Johnny’s letter this week is to one of the nicest, funniest, most enthusiastic, most in-demand ex-players who works on TV and radio right now. That’ll be Ian Wright, then.
Why the love?
I know it’s to state the obvious, but let’s never forget he was an absolutely fantastic footballer. And there’s the small matter of all these goals for Arsenal. And they’re an amazing range of goals. If you spun him forward 20 years, he’d fill those boots today. He absolutely would. He’d shred defenders with pace, agility and clinical, brave finishing.
But so many love Wrighty because, well … he’s just so damn lovable. He brings warm-hearted humour, joy, and infectious enthusiasm to his work and in more recent years, has drawn upon a well of gravitas that has always been there, but which perhaps interviewers never quite pulled out of him because he was such good value purely as an entertainer. The result is that he is not only one of the most loved pundits on TV and radio, but also one of the most important. A man from a very tough, difficult background, who was late coming to professional football, and thus knew life outside of the game, his is a unique voice with a unique perspective.
OK, strap in, there’s going to be tears now. Let’s get down to the emotionally hardcore stuff.
Even just the way he removes his cap in respect to his old teacher is enough to set me off.
He’s loved because he’s just so humble and genuine. There is so much soul to him and an implicit understanding of the transformative nature of the game on the life of someone from his background. When he says playing for Arsenal at the age of 28 was “a dream come true,” it is no mere offhand, light-hearted statement: it comes from a deep, deep place.
Get your tissues ready again.
Michael Cox wrote to me to mention this – the footage isn’t available.
“There’s an absolutely fantastic section of the programme ‘Something To Nothing’, that was in the original YouTube-only film but sadly left out of the ITV broadcast (and the original is now gone, sadly). He talked about how, when he was a kid, his step-dad was horrendously abusive, a horrible bully. He refused to let Wright watch MOTD, despite the fact Ian was sleeping in the living room as he didn’t have a bedroom. So he would have to lie, facing away from the TV, hearing MOTD but not allowed to watch it. So when he was first a pundit on MOTD he was overcome with emotion that he’d made it there. ‘This is my Graceland’, he said.”
I mean, good god. This can be such a cruel world, sometimes. And it is also worth pointing out that when we are harsh or criticise someone’s performance on TV, or in any walk of life, we do not know the struggles they’ve gone through to be in that position, nor what it means to them to have done so. I suppose what I’m saying is, football should celebrate our collective humanity, not try and negate it with witless abuse.
Somehow, and I have no idea how he does it, he manages to be both a show-off and endearingly self-effacing. Here he is on Top Gear doing exactly that.
He’s so quick witted, and like the quixotic striker he was, can turn on the proverbial sixpence, like here.
And by the looks of this very entertaining extended advert for Bacardi, he’s lost none of his football genius. It’s also worth noting just how relaxed and unaffected he is on camera. He positively radiates goodness and enjoyment.
From his early media appearances, he tended to be employed for his energy, good vibes and comedic capabilities. At times he was incredibly excitable, so much so that you felt that someone might have to knock him off the ceiling with a brush.
But few, if any, other pundits brought such a nice, wide smile to the gig, so he was a natural for TV, an absolute natural.
Why? Because we like to see people who have that degree of infectious joy for the game and for life. In the sometimes drab world of football punditry where so many look like they’ve just come from a funeral in their black suits and ties, all taking the game so seriously as though it is more mathematics than sport, Wrighty is bright sunlight on the upturned face of positivity.
In recent years football discussions on radio and TV have, by and large, markedly improved, and Wrighty has found himself in great demand for his ability to be both genuinely funny and genuinely serious.
If you missed him on the Monday Night Club talking about Arsenal two weeks ago, do go back and dig it out. It was both really funny, insightful and, in an odd way, quite moving. It is his unique blend of enthusiasm, passion and humour that makes his brew so intoxicating.
Currently his main radio gigs are 606 alongside Kelly Cates and the Monday Night Club with Mark Chapman, and he can pop up on pretty much any TV channel whether it is Sky, BT, BBC, ITV or Channel 4 (during Euro 2017). I think, if you added up all the hours pundits are on TV or radio, you’d find Wrighty at number one at the end of the season. That in itself a huge tribute to his talent.
The editor of 5 live’s 606, Jo Tongue, got in touch. Her words are the perfect summation of Ian’s talents and appeal:
“Wrighty was instrumental in me getting my first job on radio when I was his runner on Wright and Bright (5live) – it was the best radio show! The first of its kind in the days before footballers were presenters. The show used to open with Wrighty saying whether he was Ranting or Raving and he’d do a monologue! It was legendary. The guest list on the show was insane – a testament to how much his fellow players loved him.
“When I was the editor of 606 15 years later, I called him and asked him to come back to the BBC and I have worked with him for the last 3/4 years on the show. He has worked harder than anyone in the last three years – he reads everything and he devours podcasts. He still loves football. If only we could have a webcam on him watching the 4pm games before we go on air with 606… in fact I may do this going forward.
“He is a gentleman. And he is funny. You cannot help but love him.
“He’s got a childlike love of football still. People dismiss passion too easily. Passion means he cares. Passion for the game means he wants to keep learning, he wants to stay relevant and he wants others to get the pleasure he did from the game: He is the only person who can make working every Sunday not a job: he and Kels are an absolute dream team.”
Amen to that.
Has always been a very dapper chap and is still pleasingly broad, muscular and meaty for a man of his age. Incidentally, I don’t think we see him as 53-year-old at all. There is something of the forever young about him.
Very much suits an expensive-looking cap, a collarless shirt and a waistcoat. Has some lovely coats for chilly pitchside work. Always looks cool but never looks like he’s had to try that hard to be so. To the rest of us for whom clothes are A Problem, that’s very admirable. It’s such a pleasure to see someone who has a sense of style that expresses his personality so well.
So suits the smooth, shaven head look that he’s of those fellas who you can’t even imagine having hair now.
What the people say
It’s safe to say that a lot of people love Wrighty and have done for many years. And when I asked for comments, there were hundreds. I think that’s a testament to the power of positivity. Time and again people mentioned how genuine and warm he was: how he just loved football and seems to totally lack cynicism. I put as many as I could into this section but I could have included at least the same amount again.
‘Unlike certain other pundits he seems to enjoy his job and has enthusiasm for the sport.’
‘My childhood hero and now the voice of real Arsenal fans who remember the days when playing for us was an honour.’
‘My favourite pundit. Unpretentious, warm and genuine.’
‘The longer his media career goes on the more I like him. Is often excellent on radio and seems a very genuine guy.’
‘I’m a Spurs fan. I don’t want to like him, I shouldn’t like him. Yet somehow I do anyway.’
‘The pain in his face when he has to discuss an England loss is almost unbearable, he really feels it. He’s easy to project yourself onto.’
‘The fact ITV, BBC, BT, Sky and Channel 4 have all used him in the past year shows how good a job he’s been doing.’
‘Loved his raw enthusiasm as a player. Very honest as a pundit even if he gets it wrong now and again.’
‘He’s brilliant. He genuinely seems to be having a great time when he appears. Would be a great bloke to be friends with. Very endearing.’
‘Was a great goalscorer & a quality wind up merchant. Nice bloke all round.’
‘Widely popular, engaging and honest. Fans and broadcasters relate, given he’s appeared on BBC, ITV, C4, Sky and BT this year alone!’
‘5live seem to improve pundits who then carry it back to TV. See also: Townsend, Andrew.’
‘Almost impossible to dislike.’
‘He deserves credit for turning his early humorous (or class joker) persona to a more considered punditry approach.’
‘Loves the game and has the aura – still – of someone who cannot quite believe he made a comfortable living out of it.’
‘In my opinion the most improved pundit working today. Is always brilliant on 5live and his TV work is getting better all the time.’
‘At uni academics mistook my “not being serious” for “not taking it seriously”. I suspect a similar thing affected Wright for a time.’
‘Genuine passion for the Arsenal & England, he feels it like us fans feel it. Great partnership with Kelly Cates, makes 606 worth a listen.’
‘I used to really not like him and his hyperactivity, but I now actively prefer him to most other pundits. I’m not sure who’s changed there.’
‘Any man who can sit next to Glenn Hoddle during *that* trousers moment of WC 2014 and live to tell the tale is borderline superhuman.’
‘His shows helping kids enjoy PE more (with a personal journey for Wrighty) and forming a prison football team were outstanding.’
‘He’s a legend. Certainly improved as a pundit and is able to relate to fans.’
‘Makes me more passionate about the England national team than the actual team do.’
‘I did a placement at Talksport when he was there and he was a really nice guy. We once sat down and spent a good few minutes laughing at Ian Holloway quotes. I asked him one day if I could interview him for a uni project and he said yes and did it right away. Answered qs for nearly 30 mins.’
‘That and he often looks itching to be actually playing in it if not for his ankles. His passion/love for the game unrivalled amongst peers.’
‘He acts like someone who can’t believe their luck to end up with the career they had, and enjoyed every moment – very likeable.’
‘Ultimately he strikes you as a really, really nice guy. There’s no malice behind his words. He just loves football, and talking about football.’
‘I’m a huge Spurs fan. He’s an Arsenal legend. I really really like him. There’s no better compliment.’
‘(I was)….privy to him and Ray Wilkins comparing and recommending hip operations. Ceramic replacements are the way forward, apparently’ – Barry Glendenning
‘Favourite Wright moment: when he took part in conceptual art exhibit in Berlin during 2006 World Cup. It was on a late-night review programme with Adrian Chiles. Wrighty totally threw himself into the “art”, devoid of cynicism or pretension.’
‘As a Liverpool fan, Wrighty was always the player I loved seeing score.’
‘More than any other pundit, you know if he wasn’t working in the game he would be at the match screaming his support. Which is v. endearing.’
‘Love him. Brilliant on the TV & radio. Honest, enthusiastic, funny and v knowledgeable. Seems like a genuinely decent and nice bloke too.’
‘Analyses strikers better than anyone & probably the most enthusiastic ‘football-loving’ pundit around. Love him’ – Michael Cox
‘The sort of man to give you a nickname when he’s only met you 3 times, and you like it, even if you’re not really a nickname person. I think the thing with all ex-players (and current players) is that they’re at the mercy of the quality of the questions. It’s why flash interviews used to be so “we was robbed” cliched. They’re asked simple questions, so they give simple answers. Wrighty, I suspect, was treated as comic relief, as “Wrighty.” He appears to have improved, but the knowledge was always there’ – Rory Smith
‘Loves working with journos. Has a real respect for their knowledge and so brings out the best in them. He lifts every panel he’s on because he’s added his knowledge and insight to the enthusiasm he was known for’ – Kelly Cates
This sort of stuff is innate. You can’t fake it and if you tried to, the broadcast medium would expose it ruthlessly. The feeling that he is getting better and better as he gets older is one that many contributors felt was the case. All of which suggests that he is well set to be one of our senior football football people on the telly for many, many years to come. After all, why would we not want his sunshine in our lives?
I’ll leave you with this clip from Rio in the World Cup, which perhaps sums up so much about his joy for football and life. Long may it continue.