Although there’s plenty truth in the belief that the only sweeping generalisation that is ever completely true is that all sweeping generalisations are oversimplifications at best, there’s often at least a grain of a validity buried in them. After all, in the same vein, clichés are clichés for a reason. With that caveat, it is relatively safe to say that British players venturing abroad have tended to fall into one of three broad categories.
Firstly, there are the big-name moves; those who have long since made their names in the British game, finding fame and fortune on home soil, and who seek to cash in on their footballing celebrity status for a little time overseas. Over the years, this first category has had its pages filled by the likes of Beckham, Lineker, Gascoigne and, perhaps reaching farther back into the annals of the game, Greaves, Charles and Hitchens.
The second category often features the younger players, often stymied in pursuit of first-team opportunity and who look to bypass the log jam of imported stars by venturing abroad. Contemporary players such as Jadon Sancho and Ademola Lookman would fit into this category.
Then, however, there are the others, the outcasts, whose careers apparently veer off across unknown waters unexpectedly but who experience success that, for whatever reason, eluded them in the UK. The story of Bradley Wright-Phillips is a case in point and a sure fit into the latter category.
Whilst it’s often said that having a father with an established name in the game can be a leg up to an aspiring young player, and perhaps the same can be said for a successful sibling, having both may perhaps be a mixed blessing. Inevitable comparisons will arise, and when considered to be less than favourable, there’s a tendency for any perceived weakness to be exaggerated. Other than the absolute harshness of results, most things in football are about opinion, and when there’s an outside influence colouring such thoughts, it’s hard to fight against them and convince.
As with elder brother Shaun, Bradley began his career at Manchester City, and when he made his club debut from the bench against Middlesbrough in the 2004/05 season, it took him a mere four minutes to register his first goal. It was a start that seemed to herald the beginnings of a stellar career into the sky-blue yonder.
The remainder of that term, however, saw another 16 appearances without adding to his tally. The bright start had fizzled out into a damp squib. The following season, a further 23 appearances in blue brought just one more goal. City decided to cut their losses and took the £500,000 offered by Championship side Southampton. The £21m City received from Chelsea for elder brother Shaun put Bradley more than a little astray in the fraternal stakes.
After another debut goal, Bradley would again experience a period of the blues with the Saints, meanwhile his elder brother’s experiences wearing a shirt of the same colour continued to flourish. Twenty-one goals in 121 appearances for Southampton was hardly eye-poppingly successful, and some unsavoury news about brushes with the law would hardly have helped. Moves followed to Plymouth and Charlton, then a loan at Brentford. It reads like a career in decline, and so it seemed.
In the summer of 2013, however, a player then in his mid-20s, seeking a fresh start and opportunity, seized on an offer from the country that enthusiastically portrays itself as the land of such things. Bradley Wright-Phillips crossed the Atlantic to take a bite out of the Big Apple and found a new home in New York with the Red Bulls, playing in Major League Soccer.
At the time, the club’s recruitment policy appeared to have a theme of going for the less celebrated siblings of a more famous brother. John Rooney, younger brother of Wayne, was on their roster, as was the Brazilian Digão, sibling of Kaká. The signing of Wright-Phillips appeared to be bang on message.
He joined just as the 2013 term was running to its conclusion, but still contributed to the Red Bulls securing the Supporters’ Shield as the club with the best regular-season record. If his early successes with Manchester City and Southampton had failed to be anything other than flattering to deceive, this would be a very different experience.
In the new season, donned with the strange but distinctive number 99 shirt, the younger Wright-Phillips struck out for glory of his own. The following five seasons would mark him out as a record-breaking goalscorer, securing legend status in MLS.
His first full term saw the Red Bulls go all the way to the Eastern Conference Final before falling to New England Revolution. On the way there, Wright-Phillips would create a revolution of his own. A tally of 31 goals in just 37 games was a remarkable return for a rookie and saw him break the Red Bulls record for goals scored in a single season. He only missed out on a place in the second leg of the final of the playoffs thanks to a less than judicious yellow card blotting his copybook, but there was much more recognition to come.
His goals saw the MLS Golden Boot delivered and inclusion in the MLS Best XI selection. The MLS All-Star team followed. Unsurprisingly, the Red Bulls also recognised him as their MVP and he won the euphoniously-named Castrol Index Top MLS Player award. The player who had largely flopped in England had quickly achieved superstar status.
Awards and records tumbled as the Wright-Phillips goalscoring machine clicked into high gear – and stayed there. Across the years, until the end of 2018, he would net 124 goals in 210 games. In July 2018, his winning goal in the 1-0 victory over DC United took his tally to the century mark. It wasn’t the first time any MLS player had achieved the distinction, but Wright-Phillips had got to the three figures mark in 16 fewer games than any previous centurion.
At the time, there was talk of a special dispensation for a change of number on his shirt for the next game, incrementing it by one. In the end, the idea was binned, but the Red Bulls administration announced that, when the forward left the club, the 99 shirt would be retired in his honour.
At a franchise – across its various guises – with a history of star players such as Thierry Henry, Youri Djorkaeff, Lothar Matthäus and Juan Pablo Ángel, it’s perhaps an even greater tribute to the success that the reformed striker enjoyed that he is lauded by the fans above them. Indeed, it was Ángel’s season scoring record that Wright-Phillips surpassed in his debut campaign.
There’s little publicly known about the intensity or otherwise of the rivalry between the two Wright-Phillips brothers, but for much of his time playing in England, it would be easy to understand any feelings of inferiority that Bradley may have felt compelled to experience, sitting in the shadow of his elder brother’s success.
In 2015, however, there was some measure of levelling things up. With Bradley already established as a superstar with the Red Bulls, the club engaged in that fraternal pursuit again, securing the services of Shaun. If there was any established order to upset – and it’s important to say that there’s no suggestion of animosity between the brothers – Shaun’s 12 games and a single strike couldn’t manage it.
Perhaps the story and success of Wright-Phillips would never come to eclipse the celebrity status of some British players who have succeeded overs seas playing for big-name European clubs. For all that, though, ask any Red Bulls fan about Bradley Wright-Phillips, and his success in the USA will be told with as much passion and vigour as any tales of Beckham or Sancho. In the land of opportunity, the player who had struggled and laboured without much success in the UK found his home and unequivocally triumphed as a Brit abroad.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze