From a rough upbringing on a south east London estate to breaking records, Ian Wright’s career as a footballing legend has never strayed too far from home…
Words: Frank Grice
With the modern game of football inarguably a global phenomenon, the English Premier League sees players from every far-flung corner of the Earth pitching up to try their hand in the spiritual home of the beautiful game.
Yet as this international marketplace ticks over to the tune of hundreds of millions every year, it can be easy to forget the struggles that young black players had to overcome when trying to break into the professional game mere decades ago.
Ian Wright was one such player who made his mark during that difficult time, part of a cadre of young black players at Crystal Palace who faced abuse on a weekly basis from both opposing players and the hostile terraces for nothing more than the colour of their skin.
But overcoming the hostility, Wright went on to become Palace’s post-war record goal scorer, before making the switch across London to break records at Arsenal as well. Having carved himself a successful career as a pundit since hanging up his boots, Wright has simply become synonymous with British football.
‘When I was at Palace we had myself, Mark Bright, John Salako, Andy Gray and Tony Finnegan who were the force that drove that team to the First Division,’ explains the 53-year-old. ‘Whatever some people thought of us, in the end they relied on us. That was also when Viv Anderson and Paul Ince were showing that black players weren’t just there to play on the wing. It was a time when attitudes were shifting.’
Wright will forever be considered a Palace legend – even going so far as being recently voted the Eagles’ Player of the Century – but his enduring love affair with football began on an estate in Brockley. ‘Everyone else had bikes, so a couple of us would get left on the estate sometimes,’
The Den could be confusing. The crowd would spend the whole game hurling out racial abuse at players, but they’d lift us to the front so we could see and they’d be stopping all the time to make sure we weren’t getting crushed
Wright recalls. ‘We’d play in the communal area where they had concrete poles that were meant to be for hanging washing, but made great goalposts. We’d play a game with no dribbling, just shooting from wherever the ball was. We’d play all day.’
His first experience of the professional game was also in the capital – at a place where the blood and thunder of English football has occasionally spilled over into violence: the home of Millwall FC. ‘I used to stay at my aunt’s in Deptford – that’s when I started to go see Millwall,’ Wright explains.
‘The Den could be confusing. The crowd would spend the whole game hurling out racial abuse at players, but they’d lift us to the front so we could see and they’d be stopping all the time to make sure we weren’t getting crushed.’
Thankfully for the young Wright, his years of experience playing Sunday morning football on the various estates of London had rendered him impervious to the kinds of abuse hurled at him when he ran out with Palace and, later, Arsenal. ‘Even the worst crowds at Football League matches couldn’t get near what used to happen playing on the Ferrier estate!’ Wright exclaims.
Wright, who was awarded MBE status soon after retiring in 2000, deserves his many accolades – a record-breaker through and through. Signing for Arsenal at 29, the London club paid £2.5 million for his services – a club record at the time that pales in comparison to the £42.5 million capture of Mesut Ozil that currently holds Arsenal’s transfer fee top spot.
He followed up his lethal stretch up front for Palace – where he hit 117 goals in 277 appearances – by being the Gunners’ top scorer for six seasons in a row. He ended his Arsenal career in 1998 with 185 goals in 288 appearances – a record he held until Thierry Henry broke it seven years later.
He is also quick to point out that, despite there being several examples of footballers seemingly bursting into the Premier League from apparent non-league obscurity, his path from Sunday morning to the top flight was unique. Players like Jamie Vardy – to use a recent example – were well-known to bigger clubs, and ‘probably the best non-league footballer’ at the time of his transfer to future underdog champions Leicester.
Wright, meanwhile, was a Sunday morning player when he was approached by Crystal Palace – skirting non-league football completely to go from amateur to the old Second Division and beyond.
The proud Londoner may have left his roots in the south of the city to win the Premier League with Arsenal, but one of his lasting recollections allies both Wright’s origins and the club where he would go on to achieve so much: making his first appearance as a Gunner in 1991 alongside his childhood friend from the south London estate he grew up on, David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle, who tragically died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma aged just 33.
‘It’s one of my favourite memories,’ Wright says. ‘David had just scored the first goal in a four-nil win – I got the other three. It was my greatest game in football. I’d hit the shot and he’d got the rebound. To be there with Rocky, both of us from Brockley and both of us on the score sheet…’ He pauses and smiles: ‘That was the perfect day.’