Football: Wright fights for his right to speak out

West Ham's voluble and sometimes volatile striker fervently believes in freedom on and off the pitch.

IAN WRIGHT is probably not top of many Premiership referees' Christmas card list - particularly since he had to be restrained by fellow players when he was sent off for two bookable offences during West Ham's home game against Leeds last Saturday. Afterwards he is alleged to have caused damage to the referee's changing-room. He has since apologised for behaving "in an unacceptable manner" and for "this stupid and reckless act". Even so - and not for the first time in his chequered disciplinary record - a Football Association misconduct charge has followed.

But on the subject of referees in general, Wright remains unrepentant. Reclining in an armchair at the Groucho Club in central London, he says: "People know Ian Wright now. If they don't see me remonstrating with the ref, they'll think, `what's wrong with Ian? How come he's being so nice to the ref?' I'll remonstrate with the ref when I'm playing Sunday morning football. When I'm wrong, I'll hold my hands up. But as long as you're not abusing anyone verbally - which I have done - then let them know your feelings. Why should you pent them up? What about freedom of speech? Why shouldn't people be told they're not very good at what they're doing? People do it to me. I get people saying to me all the time, `Wrighty, you're a crap footballer'.

"If you're arguing your case and you're right, you have to be able to defend yourself. I might be arguing with you about a stone in the road, but if I can't say, `I'm right and you're wrong,' that's not going to get us anywhere. If you're categorically right - and the TV replays show the ref is wrong - why can't you say the ref has made a hash without getting into trouble? We have to be able to rectify mistakes."

For all Wright's protestations, last Saturday's incident was only the latest in a series of spats. In November 1991 and February 1995, he was fined for spitting, while in December 1995 he called referees "incompetent little Hitlers". He had well-publicised run-ins with Manchester United's goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, in November 1996 and February 1997, and in December 1997 was accused of inciting Arsenal fans from the dressing- room window. Like another wild, yet charismatic talent, John McEnroe, Wright has a serious problem with officialdom, to say nothing of an ability to lose it big-time. He would claim in his defence that occasional blow- ups are inevitable in someone so committed to the game. Wright certainly throws himself into every match with enthusiasm.

"Football musn't lose that sense of joy," he says. "You must never lose sight of the fact that when you first played, you weren't getting paid untold amounts of money; you just played it with friends for the joy it gave you. I'm lucky enough still to have that. Maybe other people get involved in material things, which become their god rather than football."

This approach to the game has, of course, gained him friends as well as enemies. After England's memorable 0-0 draw in Rome during the autumn of 1997, which sealed qualification for France 98, Wright received the loudest cheer from the section of the crowd I was sitting in, which was full of supporters from many different English clubs. Even when he is on the bench for England, he is the player most often seen leaping out of the dugout to shout encouragement. Fans warm to someone who so clearly wears his heart on his sleeve and cares about the team as much as they do.

Done up in a smart grey leather jacket, white T-shirt, black jeans and natty black and grey striped woolly hat, Wright is impossible to ignore. His smile - which showcases a glinting gold front-tooth - especially catches the eye. When he enters a room, all heads turn in his direction; the phrase "larger than life" barely does him justice.

He may provoke controversy, but no one has ever accused Wright of being a stereotypically bland footballer given to muttering Alan Shearer-esque "game of two halves" banalities in interviews. Never afraid to speak his mind - he must give his PR handlers palpitations - he has always stood out in the cloned world of professional football. His individuality has been underlined by the recent development of his career as a television presenter.

Despite sniping from Michael Parkinson, Wright is deemed to have made a good fist of his chat show, Friday Night's All Wright. After hosting An Audience with Lennox Lewis, Wright is now fronting a Friday night primetime show for ITV, Guinness World Records. He is also the figurehead of choice for such hip products as Nike and One to One.

Wright is keen not to be seen as one-dimensional. "It's my mission to show that you can be a professional footballer and do others things as well," he explains. "Footballers get pigeonholed. People say, `they come straight from school and know nothing about life - all they know about is fancy cars, nice girls, big houses and rock-star lifestyles. They're idiots earning vast amounts of money. They're just thick'. That's what the press want the normal man in the street to think about footballers. I hope that me doing what I'm doing will make them think differently."

Wright also hopes to change the minds of the bigots who, despite the "Kick Racism Out of Football" campaign, continue to scar the game. "I played for England against Luxembourg, and some of the fans were shouting out horrible racial things and obscenities about Martin Luther King and me [the two were paired for a mobile phone commercial]. But they're just idiots. They don't see the bigger picture. They don't seem to grasp where we are now. We don't need to worry about people like that. Before, that would have worried me and I would've had to shout something back, but now I think those people are sad, they're not progressing. When it happens, you think, `you neanderthal, come to the party.'

"A lot of people who might have thought like that when I first came into the game 14 years have changed," he continues. "Then, Cyrille Regis was sent bullets through the post, but now 95 out of 100 who were like that have seen the light. Why worry about the five?"

Although 35 and with several other irons in the fire, Wright has no immediate plans to retire from playing. He reckons his continuing passion for the professional game stems from the fact that he came to it relatively late in life - in his early 20s after four years working in construction. That has given him a perspective on life outside football which many other players lack. If Wright were ever to become part of the Establishment and take up football management - I know it's an unlikely concept - his background has endowed him with some novel ideas about how to handle players.

"I wouldn't loan them out to other clubs; I'd loan them out to building sites," he says with his characteristic wicked chuckle. "I'd get my mates on the sites to work them till they dropped. After a week, imagine what kind of a footballer you'd get - someone who'd work his guts out for you because he won't believe how lucky he is to be playing football after the week he's just had. I don't begrudge a footballer any amount of money as long as he comes off the pitch saying `I can't give any more'."

Guinness World Records starts on ITV on Friday, 14 May.

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