Football: Wright sets the world to rights

Ian Ridley airs the thoughts of a player who dares to be different
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The Independent Online
When the door opens and Ian Wright bounces in, the first thing you notice is the absence of a muzzle. Given the frenzied reaction in some quarters to the list of his offences - variously referred to as "the roll of shame" or "Wrighty's crime sheet" - in a game prone to losing its sense of perspective, you could be forgiven for expecting Hannibal Lecter's apprentice to appear.

Sometimes foolish, certainly, once even malicious in baring studs at Peter Schmeichel last season, the man who has become England's leading striker in the absence of Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham and Robbie Fowler, is frequently held up as the embodiment of all that is wrong with modern football. No matter that his bold, sharp and instinctive goal-scoring mark him out as someone very right.

Spats with referees and opponents, the latest at Leicester 10 days ago for which he is on another misconduct charge, have led to calls for the FA to throw not the book at him, but the entire reading room of the British Museum. No wonder he has felt "goldfish-bowly vibes" and been put off convertible cars as a result of drinks being thrown at him by people in the 25 to 40 age range who have been "very horrible" to him, even if kids - his inspiration - still love him.

Actually, after an hour in his company, Wright reveals himself to this member of the Phyllosan generation as sparky and spontaneous, engaging and honest to a fault. "I've had to change from saying 'I would do anything to win' to 'I would do anything within the laws of the game to win'," he says.

Wright's fundamental problem is that he dares to be different, that black and white print rarely captures the various colours of a spirited, child- like personality. Actually, it is the problem of a culture that begins to value the bland and banal above the stimulating. Keep your head beneath the parapet or risk it being shot at.

Take his version of events at Filbert Street, which are unlikely to endear him to many. "The way it's been portrayed is that it's my last chance and everybody's sick and tired of it. It's all bollocks, for want of a better word. All the time I was thinking, 'Have people seen the video?' " He admits, though, he felt guilty just like he did at school when somebody else had done something wrong.

"When I went on to the pitch, there were a lot of people around the referee. All I said was, 'How do you justify the six minutes extra you played?' Then as I was walking off, Steve Walsh was mouthing and I said, 'Oh what, so you scored after Ray Parlour slaughtered you all through the game?' He was having his banter and then it was finished. In the end we were smiling at each other. So when I heard the ref was reporting me, I couldn't believe it and I didn't expect it go on because it was nothing, man."

And then he tells of his encounters earlier that night with the referee, Graham Barber. Of how an injured Wright replied to an enquiry from him that, yes, of course, he needed 'effin treatment - "My shinpad was cracked and everything"; of how he wondered aloud, after Emile Heskey had gone unpunished for a foul on Steve Bould, if it meant he too got a free whack at a defender. Such cheekiness may rub refs up the wrong way.

"I'm trying to dissociate myself from them, trying not even to talk to them because that's the only way," he insists. "I had a lot of joy up till Leicester." Counselling has helped, he says, something for which he has also been ridiculed. "I just wanted to speak to somebody, telling them things about myself that not even my wife and my mum know. It's like going into a sauna then out into the fresh air. You feel light and fresh and good."

Wright enjoys reading autobiographies because "I like to see how people start out, where they get to and what drove them on". It extends to opponents. "They know me and I know them. Some of them will wind me up about the counselling. I will go in for a challenge and they will say, 'Counselling? Oh yeah'. But I've got lines for them. I've got lyrics. I like to know about the centre-half in the other team, maybe what he's done in the past, because if he carries on with me I just hit him with that. It's easy to find out because footballers talk about footballers all the time. I won't stop that. I need that banter.

"Sol Campbell, he never says a word and it really winds me up. Now Des Walker, even I can't get a word in. You get others like Gary Pallister, who just give you the look. It's good because we are all close like that. It's when you play the lower leagues like in the Coca-Cola Cup when you have people who genuinely wannabe, then you have to be careful."

He knows he will be a target for many. "The name Wright is blinding for the press really, innit? Some of the headlines just write themselves. People write about some of the stupid things, the aggressive things, the confrontational things and, yes, the good things but they don't really know me. The people who know me are the ones I worry about. I know in myself that I am a better person than the one being portrayed.

"On the pitch, I'm doing something where I have to win. It's like when I was working on a building site. I had the same desire to want to finish a wall. Sometimes I would find myself so into the work that I would be aggressive, barging people out of the way.

"People say it goes over the mark a bit and I'm trying to come to terms with that but I know I'm not going to change the aggressiveness. Like with Andy Sinton against Tottenham last week when I was booked. We fell off the pitch. I know it was stupid but when I got up I said, 'Andy, what's up with you? I didn't catch you. It was just a bang, a laugh kind of thing,' and he said, 'Well, I twisted my ankle'. You still have to say you're the one who made him twist his ankle but I was just into the North London derby. But I can't afford for it to be written that I've changed. Because as soon as people say I've mellowed down, then I've lost something."

Wright admits that the Leicester controversy, and being still one short of Cliff Bastin's Arsenal record of 178 goals, got to him last Saturday. It is why he has felt grateful for the change of environment with England. That he was here, as a first choice after goals against South Africa and Italy this year, owed much to Glenn Hoddle's persuasion a year ago when Wright wanted to be left out of squads because he felt so far down the pecking order. "The boss said, 'Don't be silly' and after the match against South Africa and Le Tournoi it all just changed. I've got my chance now at 48, no 33."

It was thought for several years, especially under Graham Taylor then Terry Venables, that the international game might not suit Wright, where the ball over defences upon which he thrives was less effective, with more alert sweepers operating. "Gary Lineker was an over the top man," Wright says. "When I was in the squad not playing, the best thing was being able to watch him. I just tried to make the same runs. Like him, my game is all about making the run and having the midfield player put the ball there. Paul Scholes was perfect against Italy. I am pleased I did it against Italy because they are meant to be so hard to break down. They are easy if you have got the right midfield player and a forward willing to run.

"No defender likes running towards his own goal. At some time he will lapse in concentration and then it's up to you to finish. Some of the times in the past my touch was bad but I've worked on that. At this level you get so much time and space you can get it down, give it to Beckham and Gazza then get off on your bike." His pace and ability to punish ruthlessly the smaller defences, as his four goals against San Marino four years ago proved, should be valuable against Moldova on Wednesday.

It is clear that Hoddle likes him around for his bubbly effect on the squad off the field. The players reported for duty last Tuesday to find a message from Wright written on a blackboard. "I just wrote, 'I didn't do anything'," he says. "Over the next couple of days people added to it. 'Yes you did you such and such', 'You are as guilty as sin', 'Stay out of trouble', 'Don't run 40 yards', stuff like that. It was good fun.

"Maybe people might remember me for some of the bad things but I know they will remember some of the good things too. The game is more important than me or anybody and I love playing the game. I just want people to see that I play as well as I can. I know you have heard it all before but I don't know if people realise how much it all means to me. I want to achieve something so badly."