Billy Wright or wrong?

BRIAN GLANVILLE

BILLY WRIGHT was the first player to win 100 England caps, which eventually rose to 105. A biography — of sorts — of him by Norman Giller is subtitled: A Hero For All Seasons, which tells you what kind of a book it must be. A hagiography in other words, and a long way off from the greatly improved soccer biographies, which are now blessed beginning to appear. None better than Leo McKinstry's book on the Charlton brothers. But Billy's life as well as his career is an interesting one for a variety of reasons, several of which escape his so-called biographer. For, the book consists in large part of an endless series of Billy's recollection of the salient games in which he has played. As the poet put it, "Of old far off, forgotten things, and battles long ago." Mostly long since forgotten.

Billy Wright was born in the West Midlands in the little town of Ironbridge and joined nearby Wolverhampton Wanderers as a teenager. That flamboyant, often ruthless, manager Major Frank Buckley once reduced him to tears by telling him he was too small ever to succeed as a professional footballer, but Wright grew — though never tall — and proved Buckley very wrong indeed. Blond and sturdily built, originally an inside-left, he was destined to become a permanent member at wing half of the England team, and its captain. Was he, people now ask me — as one who followed his career right the way through, initially as a school boy myself — worth those 105 caps? It's a tricky question. There is no doubt that Wright owed much, in terms of consistent international selection, to the fact that his face fitted. There was a hierarchy. At the top of it, the huge, highly authoritative, even autocratic, Stanley Rous, then Secretary and chief executive of the Football Association. Next, in order of descent, the England team manager and the FA director of coaching Walter Winterbottom, who stayed in office for 16 almost incredible years despite shattering defeats by the USA in the 1950 World Cup and Hungary.

Next came Billy Wright; to evoke an old expression, the white hen who never laid a stray. The schoolboy hero, ebullient, dedicated, decent and loyal to the point of naivet�. A player, who never gave up, who led by example. A strong tackler, though no great ball player or distributor of the ball.

I'd agree that as wing half Wright was probably capped more often then he deserved, but the discourse changes when you think of him later in his career as a centre half, a star of two World Cups. In 1954, England went to the World Cup finals in Switzerland their tails between their legs after a crushing 7-1 defeat in Budapest by the Hungarians. Centre half was, in that third back formation, a fearful problem. Syd Omen of Luton was clearly not equipped for the job. So, with a rare piece of good sense, in Switzerland, the selectors and Winterbottom gave the job to Wright.

He was a colossal success, and this would be his future role for Wolves, his one and only club, and England. He was just as impressive in Sweden in the 1958 World Cup, when, eventually asked to choose my best team of the tournament, Wright was my pick for centre half, even above big Mel Charles who was the "official" nominee.

Wright went on filling the role till his pace had gone and one remembers with some embarrassment watching his humiliation at Stamford Bridge when Jimmy Greaves, when playing for Chelsea, ran past him time and again to score.

For a time, Wright successfully managed the England youth team which was a perfect function for him; dealing with aspiring youngsters who would happily look up to him. But when he became manager of Arsenal in the early 60s, it all went wrong. He had neither the guide nor the authority to make things work and he reacted almost childishly to criticism. Norman Giller tells us he was too "nice" to succeed, which is a tactful way of putting it. I was never too sure how "nice" he was, recalling as I do sitting next to him in Bush House at a BBC World Service programme when, huffing and puffing over my criticisms, he informed me that he had made his displeasure known to my then proprietor of the Sunday Times, Roy Thomson, who fortunately knew and cared nothing about football.

It was surely no shame to Billy that he failed at Highbury. Two other blond England stars also failed as managers; Bobby Charlton at Preston and that ideal skipper Bobby Moore, who never got beyond little Southend United. Billy then went into commercial television in Birmingham and did very well, meanwhile having married the eldest, Joy, of that glutinously coy singing trio, the Beverley Sisters.

What truly shocked me when, after Billy's death, I learned about it — and not from the book — was the fact that he had become an alcoholic. Billy Wright? The schoolboy hero? The cheerful, clean living paragon? How could it possibly happen? Giller doesn't tell us, though he pussyfoots around the subject.

First assuring us that he has no intention of delving into this sad epilogue to a career, next describing how Billy at a dinner function would down drink after drink, before going back to his lonely room — Joy was then living in London — to carry on drinking. Then hinting at episodes too embarrassing to be recounted.

With help from wife and friends, Billy did, in the end, emerge from affliction, yet there is a dreadful pathos about it, and you wonder what miseries assailed him to make such a former paragon take refuge in drink. In a word, why was he so bitterly unhappy? It could surely not be a mere matter of loneliness.

Inevitably he was sacked as the manager of Arsenal. Giller thinks it was unfair and cited the numerous young players Billy brought through, who would do so much for the club in the future.

The implication of which surely is that Billy was at his best with youngsters and according to the American Peter Principle, was promoted a rung above his capabilities. Though I felt at the time he had to go I thought the way it was done was cruel.

The late Arsenal Chairman, Denis Hill Wood, long defended him, even cried, "Wright must stay!" when supporters on station platforms cried, "Wright must go!" only to sack him just the same.

I suppose you might say this was just another sample of the curse of the club Chairman's vote of confidence, but the way it was done left an unpleasant residue. I'd like, had I been able, to have drawn a cartoon: Hill Wood plunging a dagger into Billy's back with the words, "I'm backing Billy Wright up to the hilt!"