If Ian Wright had a dictionary entry it would surely just say ‘goalscorer’. His greatest talent was putting the ball in the net. Wrighty could bang them in from anywhere. From empty net tap-ins to exhibitionist 30-yard chips, he executed them all perfectly, and always had a celebration to match.
His late start in professional football is well known, but in his early 20s he became a regular for Crystal Palace, forming a partnership with Mark Bright and helping them to promotion with 44 goals in two seasons. After two broken legs, scoring twice in the 1990 FA Cup final and winning his first England caps, Wrighty arrived at Arsenal for £2.5 million in September 1991. He was nervous about the challenge but quickly set the tone by scoring in his first game – a precision shot from the edge of the box into the corner away at Leicester in the Rumbelows (League) Cup – and netting a hat trick on his Arsenal league debut away at Southampton. He also scored on his home debut against Chelsea and the second leg against Leicester – six goals in four matches, in two weeks from joining the club! Has there been a better start to an Arsenal career?
His first season saw 24 Arsenal strikes, with 25 the following year, including two more FA Cup final goals. It took only another four years for Wrighty to approach the Arsenal goalscoring record. The drama seemed to affect him, and he was stuck one below Cliff Bastin’s total of 178 for an uncharacteristically long time. It was a relief for all of us when the record finally went. The tenth hat-trick of Wright’s Arsenal career finished off Bolton in a 4-1 win at Highbury. After his first – and record-equalling – goal, he removed his shirt to reveal a vest with the legend ‘179 Just Done It’, and had to confess later that he’d lost count in the excitement. Thankfully the real record breaker arrived just a few minutes later.
For all his ebullience and crowd pleasing there was a darker side to Ian Wright. Ten suspensions in his first six seasons, including missing the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Copenhagen in 1994, exasperated both fans and management. George Graham was not one to suffer indiscipline, but recognised Wright’s value. Later Wrighty’s feud with Peter Schmeichel, with allegations of racism and studs-up challenges, seemed unnecessary, and only detracted from the good things in his game.
Always volatile, Wrighty fell out with Bruce Rioch and might have left Arsenal if Rioch hadn’t. He got as far as handing in a transfer request. Arsène Wenger handled him better, but Wright constantly sought the limelight and was never going to be happy if not first choice. I was disappointed he didn’t stay for the Champions League campaign after completing his set of domestic medals in 1998, but he saw the writing on the wall and walked away leaving us wanting more. To be truthful, the team had become too dependent on him and it was only the arrival of Bergkamp and then Arsène Wenger’s early signings that upped the quality around him to the level it had been when he signed.
At international level Wright’s career was a little underwhelming for a goalscorer who was so prodigious at club level. He was unfortunate not to get more of a run in the team, but at the time England were largely plagued with unimaginative managers like Graham Taylor, a man whose idea of tactics seemed to be to select a team that would bore the opposition to death. Do I not like that. He played sporadically at international level for several years, missing out on the national team’s best moment in that period, Euro ’96, when Terry Venables settled on a Shearer and Sheringham front line, backed up by Les Ferdinand and Robbie Fowler.
I met Ian Wright once during his Arsenal career. On Wednesday April 27, 1994, I exited Lancaster Gate tube station in West London on my way home from work. Strolling past outside were Ian Wright and Kevin Campbell, both smartly dressed in club blazers. Arsenal were playing away to QPR that evening and I guess the players were rendezvousing at the Lancaster Gate Hotel, directly above the station (film fans may know the hotel as the one Michael Caine goes to on his release from prison at the start of the original Italian Job movie). I shook Wrighty’s hand, told him it was a pleasure to meet him and wished him luck in the match. Unfortunately I didn’t bring him any luck, because he didn’t manage a goal that night. Arsenal scraped a 1-1 draw with a Paul Merson shot that went in off the bar, after conceding just three minutes in to the game.
Another off-field moment that will live long in the memories of those there was Wrighty hanging out of the window of the dressing room in the old Highbury East Stand above Avenell Road after winning the League in 1998. He often made that window his pulpit, throwing his kit out after breaking the goalscoring record, regularly shouting messages to fans and even baring his backside at them. Shy he was not.
Wright’s goals came in all varieties: left foot, right foot, headers, chips, volleys, lobs, tap-ins, blasters, carefully placed passes into the net; he could do it all instinctively. He had tremendous pace and could outrun any defender with the ball at his feet or not. Very rarely did a keeper get the better of him in a one-on-one. They knew they had little chance and usually tried to stay on their feet as long as possible, and he almost invariably found the gap and passed it into a corner with little effort. He’s recently spoken in detail about how much he practised finishing with finesse, after his older brother goaded him as a teenager that he could only blast it.
He’d often twist and turn so quickly once in the penalty area that defenders didn’t even know where the goal was, then he’d slot the ball home as soon as the opening was right. For a man of 5 feet 8 he was also great in the air, fearless and determined. He was the greatest finisher I’d seen, and the most incredible thing is that he was succeeded by an equally great one in Thierry Henry. In front of goal the two had very similar styles and strengths, though Henry had the edge on all-round talent.
Ian Wright knew he was lucky to have got a chance in League football at all. He was, and still is, grateful to have been given the opportunity at Arsenal to bang in the goals at top level for so long, given his late start in the professional game. Of course there was much more to Wright than pure finishing, but what everyone who saw him play will remember most is the ball hitting the net, Wrighty spinning away arms aloft, grin a mile wide, acknowledging his audience as 30,000 people bellowed the familiar chant: ‘Ian Wright, WRIGHT, WRIGHT!’
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