FOOTBALL: The time is Wright - even if he's in the wrong place

England v Holland: Size will not matter. Shaun is ready for the big stage, but it will not be at Beckham's expense
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The Independent Online
For the lucky few, the path to football glory is as smooth as a top-of-the-range Porsche. Take David Beckham, a child star winning a Soccer Skills trip to Barcelona aged 11, being courted by Manchester United, the club he adored, from then on and signing up with them only two years later. Compare the progress of a player who many believe should now replace Beckham on the right side of England's midfield: too small, they sighed, not as good as his dad; thanks but no thanks, said Nottingham Forest, via a secretary's phone call.

Shaun Wright-Phillips, knee-high to a full-back but quick, tricky and brave, would not be deterred. Inspired by the example of his stepfather, Ian Wright, who had been rejected countless times and did not break into League football with Crystal Palace until he was 23, the little winger kept believing in himself when others failed to and kept on keeping on to a point where the aforementioned England captain calls him "one of the best young talents in Europe".

The dilemma now for Sven Goran Eriksson is whether to accept that Wright- Phillips's qualities - in particular his pace - offer a new dimension in the captain's position, just as Beckham is finding his form again with Real Madrid; or to hope that his gifts can be used to equally good effect on the troublesome left side.

The first point has already been proved. In a stunning international debut against Ukraine at Newcastle last August, the 5ft 5in sprite replaced Nicky Butt early in the second half, allowing Beckham to move inside, and after less than 20 minutes on the pitch intercepted a pass, left defenders trailing and, deciding that Jermain Defoe was too closely marked, shot like a veteran past a startled goalkeeper.

"He showed he's ready," Eriksson agreed. But a state of constant readiness since then has been rewarded only by 18 minutes of competitive football in Azerbaijan and then half an hour as Beckham's replacement in the Bernabeu bear-pit, when Ian Wright was moved to tears of fury by the Spanish crowd's racial abuse. How he is used against Holland in Wednesday's friendly will give an indication of Eriksson's thinking, the first clue being the head coach's most recent comments about Beckham: "Of course David is part of my plans. He's captain and he's playing regularly for Real Madrid. I'm sure Shaun Wright-Phillips could play on the left, even if for Shaun, it's better to be on the right."

Logical solution? Wright-Phillips to start on the left, then switch to the other side for the second half in place of Beckham, while Stewart Downing is given his first chance. As his Manchester City manager, Kevin Keegan, says: "A lot of people think it would be unfair to play him out of position, but I don't have a problem with it and I don't think Shaun will. The fact is, the England coach has to find a place for Shaun in his line-up."

Keegan is the first to appreciate his good fortune in inheriting Wright- Phillips and now his younger half- brother Bradley, both of whom were attached from a young age to Nottingham Forest; Ian Wright, who had met Shaun's mother when Shaun was about 18 months old, saw the benefits of the two boys linking up with a comparatively low-profile club outside London, despite the travelling involved.

They were brought up in south London, and educated in New Cross at Haberdashers' Aske's, a traditional grammar school reinvented as a City Technology College, where rugby was the principal winter sport. Pressure from the boys eventually led to football being introduced as well, and with Chelsea's Scott Parker in the year above Wright-Phillips, the school can now claim two England internationals.

Dominic Grantham-Hill, a PE teacher there, says: "When I taught Scott it was obvious he was going to do very well and he got a lot of publicity [including a televised McDonald's advertisement], but I don't think we really realised quite how good Shaun would become. He was a skilful player, but a lot of people thought that because of his size, he might not do that well. What really struck everyone was his fantastic attitude and the way he conducted himself. Although there were influences around him that might have led him astray, he worked very hard and was never a problem."

The problem at Forest is a matter of some dispute. Naturally enough, nobody at the club wishes to admit responsibility for rejecting him, the official line being that travelling up from London had become too much. The family, however, say he was simply considered too small, and it still rankles that only an offhand call from a secretary told them as much.

His good fortune was that Frank Clark had in the meantime moved from Forest to Manchester City as manager, and was happy to recommend the 16-year-old Shaun: "My assistant, Alan Hill, and I decided early on that City's centre of excellence wasn't good enough and got in a man called Jim Cassell from Oldham, who was very highly regarded, to run it," Clark says now. "Unfortunately that involved sacking Colin Bell, a City legend, for which we got absolutely slaughtered. But Jim's done a great job, and it's interesting that City now have a very good academy producing some terrific young players, of whom Shaun is the most high-profile."

Even Cassell, good judge that he is, was initially almost fooled by the tiddler in front of him. "To be honest, I was a bit worried about his size when I first saw him. But within minutes of getting on the pitch, I could see he was doing all the right things. He's got great agility, flexibility, athleticism and balance, and uses all those qualities. And he brings what every fan wants to see - excitement. Off the field, he's an absolute gent, a great advert-isement for the academy and club, a fantastic role model for any young player."

A young player like Bradley, for instance, the taller little brother, a striker more reminiscent of his biological father Ian. He lodges happily and humbly in Warrington with Shaun, who now has a wife and two young children, Bradley playing the role of chauffeur in his Ford Focus to the Carrington training ground each day. But he will have an empty car this week, while big brother practises in the Midlands, trying to remind Eriksson of what England need.

Keegan, biased as he may be, undeniably knows something about international football, and says of Wednesday's game: "Shaun will see it as his big opportunity to get in from the start, and once he does, they won't be able to get him out."

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