Football / FA Cup Countdown: Bright finds adventure in settled spot: Wednesday's target man prepares to outwit an old colleague: Phil Shaw talks to the high-flying Owl who is advancing on Wembley along three avenues

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MARK BRIGHT stops at traffic lights near Sheffield Wednesday's ground. A car draws up alongside and the driver raises a thumb in recognition and support. This happens frequently, although sometimes the thumb belongs to a Unitedite and points down.

For Bright, the experience is both novel and stimulating. He was scarcely undervalued at Crystal Palace, where he enjoyed a prolific partnership with England's Ian Wright, but the passions aroused by football in South Yorkshire are far more intense than those he knew in south London.

'I could go out and not be recognised, whereas in this city, everyone in shops, restaurants and garages lets you know who they support,' Bright said. 'Before the last derby, John Pemberton, who was at Palace and now plays for United, told me: 'Forget any derbies you played in down south - this is something else.' He was right.'

To see Bright so at home in his new habitat (Hillsborough, coincidentally, is in the Sheffield Brightside constituency) it is hard to credit that he might not be where he is today - preparing for an FA Cup semi-final place at Derby next Monday and on the threshold of Wembley in the League Cup - but for his unpopularity at Leicester seven years ago.

One incident in particular acted as a catalyst in his career. He was shopping with a team-mate in a crowded store when a voice shouted: 'Bright] You'll never make a First Division player.' The colleague offered blunt advice on the spot: leave Leicester.

Now, at 30, Bright looks back on the hatred and his subsequent transfer to Palace as the work of fate. After the setbacks he has endured, the surprise is that he believes it has a benign aspect at all.

As a teenager in his native Potteries he was released by Port Vale. When he started scoring for Leek, Vale asked him back as a part-timer. 'I did a year there when I was 20 which nearly killed me,' Bright recalled. 'I'd start work at an engineering company at 6am, catch a bus to the ground at 3pm and begin training.'

With tuition by Jimmy Greenhoff, the former Manchester United striker, he became a regular marksman. But Vale's manager, John McGrath, withheld full-time terms until he qualified as a hydraulic engineer. 'He wanted me to have something to fall back on,' Bright explained.

There were times when it seemed wise counsel, even after he joined Leicester for an initial pounds 33,000 (ironically, he turned down Wednesday, then under Howard Wilkinson). The club were in the old First Division, with Gary Lineker and Alan Smith up front, but when Lineker left for Everton, Bright was cast as the replacement.

'That made things difficult,' he reflected. As his friend Wright was to discover, Lineker is a hard act to follow. Bright started well, scoring twice in a win over the old hero's new club. It set a standard he could not maintain.

He became the butt of crowd abuse, some overtly racist, and faded into reserve-team purgatory. When Steve Coppell, Palace's manager, heard his name booed even at that level he thought he might tempt him to drop a division. He met Bright, who had always wanted to try London, at Watford Gap services.

'Steve told me: 'Come to Palace, you'll have no trouble - we've got three or four black lads'. There was also this non-League striker he'd found who had hunger, enthusiasm and pace but lacked a bit of knowledge. He thought I could help him, and said: 'If you hit it off, the media will have a field day with your names'.'

Palace paid pounds 75,000, and the firm of Wright & Bright was founded. Their goals, with Bright matching Wright strike for strike, helped Palace to promotion and the FA Cup final. 'People will look back at those achievements in years to come and mention our names. That pleases me.'

Things started to sour, however, after Ron Noades, the Palace chairman, questioned the resilience of black players in a TV documentary. Bright regards the chapter as closed, but said: 'I still speak to him, contrary to what some people think. It just made things difficult.

'You have an affinity for a club because it's where you made your name, so you don't just turn your back and say 'that's it'. I think the chairman regretted it. I was upset and he knew it.'

Wright - 'the life and soul of the club, socially and as a player' - left for Arsenal, and Bright's striking instincts came out in sympathy. After scoring in eight successive games, he went 18 without a goal. Some of the missed chances still rankle. 'It became a taboo subject until one of the lads suggested I send for Bob Geldof to end the famine]'

He soldiered on, though a new partnership with Marco Gabbiadini, whom he faces at Derby, failed. 'Any striker would have struggled to fill the void Ian left,' Bright said. 'The club as a whole was not a happy place.'

When Bright himself made the break last September, after five years with Coppell, Wednesdayites may have doubted the wisdom of the pounds 1m deal. He was once sent off for the Eagles against the Owls, and it had been his last- minute equaliser in May which ended their championship hopes.

Quickly winning over any sceptics, he scored 14 goals, including a late fourth-round winner against Sunderland, before knee surgery in January. The link with David Hirst promised much, though he too became injured and Bright partnered Paul Warhurst on his comeback last week.

The two crocks had been watching with growing incredulity as the stopper-turned-striker made their job look easy. 'Whenever Paul scored, me and Hirsty would look at each other and burst out laughing. But the laughs were getting shorter and shorter.'

Wednesday's style is to Palace's what palatial Hillsborough is to suburban Selhurst, and Bright relishes his involvement in the build-up. Playing with Chris Waddle is 'a real pleasure'; he treasures a goal the Geordie's back-heeled pass made for him against Leicester. Arriving in only their ninth game together, it proved good players are on the same wavelength. Which is why England, in Alan Shearer's absence, could do worse than give Bright and Wright the green light. In the meantime, Bright plans to familiarise himself with the national team's ground in a final or two.

(Photograph omitted)

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