“Playing against Ian Wright was an absolute nightmare. For any defender. You had to be on your toes all the time because he was constantly testing you. And if you’re not an Arsenal fan, you’re definitely an Ian Wright fan. Everyone loved him.”
These words from one of England’s best ever defenders, Rio Ferdinand, pretty much lift the curtain on just how good Ian Wright was. Who turned 60 yesterday, and almost a quarter of a century after his career ended, continues to enjoy divine status among Arsenal fans, where he undoubtedly left the most memorable legacy in professional football.
But really, Righty, as he is known at Albion, is loved by all – his own, foreign and neutral fans.
An incredible striker who started from childhood poverty in a Jamaican immigrant family, went through a difficult childhood and reached the highest level of professional sport.
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Born on November 3, 1963, Ian Edward Wright grew up without his biological father, but instead with a stepfather who bullied both him and his mother. For many teenagers in London in those years (and probably now), football proved to be a lifeline from all problems. But the future legend of the “gunners” does not live out one of those fairy tales in which his talent was noticed as a teenager. Even on the contrary.
After a long stint in the lower divisions – for semi-professional and frankly amateur teams – he managed to earn his first professional contract in 1985, already almost 22. At the time he was playing for Greenwich Borough and earning… £30 a week , but after only six or seven games he was recommended to Crystal Palace, from where he was invited for trials, and he did not disappoint.
In fact, before becoming a cult hero for his Arsenal compatriots, Ian Wright made his mark at Selhurst Park, where he failed to reach double figures in his first season alone (9), before hitting 118 goals in 277 games between 1985- and the 1992s.
The appearances for Palace made the whole of England aware of who Wright was, but he was left out of the Three Lions squad for the 1990 World Cup. However, he made his debut for his country a year later in 1991. and then Arsenal paid the Eagles £2.5m for his rights – a club record at the time.
Things are starting to happen at Highbury, because apart from scoring goals, he is also starting to win trophies. And just how much does Ian like to score goals? You can judge for yourself through the words of his teammate Paul Merson.
“He loved to score. Even when he scored a goal in training, his joy was as if he had scored in the last minute of an important game. He really comes into the big game quite late, so he really appreciated it,” says Merson.
In the Internet space, there is enough video evidence of exactly how the blade rejoices after an accurate shot.
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Arriving at Arsenal at 27, he was initially met with a pinch of doubt by the team’s fans, but instantly won them over. Scored on his League Cup debut against Leicester and three days later came a hat-trick against Southampton. A promising start, winning the Golden Boot in his debut season in a competition with Tottenham’s Gary Lineker – after a hat-trick in the last game of the season.
Wright was Arsenal’s top scorer for six consecutive seasons, and in 1997, again with a hat-trick, he dethroned Cliff Bastin as the club’s all-time top goalscorer.
And the tales of how dangerous he really was continue from another big figure – Martin Keown, with whom they were rivals during Ian’s years at Crystal Palace, but then team-mates at Arsenal.
“He could always change everything with one move. Guarding him was like walking a tightrope high in the air. You had to be on your toes because his skills allowed him to make you laugh with just one move,” says years later – the late defender.
Thierry Henry, who years later will remove the nine from the top of the London club’s top scorer list, is adamant that he fell in love with Arsenal precisely because of Ian Wright.
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The team’s long-serving left-back Nigel Winterburn describes him as a “ball of energy” and anyone who has played with him can openly state that he is a great character – or, in other words, scratchy.
Despite his fantastic performances at club level, he never made much of a mark for England, making just 33 appearances with 9 goals in them.
With Arsenal, he achieved success both locally and at the European level. He is the national champion, winning two Cups as well as triumphing in the Cup Winners’ Cup. He left the club in 1998, and later fans ranked him fourth in the list of the club’s greatest players.
Went through West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Celtic and Burnley before quitting – with 324 goals in 626 games at club level.
His sons Shaun Wright-Phillips and Bradley Wright-Phillips also play professional football, albeit far from his level, and now his grandson Di’Margio does too.
But the most famous person in football with the surname Wright remains him. Ian.
Who is 60 today, and even his opponents love him.
Photo: Getty Images/Gulliver Photos