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Ian Wright: ‘I didn’t realise how unhappy I was’

Ian Wright survived a childhood beset by fear and domestic abuse. Here's how he overcame his background to become a football hero – and a good father.
Ian Wright is fronting a new documentary about domestic abuse. Image credit: BBC / Brook Lapping Productions / Dan Dewsbury

Ian Wright is a footballing hero to many. Famous for scoring 128 goals for Arsenal in the 1990s and playing 33 matches for England, he went on to be a pundit on Match of the Day and appear as one of the legendary Icons in the Fifa video game. Much less known was the physical and emotional abuse Wright survived as a child.

In a new documentary, Ian Wright: Home Truths, he discusses his experiences and investigates how backgrounds like his own have an effect on young people.

Speaking to the Big Issue’s Jane Graham, Wright gives some advice to the 16-year-old version of Ian, in a sometimes painful Letter To My Younger Self.

When I was a little guy, around nine or 10, I was probably the most angry I’ve been in my life. And unhappy and sad. And I was very confused because I didn’t realise the abuse you get is not your fault. There were a lot of times when I did go outside and played football, and everything turned into anger instantly. Fights when I lost a football match, crying if I lost a football match – that kind of emotion was always very close to me. What I think about more than anything else is how much I didn’t realise how unhappy I was when I was getting older, and I didn’t say anything to anybody. I just felt like, why is this happening to me, why do they dislike me so much? Why is my stepdad so nasty? And my mum so nasty? The only person that was nice was my older brother Maurice.

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Ian Wright with his big brother Maurice in the 1970s. Photo supplied

All I can remember is that since I was a child Maurice has always been there. He was the one who was trying to protect me, covering my ears when there were certain horrible sounds in the room. Thinking of my little self, I’d tell him, it’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. And you can get through this. I was really frightened. But I didn’t really know what I was frightened of. I just knew that something was coming at some stage, something nasty. So I was fully on edge all the time. It’s not easy to get over those feelings of neglect and abuse and the pain that hurts, and the mental pain that hurts even more. I didn’t get any hugs when I was younger, it’s just not something that happened. So when I think of that little guy I just want to give him a lovely big hug.

I can remember clearly seeing my stepdad manhandling my mum. She was so small. We were all living in the same room, so my brother and me would have to turn away. And my stepdad would do whatever he did. And Maurice would cover my ears. The worst thing was when you could hear it but you couldn’t see it. That frightened me the most. Because he was such a big guy and you didn’t know what he was doing and she was so much smaller. You could hear her apologising. Even to think about that now, it’s always hard.

Football was so important. It was the only thing I was better at than other people

I wasn’t great at school, I couldn’t grasp it quickly. And then I became disruptive. I used to get on my back and just goof around on the floor in the classroom. Then a teacher called Mr Pigden came and took me out of class and tutored me on my own. He helped me learn to read and write properly. He gave me responsibilities, he made me a milk monitor. And he taught me to have the confidence to ask if there was something I didn’t understand. I do that to this day. If there’s a word I don’t understand, I ask what it means. Once he gave me the confidence to do that I started asking about everything, to the point where I was probably getting on people’s nerves. But I felt a lot better in the class.

When I was younger, football was everything to me. It was the only thing ever, in the whole world; the only thing I thought about, the only thing that could keep me on track. Because when I was put back in the classroom Mr Pigden said if I was good I’d be able to play football on the Saturday. If I wasn’t, he wouldn’t let me play. If I couldn’t play football life literally wasn’t worth living for me. It was so important to me. It was the only thing I was better at than other people.

I can clearly remember the moment I got my first contract. I was 22. I didn’t think I was going to make it because I failed in every single trial I went to from the age of 10. The only trial I ever got through was the Crystal Palace trial. Steve Coppell [during the first of two spells as Palace manager] called me into the office after training on the Friday and said I needed to come back the next day. I thought, Jesus Christ, he’s gonna tell me he doesn’t want me to come back on Monday. I’d played a match on the Thursday and scored, but they took me off at half time. So I was expecting to be released. Then when I went to the ground on Saturday he told me, “We’re going to sign you for three months.” It was the biggest surprise I’d ever had in my whole life. I wasn’t expecting it at all. If I could go back and tell the little 10-year-old me, you’re only going to get through one trial but it’s the only trial you’ll ever have to worry about, it would have fixed so many problems in the years in between.

When I signed it felt like coming out of a very dark room. I was going nowhere when I was 16. I’d  left school at 14 and started to do labouring jobs. I was having major problems at home with my mum and my stepdad so I tried to stay away from them, stayed at my mates’ houses, stuff like that. I was directionless, I didn’t have any grounding. Then I was in prison when I was 19 [he served two weeks for non-payment of driving fines] and when I came out I said to myself, well, I’m not going back there. I’m going to try and learn a trade. I’m going to just work hard and try and help my boys, Shaun [his adopted son, England international footballer Shaun Wright-Phillips] and Bradley [Wright-Phillips, also a footballer]. That was where I got my focus from. So then, obviously, three years later coming out at Crystal Palace, a professional footballer, that was incredible. 

I lost my focus when I was a big star at Arsenal. I thought I had everything. I was overwhelmed. I felt like I was breathing different air. To go all of a sudden from the ugly duckling in the family to the patriarch, and everybody wants you and everybody knows you and it’s all ‘we need you’, ‘we love you’ – it was a very confusing time. And it was a very untrusting time, I didn’t trust anybody. But I was getting all this adulation after being starved of love when I was a child. So I lost focus. My football didn’t suffer but my personal life did. It wasn’t a good time for me. If I could go back and talk to myself then I’d say, there are some people around you that you need to move away from. They don’t really care about you, but they’re going to use you and cause you a lot of problems. Move them out of your life, and focus back on what got you where you are. I’d  say, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, seven, eight of you – out.

Ian Wright's tears of joy playing for England in 1997. Image: Tom Jenkins/Getty Images
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Ian Wright's tears of joy playing for England in 1997. Image: Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

If I could go back and tell my 16-year-old self what was going to happen to him, the thing that would really blow his mind would be when I told him he was going to play for England. That’d be the bit where he’d say, ‘Right, could you just fuck off now please? You know you’re talking shit. Get out my face. I’m so busy, I’m in limbo at the moment, I’ve got no direction in my life, and you’re coming and telling me not only am I going to be a professional footballer, but I’m going to play for England? Do me a favour mate and just piss off.’

My younger self would be really happy about being a dad. It’s one of the reasons why my oldest son Shaun means so much because the experience I had with my stepfather made me decide I wasn’t going to let that happen to Shaun. When I started going out with his mum, I knew I wanted to treat him like my son. He is my son. You know, if somebody said, you’re gonna be a good dad, you know, I’d be delighted, I’d be so happy. Because all I wanted was for Shaun to have a better upbringing in respects of having a stepdad than I did.

My younger self would not believe that I would end up being a regular on Match of the Day. The holy grail of TV programmes. It’s like Graceland for Elvis Presley fans. So if you told me, you’ll end up being a pundit on Match of the Day… I mean, I’d burst into tears. Playing football and speaking about football are two of the best things you can do. Going on unarguably the greatest football show in England, in the world, being a regular person on it, it really is the kind of stuff you never think about. Because remember I was still struggling to read and write properly from the ages of six to eight, and then I was in secondary school, not paying as much attention as I should, always behind. To go from that to talking on Match of the Day

I still get nervous before I go on. As soon as I hear that theme music it takes me to a place. You realise it’s live, you know there’s gonna be millions and millions of people watching. And the scrutiny that comes with that.

Ian Wright, delighted about Leicester’s league win on Match of the Day
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Ian Wright, delighted about Leicester’s league win on Match of the Day. Image: Match of the Day / BBC

If I could have one last conversation with anyone, I’d have to choose my old teacher Mr Pigden. He knew me when I was very raw and rough and ready and lost. And he was the one person in my whole life who made me feel like he cared. He saw something in me that no one else saw, no one. I didn’t see it. And even going through my teenage adolescence, all those years, I still didn’t really see it. So I’d say to him, thanks for choosing me. I’ve spoken to people about the career he could have had in the army, how he could have gone on to be whatever he wanted because he was a fighter pilot at 18. He could have had an unbelievable future in the military if he’d wanted it. But he chose to be a teacher, and I’m the one that benefited from that the most. He died a few years ago so I’d love to be able to see him one more time and tell him it worked out all right in the end.

If I could re-live one moment in my life if would be when Steve Coppell said, I’m gonna sign you for three months. I remember saying to him, am I professional, am I professional now? I was so happy because I really didn’t see it coming. The first thing I did was phone my mum. That’s a confusing one for me because I don’t know if I phoned her because I wanted to prove something to her or just because I was so happy and I wanted her to know. But I remember when I came out, there was a sense of… I felt very enlightened and shining. I can’t explain how I felt. It was like a burst of sunshine. It changed my whole life, there and then. It was the first time in my life when I was in control of where I was going. Depending on the work I did, what I put into it, that was what I’d get out of it. All of a sudden, I’m in total control of my destiny. That moment, sitting on the bus on the way home, just looking out of the window thinking ‘I’m a professional footballer’ – that’s the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.

Ian Wright: Home Truths is on BBC One on May 6 at 9pm and then on iPlayer