Billy Wright, hard man and Fifties hero

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The Independent Online
TO THE generation that struggled through the Fifties, the former England football captain Billy Wright, who died yesterday at the age of 70, had his place in our gallery of icons, along with Elvis Presley's pelvis, Marilyn Monroe's wiggle, Bill Haley's kisscurl, and Marlon Brando lamenting that he 'coulda been a contender'.

Billy Wright came from a past where they certainly did things differently, dramatically so in football. For a start, he was a one-club man: born in Ironbridge, Shropshire, he joined Wolverhampton Wanderers' ground staff as a boy, and it never crossed his mind that there was anywhere else to play his football but Molineux.

By the time he had dubbined his boots for the last time and folded away his old-gold shirt, he had made 490 League appearances in 13 seasons. In that time, Wolves had won the FA Cup in 1949 and the First Division Championship in 1954, 1958 and 1959.

Along the way, Wright collected 105 England caps, then a record, and had captained his country 90 times. Ironically, however, many of us remember him for the fact that he was there when England's football suffered two of its most traumatic experiences. In the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte in the 1950 World Cup, he was part of a team - which also boasted magic names such as Matthews and Finney - that ensured that the name of the Brazilian port would be carved on the heart of English football: they lost 1-0 to the United States.

There was worse to come. Three years later, on a misty November afternoon at Wembley, the Hungarians shattered the shell of insularity into which the English game had retreated, not just by becoming the first foreign side to win at that stadium but by doing it 6-3]

That was my first vision of Billy Wright, on a tiny, flickering black-and-white television screen, skidding on his backside as Ferenc Puskas left him for dead to score a goal which is still amazing for its impudent skill. Months later, Wright had to lead England to the slaughter again, this time in Budapest, where the Hungarians hammered them 7-1.

The first game, especially, left its mark on English football, and on the England captain. 'Without doubt,' he was to say, 'the Hungarians were the best team I ever came across in my career. They did so many things with the ball that we had never seen before . . . a truly great side.'

But Billy Wright could also play the British bulldog and in that role he rallied his Wolverhampton troops to revenge those humiliations somewhat when the Wanderers beat Hungarian champions Honved in a friendly at Molineux.

When he decided to retire, after leading Wolves to their third championship, he held several coaching posts before striding into Highbury's marble halls to manage Arsenal in 1962. Despite his own experience of playing under Stan Cullis, himself an international- class centre-half in his day, Wright had few role models for the great player turning into a successful manager - the Shanklys and Revies were still serving their man-management apprenticeships. In this, perhaps, he foreshadowed his successors Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton in failure at running a club, and his contract was terminated in June 1966.

But just as in his footballing mode he had converted himself from a wing-half into a great centre-half - despite being only 5ft 8in tall - he slotted into the world of television, becoming head of sport at Central TV long before Match of the Day, Colemanballs and Motsonisms. He had also notched up something of a first with his marriage to Joy, eldest of the Beverley Sisters singing trio: a pre-Beatles version of the schoolboy hero marrying the pretty girl next door.

In my 1949 Christmas stocking was a kids' football annual which told me that Billy Wright was 'a teetotaller, goes to bed early and lives modestly in lodgings. . . . After home games he goes to the theatre and on two evenings a week he attends classes at the technical college . . . . He likes to spend other evenings listening to records and making rugs'.

The flickering images I can conjure up of Billy Wright in the flesh are of a tough, combative defender. The annual Scotland-England international was the forum, and if Scottish supporters at that time had been into concocting chants, 'If you hate Billy Wright, clap your hands' might have entered the repertoire, a good 10 years before Bobby Moore was awarded it.

On the field, that generation had its hard men, too, and none came harder than Billy Wright - but it was the kind of footballing strength that never cost him even a caution in his playing years.

His final battle against illness must have been alleviated by Sir Jack Hayward's determination to restore the glory, glory days that Billy Wright personified at Molineux. Sir Jack drafted him on to the board and the revivified Molineux boasts a Billy Wright Stand. 'I was thrilled that our greatest player of all time will be on hand to lend his experience and expertise in the boardroom,' the Wolves benefactor said on the appointment.

And Sir Jack unwittingly wrote what may be the ultimate epitaph for his fellow Wolves director when he declared: 'Perhaps we should go to Ironbridge and find a 14-year- old who'll clean boots, sweep up leaves and become the greatest player in England.' The sad death of Billy Wright is a more than salutary reminder that they don't make them like that anymore.

(Photograph omitted)

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