Mark Wright holds a special place in my family folklore. During his league debut as a gangly teenager against Bristol City at the Manor in 1981, my dad made a bold prediction: the boy would one day play for England.
Growing up I assumed everyone would have at least one moment of such prescience; to the degree that around the mid-90s I predicted that Paul Powell would do the same. Dad, it turns out, was as right as I was wrong.
Wright was certainly different to what we’d seen before at the Manor. He was a young and slender ball player, which was unusual in Division 3 defences which tended to comprise of players who looked like they’d been rejected from the Vietnam War.
However, it was some surprise, at least to my unsophisticated eye, when Wright was picked up by Southampton alongside resident United goal machine Keith Cassells. My dad, clearly in a purple patch when it came to predicting the fate of players, scoffed at the Cassells signing saying he’d be no good at that level.
He had a point, Southampton at the time had former World Cup winner Alan Ball, England internationals David Armstrong, Mick Channon, Kevin Keegan, Danny Wallace and Dave Watson, Under 21 Steve Moran and Justin Fashanu and Northern Ireland international Chris Nicholl on their roster. They would also add two England captain’s Peter Shilton and Mick Mills to a squad that would eventually end up runners-up to Liverpool in the League Championship.
For Oxford, the move shaped much of our history. The duo were swapped for Trevor Hebberd and George Lawrence, who would become key to the Oxford glory years. Although Wright played only a handful of games for Oxford, he played an important role in helping to bring the good times in.
Cassells did well to bag 4 goals in his 17 games for the Saints, but he was always likely to find the company a bit too hot to handle. Wright, on the other hand, seemed completely comfortable playing 46 times in the 1982/3 season. Fulfilling my dad’s prophecy he made his England debut at the end of the 83/84 season and then made regular appearances thereafter despite Bobby Robson’s preference for Terry Butcher and Alvin Martin at centre-back.
He seemed all set to join the England 22 that had qualified for the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 but he failed to make the squad after breaking his leg. The following year he joined Derby County.
Always a class act, he seemed the complete opposite to the blood and thunder of Terry Butcher. When interviewed, his light Oxfordshire accent gave the impression that he was a naive country boy.
Off the field, however, things were different. My uncle was a police inspector in Derby around the time of Wright’s arrival at the Baseball Ground. He would later report that despite being a elegant player on the field and an innocent voice off it – if there was trouble in the area, Wright, and his mate Ted McMinn would often be at the heart of it. I don’t know how true that is, but there were echos of truth in that years later when the duo were in charge at Oxford.
In 1990, Wright was selected as part of the England’s Italia 90 squad as an understudy to Butcher and Des Walker. England’s campaign opened in a dreary fashion as they wheezed their way through a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland.
Five days later Wright would become a central figure in something that would change football forever. Robson had stuck resolutely to a very English 4-4-2 for the Ireland game, but against the Dutch he made a subtle, but profound, change by bringing in Wright as a sweeper.
The sweeper was considered a very European concept, part of a system designed to kill games. Robson, who would later go on to be a key influence across European management – not least in the schooling of Jose Mourinho. What Robson did was introduced a tactical innovation which was largely unheard of in the domestic game.
Perhaps the change was made to simply to man the barricades in the prospect of facing the likes of Gullit, Van Basten, Koeman and Rikjard who had humiliated Robson and England at the 1988 European Championships. But, the move had an unexpected by-product.
The back five provided a defensive platform that released the midfield from their defensive duties, specifically this freed up Paul Gasgoine to release some of his magic. Against the Dutch it nearly worked; with England coming closest to breaking the deadlock in a tight game.
In the final group game, Robson reverted to a back-four with Butcher rather than Wright dropping to the bench. England failed to inspire, but around the hour Wright connected with a Gasgoine cross for his only goal in an England shirt. More importantly it proved to be the winner in a group where every other game was drawn. England were through to the knockout stages.
With the stakes rising, Robson again switched Wright to the sweeper role and reintroduced Butcher for the next game against Belgium. Again, Gasgoigne thrived in the new formation with ever growing confidence freeing him to use his prodigious talent to pull the Belgians from one side of the pitch to another. But, again, the game ticked gently through the 90 minutes and then deep, deep, deep into extra-time.
England had yet to realise the penalty hoodoo it now wears around its neck like a millstone, but the tension grew. Not only was a place in the quarter-finals at stake, both teams knew that Cameroon, the rank outsiders, were waiting. It was reasonable to assume that England, if they could snatch a winner, would be odds-on favourites for a place in the semi-final and then, who knows?
Into the 119th minute and Gasgoigne stood over the ball awaiting to take a free-kick. He floated a 40 yard pass out to the back-post where David Platt was standing. Platt watched the ball drop over his shoulder and, with his eyes bulging through concentration, hooked it across the face of ‘keeper Michel Preud’Homme’s goal and into the net.
With that moment, England were alive. The country was swamped with optimism. New Order soundtracked the summer, Acid House historians will have you believe that everyone was on ecstasy. I’d just finished my A levels; it was a summer of parties – football followed by raving into the early hours. A golden time.
The Cameroon game came as a shock; Platt scored early, but the Africans hit back with two goals around the hour mark. With the world wishing the indomitable Lions safe passage through to the semi-finals, it seemed like England might buckle. A combination of pressure and naivety saved England as Linekar put away 2 penalties for a 3-2 win after extra-time.
Onto the semi-final and West Germany; England had momentum and confidence and launched into the game with seldom seen panache. Chris Waddle hit the crossbar from near the half-way line before the Germans scored with an improbable deflection off Paul Parker. Linekar hit back and the game went to extra-time, then penalties and then… catastrophe. We sat in an empty pub in utter silence, like we’d been thrown out of the best party in the world, or even that it had never happened at all.
The legacy of that summer is astonishing. Wright’s performances, alongside Des Walker’s provided a template for future centre-backs who could play and pass as well as tackle and head. In addition, Wright’s playing as a sweeper provided Gasgoigne with the freedom to release his genius. This alone saw England march to the semi-final, making football cool again. With Gasgoigne as its poster boy, Italia 90 triggered a chain of events which would lead to the formation of the Premier League and ultiamtely the creation of modern football. And at the b of the bang was Mark Wright former Oxford United centre-back.