Football: Wright obsessed with the edge

Simon O'Hagan hears the Arsenal manager's defence of his volatile striker
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The Independent Online
No aspect of the latest Ian Wright affair was more predictable than that he should be given a hero's welcome when he walked down through the studio audience and took his seat for Carlton Television's Do I Not Like That programme on Thursday night. All that mattered was Wright's celebrity - and who would dispute that his clash with Peter Schmeichel had done nothing if not put on a few more at the box-office. Anyone who had bought air time during the commercial breaks must have been laughing all the way to the North Bank.

In an age when Eric Cantona is able to turn to commercial advantage his assault on a spectator, and a trio of England penalty-missers does likewise by mocking the emotional investment a nation had made in them, it is surely not too cynical to imagine that somewhere behind a Soho advertising agency's discreet brass nameplate a Wright-Schmeichel number is already at the story-board stage. Doubtless it would culminate in the moment of kiss- and-make-up that neither the players concerned nor their clubs have so far shown much interest in.

In the atmosphere of moral relativism that pervaded Do I Not Like That, engendered in part by its host, Richard Littlejohn, made a reasonable attempt to put Wright on the spot. But still the player's shaky logic - that because he had made contact with the ball, what was the problem with the tackle - went unchallenged. Asked what went on in the tunnel at the end of the game, Wright was allowed to get away with the reply, "Nothing".

The issue is confused by the element of alleged racism, denied on Schmeichel's behalf by the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson. Football's anti- racism movement has done much to help change - though by no means get rid of - such attitudes among crowds. But at pitch level football is the most racially integrated sport in Britain, and in recent years the idea that a black player might be abused by a white fellow-pro on account of the colour of his skin has become virtually unthinkable.

Perhaps more surprising has been Arsene Wenger's reaction to his first real taste of controversy since joining a club where indiscipline on and off the pitch had been a feature for years. Everything about Wenger speaks of decency and rectitude. English football has been dignified by the presence of this urbane and courteous Frenchman, whose effect on players has been so enlightening that even Paul Merson talks of going into coaching because of his boss's example. Yet on the Wright issue Wenger's attitude would seem dissmissive were his defence of the player not mounted in such temperate tones.

At the St Albans hotel where Arsenal players convened on Friday in advance of today's Premiership match at home to Wimbledon, Wenger fielded questions about Wright calmly and with endless patience but without ever suggesting he felt there was anything very reprehensible about a tackle that most observers saw as potentially dangerous in the extreme. "It was a little bit high, I agree," he said. "It was a foul, but in the end fortunately he payed the ball. If you want to put Ian Wright in jail for that you'd have a lot of people in jail. If this is the country's only problem, then I'm very happy, because it just shows that everything is going very well."

Wenger said he had seen 30 tackles this season that were worse than Wright's. "I've seen people kick and punch each other, but because it's Ian Wright and Peter Schmeichel everyone notices it." If it came to standing up for Wright in any disciplinary action brought by the Football Association over the fracas in the tunnel, then he would. And the fact that the referee had seen fit not to punish Wright for the tackle was good enough for Wenger.

You might not think that the flashy Wright would be Wenger's kind of player. But then you might not think that Wenger was a very likely football manager. An understanding of the personalities in his charge is clearly one of Wenger's best attributes, however. Earlier this season Wenger described Wright as having an obsession with scoring goals. But in the light of Wednesday, was this obsession healthy?

"If you use your obsession positively, I think yes," Wenger said. "But to be successful in one specific area you have to be a little bit obsessed. Your obsession is to be successful and to improve every day. The world today is so specialised that if you have no obsession to improve you cannot be successful. I never met a goalscorer of the highest level who did not have this obsession."

Evidently the drive to succeed has been there throughout Wright's career. In fact the remarkable thing is that, at 33, it is still present. Geoff Thomas, now of Wolverhampton Wanderers, was a team-mate of Wright's at Crystal Palace for four seasons, and brings to mind a figure comparable to John McEnroe when he talks about the essential paradox of the man - that you can't remove the unacceptable aspects of his game and expect him to be the same player.

"With someone like him who plays on the edge it's fantastic to watch," Thomas said. "But there are times when he will go over the other side. You can't excuse it, but if you try to take it away you probably stop him performing." At Palace, Thomas recalled, it needed Wright's striking partner Mark Bright to calm him down. "It used to be a case of Mark constantly talking to him just to get him through the game." That it was all in the team's cause was never in doubt. "For me Ian's been one of the best professionals I've worked with," Thomas said. "In training and in his attitude he was second to none. Everything you can think of he did in a positive way."

So what did Thomas make of the Schmeichel incident? "Things always look worse in slow motion," he said. "I would imagine Ian's probably regretting it, but then he probably thought Schmeichel was going to give as good as he was going to get. I mean, he's not hurt him, has he?"

Yesterday the FA's chief executive, Graham Kelly, defended the authorities' delay in taking action with reports still awaited. But he offered the players a chance for reconciliation. "If they want to come in and try to improve a damaging situation, it might go some way to lessening the effect," he said.