The time machine is taking another trip down memory lane and going back to the 1990’s for this week’s Highbury Hero. A massive Highbury favourite, who was one of the most popular players ever to play for The Arsenal. A phenomenal striker so passionate about the game who played his football on the edge. The man was so good we named him three times. It’s Ian Wright Wright Wright!
Ian was such a sensational striker who was born to score goals, Wright’s priceless ability to score was natural and instinctive. It was something that could not be taught, either you had it or you did not and Wrighty most definitely had a gift for it. He just lived for putting the ball in the back of the net. Paul Merson said that even in training if he scored he would celebrate as if it was the World Cup Final.
He loved playing right up on the defenders shoulder. Just waiting for that one mistake, that one moment of hesitation and Wrighty would be away with his explosive pace he wouldn’t be caught.
Wrighty was a predator, a supreme goal scorer. He was the best out and out finisher I have ever seen at Highbury. I have never seen any Arsenal player who is better at that aspect of the game, and that includes Thierry Henry. While I think as an all-round player, Henry is superior, if I had to bet my life on any Arsenal player to score in a one on one with the keeper I would pick Wrighty ahead of anybody to score. He was so clinical, cool, calm and collected in that situation. He was an absolute master of that art. Scoring with aplomb from his vast repertoire of finishes, with his left foot, right foot or with his head.
I saw Ian speak at an event hosted by Amy Lawrence a few months ago in the City and he mentioned that one on one Thierry had in the Champions League Final against Barcelona in Paris. He said, “I’d like think I’d have scored in that situation” and I have no doubt that he would have done.
Wrighty was also brilliant at making penetrating runs. He would invariably make the right one, always seeming to know when to arrive at the right time and the right place to cause maximum damage to the opposition’s defence.
Another thing Wrighty used to do was wind up his opponents. Constantly in their ear saying to the likes of Des Walker “You’ll make one mistake and I’ll be there to punish you” and of course he did. Ian never gave defenders a minute’s peace.
He was so single minded and driven nothing would deter him. You could not intimidate him; he was fearless and aggressive as well. He was not the biggest of strikers at five feet nine inches, but Ian would not back down against anybody, no matter how much bigger they were. Peter Schmeichel was a good example of that!
Ian was a highly-strung character who could explode at any time on the pitch against the opposition, the referee and the other team’s fans. Sometimes all three in the same game! Leading to suspensions and fines. Some have said if only he did not react in that way he may have been better but for me he would not have been the same player if he did not have that edge to his game.
Wrighty was such a positive and bubbly personality, which had a great effect on the rest of the players in training and in the dressing room. He had great belief in himself and it rubbed off on the other Arsenal players. He was a larger than life character. An extrovert famous for his goal celebrations and always at the forefront of fashion off the pitch.
Patrick Vieira says in his book that when Arsene Wenger first joined Arsenal he could not believe it when Wrighty put the ghetto blaster on and started dancing to Michael Jackson in the dressing room after the game. He said to Patrick does he always do this to which Patrick replied “Yes and that happens after every game win or lose”. There was also the time he threw all the players kit out the dressing room windows at Highbury to the fans below, causing pandemonium, with the police having to ask him to stop it. The club made sure the windows would not open after that little escapade!
Born in Woolwich on the 3rd November 1963. He later lived on the same estate in Brockley as David Rocastle and they knew each other, but little did they know that one day they would end up playing together for The Arsenal. Rocky joined The Arsenal and had a meteoric rise to stardom, while Wrighty had a much more difficult path to stardom. He was rejected after a two month trail with Brighton and Hove Albion and ended up playing his football for top local amateur side Ten Em Bee and getting a job first as a labourer and then as a plasterer on building sites. His girlfriend was expecting and Ian was struggling to make ends meet. He failed to pay fines for driving with no tax, insurance or MOT and reached his lowest ebb when he spent five days in Chelmsford nick as a result of not paying the fines. He vowed then to change his ways and never to return to prison.
A Crystal Palace scout, playing in a final and scoring four goals at Dulwich Hamlet, spotted Ian and he was offered a two-week trail at Crystal Palace in the summer of 1985. Steve Coppell liked what he saw and gave Ian a three-month contract at £100 a week. At 21 years old Wrighty was finally given his first professional contract.
Ron Noades the Crystal Palace Chairman later told Ian a story after he had left Palace for Arsenal, about that first three months with The Eagles. Coppell said to Noades “There’s a kid at training who’s got all the tricks and can do great things, but he’ll never be a player.” then a few weeks later “The kid is still doing well and he does some great things, he might make a player.” Then at the end of the three months, Coppell said to Noades “This boy is unbelievable, he will definitely make it as a player.”
Wrighty then went on to form a lethal partnership with Mark Bright. They lit up the Second Division and won promotion to the top flight in 1988-89 through the play-offs, with Ian scoring twice in the second leg victory over Blackburn Rovers at Selhurst Park.
In his first season in the First Division Ian suffered two broken legs and after the second one, he had a race against time to be fit for the FA Cup Final. Steve Coppell put Ian on the bench for the final against Manchester United. With Palace 2-1 down Wrighty was called into action, making an immediate impact and scored to take the game to extra time, then scored again to put Palace 3-2 up, only for Mark Hughes to square the match 3-3.
Ian was on the bench again for the replay and it still hurts him to this day that he wasn’t in the starting line-up. Although he came on Palace lost 1-0. Paul Ince told Wrighty that Pallister and Bruce were relieved he wasn’t starting and It didn’t help matters when Ian found out later that Bobby Robson had said to Steve Coppell that had Ian started the game he’d have probably taken him to the 1990 World Cup.
In September 1991, Steve Coppell pulled Ian to one side before training started and said, “You’ve got to go and speak to Arsenal, and the club have accepted a bid”. Wrighty was at Highbury and he was ready to sign when a fax came through from Ron Noades saying if Ian didn’t relinquish all the signing-on fees he was owed for the rest of his contract, the deal was off and he’d have to go back to Palace. Wrighty turned to Ken Friar and said “Tell Ron he can stick his dough as far up his arse as he can, I’m not going back!” Ian was not going to let a few thousand quid get in the way of his dream move to Arsenal. He put pen to paper and the deal was done in two hours flat.
I remember watching the BBC news on the Monday night and it came up that Arsenal had signed Ian Wright for a club record fee of £2,500,000. I was delighted. Wright made his debut in the League Cup on the Wednesday against Leicester City, at Filbert Street and of course, he scored on his debut. On the Saturday, he made his full debut and scored a hat-trick, at the Dell against Southampton in a 4-0 win. George Graham said to Ian after the game that it was the best debut anybody had ever made for Arsenal. Wrighty had hit the ground running and the goals just kept coming!
Wrighty’s hat-trick debut at the Dell
Wrighty was on a roll, who could forget the four goals he scored against Everton at Highbury. He also scored in both games against Spurs that first season and the Arsenal fans adored him.
Ian scores four against Everton at Highbury
Ian had been in a race for the Golden Boot with Gary Lineker and it was nip and tuck, with Lineker one goal in front on the last day of the season. Wrighty scored a penalty but his rival scored in the 86th minute up at Old Trafford, then Wrighty scored twice more in the last few minutes to complete his hat-trick and pip Lineker to the Golden Boot. Wrighty was the last man to ever score in the old First Division. It was also David Rocastle’s last game for Arsenal and the last game before the North Bank terrace was bulldozed, which ripped the heart out of Highbury.
The last ever hat-trick in the First Division
In 1992-93 Ian won his first silverware at The Arsenal with the domestic cup double. He played against Sheffield Wednesday in both the League Cup and FA Cup Finals, against his old Palace team mate Mark Bright. He scored in the FA Cup Final and the replay, taking his tally to four FA Cup Final goals.
In 1993-94 he was so unlucky not to play in the Cup Winners Cup Final, when a yellow card in the Second Leg of the Semi-Final at Highbury ruled him. He scored in every game in the Cup Winners Cup the following season apart from the final, where we cruelly lost to that late Nayim goal against Real Zaragoza in Paris.
In 1995-96 Wrighty put in a transfer request, he later withdrew, as there was a clash of personalities with new manager Bruce Rioch. However, he soon formed a great understanding with new signing Dennis Bergkamp and still finished as top goal scorer at the club. In Arsene Wenger’s first season, Wrighty was again top scorer as he had been in all his six seasons at Arsenal. In his seventh and last season at the club in 1997-98. He broke Cliff Bastin’s Arsenal goal scoring record, which had stood for over 50 years. After scoring the first goal, he revealed a Nike vest under his Arsenal shirt, which read “179 Just done it”. He had to repeat the celebration as his first goal had only equalled Cliff’s record but he scored again to break the record and typically scored again for good measure to record his last ever hat-trick for The Arsenal.
Just done it!
Shortly after he sustained a hamstring injury and Anelka came in and kept Wrighty out the side for a lot of that league campaign. Although, he still made 24 appearances in the league and got a Title Winners medal and another FA Cup Winners as an unused substitute against Newcastle United in the final. I was disappointed Arsene Wenger did not bring him on for that game, as he must have known Wrighty’s time at The Arsenal was coming to an end, with Anelka coming through. It would have been a fitting stage for Wrighty to make his final appearance for The Arsenal.
His last goal for the club was against West Ham United on the 6th January 1998, at Upton Park in a League Cup Quarter Final tie, which Arsenal won 2-1 and his final appearance in an Arsenal shirt was on the 10th May 1998, in a 1-0 defeat against Aston Villa at Villa Park.
Ian left the club for West Ham United, then went to Nottingham Forest (on loan), Celtic, scoring on his debut for all three clubs and finished his career at Burnley, who he helped them win promotion to the First Division in 2000, before hanging up his boots at 36 years of age.
For England, it was a familiar story of an Arsenal player not getting the recognition they deserved. Just 33 caps, of which 16 of those were as a substitute, which may explain why he only scored nine times for England. He was very unfortunate not to play in a major tournament. In 1992, Graham Taylor did not pick him for the Euros, despite being the top scorer in English football. Terry Enables left him out of Euro 1996 and injury robbed of a place in Glenn Hoddle’s World Cup squad in 1998. Here is a thought. Had Steve Coppell started Ian in the 1990 FA Cup Final replay Bobby Robson admitted later he would probably have taken Wright to Italy, with England. It would not be too hard to imagine Wrighty coming on late in the game against a tiring German defence and being the hero by sticking in the winner to take us to the final. If that had happened, Ian would probably have ended up going to play in Italy like Gazza and David Platt instead of being an Arsenal legend.
Well England’s loss was Arsenal’s gain. Ian scored 185 goals in 288 games. When he signed for The Arsenal just 2 months short of his 28th birthday, I do not think any of us could believe he would break Cliff Bastin’s scoring record that had stood for over five decades. However, Wrighty did it in just seven seasons. Ian packed so much into those seven seasons; it was as if he was making up for lost time, after coming so late into the professional game.
These days Ian is a highly successful presenter and pundit on both television and radio. When I got the chance to meet him a few months back at that event in the City, he came across as a very warm and down to earth person, despite all the fame and fortune that has come his way. As I shook hands with him I told Ian what a pleasure it had been to watch him play for The Arsenal. He replied thanks; it was a pleasure to play for them. They say there are only two certainties in life, death and taxes, well Ian Wright going through on goal and scoring is as close as you are going to get to a third!
A brilliant compilation of some Wrighty’s goals
As always thanks for reading. Another Highbury Hero will be along next week.