The first football game I ever saw live was Arsenal vs Coventry at the now defunct Highbury Stadium in 1996. My brother and I were taken by our parents and had spent the week prior to the game telling anyone at school who’d listen that we were going. But whilst we were excited about going to the game, we were most excited about seeing Ian Wright.
There is no strange coincidence here. When my brother and I grew up in the 90s and started taking an interest in football, Ian Wright was one of the biggest names around. He was the star striker of Arsenal and he was a huge icon of ours. By the time I started supporting Brighton when the club moved to Withdean Stadium in 1999 he had caught not just mine, but the hearts of the whole nation with his loveable happy-go-lucky attitude and cheeky smile as much as with his goalscoring record. So when I realised he was an ex-Palace player, I was too far down the line with my admiration for him to turn back (and to be honest I never bought into all that ‘we hate Palace’ stuff anyway). And either way it’s hard not to admire his story. A story he documented fantastically here.
In this piece, he speaks about how after a troubled childhood and young-adulthood, he almost missed his chance to make it in the game. And after having spent some time in prison for non-payment of driving fines he temporarily gave up football before being convinced to go back and have a trial with Crystal Palace.
One of the key elements of Wright’s journey into professional football came just before that prison spell and involved a number of unsuccessful trials, one of which was a trial with our very own Brighton and Hove Albion. A period of six weeks that in Wright’s article he referred to as where he “chased the dream”, but ultimately didn’t achieve it, his dream would have to wait.
He spent six weeks on trial with Brighton in the early eighties. It was a period where he thought he’d done well enough in to get a contract saying: “I’d been doing well. I was scoring goals against the first team, and I was actually thinking that I was going to get offered something. They had kept me around for more than a month, so I was thinking I must be doing something right.”
In his Autobiography “A Life in Football” Wright said of his trial at Brighton that he “scored goals everywhere there – I scored goals against the first team when we had to play them.” He mentions one occasion where Brighton defender Chris Ramsey even helped him out by telling him: “I’ll let you go past me a few times, but after that, that’s it.” But it was all to no avail.
Wright states in his book he was even told that he would be offered a deal at one point, but ultimately he wasn’t. It’s a decision that then Brighton first team manager Chris Cattlin referred to on a recent Albion Roar podcast as; “a massive mistake that could have taken this club in a completely different direction.”
This was 1983, Brighton were in the Second Division having been relegated from the First Division the season before and had just lost that years FA Cup final. As a result, they had a squad that was being torn apart and needed bolstering, which meant Wright was in line to do just that. But it was a time of great financial struggle and instability at the club, so it may have worked in Wright’s favour to have missed this particular opportunity.
After 1983 the club began a demise from possibly its greatest day to arguably its darkest days. The club was again relegated to the third tier in 1987 and despite an instant return to the second tier and a brief flurry with the playoffs during a promotion push back to the top flight in the 1990/91 season, the club continued its demise up to 1997 where it was a game from going out of the Football League. In contrast, by this point Ian Wright was a national football superstar.
Unlike now, the club had little resemblance to a top flight club in those years. The Goldstone Ground was a crumbling mess, with sections so bad they were deemed unusable. And the finances were even more of a mess, with the club haemorrhaging money for a number of years and at one point reportedly losing £6,000 a week. So, this was hardly the environment where a rough diamond talent like Ian Wright was likely to flourish, maybe he got lucky.
Wright would also have been competing with some decent striking talent that was at the club at the time. Most notably Terry Connor, who signed for the club towards the end of the 1982/83 season but was cup tied for the memorable cup run of that season and so struggled to get a place in the team until a few months into the following season, when the club found themselves playing in the Second Division. Later that season he starring in a 7-0 win over Charlton and so won over the Albion faithful after they had initially been sceptical of his ability. That game would have been around the time of Wright’s trial with the club, so it’s likely to have made it tougher for Wright to subsequently gain a contract.
Terry Connor flourished at the Albion in the following four seasons, top scoring in all but one. The man who stopped him in that other season was future Welsh international and later to be British transfer record breaking striker Dean Saunders, as the two frontmen scored 35 goals between them, with Connor contributing 16. So, it’s safe to say that Brighton weren’t short of striking talent in this time.
Ian Wright said to Catlin towards the end of his trial “you either sign me or I go”, which was an attitude Cattlin said he liked. However, in part on the advice of his coaches Wright was let go. This was becoming a common story for Wright, who said in his piece for the players tribune, “I blew it. So many times.” As Catlin said, Wright had been to clubs “all over London and nobody wanted him.” This was less a case of a player in demand, and more a case of a speculating wanderer running out of road.
But it appears Brighton Manager Cattlin actually had little involvement in the trial, admitting as much in his Albion Roar interview. And Ian Wright said in his interview with the Players Tribune that it was one of Cattlin’s coaching staff who told him he wasn’t being offered a deal.
This is where the story gets confused chronologically. In Wright’s piece “how I earned my smile” he states he was 19 and it was in fact 1982 when he had his trial at Brighton. But this appears to be an error. In his autobiography “A life in football” he says he was 19 or 20 when he went to prison, and him being 20 would make the timings of Catlin’s version of events work as this directly followed his trial at Brighton. This mistake is particularly evident as Chris Catlin wasn’t appointed Brighton manager until 1st October 1983.
Another reason to believe Catlin’s story of events is that Wright was on trial at the same time as Steve Penney who then signed for the club in late 1983. In fact, even in Wright’s autobiography he references Penney and states the club signed Penney “instead” of him, which further backs up this chronology of events.
Steve Penney is man who is highly regarded amongst many of the Albion fans who saw him play in the stripes. In Spencer Vines book ‘a few good men’, in which he picked Steve Penney in his Albion dream team, he stated that Penney was one of the first names on his team-sheet. In the book Spencer says Steve Penney was: “a breath of fresh air, a flying winger whose close control and devastating pace left opponents and spectators alike lost for words.”
So, with Penney’s talent overshadowing the young Ian Wright in a reserve game and the problems of Wright’s troubled upbringing held against him, Wright wasn’t offered a deal whilst Penney was. So, whilst Steve Penney made his debut for Brighton on 26 November 1983 in a 3-1 defeat to Barnsley, Wright left and it wouldn’t be until August 1985 that he’d sign a professional contract with Albion’s arch rivals Crystal Palace.
It would be wrong not to reference race here too. With Wright being a young Black man who grew up on a South East London council estate, he will most likely have experienced his fair share of discrimination. But whilst the sort of unconscious biases to minority groups that still exist to various degrees in society to this day will likely have counted against him, he admits in his autobiography that he didn’t blame race. Wright instead recognised how easy it was for talented players to be rejected flippantly due to the large supply of young talent that was available to clubs. Either way, it would be wrong to make assumptions on this issue for this specific case without any suggestions that any prejudice was involved in the decision making.
“I was done after Brighton” Wright says in his Players Tribune article, whilst describing how he just wanted to concentrate on working and looking after his family. Whilst in his autobiography he states he “honesty thought it was because he wasn’t good enough.” An understandable reaction to repeated rejection. So, despite his obvious talent he found himself playing for a local non-league team Greenwich Borough. And it was here that he was eventually spotted by Crystal Palace.
And after a trial, he signed for Palace in 1985 but he admits that he “very nearly blew it” once again. Wright nearly turned up late for a reserve game after going to Crystal Palace athletic stadium by mistake and had to run to Selhurst Park to get there just in time for kick off. Nonetheless he came off the bench in that game and impressed enough to earn a contract. The rest of course is Crystal Palace folklore. A heartwarming local South London boy done good story.
Whilst with Palace, Wright had a great deal of success and was ultimately voted the club’s “player of the century” as part of the Centenary celebrations in 2005. He helped Palace to gain promotion to the top flight in 1989, to an FA cup final in 1990 in which they lost to Man United in a replay (welcome to the club), and to a third-place finish in the First Division in 1991 after which he left to join Arsenal.
Whilst at Palace Ian Wright was also involved in a match against Brighton that has gone down as one of the rivalries best. A game which saw five penalties awarded (three of which that were missed), a goal from Wright which he has called “the best of his Palace career” and ultimately a 2-1 win for Crystal Palace in 1989. It would turn out to be the last meeting between the sides for 13 years as Palace flirted with the top flight and Brighton flirted with extinction.
Once with Arsenal he was the First Division top scorer in his first season at the club and went onto become the club’s record goal scorer in 1997 only to be replaced by Thierry Henry just 8 years later. During his time at Arsenal he won the Premier League and FA Cup double in 1998 as well as three other cup winning medals and cemented his place as one of the best English strikers of that time, in a period where the competition was plentiful.
Ian Wright is probably the most famous of the subsequently successful trialist Brighton turned down, although this is arguable. Before he signed for Nottingham Forest in 1990 and later became captain of the multiple trophy winning Man United side of the 1990’s, Roy Keane had an ill-fated trial at Brighton too. It had been arranged by then Brighton player and Keane’s former Rockmount football club teammate Paul McCarthy, but the club decided he was too small and rejected him.
I guess these things happen from time to time, but it’s this sort of ‘what if’ story that football is littered with. What if Wright and Keane had signed for Brighton? What if Smith had scored? Unfortunately, we can’t rewrite history, we just have to learn from it.
Nonetheless, would it have worked for Ian Wright at Brighton had he been given the contract anyway? Maybe it was too soon for him, or maybe he would have done for Brighton what he later did for Palace, who knows. But the silver lining of the story is that the investment made by the club’s current owner Tony Bloom, in its training facilities and youth academy means its far less likely to let such talented footballers slip from its grasp again.
As for Ian Wright himself, he is rightly proud of what he’s achieved despite his difficult upbringing. The success that Wright had in the face of multiple rejections amongst an environment of widespread racism and discrimination in English football during the 1980’s is an inspiration to any of us who have faced adversity and failure. As the old saying goes, you can’t trust someone who has never failed. And it appears to me that Ian Wright’s experience of his failure to gain a contract at Brighton helped him to achieve what he did as a professional footballer all those years later.