Ian Wright: The South London Smile That Lit Up English Football

15 September 2020 08:00

It's impossible not to love Ian Wright. His story is memorable for many reasons, and his legacy far reaching even beyond London's city walls.

For someone who only turned professional three months shy of his 22nd birthday, to go on and achieve what he did in his career, score the number of goals he did and surpass all expectations is a timeline worth revisiting.

Crystal Palace was where he made his name, helping guide the club up to the First Division in the late 1980s before continuing his fine scoring streak in front of goal in the top tier. 25 goals at the beginning of the decade were enough to convince the division's top hitters to take notice, with Arsenal forking out a club record fee of £2.5m to take him north of the Thames.

From a point where a career in football appeared an unachievable dream, this young striker who'd grown up in the rough south London council estates was tasked with leading the line under George Graham.

He smashed it.

His debut season at Highbury saw Wright finish as the league's top scorer on 29 goals. A wonderfully converted debut goal against Leicester was an indication of what was to come. There were many who doubted Wright's ability to make the step up in his career, but in less than a few months he silenced any naysayers.

Wright scored all manner of goals in his first season, adding further strings to his already stocked bow throughout the the following few campaigns.

Having come within a whisker of winning the FA Cup with Palace, he banished demons of Wembley failure by securing an FA Cup and League Cup double in his second term with the Gunners.

The league campaign ended in a disappointing tenth place, but Wright continued to shoulder the scoring mantle at the club, finishing top scorer with 30 goals in all competitions. It was a feat he would maintain for six consecutive seasons. Those strikes helped secured Arsenal a spot in the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1994, a competition they won with a 1-0 over Parma. Wright was suspended for the final, but still claimed the only European medal of his career.

Struggling for form in the league, Arsenal would record their worst league finish of the Premier League era in 1994/95. Nevertheless, Wright bagged 18 in the league, although it was his impact on the European stage that drew the biggest praise. Scoring in every round of the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup up until the final, Wright's Arsenal were narrowly beaten by Zaragoza in extra time.

Despite managerial changes - the short spell of Bruce Rioch and the eventual arrival of Arsene Wenger - there was no preventing Wright from etching his name into Gunners folklore forever. That said, even if he weren't to become the club's all-time leading scorer, the professionalism he showed, the smile he always adorned and the love he held for the club would have ensured he'd be fondly remembered anyhow.

When Le Professeur came to north London, Wright was in the latter stages of his career, touching 33. Yet due to the manner with which he kept his body in check and the willingness to succeed, his scoring boots hadn't yet been shelved. 23 Premier League goals in the 1996/97 season put him as the division's second top scorer, with a telepathic understanding forged between himself and Dennis Bergkamp.

It was relentless. His ability to find the back of the net from every angle, any position or with either foot had graced English football throughout the decade. He was a player who enjoyed playing the game as much as supporters enjoyed watching him. Inventive celebrations and equally imaginative finishes continued to litter the Highbury turf.

In 1997/98 - what was to be his Arsenal swansong - he had his most memorable campaign. Six matches in during a home tie with Bolton, a hat-trick from the Highbury hero would mark the one of the most treasured days in the club's long history. Those three strikes put Wright up to 180 for the club, breaking Cliff Bastin's previous record of 178.

The legendary celebration where he unveiled a shirt baring the words 'just done it' remain stitched into the very fabric of the club.

While the momentous occasion remains untouched, it would come in a title-winning season, where Wright would score ten goals in 22 appearances to lift his first and only Premier League title. An FA Cup final victory was the icing on the cake.

Leaving Arsenal that summer, Wright would have short spells at West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Celtic and finally Burnley, where he would retire at the end of 2000 after helping the side secure promotion to the First Division.

A fitting end to the career of a man who himself reached new levels when all seemed against him. Not only that, his own dedication and desire had catapulted him onto a pedestal all of his own.


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Source: 90min