Football: Wright refocusing his Gunner fire: George Graham and Steve Coppell sing the praises of the man called Satchmo. Joe Lovejoy talks to Arsenal's England striker

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The Independent Online
STEVE COPPELL said recently that Ian Wright was Crystal Palace, and that the club had been diminished when he left. Tomorrow, England's most accomplished striker of the last two years goes back to Selhurst Park, but this time as the very epitome of Arsenal.

These days, Ian Wright is Arsenal. Typical of the team, he has had more disciplinary problems than his employers would have liked, but continues to atone where it matters most. In front of goal.

There, too, he personifies the strange mutation which has seen the early-season favourites for the championship turn into a cup side, able to raise their game only when Wembley beckons.

Lambs to the slaughter in losing at home to Liverpool last Sunday, Arsenal were unrecognisable as the same team just three days later, when a herculean effort brought them victory in extra time at Leeds, and a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup. In fairness, they were not the same team. The decisive difference on Wednesday was that Wright was back, having served his three-match suspension for that well-publicised assault on Tottenham's David Howells.

Cup combat has been bringing the best out of the dude they call Satchmo since that Wembley day in May 1990, when he seemed to be playing Manchester United on his own. Only half fit, Wright gave a heroic performance, scoring twice in a thrilling 3-3 draw, only for Palace to lose the replay when his injuries put him on the bench.

Of his 19 goals this season, a disproportionate eight have come in knock-out competition. Apart from that matchwinning double in midweek, and the hat- trick which made routine work of a potentially tricky trip to Yeovil, his potent blend of pace and unorthodoxy has also gunned down Derby County and Nottingham Forest, bringing Arsenal to tomorrow's first leg of their Coca-Cola Cup semi-final against his old club.

Impressive stuff. No wonder a grateful George Graham says: 'You have to accept Ian, warts and all.' Actually, we don't. A manager may well feel that his principal striker's many attractive features provide ample compensation for the ugly side of his complexion, but there is nothing that requires the rest of us to accept raised fists and temper tantrums.

In mitigation, Wright served his time without complaint, seems genuinely contrite, and those closer to the action than most of his critics suggest he is subject to the sort of provocation which would turn Mother Teresa into Ma Baker.

He plays down the race issue, but it is a deplorably common occurrence for him to be called a black so-and-so, and John Barnes, who has seen and heard it all, believes he is targeted for more abuse than most because of his volatile nature.

In player-speak, opponents try to 'wind him up' and the easiest way to do it is to refer to his colour. It is a fact of life to which he prefers not to draw further attention. To confirm that it upset him would be to invite more of the same.

What he will say is: 'If they can gain any advantage, by stopping me from concentrating on my game, they'll try it. Now, if a player tries to wind me up, I just won't speak to him. If you have a shot and a defender says 'Unlucky', or if he tackles you and when you pick yourself up he asks if you're all right, then you'll talk to him, because you know he is going to be hard but fair.

'But you also get defenders who want to kick you all over the place and have a go verbally, too. I've learned. I won't talk to them. I'll give them my answer when I beat them with the ball, or score a goal.

'The ones who are nasty don't like it when you don't respond. They try even harder to stop you, and then every time you get the better of them it's like a notch for you. Your confidence grows, theirs drops, and you find they've got less to say for themselves the longer it goes on.'

It sounds good - as does his new year resolution, to turn the other cheek. We shall see.

Coppell, the mentor Wright still calls 'The Boss', says it would be counter- productive to try to turn the spiky competitor with fire in his belly into another Gary 'Nice Guy' Lineker.

'As a person, Ian is quite disciplined,' the Palace manager says. 'It's just that once the whistle goes, he still plays football the way he has played it since his non-League days. Bursting to win.

'If you were to take away that edge, you'd lose the exciting player that was. I don't think Ian can play in control. He's intuitive and instinctive. If you make him think, the intuition is lost.'

Wright, as affable off the pitch as he can be crabby on it, lets out a chuckle when Coppell's words are passed on. 'I'm not sure I like the bit about not thinking, but the boss knows me better than anybody else, and he always used to be on at me about harnessing my aggression. George Graham says it even more. Its just a question of channelling everything in the right direction.

'The trouble is, for a finisher, when the ball is coming to you, sometimes you can't take time to think. You just see it and do it. I work best like that, so I'd say Steve has summed me up pretty well.'

Coppell, he said, had been by far the biggest influence on his career, plucking him from non-League obscurity with Greenwich Borough and turning him into an England player. 'George Graham has been excellent in improving my technique, and so on, but the transition from non-League to international football is down to Steve. He's done everything for me. I can't praise him enough for the time he took with me and what he's given me.

'Don't get me wrong, everything I've got, I worked for, but he gave me the chance to do it. I knew I was good enough to make it, but he was the only one prepared to give me the chance to prove it.

'Not only did he groom me as a player, he also taught me how to conduct myself.' A back-handed compliment, perhaps? Not at all. 'The fact that I've never been in any kind of trouble off the pitch shows how well he taught me.'

His on-the-field troubles, and the Howells fracas in particular, had left him deeply depressed, spoiling his Christmas. 'I had the time to do a lot of thinking, and in future I wouldn't want to get suspended for anything other than totting up bookings for the occasional mistimed tackle, which is unavoidable.

'George Graham has been brilliant about it all. Arsenal as a club are steeped in tradition, and have a reputation to uphold, and he could have taken a very different attitude, but he's stuck by me all the way, and I'm very grateful for that.

'I was embarrassed by the Howells thing, and I suppose Arsenal must have been, too, but it was just an instinctive reaction. I feel I got taken to the cleaners for it. I'm not saying what I did was right. I know I shouldn't have raised my hand. But I feel they went the whole hog on it.

'There have been four or five incidents since which were much worse - real fighting on the pitch - and no one was made an example of like I was. I have learned from it. People will see that.'

He would rather be playing almost anyone else in tomorrow's semi-final. It is not so much that Palace are particularly difficult opponents (he scored against them when Arsenal won 2-1 at Selhurst Park in November) as the fact that he retains a sentimental affection for them, and would derive no pleasure from doing them down.

'I love Palace and I love Steve Coppell,' he said. 'There are players there I've got a lot of time for because we enjoyed some good times together. I'm sorry that we're meeting them in the semis because I know how much it means to their players and supporters to get to Wembley again. I want to get there are badly as they do, but if we do stop them, I'll be quite sad.'

Old habits die hard, and Wright found himself back at Selhurst, rooting for the grounded Eagles, when they lost at home to Tottenham last Saturday. 'Palace have been unfortunate,' he said. 'They have had a lot of injuries, and when that happens it really takes a toll on their small squad. Against Tottenham, they lost two early goals, it was all over by half-time, and the fans were getting on to them. There were a few young players out there, and it was hard for them. Really hard.'

The semi-final would be a welcome break from the weekly slog - for both sides. 'People say we're favourites, but the game against us is the perfect way for Palace to bounce back. If they do well, it will kick-start their season into life again.'

Single-minded though he says he is, Wright's attention this weekend is sure to wander from The Match to Monday's announcement of the England squad for the World Cup tie at home to San Marino in 11 days' time.

An automatic choice for the 22 before he put another blot on that speckled record, his latest transgression had planted the seeds of doubt in his mind.

Such fears, we can safely assume, are groundless. Graham Taylor has expressed concern about his confrontational style, and stunned the world and his wife by omitting the First Division's leading scorer from the European Championship, but domestic suspension is deemed sufficient punishment for the Howells affair, and Wright's dynamic performance against Turkey in November assured him of continued selection.

He has yet to score after seven appearances for his country, but is characteristically confident that the goals will come.

'Turkey was definitely my best game for England,' he said. 'I'd got it into my mind that if I didn't do it in that one I could say goodbye to international football. Graham Taylor stuck by me after I missed a couple of good chances against Norway, and it came right. He told me to go out and play like I play for Arsenal, and that's what I did.

'The manager knows what I can do. Its just a matter of time. I'll score a goal and everything will be perfect. No problem. You have to be confident at this level, but you have to be capable of doing the business as well. At Arsenal, with so many good players around you, you can't help but be confident, and that's helping me to do the business.

'The Arsenal move is the best thing that has happened to me, other than Steve Coppell taking me on. Everyone to do with the club has been marvellous to me, and if it's goals they want from me to show my gratitude, then I won't rest until I've scored all I can.

'The fact that this disciplinary thing is said to have tarnished the club's name, and has given some people a chance to have a go at us, makes me all the more determined to do well.'

The repented sinner has the zealot's gleam in his eyes. Abandon hope, Palace. And San Marino.

(Photograph omitted)