Football: Wolverhampton bids Wright a fond farewell: Phil Shaw reports on the funeral of a football 'heart-throb'

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IT WAS, on the face of it, a bizarre scenario: a hearse circling the perimeter track of an empty stadium, while the public- address system played 'Nimrod', the most majestic and serene of the Enigma Variations, and a ball sat in regal isolation on the centre spot. Billy Wright was on his final lap of honour at Molineux.

Outside the home of Wolverhampton Wanderers, the club he served with such pride as captain and later as a director until his death from cancer at the age of 70, 3,000 ignored the downpour to pay their last respects as the funeral cortege set off. A similar number packed the square by the Collegiate Church of St Peter to hear the funeral service relayed over loudspeakers.

Though they did not know the man, and only those over 40 can have had any memory of almost 500 First Division games or his 105 caps for England, it was as if many were grieving for a bygone age. An era in which loyalty (Wright was a one-club man) and dignity (he was never booked or sent off) seemed more important than the fast buck. When footballers were part of the communities they represented (he lodged in the same digs for almost his entire career), and the foreign visitors Wolves put to the floodlit sword had the magnetism of men from Mars.

Beneath the Billy Wright Stand, officially opened by the Queen on what proved to be the Shropshire Lad's last visit to his adopted town, younger supporters had festooned scarves and banners over the railings surrounding hundreds of wreaths. One message read: 'So sorry you died on my wedding day - Love you always.' Another, attached to a scarf, said: 'I wore this all through the Sixties - I'll leave it with you.'

Perhaps the most original offering, summing up the affection in which Wright was held in the Midlands and far beyond, was the can of Banks's Mild, a popular Black Country brew, that had been left with a note saying: 'Have this one on me, Billy.'

The guest list for the service, which spanned the generations from Stan Cullis through Sir Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney to Steve Bull, was a manager's dream. However, as the tributes from the pulpit made plain, Wright would have been their undisputed leader. Sir Bobby Charlton, recalling him as 'the heart-throb of English football', described him as 'good in the air, strong in the tackle, always fair and a fine reader of the game'. On today's market, he would have been worth 'many millions'.

His generosity of spirit also left a huge impression on Charlton. 'When I was a young player and Wolves and Manchester United were going head to head for the title, I got so hyped up for our match with them that I thought everyone in Wolverhampton was downright evil. But Tommy Taylor, who knew Billy from the England team, introduced me to him in the tunnel, and he totally disarmed me with his charm.'

Wright's wife of 36 years, Joy, had wanted the occasion to be a celebration of his life, and duly arrived in a black and gold Wolves tracksuit topped off with a club baseball cap. Flanked by her twin sisters, the other members of the Beverley Sisters, she grinned broadly through their taped rendition of Wright's favourite, 'Love Me Tender', sang 'Abide With Me' with gusto, and placed one of his England caps on the coffin as it left.

Two years ago, Wolverhampton councillors voted down a proposal to give Wright the freedom of the town. The sheer volume of people waiting patiently in the rain to say farewell to the Happy Wanderer was not only the perfect riposte to the petty ideologues, but a fitting memorial to Wolves' greatest servant.

(Photograph omitted)

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