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Ian Wright on injustices in English football: ”You’re praying that they just play well”

For years, Ian Wright consistently scored goals one after another and became a club legend at Arsenal. Despite the intense rivalries in England, Ian Wright is one of those rare figures who can transcend loyalty and rivalry. Everyone seems to appreciate the outspoken former top striker when he passionately expresses his unfiltered views on Arsenal, English football, young talent, and women’s football. But he has had to travel a long road. “People can’t hate me any more, because I’m not the guy who they thought I was,” Wright says in an interview with GQ. “Now, they see that I’m a decent bloke who just wanted to win for my team and do the best I could, because of my upbringing. Now I’m not a threat to them.”

Ian Wright

It’s no wonder Ian Wright’s story resonates so well. It’s a truly remarkable tale. From a difficult childhood with an unstable home life, failed trials as a footballer, his stint in Chelmsford prison for non-payment of fines and driving without a license; and his decision, while raising his adopted toddler son Shaun at home and with another son, Bradley, on the way, to set aside his football ambitions for a steady job at a sugar refinery in Greenwich, the list goes on. Yet, alongside these challenges, there were his significant successes: Scoring goal after goal, deciding the 1990 FA Cup final as a substitute with two goals shortly after recovering from a broken leg, and his impressive trophy cabinet.

Rejection and racism

Wright had to constantly battle rejection and racism, even as he broke through to the highest level. For instance, he was overlooked by the English national team despite winning the Golden Boot in his first season at Arsenal. ”They continually wanted to have me as the angry Black man,” Wright says. ”No matter what I did, no matter what I achieved and no matter how good the goal was, they would always find a negative to not give me that credit.” Wright has seen it all. With his experience, he tries to help new generations. ”What I always say to Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Kalvin Phillips or whoever it is, is this: ‘Listen, bro, this is a journey,”’ he says. ”It’s tough and I’m not going to sit here and say I’d be able to deal with being a footballer in a world where there’s social media and everyone can come for you. But you’re still doing one of the best things in life: Playing professional football at the highest level. Nothing should ever stop you from feeling like you are the guy because you’ve worked hard to get where you are. All this noise, that’s all it is.”

Injustice

The racism that Wright faced in the past is still something players like Rashford, Sterling, and Saka deal with today on the field. ”You’re praying that they just play well, just have a good touch. It’s not just a Black thing, it’s a working-class thing,” he says. ”There’s certain people in society who are not happy about working-class lads, whether they’re Black or white, progressing. People are talking about Saka in a way that’s like, ‘It’s done for him, he’s this, he’s that, he’s not world class.’ It’s crazy and it’s ludicrous what we’re expecting these guys to have to deal with. That’s why you bring current players back to the core of why they’re playing and take them to a place when they were younger and they done it for love. Because that supersedes everything.”

The sympathetic Wright sees not only that Black players face disadvantages, but also women’s football, of which he is a staunch advocate. ”I love the women’s game simply because it’s another form of football,” he says. ”But there’s also been an injustice – because for 50 years they weren’t allowed to play. The saddest thing is knowing there’s generations of women who could have played. Imagine if I was born a woman? I’d have been fucked.”