Friday, 4 December 2015

Ian Wright

This tribute to one of my old friends is from the archives and originally appeared in the Dulwich Hamlet v Crystal Palace programme 27 July 2011.

Ian Wright
26 October 1957 - 13 June 2011

As we approached Belair Park on our way to another supporters match, Ian told me, “This is definitely going to be my last season.”

He had been thinking about ‘retiring’ for some time, but couldn’t face it. His brain told him to pack it all in but his heart still had a bit of catching up to do. Within weeks, however, the statement Ian had made in the car had become incredibly poignant.

He was always proud to pull on the pink and blue shirt of Dulwich Hamlet, and from his late thirties Ian had been a regular in the Supporters team; not just in the Elevens but in the mid-week Sevens team as well. In the last 15 years he must have turned out hundreds of times. Even into his 50s his kitbag was always on hand if he was required.

In more recent days he was quite content to get fifteen minutes as a late substitute – but that wasn’t always so. He used to frown sometimes about lesser skilled players given a full ninety minutes while he patiently stood by or reluctantly ran the line. “How can those two play ahead of me?” he would ask. And I would reply, “Well, to start with Ian, they’re twenty years younger than you.”

Ian and I went back more than two decades, and we played together on more than 500 occasions. We knew each other’s game inside out, and we both continued into middle age playing for the love of it, well aware of each other’s declining abilities.

I was introduced to Ian when he was about thirty years old. His sister and brother in law have always been among my closest friends. He began to attend my local church, and as we had a couple of dozen men and youngsters who loved playing football at every opportunity Ian fit in very well. Eventually he became a regular attendant at church meetings. It was only recently that we began to see less and less of Ian, and although he spoke to a handful of us of his ailments – he was developing a serious kidney problem – it wasn’t generally recognised that he was in such a bad state.

He lived his entire life in south London. Born in Wimbledon in 1957 he dwelt at various times in East Dulwich, Camberwell, Battersea, Wandsworth and Walworth. Like most post-war kids he grew up with his backside sticking out of his trousers and his toes poking out of his shoes.  But Ian remained that way. “How old is that tracksuit, mate? It looks like something out of the eighties” I’d say. And the truth is, he’d probably been wearing it since then. And even when he occasionally forced himself into a suit and tie, the addition of a jersey and baseball cap always made him appear slightly eccentric. It was difficult to prise that cap from his head: the moment he left the pitch after being subbed, out came the fags and on went the cap.

Ian grew up on the Dog Kennel Hill Estate just a stone’s throw from Champion Hill where he would venture over to watch Dulwich Hamlet play, and though he was a lifelong supporter of Crystal Palace, the Hamlet always remained very close to his heart. And yet in the years between 1970 and 1995 he hardly ever saw them play. He was so busy playing his own football for junior sides, and then Cobham Town, Colliers Wood, the church side, or anyone who would give him a game, that he was quite happy to just follow the Hamlet from a distance through the back pages of the South London Press.
He was a real ‘have boots will travel’ chap. So, when he was given the opportunity to play for Dulwich, albeit in the Supporters team, he was very proud to take up the offer.
In his day Ian was a workmanlike left sided central defender. Solid and dependable, confident on the ball and good in the air with a powerful header. For a big man he was also quite agile and when called upon to go in goal he displayed remarkable skill there too. One of Ian’s most memorable skills (if you can call it that, because it was also the most irritating) was his famous ‘step-over’. This was where the ball was coming towards him at pace in central defence and he would shape to make a hefty clearance. The striker usually leapt and spun to block the ball with his side, back or leading leg, only to find that Ian had completely sold him a dummy. But this manoeuvre would often outfox our own goalkeeper who would be left scrambling to keep the ball out of the net!

By a strange coincidence I once wrote a lighthearted piece titled ‘Ian Wright’ about our friend for the Champion Hill Street Blues fanzine in August 1994 following that summer’s Hamlet v Palace pre-season friendly. I’m pretty sure this was Ian’s first visit to the ground in a very long time, and still a couple of years before his first game for the Supporters team.  He left before the end, disappointed that no Palace ‘stars’ had been included in the line-up.

One memorable game Ian played in was in May 1997 when he scored the match winning penalty in the shootout that decided the Canary Cup final at the Hitchin Tournament. He was also in the side that were dumped out of the West Bromwich Albion Tournament in the Midlands a month later, when a perfectly good Hamlet goal was deemed to have bounced over the bar when it had in fact bounced under it and through a hole in the net. Several of the players from those early games are still part of our current aging side: Steve Rickerby, Shaun Dooley, Matt Hammond, Mishi Morath, myself. A familiar face from the Premier League, FIFA referee’s assistant Steve Child, was also one of our players back then.

Apart from football Ian was also a keen golfer, and once every six months or so I would join him and Joel Virgo for a round. Some folks may not realise that when Ian turned up looking a bit dishevelled on a Saturday morning at Belair Park for a 10.30 kick off, he had usually been up since five and already played eighteen holes at New Addington with Joel. I always found it very odd, traipsing around a golf course with Ian, because in this realm, he really seemed to struggle with simple arithmetic. He’d take three or four strokes down the fairway, lose a ball, three putt – and still come away with a score of 5.

When Ian left the Post Office, where he had worked since leaving school, he took up a job as a driver delivering cooked meats. The company changed ownership several times over the years but Ian was a mainstay. He hardly ever took a day’s leave; he was a good timekeeper; always reliable; a very good driver; and knew the South East better than anybody. I was his travelling companion on many, many occasions and marvelled that he would just point the car and drive without any navigational aids. He knew exactly how to get to our destination and usually by more than one route. Blowing smoke from the side of his mouth out of his wound down window he would continue his monologue about the state of the nation or some current affair as we inched our way to the match. “I’ve played there.” he’d say as we passed a county league ground. “I’ve played there.” as we passed an open field. The next patch of grass: “I’ve played there.” And I never doubted him.

On the very rare occasion that he consulted a map he would ask me to reach over to the backseat to the door compartment and pass him his book. This was a well thumbed ancient Road Atlas of Great Britain that Alfred the Great may have been familiar with. The maps contained very few motorways, and Milton Keynes did not even exist! But he would never update. And besides, the main A-roads were still there, so why bother? More often than not on the return journey from an away match with the Supporters team we would make a detour to one or other of his customers – a caf√© or a bakers shop where he delivered meat pies – where he could pick up a free lunch. He didn’t like to open up his wallet unless it was really necessary.

One of the few times he abandoned his car was for a trip we made to the continent for a match against the Paris St Germaine supporters at the French club’s training ground in Versaille. We took the overnight coach from Victoria instead. That was a great experience for me, representing our club on foreign soil, yet Ian had “been there, done that” in Prague and in Italy a few years before.

Watching Dulwich Hamlet’s first team with Ian was also quite interesting. He kicked every ball and appreciated the opposition’s play as much as his own team. I once had a very long conversation with him that lasted an entire half about the myriad Hamlet matches he claimed to have witnessed over many years. He wasn’t very pleased when I easily proved to him that he could not possibly have seen as many games as he was making out. To start with he was playing on Saturday afternoons himself throughout the 70s and 80s, and made his reappearance at Champion Hill only in the mid 90s! Yet he honestly believed he was one of the club’s most loyal supporters. And then the opposition scored and he stood up and applauded. “Ian,” I enquired, “Are you sure you actually support Dulwich at all?”

Ian’s final game for the supporters was only a few months ago. I remember it because we scored a particularly pleasing team goal. As I was giving out congratulations to all and sundry for the passing, the movement, the tricky bit of skill, the excellent finish, I could hear someone hollering out my name: “Jacko! Jacko! Jacko!” I turned to discover Ian standing on the edge of our box stabbing his chest with his index finger gesturing for me to credit him some audible praise for his part in the build-up that I somehow missed. It made me chuckle (it still does). “Well done Ian. Good clearance.”

Ian Wright passed away on Monday 13th June 2011 at work. Having just made a delivery in the City he collapsed and died as he returned to his vehicle. It was an instant death - thrombosis of the heart (blood clot) – and attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

His funeral took place on July 11th and his body (along with his Hamlet shirt and Crystal Palace scarf), was buried in the Camberwell Old Cemetery. One particular floral tribute was in the figure of the DHFC club crest, another was a striking pink and blue spray. It was a real honour for me to have been handed one of twelve red roses from Ian’s sister Janice to toss into her brother’s grave. He was a friend of mine. I’m going to miss him.

Jack McInroy, July 2011

1 comment:

  1. Hmm....not sure if this piece is 'worthy' of the Hamlet Historian. He was only occasional fan, albeit one over many years, and he had a 'knack' of getting in free.... and despite what he may have let people believe, he certainly never played for Dulwich Hamlet!