It may come as a surprise to many that Ian Wright played more league matches for Crystal Palace than he did for Arsenal. Such an icon is Wright in the red half of North London that he seems almost synonymous with the Gunners, a figure inextricably associated with Highbury, George Graham and being the ‘1’ in ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’.
Unless you’re a Palace supporter, you don’t think of Selhurst Park when you think of Ian Wright. You think of FA Cup final goals against Sheffield Wednesday, prematurely revealed celebratory t-shirts and, of course, Chicken Tonight and Nescafe. Ian Wright, Wright, Wright.
Ian Wright equals Arsenal, Arsenal equals Ian Wright. And yet, he didn’t actually pitch up at Highbury until he was 27, and spent six years with the Eagles, making 225 appearances – compared to 221 for Arsenal – and scoring 92 times in the league for the club. For Palace fans of a certain vintage, he’s just as much of an icon as he is for Gooners.
In fact, Wright scored more goals for Palace than any other player after World War II and was named in the club’s ‘Centenary XI’ in 2005. His partnership with Mark Bright was lethal, with the pair largely responsible for firing their side from second tier to top tier in the late 1980s. Not bad for a player who it’s said – possibly apocryphally – was ‘purchased’ by Palace from Greenwich Borough for a set of weights.
Wright, back then, was considered every bit as much Palace as he is Arsenal now. But he departed on bad terms, amid reports of ‘bitter rows’ following controversial remarks on TV from Palace chairman Ron Noades. According to The Guardian, “Noades was accused of racism after a Channel 4 documentary. Palace’s black players, he said, ‘lent skill and flair’, but, he added: ‘You also need white players in there to balance things up and give the team some brains and some common sense.’”
It was hardly shocking that Wright left not long after, although the same Guardian article suggest he and Bright repaired their relationship with Noades in subsequent years.
Still, Steve Curry wrote in the Daily Express after news of the move broke that it was a ‘surprise investment’ on the part of then Arsenal manager George Graham. Perhaps he was referring to the fee, £2.5m, which was £1.2m more than Graham had ever paid for a player – never mind a 27-year-old who hadn’t turned professional until the age of 22.
Arsenal were defending champions at the time, and already had an established attacking unit in Alan Smith, Kevin Campbell and Paul Merson. But Graham was certain Wright was his man.
“This has given me a great striking strength,” said Graham. “And, I hope, a forward line as good as any in Britain.”
Some might have questioned Graham’s wisdom in 1991. But while Wright may not have won the league under Graham, seven years later under Arsène Wenger, when the striker was pulling off his Arsenal jersey to display a t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘179. Just done it.’ having become the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, there weren’t many doubting it had been an inspired decision by the Scot.