Earning My Smile
I like a good cry.
Takes a man to admit that, I think.
Let me tell you about one that changed my life.
Now, you may think you know my story already. Ian Wright didn’t turn professional until he was 21! He worked maintenance at a sugar factory! He spent a month in prison!
People like using my story as one of those “It’s never too late! Never give up on your dreams!” kind of thing, but sometimes people forget that chasing something for a long time does things to a person. Yes, I did play professional football, and had a fantastic career, but before I got to Crystal Palace, I had failed everywhere else.
I had started taking trials at football clubs when I was 11, but I didn’t go pro until a few weeks before my 22nd birthday. That’s 11 years worth of failure, 11 years of no answers from the Arsenals, the Chelseas and everyone else.
Eleven years of failure, it does things to you.
My mum used to say to me, “Many are called, and few are chosen.” And what’s funny is that it wasn’t even a motivational thing the way she said it. She meant it almost like an it’s-not-going-to-work-out-for-you kind of thing. It was a phrase I thought of a lot when I was sitting in the club reception area at Brighton when I was 19 years old.
I was just trying to hold it together.
I was at the end.
I was actually so broke that I didn’t even have money for the train home.
Picture it, I’m 19 and I’d begged, borrowed and stolen for every favour I needed in order to travel from my home in London to Brighton for this six-week trial with the club. I’d been doing well. I was scoring goals against the first team, and I was actually thinking that I was going to get offered something. They had kept me around for more than a month, so I was thinking I must be doing something right.
On one of our off days, I wanted to go back to London to see my family, but I couldn’t afford the train fare. So a couple of the Brighton players told me that I could claim expenses back at the club. All I had to do was ask.
“Just tell the lady,” they said.
So I go up to the offices and I tell the lady.
“I’m a trialist, and I just need some expenses to get back to London.”
She was very nice about it, but it was clear to me that she was not in charge of expenses. She just said, “Yeah, O.K. Could you just wait here?”
So I waited.
I sat there for five hours.
No books, no TV, no newspaper, no nothing. Just waiting. Waiting for something to happen. I felt totally powerless.
I was just sitting there in silence, hoping that someone would notice me. Notice how much I was trying in training. Notice how far I’d travelled to take this football trial. Notice how long I was willing to wait, just so I could get the train home.
At about five o’clock, Brighton’s first-team captain, Steve Foster, came in to get treatment for an injury. We’d spoken a few times during my trial, and he asked me what I was doing there.
I told him, “I’m waiting for expenses to get back to London.”
His face contorted.
He said, “Since when? From this morning?”
And I swear to God, he went into this room and I could hear him from the outside telling people off. He’s shouting, “How can you do this? This poor boy’s been waiting,” and this and that.
He comes out a few minutes later with this lady, and she handed me about 200 pounds in cash.
I remember saying thank you to Steve, getting a bus to the station, getting on the train — and then bursting into tears. The feeling of helplessness I felt in those five hours will stay with me forever.
It was about a lot more than football.
I know a lot of people think of me as some happy-go-lucky guy. They see the gold tooth and the hat and think I must be joke joke, joke, joke. But … I’ll be honest with you … it’s been hard to earn this smile. Remember that Avengers film from a couple of years ago? Remember when Bruce Banner is about to turn into the Hulk, and he says that great line?
“That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.”
That made me smile. I could relate. It feels weird to use a line from a superhero film to explain my life, but there was just something about it that stuck with me. For a large part of my life, I was angry. I was always angry.
Let me tell you my story.
The funny thing about me is that while a lot of people consider me Arsenal born and bred, I’m actually a South Londoner. Woolwich to be exact. I was born there in ’63, but spent my entire childhood in Brockley. Nowadays it costs about half a million to buy a house in the area, but back then it was a lot different. No one was thinking about the kids who grew up on Merritt Road. We just went out every day and played football. Football football. South London football, where you’d play on an estate with massive brick walls and NO BALL GAMES signs and dads who would put a hot knife through your football if it bounced off their car.
I must have been seven or eight when I started playing, first out in the street, and then in this park called Hilly Fields. I never lost a game playing in Hilly Fields. Never lost a game. See, when I moved with my mum, stepdad and two older brothers to Brockley we didn’t have much money, so we shared a house with another family for a bit. The head of that house was this man named James Wright. I called him Mr. James. He was a strict, very well-respected man in the area, and there’d always be a lot of kids moving in and about the house because he took care of the community. The Hilly Fields team was all the boys who hung around Mr James’s house. There was Stafford, the oldest, and then my brother Maurice, a kid called Selvyn, one called Aiden, a couple of mates, and then there was me, the runt of the litter. And I’m telling you, we never lost a game. We’d find a group, ask them if they wanted a match, and then we’d win. Every time.
We won because my brother was the best footballer around. Maurice could do everything: left foot, right foot, pass, dribble, he was the complete package. Anything I could do, he could do better. And the worst part was he knew it. He used to drive me mad with it. Proper older-brother teasing whenever he thought I was getting too cocky. Sometimes I’d end up crying after all the stuff he said. It was horrible. He was my hero, but he never let me rest.
When Maurice would start teasing me, I’d go off and start practising like I was the Karate Kid.
When Maurice would say, “You can’t kick with your left foot,” I would take a tennis ball and kick it against a wall, over and over and over again. We’re talking all day: volleys, first touch, passes, everything with my left foot off this wall. I’d kick that ball until my side was hurting, until the inside of my groin was hurting, because I had to prove myself to him. When my left leg hurt, I’d do it all over again with my right. I wasn’t going to let him call me out the next time we played football.
We’d go back to Hilly Fields and I’d show off, and then Maurice would go, “Your left foot is better, but you can’t head the ball.”
So back to the wall with the tennis ball I went, heading the ball over and over again.
I’d go back to Hilly Fields and Maurice would go, “Yeah you’re better at heading now, but you still close your eyes every time you head it.”
Back to the wall again, telling myself, “Don’t close your eyes, don’t close your eyes. When you watch football on television, players don’t close their eyes. What are you closing your eyes for?”
I would do keepy-uppies to work on my first touch, as well, and I swear to God I once reached 600. Eventually I got to this point where I had left foot, right foot, passing, heading, first touch — I thought I was the guy. I was playing good football at Hilly Fields and one day I got picked for my school team. You can look the school up now: Gordonbrock Primary School, in Lewisham. I got picked for their school team along with Maurice for a game. I was in year 4, he was in year 6, and I was so excited. I was thinking, “This is it, I’m playing with my hero. He’s finally going to properly see how good I am.”
We were playing against a school called Fairlawn Primary, and we beat them. The thing is, Maurice scored this fantastic goal with his left foot, and he would not shut up about it.
I’m serious, he would not stop talking about that goal. As far as he was concerned, that was the greatest goal ever scored. All the goals I scored at Palace, at Arsenal? Didn’t matter. Maurice Wright at Ladywell Fields against Fairlawn Primary School was better. No goal I ever scored could compare to the one my older brother scored when he was 10.
Older brothers … they’re something else.
Maurice drove me up the wall, but growing up he was one of the few good ones in my life. I told you my story has a lot of anger in it and a lot came from what my life at home was like. My mum eventually got us out of Mr. James’s house and into a place in Brockley, on this estate called Honor Oak. That house wasn’t a good place for me, which is probably why I would stay outside kicking a tennis ball against a brick wall for hours on end. My stepbrother, Nicky, came over from Jamaica when he was 10 years old. I was six, and he picked on me a lot — holding me down, putting me in headlocks and all that. Dionne, my younger sister was six years younger than me, and she ran the house like the baby of the family often does. My mum had her ups and downs … and then there was my stepdad.
He wasn’t a great guy.
He was a real … how can I say this? He was a weed-smoking, gambling, coming-home-late, gambling-his-wages, womanizing kind of guy. He was rough with my mum and rough with all of us kids. And I don’t know why, but he didn’t like me in particular. Maybe it was because I was the youngest boy, but some of the stuff he did? He’d go out of his way to be cruel in all sorts of other ways — and over the oddest things.
If we’d go shopping for new clothes, he’d buy stuff for Nicky and Maurice and Dionne, no problem. But when it came to me, he’d forget my size or talk about how I could wear Nicky and Maurice’s hand-me-downs. Once, we were all out shopping and he asked my mum if a pair of trousers he’d found would fit Nicky. She said no, but that they were my size. And he just put them down. Right in front of me. He wouldn’t buy them because they were for me. All that harshness, all those bodies and bullying in a one-bedroom house … football was my only escape. But sometimes he’d take that from me, too.
All that harshness, all those bodies and bullying in a one-bedroom house … football was my only escape.
One of the few things my brother and I looked forward to in the house was Match of the Day, and my stepdad used to take that away from us — just because he could. Depending on what mood he was in, he’d come into the bedroom just before it started and he’d say, “Turn around. Turn around to the wall.”
We had to face the wall the whole time Match of the Day was on. And the really cruel thing was that we could still hear everything. It was awful. I would cry myself to sleep whenever he did it. Proper, big, blubbering tears. I remember Maurice would have to cover my ears so the football sounds would stop torturing me. He’d tried rocking me to calm me down, covering my ears. And then finally he’d do what all big brothers do, he’d shout, “Stop crying! Stop crying!”
You know when you’re crying and someone is telling you to stop? You end up making that choking noise that gets you in your chest and your throat. It sounds like you’re wheezing. Imagine that. It was so unnecessary. I carried that with me for years. Whenever I heard the Match of the Day theme music come on, I would feel that pain in my chest. And I’ll be honest with you, it still gets to me every now and again. The first time I went on the show as a presenter, Des Lynam walked up to me and said, “Ian Wright, welcome to Match of the Day.” I nearly broke down crying.
I told Des, “This is my Graceland.”
I had so much pent-up anger and frustration that if I was losing at football, I’d literally spoil the game for everyone else. The pitch was one of the few places where I had control, so if I felt like someone was taking that away from me, I’d snap. Swearing, fighting, all sorts of stuff. I look back at it now, and it must have been embarrassing for the people around me. But I couldn’t control it. If you nutmegged me, I would Hulk out and try to beat you up. At Hilly Fields games, Maurice would warn people, “If you tackle him, watch out, because he’ll end up probably wanting to fight you.”
I got older and the anger was still there, probably worse even because I was playing Sunday morning football, playing against pub teams. I was in my teens against these rough Sunday old boys, who’d say something in my ear and then BANG, I’d be fighting. For a while, I thought that that was how it had to be: Someone makes you feel small, you make them feel small. And I actually loved it. People would say things to me like, “You’re a really good player, why do you get involved in that?” But I didn’t care. I was angry. It made me feel good to punch somebody.
There was one man in particular who helped me through those dark times when I was a kid: Mr. Sydney Pigden, a teacher at Turnham Junior. When we moved to Honor Oak, I started going to Turnham, which was down the road from our house. And I was struggling. Really struggling. I must have been about eight years old, and I could barely read or write — not because I didn’t have the intellect, it was just that my attention span was very, very, very, very short. As soon as I couldn’t grasp something in class, I would mess around and spoil things for everyone. My teacher must have sent me outside the classroom for misbehaving nearly every week, and that’s where Mr. Pigden found me one day.
Some of you may know of him, but let me tell you how we first met. I was eight years old, standing outside my classroom, when Mr. Pigden walks past. He was a very strict man, and every time he’d pass me he’d always say, “Outside the classroom again?” It must have been after the third time he saw me that I stopped making eye contact with him. I was so scared and embarrassed. One day when he walked past, he stopped and came back to look at me. You know when someone sees you? They’re looking at you like they can see something more? It’s hard to look back at them. Mr. Pigden gave me that kind of look and I had to look down at the ground. And then he went into my classroom to talk to my teacher. He spoke to her for about 10 minutes, and when he came out he said, “Come with me.”
And then he changed my life.
We went to the library, and from that moment on I stayed with him. I went into classrooms every now and then, but the majority of the time at school I was with Mr. Pigden. He taught me everything: how to read and how to write, how to have patience, and how to be confident and communicate, and why sometimes I would get angry. He really opened up the world to me. He even made me the register monitor and the milk monitor and gave me a sense of responsibility. He made me believe that the things I did mattered, even if they were as small as collecting school registers and handing out milk. It was really nice, simply because he was the first man who showed me any kind of love.
That video of when I saw him again years later and started crying? I genuinely didn’t know he was still alive. So to have this man just pop up and be there again? It was amazing. He gave me everything. Even football. When I was a kid he watched me play once and … I remember back then when I used to get close to the goal I would blast my shots. I would hit the ball so hard, as if I was trying to get all my anger out at once. But Mr. Pigden, he was the one who said to me, “Ian, you don’t have to blast it. Look where the goalkeeper is. Look where the space is. Jimmy Greaves passes it into the net.” I didn’t know who Jimmy Greaves was back then, but Mr. Pigden told me to try to score goals with finesse. “That’s the great goals, Ian,” he would say, “when the goalkeeper doesn’t even move … a great goal is where the goalkeeper’s got no chance of reaching, and he can’t blame nobody else.”
Ever since then, I always tried to score goals with precision, not power. The best goal I ever scored was against Everton in 1993. Goal kick, left foot, right foot, left foot, ditch defender Matt Jackson and chip Neville Southall in goal with my right foot again. The ball touched the ground once. He had no chance. I remember running back to the halfway line with people clapping, and I was just thinking about Mr. Pigden: “He’d love that goal.” I showed it to him later and he said to me, “That’s art. That’s beautiful. That’s it.”
The funny thing was, that was the only goal that Maurice said was better than his against Fairlawn. Mr. Pigden gave me everything. Even my brother’s respect.
I think about all the stuff he did for me, and I don’t know how he did it. When I played for England he called it the proudest moment of his life. Imagine that. This schoolteacher, who’d done stuff like been a pilot in the Second World War, who’d flown over Buckingham Palace … and he says his proudest moment was watching some kid who went to his school play football.
You know that glowy, warm feeling you get inside when you’ve made somebody proud? You can’t buy that. I grew up wanting to get that from my dad or my stepdad and never getting it. I spent my childhood thinking I would never make anyone proud, but I made Mr. Pigden proud. He cared about me during a real tumultuous time in my life and gave me an unbelievable amount of love. He passed away late last year at the age of 95 but he’s still with me. He’ll always be with me.
That should have been it: People like Mr. Pigden and Steve Foster show me the way, and then I study my books, get spotted by a football club and go pro. That’s how it’s supposed to happen. When you get a chance you’re not supposed to blow it. But I did. I’m not going to ask you to read my story and lie to you. I blew it. So many times.
I did some stupid things during my teenage years, real stupid: getting into fights, going to watch Millwall home and away, stuff like that. The only reason I didn’t end up in prison during my teens was because I was playing nonleague football for this side called Ten-Em-Bee. If it weren’t for the people who ran the club — Tony Davis and Harold Palmer — I’d have ended up in serious trouble. The routine they gave me (training on Tuesday and Thursday, and games on Saturday) kept me on the straight and narrow. They used to come to my house to pick me up and drive me directly to training. I didn’t realise it at the time but they were doing all they could to help me avoid getting in trouble with the police.
And then I blew it anyway and ended up in prison when I was 19.
Prison is rubbish. I can try to dress it up and use big words, but prison is rubbish. Do everything you can to not go to prison. They take everything away from you and stick you in a tiny room. I was relatively lucky, because I only spent two weeks in HM Prison Chelmsford in 1982 for non-payment of driving fines. But still, when they close that cell door on you? It’s over. That’s all you’re thinking when it shuts. I nearly burst into tears when I heard the door close behind me.
The same year I went to prison I started seeing Sharon, who ended up being my first wife, and I adopted her son. You know him as Shaun Wright-Phillips, the former Manchester City and Chelsea winger. So there I am, 19 years old, with a young son at home; my life has never gotten lower than that. I spent so many of my early years trying to be something, anything, but when I was in prison I felt like I was nothing. When I came out, I thought I had to do something drastic. I knew that I had to make a change.
So I quit football.
I stepped out of prison and I said, “I’m going to work.” A lot of people know my story, but very few people know that I quit football when I was 19. I was done after Brighton, and then to go to prison not long after? Playing professional football was so far from my mind when I came out of prison. I had to take care of my family and create a home better than the one I grew up in, so I went out and started learning a trade. Bricklaying at first, then plastering. Eventually I started working at a place called Tunnel Refineries, in Greenwich. It was a massive industrial space where they mixed all sorts of concoctions with sugar. I did maintenance. The smell wasn’t great, but I was pretty happy. Shaun was about four years old, and my second son, Bradley, was a little baby. I was still playing a bit of football for a team called Greenwich Borough, but that was more to get out the house on weekends. I was earning good money, looking after my family. Why would I want to leave and try again only to get rejected?
That’s pretty much what I said when Peter Prentice first offered me a two-week trial at Crystal Palace. Again, people say, “Scouts spotted Ian Wright at a Sunday league game!” They don’t say, “Ian turned the first offer down when they tried to sign him!”
And the second. And the third.
By the time Crystal Palace approached me, I didn’t want to do anything other than be a labourer.
I had chased the dream at Brighton, I had been to prison for non payment of fines, by the time Crystal Palace approached me, I didn’t want to do anything other than be a labourer. I didn’t want to put myself through another football trial only to get rejected again. It sounds a silly, but I didn’t have the luxury of taking time off for a football trial. I had prison and community service on my record. I didn’t know if I’d be able to find another job if I got sacked, and my focus was making sure Shaun and Bradley had what they needed.
The only thing that changed my mind was Tony at Ten-Em-Bee. At this point it was 1985 and I had signed for a semi pro side called Greenwich Borough, but Tony was still one of my best mates. He helped me travel to do my community service and heard all my stories. Tony knew how much Palace wanted me, but he also knew how burnt out I had been after Brighton. (In fact, when they rejected me they didn’t tell me direct, but told Tony to tell me instead.) One day we met just by the off chance at Tunnel Refineries in the canteen and he said, “You don’t want to get to your old age and think that you could have had an opportunity to be a footballer and you didn’t take it.” I don’t know if he was sick of me whining, or if he really wanted me to take the chance, but that was the push I needed. My supervisor offered to make an excuse about me needing two weeks off work because I was sick, and I took the trial at Crystal Palace.
And I very nearly blew it.
My attitude to the trial wasn’t, This is my last chance. Instead it was, I don’t care. It was a mix of trying to have no fear and trying to not set myself up for disappointment. It was such a ridiculous outlook and negative attitude to have. The fitness was a killer, too. The jump from nonleague to the Second Division (the Championship, as we call it now) was tough. I was playing decent football, scoring goals and all that, but after 10, 15 minutes, I was literally hands-on-my-knees blowing. I thought I was going to get rejected for all the huffing and puffing I was doing. But after seven or eight days we beat a semipro side called Kingstonian 1–0. Steve Coppell, the Crystal Palace manager, caught me after the game and told me that I had to report to the ground the next day because Palace were playing a game behind closed doors against Coventry and he wanted me involved.
But I nearly blew it.
I was so eager to impress that I headed down early to the stadium. But when I got there I found nothing. No players, no scouts. I started thinking something had gone wrong and was looking for someone to sort me out. After about 45 minutes I spotted a woman there and asked her what was going on.
She told me, “No, this isn’t Crystal Palace football ground, this is Crystal Palace athletics track. The stadium is in Selhurst, two miles down that way.”
My face dropped. You can walk between the two grounds in about 20 minutes, but if I had walked I would have missed kickoff. So I ran. I was sprinting for my future. I remember when I got to Selhurst, Steve Coppell looked me up and down and went, “Why are you sweating so much?”
I had nearly blown it. But this time something finally worked out. I came off the bench in that game, and come the end of it, Steve pulled me aside and went, “You need to come to the office where we’re going to sign you for three months.”
It was only a three-month trial but I’d done it: I was able to call myself a professional footballer. Nearly 11 years of rejection, bullying, prison and all sorts of nonsense, and I had finally gotten my dream.
When I called my mum from Steve’s office and told her, she burst into tears on the phone.
I think I did too.
I woke up the next day thinking, Did that really happen? To be honest I still can’t believe it did.
Crystal Palace was undergoing a lot of change when I signed. Steve Coppell had just stopped playing, and had been put in charge to promote younger players, while getting the old guard to move on. It was chaos in the changing room — in the nicest way. Myself, Andy Gray and Tony Finnigan, we were the young boys. Mark Bright came later, along with John Salako, Richard Shaw and more, to create this core unit of fast, athletic players. On the other side, you had a couple of old-school veterans who enjoyed kicking us during training sessions and taking the mick out of us after. At one point I stopped going downstairs to the canteen for dinner because I was getting sick of the old boys. I’d order steak and sauteed potatoes and get comments like, “You can’t spell sauteed potatoes, why are you ordering them for?” I’ve never been able to handle bullies, as a kid or as an adult.
Steve Coppell looked after me though. He looked after all of us. That’s why that team finished third in the playoffs and got into the First Division in my fourth season. That’s why we got to the FA Cup final.
That FA Cup final against Manchester United, Jesus Christ….
I was a substitute for that game because I had broken my left leg earlier in the season. (Think it was my fibula.) I had actually broken my leg twice that season, and I had to play a game behind closed doors for Coppell to prove I could make that Cup final. Barely made it.
Everyone in the country used to watch the FA Cup final, and substitute or no substitute, I wanted to do everything when I was there. Everything. I was doing all the walking out stuff, I was meeting Princess Margaret. I did all of that. I made sure I got it all. I had come to football so late that I was still catching up with everyone else. There was no way I was going to just be a substitute for the 1990 FA Cup final. This was the highlight of my career. Of my life.
I remember getting into kit, everybody in their cool new football boots, and walking down that beautiful white Wembley tunnel. The game is about to kick off and Mark Bright gives me this look like all hell’s about to break loose.
Me and Mark Bright used to room together. All the years from the Second Division to the First Division, hotels in Barnsley, the lot.
If you go and watch footage you can see Mark give me this look in the tunnel, and I know he’s thinking “Are you ready?”.
I really thought I was.
But then when it happened….
I’ve never heard a noise like that before or since. Whether it was because of the Palace fans, or because it was the FA Cup final, I’m not totally sure.
But man, the noise….
It was thunderous.
In the end, you probably know what happens. We’re losing 2–1, and I come off the bench. When you come off the bench in a big game like that and your team is losing … I just thought to myself, As soon as I get the ball, I’m just gonna get it out my feet and shoot. Doesn’t matter where I am, I’m just gonna make people know I’ve come on the pitch with Bad Intentions.
I’m on the pitch for three minutes and Mark Bright passes it to me — I would have been maybe 20, 30 yards away from the goal — I give it a touch to get past Mike Phelan, who’s closing me down. Gary Pallister came to tackle me, but he comes in too quick so I cut inside him, and then all I remember is looking over and seeing so much empty space in the goal. United’s goalie, Jim Leighton, looked tiny in those beautiful Wembley goals with the clean, white nets. I saw a lot of goal and said, Let me just bend it in there.
When the ball hit the back of the net this heat and this adrenaline rush came over my body from my toes to my head. I heard the roar of the crowd and had a complete out-of-body experience. The only thing that took me out of this unbelievable adrenaline buzz was the fact that my teammates piled on top of me to celebrate. I’ve never liked small spaces, ever since I was a child, so I had a funny 15 seconds. Pure joy to small panic. It was almost like I was floating afterward. I scored three minutes after coming off the bench in an FA Cup final. Still can’t believe it.
I only wish we had gone to penalties in that game. FA Cup finals back then went to a replay if the score was tied after extra time. I scored twice and we tied 3–3 in the first game, but then we lost 1–0 in the replay. We played so poorly in the second game, just didn’t turn up. Manchester United, even back then, didn’t give you a second chance to beat ’em. You only got one shot and we missed it.
But that goal … that goal was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had in my life. Sorry, Arsenal fans, but I never had a feeling like that again. There was too much riding on that, it was amazing.
I thought I was going to spend my entire career at Crystal Palace, but one Monday, it was September 1991, I get to Selhurst and Peter Prentice is sitting there acting kind of funny. He looks all glum, and he says to me, “We’ve accepted an offer from Arsenal for you.”
And I went, “But I have to buy a television.”
The biggest transfer of my life and I’m not thinking, Hooray, I’m going to Arsenal! I’m thinking, My mum’s TV is broken and I told her I’d get her a new one today.
Honestly? I didn’t want to leave Palace. Steve Coppell had done good by me, the changing room was good and I loved South London. I was still in shock when Peter told me I had to get a taxi for my medical immediately. The way I left Palace was so cold and final, and I still regret not having the opportunity to say goodbye to the lads. Going to Arsenal shouldn’t have been that much of a culture shock, but I’d have been lost if it hadn’t been for Rocky….
Everyone calls him Rocky, and David Rocastle is the reason I still support Arsenal. He was the hero of the estate we grew up on — the one who’d made it. The entire estate emptied out the day Arsenal beat Liverpool to win the league in 1989 because we’d all gone out to find a TV to watch Rocky play. He was like a brother to me. We’d grabbed the same buses to and from school in Brockley growing up, and we were adults I’d bump into him every now and again. He’d be 16, and I’d be 20, and he’d be telling me, “You’re better than the players I’m playing against. You can do it. You’ve got to try and do it.” At a time when no one believed in me, not even myself, Rocky believed in me. So when I finished having my medical at Arsenal and he was there, waiting for me, I knew I was going to be O.K.
Rocky took me under his wing from Day One. Literally, I went round his house after my medical and he did everything he could to look after me. He bigged me up, told me not to pay attention to critics and spent hours explaining how important the North London Derby was. He was so serious about the derby. We must’ve stayed up until 4, 5 a.m. the day I signed, and half the conversation was about how you do not lose to Spurs. When I started to meet the fans and stuff they always said the same thing: “Make sure your score against Spurs. You score against Spurs you’ll be a legend instantly, doesn’t matter what you do after that.” By the time I left Arsenal, I had scored against Spurs four times. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without Rocky.
Think about it, two Brockley boys — one wearing number 8, one wearing number 7 — going out there and becoming heroes for Arsenal. In my league debut against Southampton, Rocky got a goal and I scored a hat trick. It was the most satisfying 90 minutes of football I’ve ever played. Although we only got one season playing together, if I could go back in time and play only one year in my career again, that would be it. I can’t get over the fact that we lost him so early to cancer. He was only 33. Rocky is why I support Arsenal. When people come up to me and tell me I’m why they support Arsenal it makes me proud because it make me think of my best friend.
I love Arsenal. I know to some people I can come across a bit grumpy at times, but honestly and truly, I love that football club in a way beyond words. It’s going through a very interesting time right now, but I really think there are still a lot of people at Arsenal working to make sure our club’s great traditions don’t get forgotten. Arsenal will remain Arsenal forever and that makes me happy.
When I think about my time there, I think about Rocky, about scoring goals, and some of the happiest years of my life. I think about Arsene Wenger coming to Highbury and giving me a new outlook on life in my 30s. Wenger is an artist, a manager who would look at you and see something more. He steered Arsenal into the 21st century and deserves a lot of credit for turning our club into a great club. Toward the end there, through business and whatnot, I feel as if he wasn’t able to do the things he truly wanted to. But it speaks to the quality of his character that he did all he could to keep things around Arsenal as positive as possible. Football needs more men like Arsene Wenger. The world does too.
Honestly and truly, I love that football club in a way beyond words.
I’ll save you the rest of my footballing career because I want to tell you a bit about where I am today. I’m in my 50s now, and everything feels brand new and different again. People like me, who have made more than their share of bad mistakes, don’t normally get to reach their 50s, but my life has never been that normal.
There are more adventures ahead and I hope lot of them have to do with me being a good dad. I’ve been a dad for a long time, but I’m not going to lie and tell you I was a great one. For a lot of my life, football was my focus — when I went to bed at night I wasn’t thinking about my kids, but about how I could break into the England side. That wasn’t a great way to be, so now I’m working on giving back. Look at my family now, I’m proud of all of my kids; there’s Bradley, doing amazing things for New York Red Bulls, and Shaun, who makes me proud every day. Shaun’s son D’Margio is playing for Manchester City.
Imagine that: I have a teenage grandson at Manchester City.
I have another grandson, Ryan, he’s a leftfooter, and I’ve never seen anybody as driven and determined to play professional football as him. I’ve got an amazing wife, who has given me two young daughters. I’m lucky. I’m still coming to grips with it all, trying to understand how privileged and fortunate I’ve been, not just to play football and have a family, but to see that family play football and have families of their own, as well.
I walk down the street now and sometimes people call me “uncle.” Uncles in the community give pearls of wisdom and help people on the bumpy roads of life, so my aim now is to make football more available for everyone, in the same way Mr. Pigden and others did for me. Both on and off the pitch. I think the future of football culture sees people from all walks of life, pros and ex pros, journalists and fans – anyone with a love of the game really – the future of the culture sees everyone pitching in and taking the sport to new heights. I want my girls to go into any situation, whether it’s in sports or whatever other field they choose, and feel like they’ve got a chance and deserve to be in the room. It shouldn’t have to take an amazing schoolteacher to one day spot you standing outside the classroom, or a football captain to find you waiting hopelessly in the club reception area. Opportunities should be available and inclusive from the very beginning.
I hope when it’s all said and done people remember me as a down-to-earth, humble bloke who knew he was fortunate to get the opportunity he did, and did the very best he could with it. I got my start in life because a nice person stopped and asked me, “What you doing here?” and then helped me get where I needed to be. My hope now is in 50 years, or in 100 years time, no kid is going to be standing outside a classroom feeling utterly helpless and alone.
The truth is, I spent so much of my life angry and trying to catch up after a bad start.
Maybe now that you’ve read my story, you’ll see me on the television flashing a smile and you’ll really understand that I wasn’t born with it. I earned it.