It’s a chilly Tuesday in the east of London, just around the second tea time of the day for the working class, and after lunchtime for Bloemfontein Celtic reserves and travelling crew at Holiday Inn hotel, Westfield Stratford City.
The mood at the hotel foyer is a bit tense as Phunya Sele Sele juniors, and travelling crew, prepare to assemble at the “Atlanta” - one of the rooms designated for meetings in the hotel - to spend time with a legends of the beautiful game, Ian Wright.
As you enter the room a projector flashes slides of the life-line of this Jamaican descendant but England-born former footballer. There are two chairs prepared for the important visitors, with microphones on top.
Between the rows of chairs that divide Atlanta a busy gentleman connects electronic devices to make sure the presentation is top-class. He introduces himself as Roscoe Bowman - South African-born but based in London as Wright’s personal manager.
He reads out the programme of the day, and tells us to sit tight as the man of the moment is almost at the doorway. Shortly after, Wright enters the room and his reception is a standing ovation.
His British-American accent quickly fills the Atlanta - and it’s probably why the two microphones that were prepared for him and Bowman never came into use. But it is his commanding physical appearance that catches the attention of the South Africans, as they are mostly amazed to see the former footballer in the flesh. Remember, they are used to seeing him on Premier League match-day on their television screens.
You can see from the onset and from his body language that Wright is a confident man, crossing his legs with his winter socks and brown boots portraying the seasonal time of Europe. His coat is nicely fitted on his upper body, while his flat cap sits on his right lap and his “chiskop” is shaved to the tee - almost depicting a picture of those self-pride “Xhosa educated uncles”.
Wright’s first chapter of his story brings a sombre atmosphere at the Atlanta as he goes down memory lane about the days that he - together with his mom Nesta and biological siblings, Maurice and Dionne - cried themselves to sleep due to the nasty behaviour they endured at the hands of his step-father.
“My step dad was a very rough man. He was very bad,” he said. “He treated my mom very bad. It was a house that was filled with anger. Together with my brothers, we were very angry. When I went outside, you’d find that I was getting into trouble a lot. When I started my football at the age of eight, I couldn’t deal with losing because I think I used to cry all the time. Everything was about crying. When I missed a goal at that time, it would affect me for a very long time.”
Wright’s motivational talk is meant to inspire Celtic’s juniors who are on tour for winning the MultiChoice Diski Challenge.
Wright makes it clear that he had struggle before he could enjoy the fruits of his labour. From the malicious treatment of his stepdad, the only thing going for him was his passion for football and the hope of becoming one of the best. His brother Maurice was his knight in shining armour who inspired him to continue to do better despite the hostile situation.
“He was amazing,” Wright said. “My brother Maurice could play - he could do everything. It’s funny that he could write with his left and right hands. He could do things naturally. I used to practise all the time to kick with my left foot. So, if I’d done 20 (kicks) with my right foot, I would do 25 with my left. And so on. I’d then go and show him, and he’d tell me, ‘that’s rubbish man’. But from what he was teaching me, he was driving me to be the best I could be!”
Since his lower grades, Wright had never known fatherly love. But that would change after meeting Sydney Pigden, a teacher at Turnham Junior. Their meeting was in a spot that was gradually becoming Wright’s weeping spot - outside the classroom as he was mostly detained for being a troublesome child who caused havoc for his classmates.
But after Pigden negotiated for Wright to rejoin the rest of the kids the pair grew closer. Pigden taught Wright everything a father could teach his son - from academics to football. That proved an additional input to his football career as he became the best player in his neighbourhood during “Sunday Football”.
But even his prominent eye for goal couldn’t impress clubs largely due to the fact he played for the scouts’ attention instead of staying true to his strengths. The biggest hurdle Wright endured was being rejected at Brighton & Hove Albion despite several weeks of “doing well” during the trials. An off-the-pitch incident at the club’s headquarters made him despise the sport he had vowed to do anything to be part of.
“I didn’t have money to go there. I used to borrow money to go there or to come back. I was playing in the reserves for them, and I was scoring against their first team - I wasn’t trying to be a trickster against them, I was just being simple. But, in the end, they also said no. One day in particular, I felt so ashamed and humiliated because I had the money to go there and nothing to come back with. So, I had to ask a lady at the reception for cash to return to London and she asked me to sit there, so I sat there for like almost six hours and starving and captain Steve Foster came and gave me like £400 (almost R8000). But I remember when I left there, I felt so ashamed and humiliated. And, from then I told myself that I’d never be helpless again.”
Wright gave up on football at 19, and joined the ranks of the employed as a plasterer at Tunnel Refineries. The passion for football had worn out. But that was before an offer from Crystal Palace arrived ... not once but thrice in a space of six weeks. His boss at Refineries motivated him to heed the call and go back to the game - and he made his breakthrough at Palace at age 22. And so began a remarkable career with the Eagles - scoring 117 goals in 215 starts and inspiring them to promotion to the EPL in 1989, while bagging the club’s Player of the Year that season.
“People will always tell you that you are not good enough but it’s never over if deep down you know that you are good enough,” Wright said to the Celtic youngsters who were enraptured by his story.
After that run of form the Eagles agreed to the transfer of Wright to Arsenal but without his consent. However, before he could don the club’s red and white jersey, his arrival was met with jeers from supporters who questioned the reason behind his signing. By now Wright had found the perfect response for his naysayers - delivering on the football pitch.
Again, he picks up the story. “After I signed for Arsenal, I was at home watching the news and it came up that they (the club’s supporters) went into the Arsenal area and they were asking about the new signing, and saying, 'we don’t need him. What are we signing him for? We have players that can do the job.' But obviously (inside) I was saying 'I’ll prove it to you,' but I was petrified - because a lot of people go to bigger clubs and it doesn’t work.”
Wright scored a hattrick on debut before going on to be the club’s second highest goal scorer of all time with 185 goals, behind Thierry Henry who ended on 288 strikes. Wright inspired the team to a double in 1998 - the English Premiership title and FA Cup. Despite not being signed by Arsene Wenger, Wright believes that the French-born coach took his career to the next level at Arsenal.
“Arsene was the great one!” he says with a big smile. “One of his main strategies was rest - get it off the feet - and drinking a lot of water. It was like revolution and unbelievable stuff that we were doing (when he took over from Stewart Houston).”
As a finale to his talk, the name of Percy Tau came up. Wright joined the chorus of voices saddened by what has happened to Tau.
Tau was signed by Brighton for a record R50 million from Mamelodi Sundowns last season, but has had to spend the current campaign (and possibly the next) with Royale Union Saint- Gilloise in the second division of the Belgian Pro League. It’s not that he is not talented enough to compete in the EPL, it’s just Bafana Bafana's Fifa rankings are below the EPL requirements for him to get a work permit. The laws of the English FA state that a player must have played at least 75% of his national team matches in the past two years, while that team must be in the top 50 in the world rankings.
Wright tells the gathering that he believes that if the PFA was controlled by people who understood football, Tau would have made a name for himself in the EPL by now.
“The problem I’ve got is that they (the FA) don’t take you on talent but they take you on logistics and red tape. And it’s going to be difficult for South African players to get work permits, and to a level where players can come straight to England. This is why you need football people to make these decisions and not government or civil people,” Wright said.
“Look at Percy, I’ve seen him. Don’t tell me that he can’t play at Brighton. The man is a good footballer. Had they given him the work permit, do you tell me that he was not going to progress? And, how will he progress if they are going to do things to stop him getting a work permit? You have to judge people on their ability to progress.”
It was important for the youngsters to listen to Wright, especially as a number of PSL teams take the MultiChoice Diski Challenge league for granted. The Diski Challenge is well organised and it is one of the ladders Tau used to climb to the top.
After almost a two-hour speech from the former Arsenal talisman, everyone in the room flocked towards him for snapshots (so did I!) His humility was so appealing that in almost every picture that he took, his smile that was complemented by the famous gold tooth that he had since he was a teenager, was evident - almost brightening up the room.
On Wednesday, Celtic’s last match-day, striker Lunga Zikade attested to the wisdom gained on the “Ian Wright Day”, by scoring his second goal of the tour against Fulham FC. He had scored against West Ham United in their first match, but he was more thrilled with his latest contribution.
“In that game against West Ham, we created enough opportunities to win the game but we didn’t win. I think seeing Ian Wright also helped in boosting our confidence. He told us as a striker, you need to score goals - and there’s no need of being fancy about that. And, you also need to benefit the team as well because at the end, individual accolades are about the team,” Zikade said.