Last time England played at Wembley, the Football Association honoured its five centurions to echo FIFA’s commemoration of the world’s 100-capped players. Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Peter Shilton and David Beckham were all given or celebrated with a special cap to mark their achievements in the famous white shirt of England. But for many it is the least capped of the five, arguably the greatest of the England Greats – Billy Wright – who stands tall amongst even these giants of English football. His daughter, Babette Wright, was present on June 2nd to collect her father’s latest posthumous reward.
Wright played 105 times for England between 1946 and 1959, but even in purely numerical terms this tells only half the story. He wasn’t just another player to reach 100 caps, he was the first anywhere in world football. He played 70 consecutive games for his country and became a true English stalwart, playing at wing half and eventually centre half, with his tackling and effective passing lauded as recently as an insert in the programme for the friendly against Belgium last month.
He captained England 90 times, a record equalled only by Moore, and he was a renowned figure even in England’s golden age. Stan Mortensen and Stanley Matthews were skippered by Wright as he enjoyed enormous status in the world game. The defensive master from Ironbridge in Shropshire captained his country at three FIFA World Cups, in Brazil in 1950, Switzerland in 1954 and Sweden in 1958. These remarkable achievements speak volumes of a player who is hugely respected by older generations but gets precious little recognition today simply because so much time has passed.
Wright’s legacy is infused with mystique, not least because of a happy coincidence of timing. His long international career spanned England’s period of unfulfilled and largely untested primacy and the inevitable unravelling of the country’s fearsome reputation. He was the team’s leader throughout a spell that would prove a turning point not only in the English game but in football worldwide, and he was present at all the pivotal moments within.
In 1950, when Joe Gaetjens’ goal in Belo Horizonte for the United States of America secured a shock win against England at the World Cup, Wright was part of England’s apparently formidable defence. When Hungary came to Wembley in 1953 – captained by the great Ferenc Puskas – and famously became the first foreign team to beat England on home soil, Wright was the Honved star’s opposite number. A 7-1 defeat in Budapest six months later famously proved it was no fluke.
The status of England’s national team changed dramatically in the 1950s but Wright was a constant throughout, just as he was at his club. Aside from a brief wartime encounter with Leicester City, it was in the Black Country that Wright made his name and built his legacy. First given a trial at Wolverhampton Wanderers by the legendary manager Major Frank Buckley, Wright became an enormously successful one-club man with over 500 appearances to his name.
Wolves were a prominent force during Wright’s time at the club and as captain, the greatest spell in the club’s history. They won the English First Division in 1953/54, 1957/58 and 1958/59, and finished second twice. Wright became an FA Cup winner with Wanderers in 1949 and followed up with a very respectable collection of personal accolades, winning the Football Writers’ Player of the Year Award in 1952 and finishing second (behind one Alfredo di Stefano) in the running for the 1957 Ballon d’Or. He became William Wright CBE in 1959.
Wright would again come across Puskas and much of the famous Mighty Magyars team in December 1954, when Wolves faced Honved in a floodlit friendly on a muddied pitch at Molineux, covered in detail by my In Bed With Maradona colleague David Hartrick in his excellent book ’50 Teams That Mattered’, available from Ockley Books. Wolves came from 2-0 down to win 3-2, Roy Swinbourne completing the comeback as Wright and Wolves partially restored the severely damaged pride of England.
A wonderful and iconic player, Wright is also said to have been a man of admirable character. He combined football with his role as a physical training instructor in the army during the war and proved the most vital component in Wolves’ success under Stan Cullis, helping to turn Wolves into the self-proclaimed best team in the world. In some ways Wright was a portent of football’s future. As England captain, he married popstar Joy Beverley in 1958 at Poole Register Office. The pair remained together until Wright’s death from stomach cancer in 1994.
But in other aspects Wright was very much of his time, playing a total of 541 times for Wolves and 105 times for England without picking up so much as a booking. He might not be the only player to avoid the wrath of referees for an entire career, but with Wright one just has the sense that he did so quite deliberately.
England career: 1946 to 1959
England caps: 105
England goals: 3
Major championship appearances: World Cup 1950, World Cup 1954, World Cup 1958