wanted to record his appreciation at this moment of grief.

In Carlisle, Wilkes will always be remembered as the gentle-natured youth coach who helped point a series of Cumbrian footballers towards stardom. This is a major part of his footballing legacy and Wadsworth, who benefited from much of that work as United boss, is well placed to appraise it.

Their connection, though, ran much deeper than that for two sons of Barnsley. “I knew Dave since he was six or seven,” Wadsworth says. “I was playing for a local non-league team, Worsborough Bridge Miners Welfare in the old Yorkshire league, and his uncle Billy – who lives in my village now – played in the same team, and we were good friends.

“Dave’s grandad used to bring him to the games, and I got to know him and the family. I saw him grow up, effectively.”

Wadsworth, as he took teaching qualifications and pursued his playing career with clubs such as Alfreton Town and Scunthorpe United, kept in touch with Wilkes and his family. The teenage Wilkes was a gifted boy in schoolboy football and, at 16, joined Barnsley as an apprentice.

“He was a lovely lad. He was just mad keen to be a footballer – and he was very talented,” Wadsworth says. “By the time I retired, and got the chance to go into coaching at about 32, I went to Barnsley as youth coach and Dave was in the system then. I did play some reserve games with him – the old codger on one side of the pitch, and the young gun on the other…

“I saw him make his first-team debut for Barnsley, and saw him score two wonderful goals against Fulham, both exactly the same – cutting in from the right wing and hitting both with his right foot across the keeper, Peter Mellor, into the far corner.

“Things were going well for him then and he looked to have a wonderful future. But then he got a really bad knee injury which, I suppose, curtailed his football career.” Wilkes went on to play for Stockport County, in non-league with Frickley Athletic and Bridlington Town, and in Hong Kong for a spell, but his playing days were no longer set to flourish.

News and Star: Mick Wadsworth knew David Wilkes from an early age - and when they were reunited at Carlisle in 1993, they helped drive the Blues to great successMick Wadsworth knew David Wilkes from an early age - and when they were reunited at Carlisle in 1993, they helped drive the Blues to great success (Image: News & Star)

“I encouraged him to do his coaching badges,” Wadsworth says. “He did his local one, then came to Lilleshall to do his Full Badge, which is now the A Licence. I was on the FA staff by then, and Dave, although very young to be taking it, passed with flying colours – and not many passed then. They didn’t rattle them through like they have in later years. You had to fight to get that award.

“Coincidentally, on the same course, Clive Middlemass was there, God bless him. Clive was manager of Carlisle at the time [in 1990], and he took a shine to Dave and, in due course, offered him a job, initially on the community programme, and then he ended up as youth coach.”

Wilkes was positively equipped for such work in his mid-twenties. “Many try and many fail – many get the qualifications but that doesn’t mean they’re going to go onto be successful coaches,” Wadsworth says. “I think he just had a really good understanding of the game, and he was a good communicator. That’s a massive part of coaching.

“He had a quiet manner which was slightly different to many coaches, but he understood the game very, very well – tactically, technically, and psychologically what you need to be, and do, to be a footballer. He got into it early, so he got a jump on other coaches who didn’t get into it until many years later as they were still playing. By the time they were qualifying, Dave had ten years of coaching under his belt.”

Wilkes was at the vanguard of Carlisle United’s earliest work of proper youth development: work that proved transformational at the club. Wadsworth had witnessed the early moves in this through his own work at the Football Association, which included a role as regional coach for the north west, entailing regular visits at Brunton Park to assess a fledgling centre of excellence. “Dave was the catalyst for that incredible acceleration of work and development he did with those players, and finding the best players in Cumbria,” says Wadsworth.

There were, famously, some prodigious young players in the United system by then. Wadsworth inherited them when, in 1993, he was appointed director of coaching at Brunton Park, Wilkes “instrumental”, he says, in making the initial connection between Wadsworth and Michael Knighton, Carlisle’s owner.

It was a job of first-team rebuilding, based on a strong foundation of youth. “Having Dave there was incredibly fortunate for me and, ultimately, it became an incredibly successful time because of the work he’d done with the young players there and his knowledge of the club,” says Wadsworth.

News and Star: Wilkes with seven Carlisle apprentices including Neil Dalton, front left, Rory Delap, third left and Richard Prokas, second rightWilkes with seven Carlisle apprentices including Neil Dalton, front left, Rory Delap, third left and Richard Prokas, second right

“It was a perfect storm – I was eager and keen as a youngish coach, and I had great staff with Mervyn Day and Joe Joyce, Peter Hampton, Dave McCreery was there at the start as well, and Dave [Wilkes]. The foundations were good, albeit we were starting from a low point in terms of the first team squad at the start. With that incredible group of young players, it started to turn around.

“Dave’s work and support were absolutely vital in those early days. I did find those first few months really tough, and Dave was very stoic. He had a quiet nature on many fronts, and a quiet approach, but he was tough.”

The list of young players who emerged into Carlisle’s first team, and in many cases went on to much higher things, is considerable. Before Wadsworth there were players such as Rob Edwards, Darren Edmondson and Jeff Thorpe who had made senior debuts. During his tenure, the likes of Rory Delap, Paul Murray, Tony Hopper, Tony Caig, Lee Peacock and Richard Prokas flourished. Post-Wadsworth, the Wilkes generation sent forward Matt Jansen, Will Varty, Scott Dobie, Paul Boertien and Paul Reid.

There were many others, including some who made it to the fringes then flourished elsewhere. Carlisle, for a spell in that period, had a youth team capable of mixing it with the country’s best. Their golden generation produced Premier League players, internationals and talent that earned the club millions.

Wilkes possessed a deft but also firm touch in how he nurtured them. “By the time they’d spent some time with him I don’t think any young player was in any doubt what was expected of them,” says Wadsworth. “That reminded me of Eric Harrison’s work at Man United. Players knew what they needed to do to be successful in a team and to develop their own game as an individual.

“Dave also had a great eye for seeing the ones he thought would make it through that long process of apprenticeship football. It is tough, and the drop-out rate is massive. But it was demonstrated on my first day proper at the club. He came to see me with a young lad, and says, ‘Gaffer, this is Paul Murray and he’s got something to say to you’. Muzza looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’m gonna play in the first team this year’. Oh, I thought, we’ll see about that. And he did, the little sod…"

Murray became an England Under-21 and 'B' international: one jewel among the many.

News and Star: David Wilkes pictured at Carlisle United in the late 1990s. He worked at Brunton Park from 1990-99 then from 2005-23David Wilkes pictured at Carlisle United in the late 1990s. He worked at Brunton Park from 1990-99 then from 2005-23 (Image: News & Star)

“Dave could pinpoint the qualities of each player," Wadsworth adds. "It wasn’t many games into the 1994/5 season when we went to Torquay, had a few injuries and Dave said, ‘Tell you what, gaffer, I’d give Richard Prokas a go’. I’d seen him train and play in the youth team, and thought he looked a decent player, but I hadn’t cottoned on, really.

"It was Dave’s encouragement for me to play him…and that was it. He was never out of the team. I can’t ever remember leaving him out unless he was injured.

“He became such an important player to allow the other midfield players to flourish. He did such great spadework as a holding midfield player. Everybody thought Claude Makelele invented that role, but Richard did it with ease and great effect.

“Throughout that period Dave's information about the young players was impeccable, and so many of them went on to greater things. He had a great relationship with the kids. You’ll see that from what they say today and what they've said about him over the years.”

Coaching messages could often be abrasive in that period but Wilkes had a more sensitive touch. “He brought his personality, character, nature to the job,” says Wadsworth. “His gentleness. Don’t get me wrong, he could crack the whip. Players knew where they stood. They couldn’t take advantage of him. But that quiet manner bred confidence and loyalty with his young players that was long-lasting.”

Wadsworth and Wilkes later worked together at Huddersfield Town in testing circumstances during 2002/3. “It was the hardest year of my life as a manager,” says Wadsworth. “I took Dave as my assistant and we had one hell of a tough time. We were bankrupt, players didn’t get paid from October until the time I got the sack in March, we were getting dogs’ abuse…and Dave was strong. He was so strong. He was stoic. He was a big help to me in a really tough period.”

Wilkes went on to return to Carlisle in 2005 and remained there until his death. He was respected in his latter role as head of academy coaching after a further, prolonged period helping and guiding new generations of young players, many of them Cumbrian, many of them also now flourishing in the professional game.

“Staying in the game is one thing. Staying in the game and being successful at what you do is another,” Wadsworth says. “Dave was successful because, throughout his career, players were identified, developed and moved into the first team or in many cases sold on for a great profit. It doesn’t happen by accident.

“When I was there, what happened was a windfall, there’s no two ways about it. It wasn’t the Class of 92 [Manchester United’s famous generation] but for us, for Carlisle United and the level we were at, it was just as magical. Three or four of them were internationals. It’s quite amazing.

News and Star: David Wilkes (back right) at Carlisle United's 1994/5 reunion in 2021, with Mick Wadsworth (front, fourth right) and some of the first-team players he helped develop, including Jeff Thorpe, Richard Prokas, Paul Murray, Darren Edmondson and Tony CaigDavid Wilkes (back right) at Carlisle United's 1994/5 reunion in 2021, with Mick Wadsworth (front, fourth right) and some of the first-team players he helped develop, including Jeff Thorpe, Richard Prokas, Paul Murray, Darren Edmondson and Tony Caig (Image: Barbara Abbott)

“If David was appreciated as much as he could have been, I’m not sure. I’d have liked to have seen him have a proper testimonial for the work he did. You’d have to go a long way to find someone more deserving.”

Wadsworth’s affinity with Wilkes was not just as a football man. “When I was at Gretna, I’d stay with Dave some nights and we had great conversations. He was very interested in religion, in politics, in finance, ethics, morals, philosophy – he had strong views about certain issues and was very astute.

“It was never heated or confrontational but we certainly had great debates. He had a great interest in current affairs which perhaps would surprise some people. He was smart. I always appreciated that about him. You didn’t have a boring conversation with him. And on the other side he was great fun. An incredible mimic, with a dry sense of humour.”

It pains Wadsworth greatly that he will not be able to share another of those conversations, or hear his old friend’s laugh again.

“We never lost touch, often went to functions together and I’d see him two or three times every year at least," he says. "We always played golf in the summer a couple of times – he’d either come down here [to Yorkshire] or me and a friend would play up there at Eden or Carlisle.

“That was in my mind over the last couple of weeks. It was our turn to go up this summer. I’ll now be coming up for different reasons, sadly.

“I know his family so well, and they are just great people. He was so much like his mother – so much. I feel so devastated for them all. I know how I feel, so how they feel I can’t imagine.”

When the day comes to bid farewell to David Wilkes, Wadsworth is in no doubt that the number of people there to do so will be considerable. Tuesday, July 11 will be a day of profound appreciation alongside the most acute regret.

“If anything can come out of this terribly sad and shocking end of life, then good response to good people, and good response to outstanding service to people, and good response to outstanding relationships with people, will be evident on that day,” Wadsworth says. “He was at heart a gentle, thoughtful soul, and he is going to be missed so much.”