A tribute to Arsenal's Mr. Wright

As a current Arsenal striker finds himself in the midst of a purple patch, we pay tribute to a former marksman who will go down as one of the club's greatest ever players.

Football News: Ian Wright

Abhishek Mehrotra

Its fourth best player ever, in fact. That is the exalted position Ian Wright occupies in the pantheon of Arsenal greats, according to a poll on Arsenal.com. 

The players above him? Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Tony Adams. Not bad company for someone who came within a whisker of becoming a plasterer in London.

What a travesty that would have been - for Wright was one of the most talented footballers of his generation; a supreme athlete blessed with all the traits that make a world-class striker - speed, the ability to find the tiniest space in the opposition defence, the skill to create chances and a dazzling repertoire of tools with which to finish them.

Well before Bergkamp graced Highbury with his silky skills, Wright was wowing crowds on a weekly basis. The Arsenal of 1991 - when Wright arrived at the club for £2.5 million (which was, believe it or not, a club record at the time) - were the Arsenal of George Graham. A formidable outfit; but a hideously boring one. 

"1-0 to the Arsenal" was the chant among the fans, an ode to Graham's approach to the game - score one and then concentrate on shutting out the opposition completely. More often than not, it was Wright who scored that one.

Player                         Club                Years                           Games   Goals   Goals/game 
Alan Shearer Blackburn 1992-96 132 112 0.85
Thierry Henry Arsenal 1999-2007 235 174 0.74
Michael Owen Liverpool 1996-2004 193 118 0.61
Ian Wright Arsenal 1991-98 212 128 0.60
JF Hasselbaink Chelsea 2000-04 119 70 0.59
Andy Cole Man United 1995-2001 161 93 0.58
Robbie Fowler Liverpool 1993-01,2006-07  225 128 0.57
Wayne Rooney Man United 2004-current 207 111 0.54
Les Ferdinand QPR 1987-95 152 80 0.53
Teddy Sheringham Tottenham 1992-97, 2001-03 230 98 0.43

Ian Wright: Comparison with selected strikers in the First Division/Premier League

Note: Most of the players mentioned above represented other clubs too over the course of their careers. The numbers here are for clubs that they're most well known for representing.

From 1991-92 to the 1994-95 season, which saw Graham being replaced by caretaker manager Stewart Houston in February, Wright scored more than 30 goals in every single campaign - an astonishing return for a side not renowned for its goal-scoring prowess. And while the Premier League title eluded him during that period, there was no dearth of trophies - with the Gunners winning the League Cup, the FA Cup (both in 1993) and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup (in 1994).  

Wright scored some stunning goals during that period - none more so than the one against Everton on 28th August, 1993. 

How different the Arsenal of that era were from today can be gauged from the commentary in the build-up to the goal. As Wright received a long ball from the deep, the commentator complained: "Arsenal with the direct route again..." - the kind of words reserved for the likes of Stoke and Blackburn today.

What followed, however, was sheer magic. 

The ball bounced slightly to Wright's front and looked to be going away. With one flick, he pulled it towards him, with another he took it over and past the bewildered defender before lobbing it from an acute angle into the far corner over the hapless Neville Southall - the Toffees' keeper. 

Wright himself considers that to be his favourite goal, telling fourfourtwo: "My second goal against Everton in 1993 [was the best]. Flick, flick, flick, I was in a flicking move. I flicked all over the place. Then I flicked it over the goalie as well. "

Of all the gems he scored in his career, this one was the piece de résistance. Even for an audience long used to the striker's brilliance, it was something special. 

Season        PL Apps    Goals     Cup Apps     Goals    
1991-92*  38 29 3 2
1992-93 31 15 15 15
1993-94 39 23 13 11
1994-95 31 18 14 12
1995-96 31 15 9 8
1996-97 35 23 6 7
1997-98 24 10 4 1

Ian Wright: Goals for Arsenal by season

*Including five goals in eight appearances for Crystal Palace

Eighteen months later though, there was a real danger that that audience would be deprived of their star man's services. Bruce Rioch took over the reins from Houston in the summer of 1995 and immediately there was friction between player and new manager. So much so that Wright put in a transfer request.

"I was disappointed in the way George Graham left, and I had a bad relationship with Bruce Rioch. The club was just too big for him, and he wasn't for me. In the end I wanted to put myself on the transfer list because I didn't want to play for him. Football is meant to be enjoyed. I hated it and I hated being anywhere near the guy," he revealed in the same fourfourtwo interview.

He may have hated Rioch, but Wright must have been grateful to him for one reason: Dennis Bergkamp. Not many people can claim to have left a legacy despite being at a club for only one season, but by bringing Bergkamp from Inter Milan to Highbury for £7.5 million, Rioch ensured he will always be fondly remembered. 

Wright was the one who benefitted the most from the genius' arrival. With someone even more talented playing alongside, or on most occasions, behind him - Wright's 32-year-old legs found a second wind as he smashed in 30 goals in all competitions in 1996-97. The duo formed an attacking partnership that stands second only behind Henry and Bergkamp for the Gunners. Just.

Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp

And those who have watched Henry and Bergkamp play together know how big a compliment that is. When asked which partnership he would put on top, Wright said: "I'd have to put Henry and Bergkamp at the top, but they're not a million miles away from me and Bergkamp. Dennis can make anybody great - he definitely did that with me."

Bergkamp and Wright were vastly different characters. The Dutchman was quiet, introverted and an exceptional student of the game. The Englishman was loud, brash and a lover of the high life. ("I'm an instinctive observer of the game. I see what I see but when it comes to setting stuff up, I don't think I'd be very good," he admitted in an interview with The Sun). On the pitch though, they shared a telepathic understanding.

Bergkamp was at hand when Wright scored his 179th Arsenal goal against Bolton on September 13, 1997 to break Cliff Bastin's record of 178 and become the highest ever scorer for the Gunners. It would have been in an amazing achievement in any context; the fact that Wright had done it despite joining Arsenal at the ripe old age of 27 made it quite incredible.

It had taken him a mere six years to beat a record that had stood for nearly half a century - but a long six years to get his hands on that coveted Premier League medal. It finally happened that season - as a rejuvenated Arsenal under Arsene Wenger wrested the title from Manchester United by a solitary point.

Ian Wright

Football is a young man's game, and even someone as fiery as Wright was spent at the age of 33. He had to make way, and so he did - leaving at the end of the Premier League winning season and wrapping up his career with short stints at West Ham, Celtic and Burnley.

A season later, Thierry Henry would arrive at Highbury as a winger and evolve into one of the most fearsome forwards the English game had ever seen. He obliterated every Arsenal goal-scoring record in sight, including Wright's tally of 185 strikes. 

A number that had been expected to stand for ages by everyone (including Wenger himself) was shattered in a little over eight years (on October 18, 2005). 

But for all those magnificent strikes, the madcap celebrations and memorable quips - Ian Wright deserves his own special place in the glittering firmament of Arsenal greats.



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