When most people think of Ian Wright's playing days, they picture him in a vintage Arsenal strip. Whether it's the iconic yellow and black chevrons or the navy-striped sleeves of the early nineties home kit, the collective memory of his career is one of a man wheeling away to celebrate a one-on-one finish, his arms outstretched in sheer delight and his JVC-sponsored shirt billowing in the wind. Wright spent seven years at Highbury all told, winning the Premier League, several domestic trophies and the European Cup Winners' Cup in the process. He also broke the club's all-time scoring record with 185 goals in 288 appearances, an accolade he held for eight years before it was bettered by Thierry Henry.
For those with hazy memories of the arse end of the twentieth century – whether for reasons of extreme youth or chronic substance abuse in the time following – Wright spearheaded an iconic group of players at Arsenal, turning out alongside the likes of David Rocastle, Alan Smith, Paul Davis, Paul Merson, Ray Parlour and later Dennis Bergkamp, all in front of the famous back four and a resplendently moustachioed David Seaman. Together, they had a starring role in one of the greatest eras of English football, with the nineties surely the decade which inspires the most intense nostalgia amongst fans today. In light of his subsequent media career and often lively showings in the studio, some seem inclined to ignore Wright's legacy as a player in favour of trashing his frenetic brand of punditry. It should be remembered, however, that the sight of Wright dinking or lobbing an onrushing goalkeeper was emblematic of what many consider to be a golden age for English football, and that he was one of the most recognisable players in the country in those exciting early days of the Premier League.
That said, there are some for whom Wright's time at Arsenal was not necessarily the most memorable stage of his career. He retains cult hero status at several other clubs, having begun and ended his playing days elsewhere. Before moving to Highbury in 1991 on the express wish of George Graham, he spent six heady years with Crystal Palace, and he remains the club's record post-war goalscorer with a grand total of 117 goals. Having left Arsenal in 1998, he went on to play for West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Celtic and Burnley, and while he was somewhat less prolific for those clubs he executed enough of his trademark finishes to be remembered fondly by many nonetheless.
Speaking to Wright about his memories of football away from North London and the famous marble halls of Highbury, the impressions he gives of life before and after Arsenal are markedly different. While Wright is an energetic character and as animated in real life as he is in the studio, he still talks of leaving Highbury with a certain wistfulness, even if he has some happy recollections of the clubs he traversed in the twilight of his career. Meanwhile, he speaks of his early years at Selhurst Park with fervent enthusiasm, with the elation of his first few goals something he can seemingly call to mind instantaneously. Wright started out in professional football relatively late, signing with Palace at the age of 21 after a spell in the wilderness that included a string of unsuccessful trials and two weeks spent in Chelmsford Prison for driving without tax or insurance. For a while, he doubted he would make it in the game, which perhaps explains his enduring exhilaration when talking about his salad days.
Before we get onto his time at Palace, there is a point of order which Wright wants cleared up once and for all. This is the persistent misconception that he played non-league football for Dulwich Hamlet, the very mention of which leaves him up in arms, though only in a good-humoured way. "I never played for Dulwich!", Wright insists when this topic is broached in tentative fashion. "It's the same with Greenwich Borough, I have no affinity with these clubs. With Greenwich, it just so happened that the manager saw me playing and said: 'I really like you, come and play a couple of games for us.' I played three games for them! With Dulwich, I was only on trial there. I never, ever put on a football shirt for Dulwich Hamlet, I never played for them. People love the affinity and love linking me with both Dulwich and Greenwich Borough, but I never signed for either of them – I played for Ten-Em-Bee Football Club, and then I left there and went to Crystal Palace."
Having impressed on trial at Palace and finally been given his chance by then-manager Steve Coppell, Wright says he found his first few months at the club intoxicating. "It was almost like a drug," he says. "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."
When Wright started racking up goals at a professional level, that sense of euphoria only grew. "When you start scoring, the noise, the outpouring of emotion you get when you celebrate, it's amazing stuff. What people rarely ask me is how it feels just afterwards, when you go back to the centre circle, they kick off, and you just get this feeling of: 'My god, I've scored.' My first goal against Oldham, I was fuckin' – " He runs out of words to express the intensity of the sensation, but it's apparent from the slight tremor in his voice.
"I can feel it, even to this day," Wright goes on. "I remember how I scored that goal, how Alan Irvine got the ball over on the right, went down the wing, cut back, and hung it in the air for me. I wasn't even a renowned header of the ball when I was in Sunday morning football, but it came over the top and I fuckin' hit this unbelievable header, and then I just remember running and running. The fans were always singing for me to come on in those days because Palace kept bringing me on as a substitute, so I ran all the way down the stands just clapping and saying: 'Thank you for singing my name, thank you for getting me on, thank you, thank you.' Ever since that time, I've never, ever fell out of love with that feeling of scoring. I just could not score enough goals, could not get enough of that feeling – it was like a drug."
In the aftermath of that goal against Oldham – a last-minute winner no less – Wright's rise was meteoric. Though his first season with Palace was a steep learning curve, he soon formed a lethal striking partnership with Mark Bright, who was signed from Leicester not long after Wright joined. Together they fired Palace to promotion from the Second Division, while they also narrowly missed out on FA Cup winners' medals after their famous final against Manchester United in 1990. Speaking about his fruitful relationship with Bright, Wright says: "The experience I gained through playing with Mark Bright helped me massively. Obviously people like Alan Smith and Dennis Bergkamp were different calibre as strikers, but what Mark Bright taught me was exactly what I needed at that stage of my career – he wasn't too quick but he was clever, he could hold it up, and he was invaluable for my development. He was absolutely brilliant in that sense."
Having menaced the top flight for a couple of seasons, marauding through opposition defences in the lurid red and blue stripes of Palace, Wright made a move which would have been scarcely believable a few years before. Soon enough, he was grabbing goals by the handful for an Arsenal side which, despite mixed fortunes in the league, was often challenging for silverware on both the domestic and European fronts. The next seven years were glorious for Wright, who managed to excel in the George Graham era as well as the early years of Arsene Wenger's reign, striking up a rapport with Dennis Bergkamp which revitalised his last few seasons with the club. Come 1998, however, with Wright almost 35 years of age and a young Nicolas Anelka on the scene, it was decided that – despite the unqualified adoration of the supporters – his time at Highbury was at an end.
Wright admits he took this hard and struggled psychologically after leaving, even if he experiences some nostalgia for the latter days of his life as a pro. "With all the clubs I was at after Arsenal, I can't lie, I have nice memories simply because I was still playing football but, once I left Arsenal, it was hard to get to grips with the fact that I wasn't playing at that level for that club. These were great clubs, though – I was at West Ham, Celtic and spent a nice month or so at Nottingham Forest, which was really good fun. I was at Burnley with Stan Ternent, who was my old coach at Crystal Palace and who honestly taught me so much. Still, it was tough not playing for Arsenal, not playing for that same stature of club, but I could only play one way really – doing the very best I could in every single game."
For a man who hadn't signed professional terms until his early twenties, the simple privilege of staying in the game was never going to be lost on Wright. "I was just pleased with the time I got, and in the end I like to think that I gave the fans who I played for good value for money," he says. Barring perhaps his short spell at Celtic under John Barnes which was, at times, fairly tumultuous, his later years were a time of underrated showings and occasional gems for a select few supporters. Meanwhile, for Wright, they represent the final act of a career which still evokes enormous appreciation and powerful emotions. "I couldn't get enough of football to be honest," Wright adds. "The only thing that stopped me was time."
Ian Wright was speaking at a launch event for Yakatak, a new app aimed at football fans.