Wright-Phillips: 'It was frustrating, but Mourinho is still the special one for me'

Shaun Wright-Phillips, out of favour when at Chelsea, returns there today with his new club at a crossroads, he tells Ian Herbert

Saturday 27 February 2010 01:00

So who's been your favourite manager, Shaun Wright-Phillips? Given Manchester City's inclination to dispense with the services of them over the past few months, this question is probably a poisoned chalice for the England midfielder but the name he comes up with is still more intriguing than you might expect.

After a passing nod to Joe Royle, the City manager who gave him his shot at the big time 11 years ago, Wright-Phillips reveals that "I would have to say Jose Mourinho." Again? The same Jose Mourinho who limited him to so few starts in Chelsea's 2005-06 season that Wright-Phillips missed out on a place in Sven Goran Eriksson's 2006 World Cup squad? It seems the Portuguese's legendary way with players even transcends history like that. "The training was geared towards the way players like to play. It was amazing, quick, fast. If you needed to try things to make you improve it was always there in the session," Wright-Phillips tells me before sitting down with young people as part of a Prince's Trust initiative at City's Platt Lane academy. The fields through the window are the place where the midfielder's skills were developed before he became the first product of the academy to make it into the first team.

"Mourinho was good; a very good family man. If people had children and there were days we had to come in he would let you bring kids in and mess about with them while the training session was going on."

The idea of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Co being too hard up to find a child minder and leaving the kids with Uncle Jose – the self-proclaimed "Special One" - while they did their stuff out on the fields of Cobham pushes the bounds of credibility a bit and the 28-year-old might even have used Mourinho as a get-out from discussing the respective merits of Mark Hughes and Roberto Mancini – more of which, later. But the sentiment for Chelsea is undoubtedly there, despite the club simply never living up to the dreams Wright-Phillips had when leaving City for Stamford Bridge five years ago at a price of £21m.

Every time Wright-Phillips' past and present clubs meet, as they do again today, his opinion is sought on that three-year spell in west London between July 2005 and August 2008, with the expectation of some nascent sense of indignation and affrontery. But still, there is none. Memories of the frustrations perhaps? "Yes, it's going to be frustrating whenever you are not playing. It should be like that for any footballer because if you're not frustrated with that situation you're not in love much with the game," he says. But the enduring friendships the City winger lists seem more important. "When I'm in London the ones I pop to see are Joe [Cole], Ashley [Cole], [Michael] Essien and [Salomon] Kalou," he says.

He and Wayne Bridge are also huge friends too, with their mutual interest in motorbikes. Discussion of the Bridge/John Terry issue is off limits but there is a clue to where Wright-Phillips' loyalties might lie when his Prince's Trust audience later ask him which opponents he has found to be most difficult. "Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge."

Chelsea's part in Wright-Phillips' omission for the England squad for the World Cup finals in Germany is something that he has never publicly discussed - the suspicion also being that a fuller role in Mourinho's squad would have prevented Aaron Lennon beating him to a place. "I was obviously hurt," he says now. "It hurts at the time but there's nothing you can do about it. I just took the rest I was given and prepared for the oncoming season."

Another of his great friends in the game, Tottenham's Jermain Defoe, had the same experience that summer, though the two have avoided talking about it much. "When we are together we're like normal friends who've grown up [together]," he says. "We don't really talk about football unless there's something specific like he's scored or I've scored. We just socialise and have a crack like anyone else would."

The essential difference between the two is that while Defoe's 16 league goals for Tottenham this season have given him the sense that he has done all he can to force his way into Fabio Capello's plans, Wright-Phillips finds himself with a similar struggle to the one four years ago – probably needing more starts than the four Mancini has given him in the past two months to avoid history repeating itself. "I wouldn't say there's anxiety," Wright-Phillips says, when it is put to him that the presence of Lennon and Theo Walcott make the right midfield squad positions the most keenly sought after of all. "I just have to do what I can. I didn't play for five games and then came on and played against Stoke at home. If I keep that performance up when I'm on the pitch I don't think there's a problem. 2006 has been and gone. Football is like a rollercoaster and if you keep dwelling on what's happened in the past you're never going to move."

He was talking ahead of Wednesday night's FA Cup fifth-round defeat at the Britannia Stadium, where he was one of the few bright spots for Mancini, coming on after an hour and terrorising the Stoke full-back Danny Collins before the game slipped away. But City's Arab millions do make the challenge for a regular starting place a tough one.

Wright-Phillips' determination levels have always been higher than most in the Premier League. In his schooldays at the salubrious Haberdashers' Aske's in south London, it was a fight simply to get football played. "It was a rugby school but a few of us took a stand and said 'you have to meet us in between'," Wright-Phillips relates, recalling with a shudder a few particularly uncomfortable tackles from one or other of the school's XVs. (Predictably enough, he played on the wing.) "It went on from there. I wouldn't particularly say I liked rugby but it got us playing football."

The young people he is working with as part of the Prince's Trust's Football Initiative are far removed from that kind of educational establishment. The initiative, launched 13 years ago with Manchester City a major supporter, as well as the Premier League, PFA and the Football Foundation, uses football to develop workplace skills in young people excluded from schools. Research by the Trust reveals that in 2008 more than 16,500 young people were permanently excluded from school in this country. Wright-Phillips, wearing jeans, chunky jumper and beanie hat, slots comfortably into a jocular Q&A session with these students, fielding questions on his best 100m time ("17 seconds - you've got to remember how small my legs are"; golf ("I hate it") and whether he'll one day play for Burnley like his father, Ian Wright ("They're doing okay at the moment aren't they?")

Yet there is no disguising the seriousness of the present moment for his club. The departure of Hughes last December surprised many - "of course we were shocked," the player says - and though the midfielder will not judge the former manager against his successor, he does not disguise a belief that the former Chelsea and Manchester United forward was achieving something.

"Each to their own," he says. "Everybody has different ways of managing. Mark Hughes managed the way he managed and we lost one game. Everybody manages differently and as far as I'm concerned the results are the only thing that counts."

One of the most salient changes introduced by Mancini, whose City side have now lost four games, is the heavier focus on tactics, including 'shadow play' in which players take to the training pitch without a ball and work on scenarios based on whichever side they are preparing to play. This is a new one for Wright-Phillips, who has not generally experienced it in Capello's training sessions. "It's all about developing team shape where everybody moves around without the ball," he explains. "Fabio doesn't do too much of that stuff so yes, that's one of the main differences. With Mark Hughes everything was more high tempo."

He is encouraged by Mancini's willingness to use academy players, including Dedryck Boyata and Abdi Ibrahim. "I hope they don't stop bringing all the young players through, because this place has a good record," he says. "At Chelsea there were people underneath of a certain age who didn't get a chance and it could damage their confidence."

Wright-Phillips's self-belief has survived a few buffets but it will be boosted hugely by a performance to remember on his old patch, this lunchtime.

My other life

Away from football I enjoy playing basketball, but I'm no great player. Craig Bellamy has tried to get me into rugby, but I'm not that interested, to be honest.

The most important thing in my life is my daughter, who takes up most of my time.

I also like motorbikes, and hosted a sponsored charity ride with Harley-Davidson last August, along with Wayne Bridge.

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