The diverging careers of Shaun and Bradley Wright-Phillips

The diverging careers of Shaun and Bradley Wright-Phillips

There is always a natural dynamic between siblings, but add the frisson of an adoptive father with pedigree and it becomes a heady brew.

Shaun Wright-Phillips was born in 1981 and adopted at the age of three by Ian Wright. His new legal guardian was struggling to make it as a professional footballer. Failed trials with Southend and Brighton led to a semi-pro contract with Greenwich Borough. Crystal Palace soon came calling in 1985; the same year that brother Bradley was born.

The two young boys found a doting father who was raised by his mother and an abusive stepfather. The brothers represented a novel spin on the nature versus nurture argument. Who would benefit most from the obvious ability of their father; the older adoptee or younger biological son?

Standing at five-foot-five, Shaun’s positional options seemed limited as he initially settled into a striker role. He began at the Nottingham Forest academy but was released aged 17 and joined Manchester City, making his league debut against Port Vale in October 1999 in the old Division One.

He appeared infrequently and it wasn’t until Kevin Keegan became manager in 2001 that he firmly established himself as a wing-back. He won six England under-21 caps, but there was an air of stagnation at Maine Road. This was the pre-Emirate era and City were fallen giants living in the past. Money from abroad would, however, eventually impact Shaun, with £21m of Roman Abramovich’s fortune taking him to Chelsea in the summer of 2005. 

Just as the Chelsea transfer happened, Bradley broke through at Manchester City as a conventional striker – much more in the classic mould of his father. However, the brothers experienced contrasting fortunes as Shaun won the Premier League and FA Cup with Chelsea. 

Meanwhile, Bradley struggled to find his feet at City, with 32 league appearances producing only two goals. He was eventually offloaded to Southampton, then languishing in the Championship. He was signed for a cut-price £500,000 deal; around 2.5% of the fee Chelsea paid for his brother. It proved to be a frustrating union as his strike rate was barely one goal in five games.

Original Series  |  Brothers in Arms

Shaun played sporadically at Chelsea, often falling victim to the moods of José Mourinho. But he was an England squad regular and wasn’t the first Chelsea player to find contentment in a supporting role. He won the first of 36 England caps against Ukraine in 2004, and played in the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.

Bradley’s international career stalled at five England under-20 appearances. After Southampton, he had short spells with Plymouth, Charlton and Brentford as he tumbled inexorably down the league pyramid.

Shaun returned to Manchester City for a brief sojourn in 2008, but first-team opportunities were limited following the arrival of David Silva. In 2011, he moved to Queens Park Rangers on transfer deadline day.

It appeared both players were limping in futility towards retirement, however two years later, Bradley found career salvation. He signed for the New York Red Bulls in 2013 and sampled the delights of Major League Soccer. In spite of its reputation as a rest home for semi-retired players, MLS is an environment free from the pressure of English football.

Bradley quickly became an MLS legend as he helped the Red Bulls to their first major title and became leading scorer in his first full season. His reputation was cemented by two further MLS golden boots and a place in the record books as the club’s all-time leading goalscorer. Bradley’s record of 108 goals in 195 appearances is an impressive haul, despite the perceived lower standard of football.

The brothers came full circle when Shaun joined Bradley in New Jersey in July 2015.  He enjoyed a dream debut, coming off the bench to provide an assist for his brother in a 3-1 victory over Philadelphia Union. After one season he moved on to NASL outfit Phoenix Rising, retiring in 2017.

Bradley might have fallen into the trap of a brother trying to emulate an older sibling, but he also had the pressure of an illustrious father casting a long shadow over his own career. Stateside he has found retribution, now leading the line for LAFC to become one of the competition’s greatest ever players.

Neither career might have gone fully as envisaged, but Shaun and Bradley Wright-Phillips ended up making Ian proud. In a world where blood is thicker than water, that’s surely far more tangible than any honour or record.

By Brian Penn

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