Player Rating (click to rate):
( 7 Votes )
Born: Wednesday 6 February 1924, Ironbridge, England
Died: Saturday 3 September 1994, London, England (aged 70)
Position: Wing Half/Centre Half
After becoming the first player in the world to win 100 international caps, Billy Wright is assured of a permanent place in the game's history. Captaining England 90 times including his country's first three appearances in the World Cup, Wright spent the entirety of his playing career with Wolverhampton Wanderers and led the club to three Football League titles during by far the most successful period in its history.
Born in the town of Ironbridge in Shropshire on 6 February 1924, Wright initially played as a centre forward. Playing in that position, he was the star of his school team and even scored ten goals on his debut. When he was 14, he spotted a newspaper advert inviting youngsters to come to trials at Wolverhampton Wanderers and duly went along. Manager Frank Buckley initially rejected him, saying he didn't have what it took to play at the highest level, but was persuaded to change his mind and Wright signed on with the club.
Signing initially as a member of the groundstaff, Wright worked his way through the ranks quickly at Wolves and made his first team debut at the age of just 15, in a 2-1 win in a wartime match at Notts County. During the war Wright continued to play for Wolves and also guested for Notts County, before joining the army in 1943. Like many footballers, he was made a physical training instructor and didn't see any frontline service. When competitive football resumed in 1946, Wright had been moved back to the right-half position and would continue to play there for much of the next eight years.
Like many players of his era, Wright's international debut came in England's first official post-war match, a 7-2 win over Northern Ireland in Belfast in September 1946. Incredibly, by the time he retired some 13 years later he had missed just three of England's matches during that period. After Wolves had narrowly lost the league title to Liverpool in 1947, losing 2-1 when the clubs met in the final game of the season, captain Stan Cullis retired and Wright took over that job. He held onto it for the remainder of his career.
Strongly built despite being only 5ft 8in (173cm) tall, Wright was a master of timing both in terms of beating taller players to headers and winning the ball in strong tackles. He also had a remarkable reading of the game, able to break up attacks with almost telepathic interceptions and launch quick breaks upfield. Under Wright's leadership on the field and former captain Cullis' management off it, Wolves reached the FA Cup final in 1949. A 3-1 win over Second Division Leicester City saw Wright become the first Wolves captain to lift a major trophy in 41 years.
Having also become England captain during the 1948-49 season, Wright led his country to their first World Cup appearance in Brazil in 1950. Unfortuantely, after an opening win over Chile everything went horribly wrong as a humiliating defeat to the USA and another loss to Spain saw England knocked out in the group stage. There was further embarrassment when Wright's England team suffered crushing 6-3 and 7-1 defeats Hungary in friendly matches in the early 1950s.
Despite that disappointment, Wolves gradually began to become one of England's leading sides. In 1952 Wright was named Footballer of the Year and two years later led Wolves to their first ever leage title, overhauling fierce rivals West Bromwich Albion to clinch the championship. It was around the time of this success that Wright was first moved to the centre-half position. The change was initially a forced one as a result of injuries, first with England and then with Wolves, but Wright proved himself just as skilled there as at right-half. The fact that he was smaller than most other centre-halves did not seem to matter, his abilities more than made up for his height.
Wright captained England to the World Cup for the second time in Switzerland in 1954, where this time the team were successful in getting past the group stage thanks to a win over Switzerland but met their match in a quarter-final with defending champions Uruguay, losing 4-2. In the autumn of 1954, he captained Wolves to a famous victory over Hungarian side Honvéd, which restored some pride to English football after the defeats to Hungary as many of the Honvéd team had played in the big wins over England.
Wright was a virtual ever present for Wolves, missing only 31 games throughout the 1950s. Having narrowly failed to retain their league title in 1955, finishing second to Chelsea, they slipped back further over the next two years as Manchester United's 'Busby Babes' dominated the league but bounced back in style in 1957-58. A win over Manchester United took Wolves to the top of the table and they were never overtaken for the rest of the season. Although that season was overshadowed by the Munich air crash, which claimed the lives of several of the Busby Babes, Wolves final points total meant that Manchester United would have had to win every match from that point onwards to deny them the title.
That summer brought another trip to the World Cup, but having lost several players in the Munich tragedy England again failed to get past the group stage. Finishing level on points with the Soviet Union, England lost a play-off 1-0 and Wright's World Cup career ended in disappointment. One of the first players in England to have a recognisable media image, his fame was such that when he married singer Joy Beverley a month later, thousands turned out to wish the couple well in what could be termed the first 'celebrity' wedding of a footballer.
The 1958-59 season would bring a historic milestone for Wright. In the Home International Championship match against Scotland on 11 April, he won his 100th cap for England, the first time any player had reached that milestone. Less that a fortnight later a 3-0 win over Leicester clinched a second consecutive league title for Wolves, the third of Wright's career. However, he was preparing to call an end to his career and announced his retirement shortly before the start of the 1959-60 season, at the age of 35.
Wright retired with 105 international caps to his name, 90 of them as captain - a record which although equalled by Bobby Moore has never been beaten. He made 70 consecutive appearances for England, a world record, as well as nearly 500 league appearances for Wolves, captaining the club to four major trophies. Shortly after his retirement, he joined the FA and coached the England youth team before making his one and only move into management in 1962 with Arsenal, the team he had supported as a boy.
Wright's time with Arsenal was not a success, as a seventh place finish in his first season was the highest league position he could achieve. He was sacked in 1966 after finishing a disappointing 14th in the league and moved into media work, becoming head of sport at midlands-based ATV and later Central Television. After retiring in 1989, Wright was offered a place on the board of directors at Wolves who were recovering from near-bankruptcy a few years earlier. Wright remained a director until his death from stomach cancer in 1994, at the age of 70. A stand is named after him at Wolves' Molineux ground, with a statue of him standing outside the stadium.
References (all accessed 8 March 2012):
- Published on Thursday, 08 March 2012 16:48