Football: Modest man with the right values: Ken Jones pays tribute to Billy Wright, the former Wolves and England captain, who died on Saturday

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The Independent Online
EVEN people who never miss an opportunity to boast that they are utterly uninformed about athletic activity were aware that Billy Wright preserved the flavour of a time in sport that is long gone.

As captain of Wolverhampton Wanderers and in 90 of 105 appearances for England, his international career spanning 13 years, Wright represented values probably beyond the comprehension of a generation that perceives the urge to succeed in sport as the urge to make a million.

Although proud to be a professional, there was always something essentially Corinthian about the conscientious purpose that enabled Wright to complete his career as a ruggedly efficient defender without ever incurring a referee's wrath. The game was all to Wright and remained so until his death, at 70, on Saturday.

If not the most naturally gifted of footballers, and short for the outstanding central defender he became after an inspired conversion from wing half, Wright possessed qualities that even today's managers and coaches would drool over.

Compact, with powerful legs, Wright's principal asset was the speed with which he made interceptions and launched tackles. Not many defenders of that era made their decisions and went in for the ball with his speed and certainty. Walter Winterbottom, who managed England throughout Wright's career, once said of him, 'In the pure qualities of defence, in interception, in recovering at lightning speed when beaten, in firm and indomitable tackling, he has been an important player: one of the best defenders England has ever had, and always, always excellent in the air.'

I think it is important to stress these things about Wright because in tributes there has been a sentimental tendency to dwell more on his modest appreciation of the good things that happened to him after first being rejected by Wolves than his contribution to the most turbulent period in the history of English football.

Wright would joke that the clip of film most frequently requested by the Arsenal players he managed is that which shows Ferenc Puskas making him look foolish before scoring one of the six goals that Hungary ran up at Wembley in November 1953 to finally shatter the arrogant myth of English invincibility.

Worse was to come, a 7-1 defeat in Budapest six months later, and with it the decision that would extend Wright's international career to record proportions. Without a quality centre-half since the defection of Neil Franklin to Bogota, leading to an inevitable suspension from international football, Winterbottom turned to his captain. 'The Hungarians were the best team I have ever come across and their superiority filled us with gloom,' Wright recalled.

'We couldn't live with them and with the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland coming up, Walter had to rebuild his defence. When he asked me about moving to centre-half I wasn't entirely sure, but I had implicit faith in his judgement.'

There can be no reservations about Wright's worth as a centre-half. It was stubbornly in his nature never to give up and a more precisely defined role that made fewer demands upon imagination suited him perfectly.

Certainly the switch suited Wolves and their stern manager, Stan Cullis, who like Wright was chosen to captain England in his early twenties and in preference to men of much greater experience. They didn't always see eye to eye but are inextricably linked with the most successful period in Wolves' history.

None of the game's domestic honours eluded Wright and but for the awful fate that befell Manchester United in 1958 there might have been even greater glory. 'Until the death of so many outstanding young players I felt England would be match for any of the World Cup finalists in Sweden,' he said one night in the sweet long ago. 'Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, Eddie Colman, my goodness what a team we could have put out.'

In common with any number of famous players, Wright was uncomfortable in management although Don Howe, a contemporay in the England team who joined him at Highbury as a player, feels that given more time he would have made a success of it.

Arsenal's decision not to renew the three-year contract Wright signed in 1963 hurt him more than he was prepared to admit. 'I didn't take to the job easily,' he said, 'but things were beginning to move and at least I can say that I left them with a lot of outstanding young players.'

It was the one great disappointment in Wright's career. The rest, including a happy marriage to the singer Joy Beverley and advancement in television, was more than he could have imagined.

The importance of being earnest and loyal and fair was strong within Billy Wright. There were failings too, but as Winterbottom said, 'The destructive criticisms of which most of us are guilty from time to time never come from Billy. This is not because he can't think along these lines, or because he prefers the peaceful, uncontroversial life. He simply feels that he does not have the right to make these criticisms.'

I wonder what today's crop of players would have made of him.

Obituary, page 10

(Photograph omitted)

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