I became fully acquainted with Ian Wright on an occasion of rare terror. He was still playing for Crystal Palace, and it was the 1990 FA Cup Final against Manchester United. United were the favourites, but Wright – a second-half substitute – didn’t much seem to care about the odds against his team. Instead, he subjected his opponents and their fans to a thoroughly unpleasant afternoon, during which he scored two wonderful goals and threatened to claim the trophy for the south London club. United would eventually prevail after a replay, but I paid very close attention to Wright after that.
Really, I just couldn’t believe how good he was. Or, more accurately, I could believe it – I just couldn’t believe that the very biggest foreign clubs were not going crazy for his signature. Don’t get me wrong – Wright got plenty of praise within the UK. Yet it was always as if his talents were mostly celebrated in a purely English context. You rarely heard the international press raving about him, yet I have always felt that he had the guile and speed to be decisive on any stage.
Maybe Wright didn’t get his full due because he came to professional football later than most: after all, he didn’t turn up at Arsenal till his late twenties. Crucially, his peak also narrowly preceded the Premier League’s most visible years; had he come to prominence just a few seasons later, there is no question in my mind that he would have been a truly global celebrity, and not primarily a national treasure.
He was a little unfortunate, too, that Arsenal had another iconic forward so soon after him. There are very few strikers who could ever compete with Wright for a supporter’s affection, but Thierry Henry is certainly one of them; and it is only a shame that Henry broke Wright’s club goalscoring record so quickly. (Of course, had Wright arrived at Arsenal a little sooner, that record might well have been out of sight.)
But we can talk all week about what Wright was denied. What was undeniable was the quality of his marksmanship. There’s a YouTube compilation, “Born To Finish”, which shows the full range of his magnificence; he was lethal with his left and right, and could either find room in the busiest penalty area or gallop away from the quickest of centre-halves in an instant. The striker who comes closest to both his style and his routine ruthlessness in the current era is probably David Villa, another man who took surprisingly long to come to prominence.
It is still a mystery how Ian Wright was overlooked for so long. In Rocky & Wrighty: From Brockley to the Big Time, he recalls how his childhood friend David Rocastle – with whom Wright would go on to play one season at Arsenal – tried to reassure him that he was good enough, that his obvious talent had somehow been neglected. “They’ve made a mistake”, Rocastle repeatedly told him. In the same documentary, Crystal Palace’s Steve Coppell is similarly amazed that so many clubs passed on him. World-class talents simply aren’t found kicking their heels in non-league football. If you stumbled across a Cezanne at your local pawn shop, you’d swear blind it was a fake.
Perhaps – to air a silly theory for a moment – another reason Wright was so long ignored because as a person he seems so normal, so everyday. Even now, he doesn’t appear to carry himself with the air of someone who thinks himself too important – he could easily be one of my louder uncles, or that guy who accidentally spills your pint at the bar and makes up for it by buying a round for all your friends. He’s the Superman who never needed a disguise; after performing his customary acts of heroism, he walked unmasked and flat-capped back into civilian life. And we’re not used to that, because most of our sporting icons, even the friendliest ones, have an air of remoteness. If you got chatting to Rafael Nadal on the Tube, you get the impression that there’d be a moment when he’d politely make his excuses and return to his paper. If you got chatting to Ian Wright on the train, you could imagine bringing him home for a Sunday roast.
Years later, Wright still has us fooled. After football training one evening, I was discussing his career with a friend, who remarked that he did not think Wright had been an especially quick sprinter. My God, I said, he blew people away. He was basically Luis Suarez with even better finishing. Maybe that’s his fate – to be underestimated at first, and then, once you truly reflect on what he achieved, to leave you aghast.