Mark Wright holds a special place in my family’s folklore. During his league debut as a gangling 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. 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-21s Steve Moran and Justin Fashanu and Northern Ireland international Chris Nicholl on their roster. They would also add two England captains – Peter Shilton and Mick Mills – to their squad that would eventually end up runners-up to Liverpool in the League Championship.
For Oxford, the Wright/Cassells 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 and ended up 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 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 apparently rather 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 an 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 echoes 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 education of Jose Mourinho and in a roundabout way, Pep Guardiola, introduce a tactical innovation which was largely unheard of in the domestic game.
Perhaps the change was made simply to man the barricades in the prospect of facing the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard 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, while David Platt would be able to join the attack. Against the Dutch it nearly worked; with England coming closest to breaking the deadlock in a tight 0-0 game.
In the final group game, a must-win against Eygpt – Robson reverted to a back-four with Butcher rather than Wright dropping to the bench. Butcher was an iconic figure in English football, so this was a massive move. England failed to inspire, but around the hour Wright connected with a Gascoigne 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, Gascoigne 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 Gascoigne stood over the ball awaiting to take a free-kick. It was awkwardly central and too far out for a shot. 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, he 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. It wasn’t just the football losers like me that followed the game, the non-believers and the girls were also interested. 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.
Afterwards we sat in an empty pub in silence, like we’d been thrown out of the best party in the world, or even that it had never happened at all. I ride my bike past the pub we sat in quite often and although it has been done up, has stunning views across the county, it still feels slightly desolate.
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 Gascoigne with the freedom to release his genius on the world stage. This alone saw England march to the semi-final, making football cool again.
With Gascoigne as its poster boy, Italia 90 triggered a chain of events which would lead to the formation of the Premier League and ultimately the creation of modern football. And at the b of the bang was Mark Wright former Oxford United centre-back being used as a sweeper.
Back into club football, Wright signed for Liverpool in 1992 at the precise moment their once great empire began to crumble. He would complete his first season by winning the FA Cup, captaining the side and lifting the cup while audibly shouting ‘You fucking beauty’ in front of a national TV audience and procession of dignitaries. It was his only trophy in seven years at Anfield where he eventually retired after a persistent knee injury.
Wright continued to play for England through to 1992 at which point he fell out of favour under Terry Venables. He remained out of the squad before a brief surprise return just before Euro 96, but before becoming part of that famous summer he was injured and failed to make the squad, meaning he missed 3 tournaments through injury.
After disappearing for a while Wright re-surfaced at Southport and then Chester as a manager of some promise. Firoz Kassam appointed him manager of Oxford as the club embarked on a new era at the Kassam Stadium. It seemed like the perfect formula for a return to the big time. Despite spending heavily, the club struggled to get their season going, and Wright quickly found himself under pressure. Things came to a head when he was accused of racially abusing referee Joe Ross during a game against Scunthorpe on, ironically, Kick Racism Out of Football day. Whether Kassam was acting out of a sense of ethics, or convenience, who knows, but Wright was fired and so left the club under a cloud. It largely put paid to his managerial career, which limped on for a few more years before apparently petering out.
Wright was one of the finest players ever to play for Oxford and undoubtedly one of the most successful. He was pivotal in changing perceptions of the game with his performances at Italia 90. That he’ll always be remembered more for his departure from Oxford as manager than his achievements at a player is quite sad.