“Many are called and few are chosen”. That’s what Ian Wright’s mother said to her precociously talented, angry young son. Her words were not intended as inspiration. Ian Wright lived in a very real world in Brockley, south-east London. He was approaching 22 years of age and working in a factory. The professional footballer dream was nothing more than a hobby of escapism for this young father…
Kind-hearted bosses are a rarity in the world of big business, especially in the more unsympathetic era of working-class 1980’s Britain. But a chance meeting with his superior in a canteen changed Ian Wright’s life forever and led him on the path to greatness. He still needed persuading, mind.
Let’s return to that. In the interim, there are some unusual statistics to behold which encapsulates the essence of this unique and fascinating character.
Ian Wright is Arsenal’s second-highest goalscorer in the club’s history, slotting in just behind Thierry Henry. In other words, Wright was the greatest goalscorer that Arsenal Football Club ever produced for the best part of a decade after breaking Cliff Bastin’s record in September 1997 following his hat-trick at home to Bolton Wanderers. The third goal that afternoon brought Wright’s tally to 179 (you remember the t-shirt). He was Arsenal’s leading goalscorer for six straight seasons. To put all of that into context, Wright signed for Arsenal just a number of weeks short of his 28th birthday.
Wright scored nine times for England over a seven-year period but didn’t make his international debut until he turned 26 and was never picked for an international tournament, despite this era coinciding with two European Championships and a World Cup (he was in contention to be selected in the latter by Glenn Hoddle had injury not intervened).
The striker scored 117 goals during six years at Crystal Palace following a successful two-week trial and an initial three-month contract. He was still working a regular job at 21. Years after his departure from Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace fans voted Wright their Player of the Century. His name appeared in the top five of a similar list compiled by Arsenal supporters.
A couple of years before Crystal Palace took a chance on Wright, he spent six months behind bars at Her Majesty’s pleasure due to a series of unpaid fines for repeated driving offences. Representatives from Palace asked Wright to go on a fortnight’s trial with the club on three separate occasions before the Sunday league footballer eventually relented and grudgingly accepted the invitation.
And all of this, everything you are reading above, can be traced back to Brighton & Hove Albion and their perplexing short-sightedness.
Football was Ian Wright’s life because life was bleak for young Ian Wright. He, his two older brothers and sister lived with his mother and abusive stepfather. Wright was obsessed with all aspects of the game. It’s all anyone in his area did or discussed. The weekly highlight would arrive every Saturday night in the shape of Match of the Day. However, Ian and his siblings were forbidden from watching the iconic show by their stepdad who forced them to turn away from the screen when the distinctive theme tune started.
Hearing the various sounds of the highlights programme from his bedroom without witnessing a second of the action, Wright would cry himself to sleep. His older brother Maurice would do anything to stop him weeping. Maurice was a supremely gifted footballer; a midfielder who commanded and controlled matches in the local area. Ian was in awe of his elder sibling but he felt alone and disrespected by everyone in his life; family and locals.
So, football was the escape and where his pent-up rage was exhibited. Wright would get into several scraps playing with and against older kids while relentlessly scoring goals. The latter habit the only thing his dissent would take a back seat for, so he stood out. Not as naturally gifted as his brother, let alone others in the area, but as someone who possessed an unparalleled eye for goal and a burning desire to constantly improve each aspect of his game, spurned on by the taunting of his brother.
Wright caught the interest of several clubs as a teenager and wrote to many others, but he lacked that x-factor in the eyes of the capital’s big sides. Rejected by Millwall, Charlton Athletic, Leyton Orient and writing to the likes of Chelsea without receiving a reply, Wright finally got his chance on a six-week trial with Brighton.
He nailed it… or so he thought.
Scoring was simple for the 19-year-old striker and he would do it for fun in training among the first-team squad and in reserve games. But when push came to shove, the Seagulls went another route in a ruthless way. Wright tells the story of being able to only afford the outbound journey to Brighton from Brockley. He would beg, borrow and steal to accumulate the funds to make the round trip but, on one particular occasion, he had no money at all. He asked Brighton for expenses to cover his transport back to the capital. Instead, Wright found himself sitting in an office for the entire afternoon waiting for an answer from club officials.
It was a measly couple of hundred pounds on request but the proud teenager was left feeling humiliated. He had been doing well during the trial but was now embarrassed and disrespected by those in authority over a five-hour period. It was only when the team captain Steve Foster walked by that the situation was resolved via a verbal lashing towards the club by the skipper. Wright boarded the bus to get the train back to London, before bursting into tears on public transport over what had transpired.
Brighton didn’t offer Wright a contract and he was never directly informed of the decision by the manager. The decision was baffling. Wright had had enough of the whole charade.
The feeling in Brockley among his peers was that Wright was brilliant to a point. Talented, but insufficiently so. That hurt him, deeply. Tired of rejection, Wright turned to a steady, decent-paying job in Tunnel Refineries training to become a plasterer while working as a manual labourer. He was providing for his young family as parenthood called in the shape of Shaun and Bradley.
But he continued to play Sunday league football – at a high level – just for the hell of it. It was too easy for him. Scoring twos and threes most games, Crystal Palace scouts invited him on trial but Wright didn’t want to know. His life was developing some much-needed stability now and he wanted to stay out of trouble following his brief spell in prison.
This is where the aforementioned boss bumped into Wright at the canteen and changed the young man’s life forever. Did Ian ever wonder why a massive club like Crystal Palace had asked him on trial three times? In an admirable move, Wright’s boss convinced the casual footballer to take two weeks off work, albeit unpaid, while his superior would make an excuse on behalf of his employee to the rest of the company. How did he convince a stubborn Wright to change his mind? By telling him that he would forever regret not going. Even if it was for the last time.
And so he did.
And, at the end of the fortnight, Palace manager Steve Coppell called Ian Wright into his office to offer him a three-month contract at Crystal Palace Football Club. It turned out that Coppell knew within three days that he was going to sign the trialist. Wright never suspected a thing.
At Brighton, Wright did everything he thought the coaches wanted from a centre-forward. At Palace, Wright attacked that trial without a care in the world. An angry young man playing on pure instinct – always his top mode – knowing that there was a life to return to should it all go wrong. It always went wrong, anyway. This time was different because Wright stopped caring about what was expected. The result was a lethal footballer filled to the brim with immense natural ability in front of goal. He was a gem, no longer hidden or ignored.
A delirious Wright rang his mother from Coppell’s office to inform her that her son had just been made a professional footballer. The 22-year-old shed tears of joy on the phone call, demonstrating a type of vulnerability not seen often in his life: joyous emotion.
It was August 1985 and an inimitable professional footballer had just been born.
Wright was formidable at Palace, scoring nine times in his debut campaign, ending the season second in the club’s scoring charts. That was nothing, though, when compared with what was to follow.
Developing an outstanding strike partnership with Mark Bright, Wright’s massive goal haul proved crucial in Palace’s promotion to the First Division in 1989, where he scored 33 goals in all competitions.
This professional football lark was a breeze.
But Wright suffered a setback in the 1989/90 season by breaking his leg, twice. That campaign climaxed with the FA Cup final against Manchester United. Wright fought desperately to be fit to start but discovered on the Wednesday before the life-altering contest that he would only make the bench, deemed unfit.
Wright was devastated, although he needn’t have been. Introduced in the 72nd minute of the match, Wright scored twice in a classic final which ended 3-3 and went to a replay, as it did in those days. Wright sights his first goal in that match as his career highlight. You might remember his impact in that game…
Still living back in Brockley at the time, that performance in question solidified Wright as an unlikely superstar. Not just in his area, but nationwide. Palace had unwittingly unleashed a goalscoring monster.
The Eagles would lose a disappointing replay 1-0, with Wright again, curiously, named among the replacements. It was Alex Ferguson’s first trophy as Manchester United manager but it was also a landmark moment for Wright himself. A year after the match – after another season in which Wright shone for Palace by reaching a century of goals for the club and helping side finish third in the top flight – Arsenal came calling.
The £2.5 million that the famously parsimonious Gunners manager George Graham parted with was a club record at the time, such was the esteem in which Wright, by now an England international, was held. He had well and truly arrived, even if the Arsenal fans had reservations about the fee paid for a perceived rough diamond.
Again, the doubters needn’t have bothered. This man had been through enough in life to deal with a few negative football-based opinions. He scored on his debut in a league cup tie against Leicester City and followed this with a hat-trick on his league bow, away to Southampton. Easy.
In Arsenal, Wright had signed for the defending champions who had won two of the previous three First Division championships, including the famous ’89 title win at Anfield. Surrounded by far superior players at his new club, Wright thrived in quality company and, less than two years after joining, had picked up major domestic honours as Arsenal won both the league cup and FA Cup double in 1993, beating Sheffield Wednesday on both occasions. The latter went to a replay with Wright scoring in each game.
Remove his exceptional attacking attributes and Wright was a star in persona alone. He never lost that Sunday league edge; pulling defenders’ hair, trash-talking and fighting with players much bigger than he (Peter Schmeichel springs to mind), all while creating history with his goal scoring prowess.
Wright appeared fearless, but there were key personnel behind his bulletproof character. David Rocastle, for instance, was a significant influence on Wright regardless of sharing just one season together at Highbury, before Rocastle departed for Leeds United. The bond established was enough the have an eternal impact on Wright. He was devastated upon hearing the news of Rocastle’s premature death when he passed away from illness in 2001 at just 33 years of age.
Another hugely positive figure was Sidney Pigden – one of Wright’s teachers in school and the only male adult who made an effort with young Ian to explore and encourage his outstanding potential. You have probably heard of Mr. Pigden already, possibly without even knowing his name. A quick Google will confirm how important this man was to Wright’s life.
Mr. Pigden died recently, quite a while after this beautifully uplifting and simultaneously heartbreaking video surfaced, when Wright was overcome with emotion thinking that Mr. Pigden had long-since passed.
It makes the Wright story all the more remarkable. And even if you choose to ignore Ian Wright the player’s infectious personality, the one full of ’90s on-pitch bluster, confidence and cheekiness, you are still left with a forward of supreme pedigree.
Wright added more silverware in 1994 with the addition of the European Cup Winners’ Cup – although he was suspended for Arsenal’s victory over Parma in the final – as he continued to score countless goals, quickly establishing himself as a living legend among supporters.
George Graham controversially departed the club in 1995, with Stewart Heuston taking caretaker charge before Bruce Rioch was permanently appointed. It did not go well.
Wright and Rioch argued to such a regular and mammoth extent that Wright handed in a transfer request and nearly signed for Chelsea. It’s just as well that Arsenal acted fast. The club removed Rioch – the man who signed Dennis Bergkamp – and replaced him with the “unknown” Arsene Wenger. It was a match made in heaven.
Wright was 33 when Wenger arrived in September 1996. He would go on to score 23 goals that season, developing a fantastic partnership with Bergkamp in the process, as the two reminisced about recently.
Wenger prolonged Wright’s career, improving all aspects of his game and it concluded nicely in 1998 with the capture of the Premier League and FA Cup double. Wright celebrated wildly on the Highbury pitch when collecting his Premier League winners medal, brandishing it to the camera while taunting his now good friend Roy Keane along the way. The pair had exchanged many a word on the pitch up to that point.
After Arsenal defeated Newcastle United in the FA Cup final, Wenger apologised to Wright for not bringing him off the bench. Wright found it a strange admission at the time. Nicolas Anelka had burst onto the scene earlier in the season, usurping Wright in the team. The Londoner had no issues with this: Anelka was the better player by that stage. However, when Wenger called Wright to a meeting that summer in Paris alongside Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein, he knew the writing was on the wall.
And so it was.
Over a tearful dinner in the French capital, it was decided that Wright’s career with Arsenal was over, right off the back of the double achievement and his first league title. West Ham United signed Wright that summer for half a million pounds and although he sprinkled moments of magic on the football world (including a debut goal for the Hammers at Sheffield Wednesday) the flames were burning out for the prolific striker.
Subsequent spells with Nottingham Forest, Celtic and Burnley followed before Wright called it a day in 2000. He has subsequently admitted that his passion had dissipated once he departed Arsenal. It was hardly surprising and certainly understandable.
Nevertheless, he was a man still in demand at the forefront of British pop culture, jumping straight from retirement to appearing in several light-entertainment TV shows as a co-host. In other words, a few sweet gigs. There was one problem, though: Wright hated it.
He was only interested in talking seriously about football, despite his genuinely extraverted and accommodating personality. When X-Factor asked him to host a spin-off show called This Is Your Moment, Wright took inspiration from the show’s title and finally walked away. It had been a long time coming. He was never comfortable with forced scripts and fake smiles. This was Ian Wright, he was simply too authentic to be restricted in the strange world of show business.
He has been involved almost solely in football since.
And that is the man. The man who could finish a half-chance like few others with a devastating concoction of power, finesse, timing, aggression and technique. The man who feared nobody after an adolescence full of rejection. The man who can’t stop smiling after fulfilling a lifetime’s dream when all seemed lost and by doing it all his own way, making thousands adore him en route. The man who is a hero to a generation.
As Mrs. Wright once said, “Many are called and few are chosen”. Indeed.