In the box and on the box

Ros Wynne-Jones on the rise to TV chat-show host of the country's most irrepressible footballer
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The Independent Online
FOR SOME rich people who have known poverty, it is the food they can't bear to waste that gives away their background. Or wardrobes stuffed with clothes, as if they can't believe their gold card really works, and keep trying it out again and again. With Ian Wright it is shoes. He can tell the precise make of a person's footwear from 20 paces. When he meets someone for the first time, he looks straight at their feet.

When he was young he went through scores of shoes, bought to be worn for church, kicking balls around the south-east London council estate where he grew up, until his mum refused to buy any more. Now that the Arsenal striker's feet have made him a millionaire - they are worth pounds 100,000 a year in Nike sponsorship alone - he has dozens of pairs of shoes, many of them handmade.

In the latest episode in a remarkable career, he is to host a chat-show starting this Friday, which LWT is promoting with the slogan: "These boots were made for talking." Guests would be well advised to choose their footwear carefully.

Given his head, Wright should be a charismatic host, offering a dangerous edge of unpredictability that is not part of the repertoire of Michael Parkinson, who appears simultaneously on BBC1. Unlike most professional footballers, Ian Wright has not spent most of his life institutionalised by the game, tightly controlled and protected from the outside world. It gives him an attractive, if sometimes volatile, spontaneity.

A FORMER plasterer, he still finds it hard to believe that apparently sane people want to pay him inordinate sums of money to run around a football pitch, doing the thing he loves above all else. That people should now want to pay him hard cash to sit on a couch and talk to other celebrities must seem even more incomprehensible.

Wrighty was born in Woolwich, in south-east London, in 1963, the third child of Herbert Maclean and Nesta Wright. Maclean walked out when Wright was four, leaving four children who took their mother's maiden name. "It was my mum who was the driving force behind our family," says Wright. "I don't know how she did it at times, but there was always food on the table."

The first audience to which he had to prove himself were his older brothers, particularly Morris, who was closest to him in age. "I was jealous of him because he'd continually tease me about not having a hard shot or being able to kick with my left foot or not being able to head a ball properly," he says.

Wright had an early tendency towards on-pitch histrionics. If the game wasn't going his way he would cry tears of anger and frustration. To this day he cries easily. He grew into a streetwise teenager, in and out of trouble, and was relegated to the bottom set at secondary school, where the disruptive kids in the class were collectively known as "nutcases".

Only football kept him in school until he was 15, when he left empty- handed. Brushes with the law followed, culminating in a five-day sentence in Chelmsford prison for driving offences, where harsh treatment terrified him into more law-abiding ways.

A year after leaving school, he moved in with his girlfriend, Sharon, whose son Wright treated as his own; the couple also had their own child. Both children are already talented footballers. After the couple split, he fell into a brief relationship from which he also has a son. "If I had my time again," says Wright, "that is the one thing that I would do differently. It kills me to think that I may ever have done something to hurt my children."

These were difficult days for Wright. Aside from the responsibilities of having three children to provide for at the age of 21 on the money he earned on building sites, he was getting beyond the age where professional football was a realistic option. Being turned down by Brighton after a two-month trial into which Wright had poured all his longing was almost too much to bear. But in 1985, when Crystal Palace offered him a trial, he seized the chance with both feet. Within weeks, he had realised his life-long dream of becoming a professional footballer.

Training at Palace also brought a second reward. While waiting for the bus to the training ground every day (he was banned from driving) he met his wife. Deborah Martin, a respectable Catholic girl who had never had a boyfriend and who, like Wright, had grown up on the Honor Oak council estate in Brockley, fell in love with him gradually during their daily encounters at the bus stop. He told her he was going to play centre-forward for England. By the time they married, he had already won his first England cap.

The couple have a child, Stacey, and the relationship has survived - and, according to Wright, has actually been strengthened by - the revelation in the tabloids of two affairs. He is positive about their future and is undergoing therapy to help him control the frequent outbursts which mar his on-pitch - and more recently, off-pitch - performances.

Wright works hard for charity, and has lent his credibility to help young and working-class people though causes like Childline and the Brixton gun amnesty. He is proud of his roots, anxious never to be thought to have sold out the black community because of his success. He is outspoken about racism, which he first encountered on the football pitch as a child, when he was called "nig-nog" and "wog". He has experienced it throughout his career, most notably at Millwall. Wright remembers sneaking into the ground as a child to watch his local team, hoping that a black player on the pitch would distract the Millwall fans from the black boy in the crowd. He knows that now he might be the black player on the pitch attracting attention away from other black kids on the terraces.

In 1991, Wright's football career, characterised at times by foolish fits of temper and at others by sheer brilliance, took him from Palace to the big time at Highbury, where he felt he must play if he was to be selected for England. Earlier this season he became highest goalscorer in Arsenal's history, but his strike rate has dropped off and there have been flat periods in recent months. At 34, these lapses must have something to do with his age.

On the pitch last Wednesday, when Arsenal were playing at unglamorous Port Vale in an FA Cup replay, Wright's neat and diminutive figure dodged the opposition defence with an air of studied indifference, as though the occasion was not worthy of his presence. But when he injured his hamstring and went off, Port Vale's fans sighed with relief. Like his fixation for shoes, it is testimony to Wright's essential insecurity that he feels obliged to strut a little when playing smaller clubs.

If a place in the World Cup squad were determined by how much a player yearns to play for his country, Wright would be first on the list. Glenn Hoddle would like very much to take him, if only because of his uplifting effect on the other players - but inconsistent form, recurring disciplinary offences and injuries are threatening Wright's dream.

In the meantime, his photogenic features and charismatic personality have won him the one-off chat show, featuring Lionel Richie, Prince Naseem Hamed and girl band All Saints, which he hopes will turn into a series. The television opportunity follows his performance in an advertisement for Mercury One to One, where the volatile Wright eulogises his pacifist hero, Martin Luther King. As with everything Wright does, some found the association between the pair distasteful, even offensive. Hearing him unscripted on the subject of King and Malcolm X, however, the reverence in his voice is unmistakeable. You sense that is precisely King's legendary restraint, "in the face of such provocation", that Wright, whom restraint so often eludes, admires above all else.

Wright is carefully and strictly guarded these days by an embarrassment of agents and minders. The unpredictability and the disarming openness which have contributed to his stardom mean that he is under constant scrutiny in case he should put a foot wrong off the pitch. Sports writers report that he has been tied into exclusive deals with national newspapers specifically to limit access to him by journalists. One, who did secure a meeting with him recently, claims that Wright's personal manager offered to do the entire interview "and then you can just say Wrighty said it all".

LAST WEEK, at a "joint interview" with different national newspapers to promote the forthcoming chat-show, the room was so crowded with power- dressed staff "assisting" Wright's answers that the scene began to feel parodic. Wright, who it is impossible to dislike off the pitch, had bounced into the building with his usual effervescent charm, but soon seemed deflated and childlike. At the end of 30 minutes precisely, one of the public relations minders interrupted him halfway through a long and enthusiastic sentence to declare that the interview was at an end. He simply looked down, perhaps at her shoes, and left his sentence hanging in the air. The TV people have yet to learn, as George Graham did at Arsenal when he managed Wright, that crushing him in this way will either kill the very magic they want to harness, or that it will simply backfire when he is at last unrestrained on the big day.

Whether he is performing on the pitch or on the small screen, Wright's audience can be guaranteed a passionate performance. He has the drive of a man forever hearing an inner voice - perhaps his brother's - shouting that he is not good enough, not fast enough, not famous enough, not the No.1 player in British football. It is as if he is haunted by the days when his feet were fast, his shots hard and his aim true, but he felt his broken, lace-up church shoes let him down in the playground.

'Friday Night's All Wright', is on ITV on Friday at 10.40pm.