Adam Hurrey’s 90s Heroes: Ian Wright – From Arsenal goal machine to stealing Michael Parkinson’s thunder

In the summer of 1992, smack bang in the middle of Serie A’s minor dabbling in English footballers, Parma were on the hunt for a goalscorer. Alessandro Melli had top-scored in the league with six, Tomas Brolin had contributed just four, and manager Nevio Scala cast his net. 

Ian Wright had just completed his debut season with Arsenal, scoring 29 times to top the First Division scoring charts, and he wandered into the office of manager George Graham along with his agent Jerome Anderson. Wright was soon excused to wait outside.

“He’s playing for the Arsenal, and you’re coming in here talking about f**king Parma?! F**king get out.” Parma signed Faustino Asprilla instead, and the quite fascinating story of Ian Wright in Italy never was.

That Wright was knocking on for 29 years old when faced with his first - and arguably only - major career crossroads says a lot for his status as the patron saint of late starters. Plenty of footballers, and a fair few goalscorers, have taken alternative routes to the top rather than beaver away earnestly in the youth teams, but Ian Wright’s window of elite effectiveness was so much later than the established template that he remains the model for simply not giving up.

The Guardian described Wright a few years ago as a blend of “the rabid desire of the late bloomer and the coiled menace of the archetypal streetfighter.” While his tangible enthusiasm for virtually anything to do with football has certainly shaped his career both on the field and beyond, that implied latter label of trouble-maker has, over time, been buried under an avalanche of goals. 

The bulk of any retrospective on Wright’s unorthodox body of work must surely be dedicated to his Swiss Army knife of finishing ability - and that will be the meat of this article’s sandwich - but the list of aggrieved opponents and officials is a surprisingly long one.

A £1,500 fine for spitting at Oldham fans in 1991. A three-match ban for punching David Howells during a North London derby in 1992. A disabled linesman accused Wright of shouting verbal abuse at him during a League Cup tie in 1993. Coventry goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic claimed he had been “blatantly kneed in the nose” in 1996, shortly after a clash with Sheffield Wednesday in which Wright had pulled Regi Blinker by the dreadlocks and then called David Pleat a “pervert”.

These are all matters of fact, rather than interpretations, but yet none of them are really the prevailing images of Wright. Perhaps only his two-footed leap at Peter Schmeichel - in 1997, during the earlier Premier League days of the long-running Arsenal-Manchester United hostilities - sticks in the mind, but plenty have done worse in pursuit of those particular bragging rights.

Rather than a nasty streak, it’s tempting to cite Wright’s natural overenthusiasm as the driving force for his early transgressions, almost as much as it was for his boundless energy up front and the celebrations that made each of his goals feel like last-minute Cup final winners.

That ties in with one of the most common narratives for the late-starters: the sense they are trying to make up for lost time. Steve Coppell, the manager who brought him to Crystal Palace from the anonymity of Bermondsey’s Ten-Em-Bee FC, certainly got that impression. "Once the whistle goes, he still plays football the way he has played it since his non-league days, bursting to win," Coppell said in 1995. "If you were to take away that edge, you'd lose the exciting player that he is. I don't think Ian can play in control. He's intuitive and instinctive. If you make him think, the intuition is lost."

That impatience, that impulsiveness, characterises much of what eventually became a YouTube goalscoring showreel that truly rivals that of Alan Shearer for relentlessness, Matt Le Tissier in terms of its occasional impudence, and - dare we say it - even matching Thierry Henry for sheer aplomb.

His first league goal for Arsenal - in fact, the first of a 27-minute hat-trick against Southampton in September 1991 - was a pure, bread-and-butter First Division goal, a one-on-one with the keeper ended abruptly with a rifled finish into the corner.

"He was phenomenal. He just loved scoring goals," Paul Merson told Sky in 2015. "When he scored a goal in training, he celebrated like it was a Saturday. He came into the game late, so he had a real appreciation of it." The amateur footballer in him, you suspect, wasn’t hard to find when Nike filmed their iconic 1997 advert “Parklife”:

What the repertoire of fellow scorer-of-great goals Mark Hughes - and even fellow great goalscorer Shearer - lacked compared to Wright’s was the commitment to what is known in the trade as Gleeful Thumping.

Ramming the ball home was for Wright not as much an expression of goalscoring authority as much as a celebration of being able to combine fine technique with brute force. Wright’s goals could be emphatic and exquisite, and genuinely often at the same time.

Left foot or right foot: sometimes, the best goalscorers leave you wondering which is really the stronger. Wright’s variety in front of goal - especially in the years before Arsene Wenger brought pasta, passing and Patrick Vieira to the Arsenal equation - is what took him to 185 goals in 288 games for the club.

"As a team-mate, my abiding memory is just how lethal he was in terms of his finishing," Martin Keown recalled to Sky.

"It was like he had a mental book of finishes. Time used to stand still for him and he would flick through the pages and decide which way he was going to do it. He didn't have a stock finish. He could finish bottom left, top right, anywhere.”

And, inevitably, when a scorer gets to the point where he can do almost as he wishes in front of goal, the finishes tend to take on something of a flourish. There was his one-man unveiling of Neville Southall’s statue at Highbury in 1993/94...

...and the highly impractical lob against Swindon in the same 34-goal season, the sort of goal a striker could only conceive of when 1) oozing confidence and 2) playing Swindon Town’s 1993/94 side:

There was also that delicious moment against Leeds in 1995/96, which owed much to a near 32-year-old suddenly finding himself utterly comfortable in his own footballing skin, and which is deservedly one of the most defining of Wright’s 313 career goals.

That particular angled chip - the one mastered by Eric Cantona in that similarly career-crowning goal against Sunderland and since attempted 1,335 fruitless times by Wayne Rooney - is always a camera-friendly one. In this case, it was made even more sumptuous by Wright having to dig the ball out from under his own feet, by “contorting his body like a man speculatively sticking his bum out on the dancefloor during Let Me Be Your Fantasy”, as the Guardian’s Rob Smyth recently put it.

Such imperious domestic form is supposed to bleed naturally on to the international stage, but - unlike his quickfire ascent from grassroots football to the Arsenal record books - Wright’s timing when it came to England was cruelly off. 

Unlike some of his Premier League goalscoring peers - Fowler, Le Tissier, Cole - Wright’s problem initially wasn’t so much the absurd competition, rather the fact that his first opportunity for his country came during the much-lampooned crunch time of Graham Taylor’s reign. Four goals in the meaningless thrashing of San Marino, none of which he was able to celebrate with anything more than rushing back to the centre-circle with the ball, constitute almost half of his England haul.

Amid Wright’s international misfortune (mystifyingly overlooked for Taylor’s Euro ‘92 squad despite those 29 league goals, ignored for the two years of Terry Venables’ build-up to Euro ‘96, and then hamstrung before the World Cup in 1998) there were one or two glimpses that helped explain why Wright so unashamedly invests his emotions in the national side to this day.

Chorzow, May 1993: “I was getting a lot of stick and the press were saying I’d never score for England,” Wright later told FourFourTwo. “We were losing 1-0 and Graham Taylor brought me on and I scored the equaliser with six minutes to play.”

“Everyone could see how much it meant by how I celebrated. To score for my country meant the world. It changed my life again, because people were saying I wasn’t good enough.”

Wright’s brief international resurgence under Glenn Hoddle featured even high-profile contributions as a 33-year-old in 1997, finishing superbly against Italy in Le Tournoi and then hitting the post late on as England secured a draw in Rome to seal World Cup qualification.

But - for a man so hell-bent on playing football - his England career was destined for frustration. Wright never played more than three England games in a row, and yet remains one of the most-capped players never to have got the nod for a major tournament.

The World Cup’s loss, however, proved to be light entertainment’s gain. Wright had already dipped his toes into extra-curricular waters with his 1993 single “Do The Right Thing”, co-written by one of the Pet Shop Boys and - more importantly for Wright’s standing among the Premier League’s goal-getters - reaching no.43 in the charts compared to no.68 for Andy Cole’s “Outstanding”.

Even while winding down his top-flight goalscoring exploits with West Ham, Wright was embarking on what seemed to be the most convincing soon-to-be-ex-footballer TV career until Gary Lineker finally hit his stride. There was his 1998 ITV chat show Friday Night’s All Wright, which gained enough attention to rile his timeslot rival Michael Parkinson over at the BBC. “I don’t like his careless attitude,” Parky spat. “They are working on the assumption that what I do for a living can be done by anybody in the street. I'm quite offended by that. And I'm quite agitated.” 

A rather shaken Wright eventually described being called out by “The Man when it comes to chat shows” as “like Pele having a go at me for trying to play football”, before taking his considerable on-camera confidence to the BAFTA-worthy levels of a Chicken Tonight advert.

Wright’s post-football CV ticked all the prime-time boxes as quickly as his professional career had done; crowned by an episode of This Is Your Life which proved he was surely the only man in existence in whose honour Arsene Wenger and Dennis Bergkamp would share a sofa with Jeremy Beadle and Dale Winton. 

“Ian's got the right mix of chat, savvy, wit, openness, enthusiasm and credibility," said a BBC executive when Wright’s surname was shoehorned yet again into another chat show, Wright Here, Wright Now. “Men want to be like him and women want to shag him. Perfect.”

Wright’s grinning conquest of throwaway media extended, of course, to presenting his own football blooper DVD: Ian Wright’s It Shouldn’t Happen to a Footballer was such a roaring Christmas-stocking success that it spawned the follow-up Ian Wright’s It Really Shouldn’t Happen to a Footballer. 

One of the most enthusiastic footballers of all time, though, will never be likely to bury the memories of all that youthful galloping and 300-odd goals, no matter how much TV he does. And, perhaps more acutely than the average retiree, Wright misses it all dearly.

"It was almost like a drug," he told Vice earlier this year. "You go out on the pitch and get that lovely haziness, you hear the roar of the crowd and it's incredible. For a while, I couldn't get used to it, like, so many people being in the stadium. I kind of fed off it, because it was like an opportunity to show off in a way. Everything you done, whether it was a great run, or a pass, or whatever, the crowd would roar and be there clapping. It was like being on drugs – I'm not joking – it was like being on drugs."

His brand of football punditry may not be to everyone’s taste (does any pundit manage to satisfy us all?) but, at any of the various stages of his career, nobody has exuded a sheer love for football more than Ian Wright.