Ian Wright: Nothing To Something
My childhood still makes me angry, Ian Wright tells ITV.
Ian Wright has revealed how his treatment by his stepfather as a child has left him with anger he still struggles with.
In a candid interview, for ITV4 documentary Ian Wright: Nothing To Something, about his early life and career focusing, through a series of vividly recalled and often emotionally recounted memories, on how he overcame many setbacks to achieve success, the former Arsenal and England striker speaks with brutal frankness about his tough upbringing, the importance of positive male role models for boys, his late entry to the game, and his close relationship with David Rocastle, who died from cancer aged just 33.
Ian says that after his father left when he was 18 months old, his stepdad came in and disliked him in particular. Ian explains that, despite counselling, the residual anger he has about his stepfather remains to this day:
“It’s one of those things where I try not to harbour the anger because even now I mean I’m sitting here and I’m just raging. And when you think about why people are like that, and I suppose it might have gone down to why I adopted Shaun at such a young age, he was just two and eight months just getting ready to turn to three. And I could not understand, even with having nothing, how somebody could come in and treat a child like my stepdad treated me. And it’s feelings that I harbour that even with the counselling it’s very hard to try and shake them off. It’s very, very hard.”
“I remember when we were younger, Match of the Day and watching football was all I lived for. It was just pure football from a young age. And I remember it used to come on and because we were in the one bedroom, so if the television is here and the bed is here, we’d be in the bed and we’d have to turn away from the telly.
“We couldn’t watch it, so you can hear Match of The Day and you can hear what’s going on and I remember lying there, facing the wall, crying, wanting to watch it, and he was a rough-voiced, rough talking guy, real bully, very strong man. And we’d have to turn away and we couldn’t watch it.
“And I remember when I finally got to do Match of The Day, I remember saying to Des Lynam, ‘This is my Graceland.’ You know like people go to Graceland to pay homage to Elvis.”
Ian talks about his almost non-existent relationship with his father:
“Dad left when I was about 18 months and it was one of those where I saw him in like ten-year spells. And my stepdad came in, I must have been about five, six, that’s when I remember him from, and he wasn’t a nice fella.
“It was pretty much rough when I was younger. Being the youngest boy I wouldn’t say I was bad but I was scally, I was very extrovert from a young age and very confident and it rubbed people up the wrong way. Especially my stepdad, he didn’t like me at all.
“As I got older, I got more angry towards my mum and obviously my dad, who died the other day, and I went to the funeral and it was weird. It was like going to a stranger’s funeral. People were saying things like I should be talking, because I don’t know, I’m in the public eye and people know me they think I should be up there speaking, eulogising about him. I don’t f-ing know him. I do not know the guy.”
Ian describes how important a figure his teacher Mr Pigden became in shaping his life:
“The first real positive male in my life is a teacher called Mr Pigden. It’s funny because on the Twitter right now people are bandying around this show that I did, With A Little Help From My Friends with ITV building an adventure playground for disabled kids over in North London and I thought that this teacher, the words I got from the people was that he’d died. At the time I was gutted. He was somebody who would sit me down, he would talk to me, you know when I had my he used to call it ‘heebee geebees’ because I used to get angry from being like this to full-on rage. He would sit me down and he would talk to me, explain to me how to communicate. I was like a little Tarzan or something.
“So then he took me out of the class, he literally taught me how to read and write properly himself, he turned me into a monitor so I would go around with the school register and collect the registers up, I would be the milk monitor guy, I would take messages to the teachers. And then once he realised I could play football, he started to teach me how to play football and how you have to pass to other people, and why you have to pass to other people, and why you have to communicate nicely and why you have to give people encouragement. And so when I met him in this situation, I’m at Highbury, I’m doing this thing, it’s all emotional stuff. Then all of a sudden this teacher that I thought was dead, comes from behind me.
“And I literally started to cry like I was a five, six-year-old. Uncontrollable crying because of how happy I was to see him. When I watched it, that was when I realised how much of an effect that man had on my life, and how important it is to have a positive male figure in your life.”
Ian also talks about almost giving up football after failing to get a contract with a club despite numerous trials:
“I grew up on the same estate as David Rocastle, we used to play football up the crem. I was always the one that people would say, ‘He’s the good older one, and David’s the good younger one.’ But then David’s kicked on, and gone to Arsenal.
“I wasn’t envious of it, because it wasn’t a case of people making it in those times [being] about money. It’s just that all the time I thought I was such a good player, but then again I got refused by so many people. For whatever reason I don’t know - could be down to me, that attitude, you know when I was a kid, growing up. It might have been something people saw, it wasn’t the right time to take me. But I was always thinking, ‘Gosh, maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was.’
“I tried, I went to all the trials, I wrote to all the London football clubs. I got answers from Orient, Charlton, Millwall, Crystal Palace. They all said, 'We ain’t got no spaces,' this and that… And it just didn’t happen for whatever reason. So after that I said, ‘Football, I’m not bothering with it, it’s over for me.’”
He describes being jailed for driving offences:
"I went in Chelmsford prison for offences [with] cars, no insurance, no tax, kept getting caught, not paying the fines.
“I remember going in, them taking you into a room, debriefing you, giving you the clothes and all that, coming out, bang go to the cell, slam the door. Honestly, I burst into tears like a child, I couldn’t believe where I was. And it was almost for me like an eye opener from God, saying, ‘Listen, you’ve got to focus on what you’re doing, you’ve got to work hard.’ You know, all I ever wanted to do was play football.”
Ian explains how he was talked into attending a Crystal Palace trial by his boss at the sugar refinery where he worked, who offered to keep his job open for him. After a fortnight, then-Palace Manager Steve Coppell offered to pay his expenses.
“I said, ‘I’m getting £105 a week.’ He said, ‘We’ll give you £100 expenses a week for a couple of weeks, just see how it goes.’ I said, ‘Well, that doesn’t really make sense for me, that means I’ll be off for a month, and then after a month you might say 'Oh, I’m sorry.'' I said I can’t afford that, he said okay. He said come see me tomorrow. Came back, and he said , 'Okay we’ll do it for three months.' And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that.’
“Phoned my mum, and I said, ‘Mum, I’m a professional footballer. But it’s only for three months.' And so she was crying, and I was crying and that. It was brilliant. But then, six weeks into that, they signed me.”
He talks about how he shot to fame after scoring twice against Manchester United in the FA Cup final in 1990.
“So the Friday before the Saturday [of that game], I could walk down the street and everybody knew, ‘Yeah, he plays for Crystal Palace.’ But then the Monday after the Saturday, I remember going out and people literally stopped the cars on the main road both sides down where my mum used to live, for me to sign autographs. It was strange.”
When he earned a dream move to Arsenal, he says he turned to his old friend David Rocastle for advice.
“Arsenal is the greatest. When I first got to Arsenal you know, people went on the streets with the voxpops saying, ‘What are we buying him for?’ I think the week before they’d scored about 15 goals. I remember sitting there watching the telly, news at six, whatever it was. Watching people saying, ‘He’s not good enough to play for Arsenal, you can’t get him to play for Arsenal. We’ve got Merson, Campbell, this one, that one.’ And Alan Smith just got two Golden Boots. And I swear to God, I sat down watching the news literally s-ing myself.
“So the night before I went and stayed at David’s house in Mill Hill. I said, ‘I don’t want to be late, I want to set the right impression.’ Because it’s Arsenal. The Arsenal. And that’s what David always used to say: ‘The Arsenal’. And I remember we spoke, we talked about Arsenal ‘til about five in the morning. Talking about what it’s like, remember I’d just joined the champions, I was honestly so nervous. We were talking about what it’s like playing Tottenham, what the fans are like. By now, remember, I’ve done my bit at Palace and people know me but David’s national, everybody knows him.
“When we were training, you know people used to always say Arsenal don’t play football. I literally was running around like a headless chicken trying to get the ball off these great players. I was so poor, so nervous, I’m sure they must have thought, ‘What have we got here, man?’ The ball was bouncing off my legs and everything.
“David literally pulled me through, without even knowing. He focused me. Even when I doubted myself with scoring all the goals, even when I went to Palace, I just kept working harder and harder. And for me to get to go to Arsenal with David Rocastle and play with him. And then... in our first league game, David scores the first one and I score a hat-trick. It was… It was a dream.
“All the time I always thought that he was going to be okay. And he was still always positive about what was going to happen. I mean, when I found out I literally could not stop crying. I could not stop crying.
“I remember when George Graham got rid of him and he went to Leeds, I couldn’t stop crying then as well. And he was saying, ‘What’s wrong with you, man?’ You know, when he died… I can’t deal with it.”