As Dennis Bergkamp gently swept the ball between the Bolton backline, Ian Wright strode into the shrinking space with devilish intent. Taking a single touch to steady himself, Wright lashed the ball with his right instep, sending it over the despairing slide of the retreating defender and beyond the desperate dive of the goalkeeper; rasping his shot into the inner side-netting of the goal. Gripped with ecstacy and relief, Wright couldn’t help but tear off his Arsenal jersey, revealing beneath it a vest emblazoned with an emphatic, Nike-sponsored declaration of his own record-breaking prolificacy: ‘179 — Just done it.’
The truth was, that particular goal was actually goal number 178 for Arsenal, a record-matching tally. The timing of Wright’s grand celebration was uncharacteristically askew. Cliff Basten’s long-standing club record wasn’t to be bettered yet. That was until five minutes later, when Wright added his trusted finishing touch to another flowing counter, tucking the ball into an empty net to gift his team the lead, and his vest was rightly revealed once more; his shirt pulled over his face, arms outstretched, as he jogged joyously down the touchline. That strike was his 179th goal for Arsenal, the goal that made him Arsenal’s all-time greatest goalscorer, certifying his place at the table of the finest forwards of his generation and finally assuring a level of reverence that had been a long time in the making.
It seemed for some time as though a professional career in football was destined to evade Ian Wright. Aged 21, having already taken more rejections than he could bear to remember, changed by a two-week spell in HM Prison Chelmsford for non-payment of driving fines, holding down a steady job at Greenwich’s Tunnel Refineries and with a wife and two young children to provide for, Wright had turned his back on his dream of becoming a professional footballer and welcomed a new, much simpler one: the dream of being a good, honest, hard-working father.
That was to be Wright’s legacy until Crystal Palace scout Peter Prentice spotted the forward playing weekends for semi-professional side Greenwich Borough, tipped off by Dulwich Hamlet manager Billy Smith that a player of his ilk belonged far away from the level he was currently playing. Wright took some convincing even to attend the trial offered by manager Steve Coppell. He had long since resigned himself to a life without a place in the professional game and couldn’t face hearing yet another ‘no’ from yet another club. But, eventually, he was won over by a friend from an old club.
“You don’t want to get to your old age and think that you could have had an opportunity to be a footballer and you didn’t take it.” That was the wisdom imparted to him by Tony Davis, his old friend and coach from his Ten-Em-Bee days in Sunday League, as recounted by Wright to The Players’ Tribune in 2018.
So Wright begrudgingly acquiesced; he trialled for Palace and, within a handful of games, he’d earned himself a full-time contract. Three months short of his 22nd birthday, he could finally call himself a professional footballer. “When I called my mum from Steve’s office and told her, she burst into tears on the phone. I think I did too.” His lifelong dream revived, Wright swiftly set about making up for lost time.
Beginning his tremendous tenure with the Eagles during the 1985/86 season, Wright made the immeasurable leap from the streets of south London to the top tier of English football seem as though it were a mere matter of formality. During his six and a half years there, he plundered three figures of league goals and then some, in the process of forming a formidable striking partnership with Mark Bright. They would provide the firepower to Palace’s ascent into the First Division.
Wright won an unlikely fitness battle against a twice-cracked tibia to return in time to make a substitute appearance during his team’s FA Cup final against Manchester United and bag a brace in the 3-3 draw, and performed sufficiently to, some years later, receive the honour of Crystal Palace fans’ Player of the Century.
Thus, when the Gunners parted with £2.5m in return for his services early in the 1991/92 season, they acquired for themselves a natural-born striker of the likes they could only have prayed for. North of the Thames for the first time in his career, Wright took no time at all to settle and picked up exactly where he left off at Palace.
More than simply fulfilling his goalscoring duties, Wright’s inherent verve, his offensive impetus and their subsequent impact signalled a seachange at Arsenal which laid the foundations for a style of play that would ultimately define an era. In the words of writer Christopher Weir: “North London had grown accustomed to stout defensive performances, where organisation and attrition were efficient to win results. Wright was an injection of pure energy, a chimaera of restless brio whose ability to score from anywhere brought beautiful chaos to the Arsenal attack.”
Wright’s formal debut for the club brought with it a customary goal, away to Leicester in the anachronistically-named Rumbelows Cup, before his first league appearance in Arsenal colours – on this particular occasion, the unforgettable Bruised Banana strip of Adidas’ making – was to be crowned with an emphatic hat-trick in a 4-0 thumping of Southampton at The Dell. From that day on, the goals, and that ebullient, single gold-toothed grin that would follow each and every one of them, seemed never to relent. On the final day of the season, Wright conspired to put another hat-trick past Southampton and snatch the league’s Golden Boot from under Gary Lineker’s nose.
Wright’s goals yielded success not only on home soil – vital in their conquests of both league and cup – but abroad too; playing the part of Arsenal’s joint-top goalscorer in the Cup Winners’ Cup as he led the Gunners to the tournament’s showpiece in Copenhagen. He missed the final itself, suspended and forced to spectate, but his teammates completed the job with a 1-0 victory over Parma. Wright added a continental title to his burgeoning collection of medals.
Beyond his regularity in front of goal, the vast and varied nature of Wright’s goalscoring feats contributed enormously to helping him stand out against a Premier League backdrop littered with striking prowess. Some hang up their boots having been heralded as great goalscorers, some, opposingly, scorers of great goals. Wright was both.
He could, and routinely did, scamper in behind a defence and thump the ball with his first touch beyond an ill-prepared goalkeeper. With the sharpened sense of perception required to recognise such opportunities, the audacity to attempt and the skill to execute, Wright would spot a goalie just a yard too far from his line and scoop, lob, chip and dink balls over them as though it were simply amusing, something to do to pass the time, each one almost – but not quite – imploring the beaten keepers to learn from their foolhardiness. When bearing down on a goalkeeper, forging for himself a one-on-one situation, there were few players whose perception and technique you’d trust over Wright’s.
Following Dennis Bergkamp’s arrival in north London in the summer of ‘95, Wright quickly developed an intuitive on-field understanding with the Dutchman, and this chemistry only grew under the tutelage of Arsène Wenger, who joined the club the following year. By the 1997/98 season, the two appeared to have been playing together their whole careers and proved instrumental in collecting a historic league and cup double in their French manager’s first full season at Highbury. At the age of 34, Wright finally had the top division title his record-breaking exploits deserved.
That remarkable crowning season would prove to be Wright’s swansong in north London, as Wenger declared himself keen to move ageing players on to afford sufficient room to those waiting in the wings. After 185 goals in 288 games, fleeting spells with West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Celtic and Burnley stood between Wright and the conclusion of his stellar career.
Though the international stage came only to know him in transient glimpses and glances – an enduring regret deservedly felt more by those who failed to recognise Wright’s unique capabilities than by the player himself – the whole of English football was fortunate to have become intimately familiar with both Ian Wright the footballer and Ian Wright the man. From the concrete estates of south London to the summit of the Premier League, Wrighty’s is a name that, while it may belong to the 90s, shall never be forgotten.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp