The Cardinal of Candor— Ian Wright—talks frankly about racism on the pitch and the interloper owner who’s ruining Arsenal.
By Patrick Barclay : Photographs by Jason Bell
Originally published in Eight By Eight magazine
Football is a game of bullshit. It is a game of many things, of course, but bullshit is one of its growth industries. Manufacturers who tell you their shirts breathe, administrators who work “for the good of the game,” coaches who blame the referee for failures uncomfortably close to home—do they imagine we cannot see through such threadbare wool? And know-it-all pundits who are too clever to coach: If Ian Wright did not exist, he would have to be invented, if only as an antidote to their cozy camaraderie.
But Wright does exist, and we like him, I think, because he cuts through the bullshit. On the pitch, despite his rare gift for finishing, he played the game with the almost naive passion of a fan—for Crystal Palace and Arsenal mainly and, on 33 occasions, for England—and he brings that same approach to punditry. He talks straight, and pauses, and shakes his head, and has mood swings. Usually he’s pretty cheerful.
Twenty years ago, he bore that cheerfulness straight into a trap. At least that was how it seemed to the Football Association, a few days before Wright made one of his last international appearances, starring in the 0-0 draw in Italy that saw Glenn Hoddle’s England through to the 1998 World Cup finals. Asked by journalists what he would do to secure a positive result in Rome, he implied: just about anything.
He would maybe take a little dive. He would cheat, as Diego Maradona had done when the Hand of God knocked England out of the 1986 tournament. That was how much Wright wanted his country to succeed. We eagerly scribbled his words down. What a definition of football patriotism they seemed. And how refreshingly honest—the quality with which, after retirement, he would regale television audiences. But the FA didn’t like it, partly because the English have always thought of themselves as, well, not Argentine. But also maybe because Hoddle didn’t want to give the referee in Rome any excuse to deny England a helpful decision.
At any rate, the interview finished and the FA official who had been with Wright went away and conferred and came back with a request for the journalists. Would they kindly not use that stuff about cheating? It would be appreciated. The journalists had a vote and—amazingly, you might think, or maybe pathetically—there was a majority for complying. Wright knew nothing about it. Twenty years on, free of such censorship, he was happy to reiterate: “If I had to fall in the box to get England to a World Cup, I’d do it.”
It was “frustrating” that anyone would think otherwise, he added. It would certainly fly in the face of the rags-to-riches story he tells with such sensitivity and candor in his entertaining autobiography, Ian Wright: A Life in Football, published last year. He stresses that his career was shaped by its late start. He grew up on a south London council estate—father left when he was a toddler, stepfather was a bully, mother drank super-strength beer to escape—and left school early, doing various kinds of manual work and playing football in public parks.
Trials at Millwall and Brighton and Hove Albion came to nothing. It was not until he was 21, playing Sunday mornings for a team called Ten Em Bee, when a Palace scout approached. Two weeks later he was a professional footballer. “I found it baffling,” he said of some of the players on the reserves—young men who, by his standards, had had it easy. “They weren’t working on their game at all. Having literally come off the building site, I found it difficult to deal with. Because I believed I was on borrowed time.” He never stopped behaving like that. Even when he’d reached the pinnacle of the English game and become the holder of Arsenal’s goal-scoring record—an honor he later passed to Thierry Henry—a certain rawness was his defining feature.
So when, at the age of 33, he was preparing to crown it all with World Cup qualification, it seemed natural to ignore scruples. “When you’re talking about someone who came into the game so late, it’s a question of perpetually catching up. Here I was, with the chance of playing for England on the world stage. At the time I would have done anything. It’s like those films when you’re offered the chance to sell your soul for a certain thing. To play in a World Cup and the devil gets your soul—I’ll take that scenario. Because I’d done everything else in respect of honing my ability to be the best. I’d learned how to make runs, made sure I kept up my pace, made sure I could use my left foot, and developed the intelligence to play with great players like Dennis Bergkamp.”
Even that wasn’t enough because, after being told by Hoddle he would be in the World Cup squad, he suffered a hamstring injury. “I just thought to myself—I couldn’t do any more. And this is what I try to tell people. If you’ve done all you can, it’s out of your hands. You can look in the mirror.”
This would be sweet music to the manager who brought Wright to Arsenal. That George Graham did not want to pay the full £2.5 million demanded by Palace in 1991 was probably down to a Scotsman’s thrift more than anything, but the story goes that David Dein, then Arsenal’s influential vice chairman, quietly topped up Graham’s offer. At any rate Wright joined a bunch of similarly driven men, notably Tony Adams’s back four, in winning both domestic cups in 1993 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup a year later. Then Graham was sacked after receiving illicit payments. The cups aside, he had made Arsenal champions twice before Wright arrived. But there is no statue of Graham outside the Emirates Stadium.
“What is frustrating”—Wright uses that word a lot—“is when you hear foreign players, like Bacary Sagna and Lukas Podolski, saying the team should be grateful to have Arsène Wenger. As if there was no Arsenal before him. Yes, he changed the club like no manager since Herbert Chapman but, although there’s rightly a statue of Chapman, and great players like Tony and Thierry, no George Graham. The team Arsène inherited from him—come on, man. No wonder Arsène did what he did.” Chapman brought the English title to the South for the first time in 1930–31.
What Wenger did was win two League-and-Cup doubles in a magnificent first decade. “In the relatively short time I had with him,” Wright says, “his management style worked, because we were a self-motivating dressing room. Manchester United had developed that too, under Sir Alex Ferguson. I admired them so much, to the point of jealousy. Because of their mental strength. People talked about them rescuing matches in ‘Fergie time.’ But it was the players and their refusal to lose. We had that. We broke their monopoly on that for a while.” So did the Wenger-built Invincibles of 2003–04. “Just to be in that fight—it was fucking unbelievable. And I’m looking at certain players now, and I don’t know if they want to be in a fight.”
Since the Invincibles broke up, the flow of trophies has become a relative trickle—however welcome—of FA Cups, the most recent being celebrated after victory over Chelsea at Wembley in May. “But it’s not the club I signed for, the club where I joined my mate David Rocastle. One night we sat up until 4 or 5 in the morning talking about how great a club Arsenal was. I loved the club from that moment—to this day. And Rocky must be turning in his grave, seeing what has gone on.” (Rocastle died of cancer at 33 in 2001.)
Wright still respects Wenger—“the Boss”—but he is, and has been for longer than most, firmly of the belief that good things come to an end. He blames Colorado-based owner Stan Kroenke. “There’s just no accountability at the club,” he says. “From the Boss to the board. Or from the players to the Boss. That’s because there’s no leadership from upstairs. I’m not going to blame the manager. I love him. But I believe his style of management—no shouting, no flying teacups, no hairdryers—isn’t working with these players, who are very different from us. For a number of years, it seems to me, they have taken his kindness for weakness. These are the sort of players he has signed, and what hurts is the comparison with Tottenham. If you looked at Spurs last season, dragging victory from the jaws of defeat at Swansea and other places—that’s what Arsenal fans would like to see our team doing again.” Although an image of Mesut Özil loomed, Wright insisted that he would have loved to play with such a silky passer.
After relegation, in effect, from the familiar territory of the Champions League to the Europa, hopes are not high for the two years of Wenger’s new contract. “But it’s Kroenke,” Wright says, “who has to go. Someone has to buy him out. With all due respect to him, if it’s about money, he paid £250 million for the club, and I’m sure he can make a profit of £750 million—easy. Take the money and go.” Wright was speaking just before the Uzbek-based Russian shareholder Alisher Usmanov offered precisely that amount: £1 billion. Kroenke dismissed it amid suggestions—received icily by many Emirates regulars—that he sees the club as a family heirloom in the making.
“What we want,” Wright says, “is a team who can at least challenge for the Premier League and Champions League. That’s what the fans want, but as long as Kroenke is in charge, it won’t happen. So we’ve got to get used to the idea of Spurs challenging instead. Because their players are more hungry, their manager is hungry and the club is progressing.” And at Arsenal nothing will change. “It’s such a shame because, the way things have panned out, the Boss is like a boxer who can’t do it anymore—and there’s no one to throw his towel in.”
Wright has always had a turn of phrase, even though he was 8 before he could read or write properly. In his book (dedicated to “Mr. Pigden,” a teacher who also taught him the rudiments of football), he speaks of skinheads who would lie in wait to beat up black and white kids alike as “equal opportunity thugs.”
Wright’s aversion to political correctness dates from childhood and in particular his first experience of watching football at Cold Blow Lane, the notorious former ground of Millwall in the docklands of East London. “It was strange because at Millwall the little kids would get passed down to the front of the terracing and, if it got packed in there, they’d hand you back over the heads of the crowd. The men might be shouting racist stuff at the visiting players, but they’d be looking after me and my mate. So why should we hold anything against these old dockers? How am I supposed to say they hated us? Yeah, they’d shout things at players—but they’d shout at a player who had a big nose, or ginger hair, or a bald head.” This is not a fashionable thing to say. “So what am I supposed to do?” Wright asks. “Deny my childhood?”
He also refused to join in the outrage when John Terry, cleared by a court of racially abusing the Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand during a match in October 2011, was banned for four matches and heavily fined by the FA, which cast doubt on his defense that he had used the words “black cunt” merely in denying a mistaken accusation from Ferdinand. According to Wright: “It was uncomfortable. But I speak to Shaun,” referring to his son, Shaun Wright-Phillips, a former teammate of Terry, “and he will not hear a bad word about John Terry. Also, when you look at the incident you can see that he’s asking, ‘What are you talking about?’ It’s in that way. It was a terrible episode. I can’t take all that outrage stuff. It doesn’t help anybody.”
“These organizations like Kick It Out, they talk and they give out T-shirts but they don’t do anything,” Wright continues. “A fire starts and everyone is outraged, and they put the fire out and everything is ok, we move forward. And then the fire breaks out again. They don’t really deal with it. When I was on the football pitch, in my younger days, I got it, aggressive, in my face. And when I went to Leeds with Palace it was ‘Shoot the nigger.’ But the fans at Leeds stopped it. White people. They changed. And these are the people we should be going to if we want to kick racism out. They should be involved. Because they did it.’’
What Wright did, when he retired from playing, was natural. He was made for television and a national chat show, Friday Night’s All Wright, ran for two seasons. He met the likes of Denzel Washington and Will Smith and loved it. But other shows were less well received. I’ll Do Anything? The clue, for Wright’s growing band of detractors, was in the title. Wright had been lured in by the “brilliant” concept. “Say a guy wants to play with a big band. His wife hates spiders, but she’s willing to sit for an hour, with no shoes, in a room full of spiders to make his dream come true. But in the end they started to do silly things.”
Not as silly as the show to which Wright’s agents directed him next. “I’m sitting between Melinda Messenger and Kate Walsh. And Melinda says to Ricky Gervais, ‘So, if you had to pick between me and Kate, who would you take?’ And I realized this—stuck between two idiots who will do anything to get on television—was where I had to draw the line.”
With relief he went back to football. And now, instead of forcing a smile at bores, he’s back from the U.S., adopted home of his sons Shaun and Bradley, where he was cutting through the bullshit while he helped Fox Sports cover the Concacaf Gold Cup.
We, who get fed plenty of bullshit these days, are glad to have him.
This article originally appeared in issue 11 of Eight by Eight, a quarterly magazine fusing long-form football writing with high quality illustration, photography and design. Learn more about the current issue here, and follow Eight by Eight on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.