“He was one of the youngest pilots in World War II. He was one of the pilots chosen to do the flyover at Buckingham Palace. I remember him saying he was more proud of the fact I played for England than him flying over Buckingham Palace. I love that man.”
Ian Wright, a man worth 15 million pounds these days, said that and burst into the tears. He was talking about Sydney Pigden, his primary school teacher, and “the first positive figure in his life“.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, after being left by his father as a baby, just wanted an escape. Escape from poverty, abuse, turbulent life, and poor results in school. His mother was an alcoholic, and after he got a stepfather in his life – things only got worse.
“He was a weed-smoking, gambling, coming-home-late kind of guy. I don’t know why, but he didn’t like me in particular.“
For some reason, stepfather picked on him. When they went shopping, all of his brothers and his sister got new clothes, but Ian would never get anything. When they came home, he took the only thing that brought joy to young Ian from him. Football.
They lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and when Match of the Day came on, his stepdad forced him to look the other way. It was purely sadistic. He knew that football was the only escape from the harsh reality Ian had.
“We had to face the wall the whole time Match of the Day was on. And the really cruel thing was that we could still hear everything. It was awful. I would cry myself to sleep whenever he did it.“
Sometimes he just had to burst into tears when that happened, and his stepdad would then begin a tirade. Stop crying. Right now. His mom had her issues, mainly with her alcohol addiction, and didn’t even notice what is going on. Youngest male in the family didn’t get much love from the older brothers, too. They would tease him, choke-hold him, beat him.
“He was the first man who showed me any kind of love,” said Wright of his teacher, Sydney Pigden.
Ian was 8-years-old, and he could hardly read. He was bad at school, and always in detention. Not that he wasn’t smart. Bullied at home, and as a kid without any love given to him, he was simply out of place. Always angry, steaming, mainly not knowing why he was so furious.
One day Mister Pigden noticed a naughty boy and took him under his wing. He talked with him, encouraged him, and gave him a sense of purpose. His teacher made him a milk monitor and picked him to collect the registers from the teachers.
“It was really good. I just felt important“, remmembered Ian, years later.
Life of rejection
With no love from parents or family, a young boy from the South London streets found his first love very early. In the blocks of “Concrete Catalonia”, he fell in love with football. Streets that later gave us Jadon Sancho, Tammy Abraham, and Callum Hudson-Odoi, injected many kids with the eternal love of the game.
But Wright would spend as much time as he could kicking a tennis ball against a wall outside, in part to avoid being bullied by his stepbrother and, in particular, his stepfather.
He always played in the hood team and never lost, but it wasn’t down to him. His older brother Maurice was by far the best football player at their age, and Ian idolized him. But the love wasn’t there on the other side.
Maurice would tease him, but this had a positive impact on young Ian. When he scored with his right foot – Maurice would tell that he doesn’t have a left one. When he became two-footed his brother would say that Ian doesn’t know how to head a ball.
Most kids would just give up, or run away. Ian took it as a challenge and worked. All-day long, he would bounce tennis ball against the wall. Right leg, left leg, head. Day by day he would be better and better. At some point, he could do keepy-ups until he scored 600.
Technically he was great, and he had a killer mentality on the field. Fueled by anger, he wanted to destroy everyone. When he was losing – he would just get into the fight, he couldn’t bear it. Everyone told him how good he was, but in the real world – his stakes weren’t so high.
“Rejected by a mum, stepfather, older brother, little sister… Then you come out of the house and everybody talks about how good you are at football, but you get rejected by everybody you go for a trial for.”
He started to work as a laborer at 14-years-old and left home in search of some sort of calmness. A couple of years earlier, trials started. Leyton Orient, Charlton Athletic, Milwall… All of them rejected him for some reason. He was so good, but some thought his temper was bad, some thought he was too skinny, or too small.
Life of rejection has started to catch up with him, and he was getting in all sorts of trouble. His mother would play him down, saying that “many get called, a few get a chance” whenever he got on a new trial. He scored goals but didn’t get contracts. Only people that had trusted him those days were Mr. Pigden and his best friend David Rocastle.
David was a kid he grew up with, and a kid who was progressing through the ranks at Arsenal. Four years younger than him, he always told him that those players he trains with at Arsenal, are worse than him. That he can do it. But it wasn’t easy to persuade him.
After a bunch of failed trials, Wright had thoughts about quitting football, but then Brighton emerged with a six-week trial. As a 19-year old in autumn of 1983, he somehow got the money needed to go all the way to the south of England and try his luck. He’d been recommended to Albion boss Chris Cattlin by George Petchey.
He arrived in the club, and made his debut in Brighton colors on Tuesday 22nd November 1983, for reserves. The match was played against Swindon Town, and of course, he scored. It turned out to be a 1:1 draw.
Two days later, he played for the first team against Reading, and they won 4:1. His outings were impressive, but somehow, this turned out the be a real nightmare for a young man. Being on the far south of the country, he wanted to visit his family on his day off. He had a right to ask for the money to travel from the club, so he did that. And he ended up in tears, once again. In his heartbreaking article for Players Tribune, he described the situation.
“She was very nice about it, but it was clear to me that she was not in charge of expenses. She just said, “Yeah, O.K. Could you just wait here?”
So I waited. And waited.And waited. I sat there for five hours.
No books, no TV, no newspaper, no nothing. Just waiting. Waiting for something to happen. I felt totally powerless.”
He sat there for 5 hours, waiting for someone to notice him, to tell him anything. Nobody showed up until Brighton captain Steve Foster popped up to get treatment for an injury. When he found out that Wright had been waiting for his money for 5 hours, Foster went berzerk. He started shouting at people. When he finally got out of the office he gave 200 pounds to Wright.
The 19-year-old boy thanked him and started crying. It was a lot more than just about football. Once again the same story. Nobody noticed him, and he was all alone. A couple of days after dispatching Wright, Brighton gave a contract to another trialist – Steve Penney. In their defense, he turned out to be a great Brighton player, with 138 league games and 14 league goals for Albion, but nothing close to Wright’s future goalscoring antics.
Shortly after this, love has finally found a way into Ian’s life, but he ended up in jail, too. He did a lot of stupid things in his life, but this was really nonsense. He got a month in prison because of unpaid driving tickets.
He started dating Sharon, his future wife. She had a baby boy, and the situation was very familiar to Ian. Father of the boy just disappeared, and Ian didn’t want to let young boy suffer, as much as he did. After he got out of jail he was determined. He had to find a job, and support his family. That professional football nonsense is over, he will play the game just for the love of it.
He first started bricklaying, then plastering. Eventually, he found a job in one factory, where he did maintenance. Factory mixed sugar with all sorts of things, and the job was tough and smelly. But he was perfectly happy with it. He adopted Sharon’s baby boy Shaun and soon after got his second son, Bradley.
He was still playing in a Sunday League, and for a small semi-pro side called Greenwich Borough, but that was just for fun, without training. He was kicking it on weekends, and on working days he did his maintenance job and looking for his family. Professional football was over for him.
Becoming and eagle and a wrong stadium
Ian was satisfied with his life. He earned enough to support his family, but then Crystal Palace scout Peter Prentice noticed him. Wright was 21 at the time, and the club asked him to go to a two-week trial. He wasn’t gonna have it. Ian had a good job, and he was accepted. Loved by his family and satisfied with his life, he wasn’t too eager to get another rejection from a professional club. Three months short of his 22nd birthday, he rejected two calls from Palace.
But when his supervisor at the factory found out about it, he convinced him to go and offered to make an excuse for him. He won’t be paid, but if his trial goes bust, he could just go back to work.
But now, his attitude changed. He wasn’t expecting anything. Just went there to play football. Steve Coppel was Crystal Palace’s manager at the time, and he liked the kid straight away.
After a couple of days, Coppel said that he wants Ian in his matchday squad the next day. Palace was playing Coventry behind closed doors, and the manager wanted to test him. The next day Wright showed up, but nobody was there. No players, scouts, officials, just an empty ground. He was astonished, but when he asked a lady working on the field is there a game today, she said that he had missed a ground! That was Selthurst athletics ground, and the game was played on a football stadium, about 2 miles from there.
There was no time to find a cab, so he just ran to the stadium, and got there just in time for the game. Without breath, he sat on the bench and waited for his chance. Of course, he came off the bench and scored.
“You’ve got to remember, I came in straight off the building site, straight into Steve. He was somebody that obviously recognized I might be able to do something, and he was somebody that was always very strict with me. It was what I needed.
He also told me ‘If you don’t know, just ask. Whatever company you’re in, if there’s something you don’t understand, ask.’ He gave me that kind of wisdom.”
Fitness was a killer for young Wright – jump from Sunday league to second-tier wasn’t easy, And he didn’t want any more tests. He wanted a pro contract. Eventually, a couple of months shy of his 22nd birthday he got a three-month contract. At last – Ian Wright was playing football for a living!
Bright, Wright, Premier League and FA Cup final
In his first season with the Eagles Wright was still shy and not ready for football at that level. In that season he was coming off the bench, and his legs would just go off after 10-15 minutes. But the magic was there. He scored 9 times and finished the season as the second-leading scorer of the team.
He was “Super Sub”, but only because he needed time to adapt to that level of football. Next season he got his partner in crime – Mark Bright, who came in from Leicester. This duo flourished together and formed one of the deadliest striking partnerships in English second-tier history.
Next year Wright also scored 9 times, but Steve Coppell knew how to motivate him, and make him produce more goals. Wright needed freedom, he was ultimately a Sunday league guy – a striker who wanted the ball, a striker who wanted to roam freely and make ridiculous runs through opposition defences.
“I think because I came into the game so late, I played a lot of street football and amateur football where I could just do anything I wanted – I used to play games on a Sunday where I’d deliberately try and only score goals that came off the crossbar, mad stuff like that. I get so many comments on the goals I scored – chips, flicks, crazy runs – and I think it’s because I was very expressive when I was on a pitch. The game right now is all about expression and I was lucky to have that vibe about me when I was coming up – I’d always try and do things that were different to how I saw other people playing“, said Wright in one recent interview.
Bright and Wright scored 44 goals combined in 89/90 season and returned Crystal Palace to top-tier after 9 years. Second-tier Palace made it to the FA Cup final after Alan Pardew’s extra-time goal ensured them a win over Liverpool in semifinals.
Wright couldn’t start in the final against Manchester United, because he broke his fibula, and that’s maybe the reason Crystal Palace lost its only cup final in history.
Manchester United led 2:1 when Wright was subbed on, and hi tied the game in 72nd minute. It was just the 2nd minute of the extra time when he scored to make it 3:2, but Mark Hughes made things level and United won in the second match.
Becoming a cult hero on both sides of London
He played 3 top-tier seasons for Palace, but never wore Eagles shirt in Premier League. In the summer of 1991, George Graham decided to splash the cash, and to sign a flamboyant striker for club record-fee. After 118 goals for Palace, he headed from south to north of London. Arsenal signed him and finally reunited him with his best friend David Rocastle, who operated in the midfield of that Gunners team.
It was a strange transfer – George Graham was the manager of “boring Arsenal”, a side known for their 1:0 wins, strict discipline, and defensive toughness. Graham paid big money for a 28-year-old striker who played just a couple of seasons in top-tier, but his gamble paid off.
Wright didn’t get into the team until the end of September, but when he did, he managed to get in with a bang. On his debut against Leicester in FA Cup, he scored, and 3 days later he debuted in First Division. It was a game against Southampton, and Rocastle opened the scoring. Then Wright took over and got a hat-trick on his debut. George Graham was unemotional about it.
“I remember with George Graham, my league debut at Southampton, I scored a hat-trick. I’m not sure how many Arsenal players on their league debut scored a hat-trick. All he said to me was ‘Well done, good game’. I remember afterward, the lads, I’d only been around them a week, so they all came over, ‘Brilliant’, ‘Well done’ but ‘Don’t expect anything from him!“, recollects Wright these days.
But tough and unemotional Graham suited Wright just fine because he had his guardian angel at Arsenal, It was David Dein, Arsenal’s cult executive. Dein pushed for Wright’s transfer, and he was the man Wright could call to ask for advice at any time. His beloved striker answered with goals – he scored 31 in his first season for Arsenal – 24 in Premier League. He opened and closed that season in the same way – with a hattrick against Southampton. That second one at the closing day of the season helped him to snatch Golden Boot in front of Gary Lineker.
A guy that played amateur football until his 22nd birthday completely transformed one of the biggest teams in England. In his first season there Arsenal went on from “boring” to the highest-scoring team in the league.
Next season was a nightmare in the league – they haven’t won a game from 7 November to 16 January. They had 11 1:0 losses and finished 10th in the league, but they went on to win a domestic cup double, beating Sheffield Wednesday in both cup finals.
Arsenal won its second (and so far the last) European trophy in the 93/94 season, beating Parma in the Cup Winners Cup final, and eliminating Juventus and PSG in the process. Wright was once again the best goalscorer, and he scored first Arsenal’s goal that season – an 87th-minute winner against Spurs at White Hart Lane. That was one of his 7 goals in the North London Derby – one more feat that made him a Gunners legend.
Next season saw George Graham fired, but Arsenal’s great European form continued. Led by competition’s top goalscorer – Wright, they progressed through to the finals. Wright scored 9 times, and he netted in every round. But, in the end, Nayim’s 119th-minute goal from nearly 50 meters embarrassed David Seaman and snatched a trophy for the Spanish side.
David Bergkamp’s arrival set the tone for the new era – Wenger era at Highbury, but with Netherlands magician onboard Ian was the top marksman. Only in his second season, and Wenger’s first, Bergkamp managed to outscore Wright, but on 13 September 1997, it was time for history.
With 4 goals in the first 5 games, Wright started the season in a spectacular way. Bolton came to town, and a 60-year old record fell. Cliff Bastin was a forward who played for famous Arsenal’s team from the ’30s, and he scored record 178 goals for Gunners.
Wright managed to equal that on the 20th minute, after another one of those Bergkamp’s passes. Five minutes later he scored another one and lifted his number 8 jersey over his head. He ran the full length of the pitch, with a “179. Just Done It” written on his shirt.
Ian Wright: A Man That Made Football Whatever He Wanted It To Be
Arsenal went on to win their first Premier League title, but Wright was done. Young Nicolas Anelka pushed him out of the team, and Bergkamp and Overmars outscored him. He scored his last Premier League goal for Arsenal in a win against Newcastle on 6 December 1997, and at one point of that season, he knew he was done.
Next season he went to West Ham, and had a decent year, scoring 9 goals. Then he had short stints with Nottingham Forrest, Celtic, and Burnley, before hanging his boots.
He lied at his day job to come to Crystal Palace and turned out to be the best player who ever played at Selhurst Park. At Arsenal, he won the Premier League title. two FA Cups, a League Cup and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, and became the club’s all-time leading scorer. He was one of the greatest goalscorers of his generation with 323 goals in 627 appearances.
And it all started when a school teacher decided to take care of him. Sydney Pigden taught him many things, even how to score beautiful goals. He would tell him tales of Jimmy Greaves’ goals, and tell him:
“That’s the great goals, Ian, when the goalkeeper doesn’t even move. A great goal is where the goalkeeper’s got no chance of reaching, and he can’t blame nobody else.”
He overcame many obstacles, and he would surely be just the better player if someone gave him a chance a little earlier. If someone believed he would become a phenomenon, he had become. He once said:
“Football is entertainment, football is art – you can make it whatever you want to be.”
And he did. He made it his escape, his love, and his job. Even now, when he is a pundit – he lives and breathes football. Two of his eight children play it – his adopted son Shaun was regular England international, and Bradley is an MLS legend.
A guy from the street, who had been to jail, and who had to run away from his abusive family, in the end, got onto a Nike billboard slogan. It read:
“Behind every great goalkeeper there’s a ball from Ian Wright.”