Cult Heroes of Villa Park – Alan Wright

Dave Collett recalls a good thing in a small package.

There has to be a good reason for leaving a club in the running for Premier League glory to switch to a team in the throes of a relegation battle. It would probably be that full-back Alan Wright realised he would have to move on if he was to get regular first-team football. The reason certainly wouldn’t have been money, as Blackburn Rovers at the time were the equivalent of Manchester City, though backed by local steel magnate and fan Jack Walker, rather than an oil corporation.

Walker’s millions meant that Blackburn didn’t twitch when Blackpool demanded – and got- £500,000 for Alan back in October 1991. What’s that you say? Chicken feed compared to modern-day transfer fees? No-one said that at the time, as half-a-million was a record for a player from a fourth division club. Wrighty had certainly earned his move, playing almost a century of games for the Seasiders before Blackburn pounced. They had little reason to regret the purchase, as Rovers subsequently moved up to the top level. The only trouble with playing for any money club is that as soon as they can replace you, they will, as the price for incoming players is of no object. So it proved here with Graeme Le Saux from Chelsea providing a bit more beef on the left flank in what was already a physically-dominant team under Kenny Dalglish.

Left-back didn’t seem a position that Villa were weak in at this time. Having said that, the sterling Steve Staunton was such a good player in a number of areas that restricting him to one role could be seen as a mistake. In February 1995, Brian Little made his move and a cheque for £1 million changed hands. Alan must have wondered what he had done at first, as his arrival coincided with a poor run where the goals had dried up. It looked like Villa might well go under in a season where four clubs were to be relegated to reduce the league numbers to a more manageable twenty. A late burst was enough to save the day and allow the new manager to continue with his team-building plans.

These took an interesting turn when Little’s summer transfer plans hit a bit of a bump. Having signed Palace midfielder Gareth Southgate (no booing at the back, please), the Manager Who Walks on Water was made aware that his former playmaker at relegated Leicester, Mark Draper, was now available. £3 million was quickly agreed on, leaving Little with something of a problem. Having signed these two while keeping Townsend and Taylor, how were they all supposed to fit in? The answer came that Southgate would be slotted in at the back alongside Ugo Ehiogu and the mighty McGrath in a back three (look away now), leaving Gary Charles and Wright to fill the roles of wing-backs, both being happy to push forward to give Villa a supply from out wide. This worked remarkably well. I had already seen Alan play for Rovers and he was clearly a neat enough footballer who could play in midfield with no problems. The thought that he might be found out in his defensive role by high balls to the far post – Alan only came in at five foot four – was soon proven hilariously wrong when it was discovered that he had a terrific spring in his legs that enabled him to compete in the air with anyone.

If Alan felt any regret at passing by the chance of a league winner’s medal, it didn’t show. Kenny Dalglish moved upstairs at Blackburn within weeks of the title win and as Uncle Jack’s millions began to run out, the good times were soon over. Villa, with their new three centre-back combination and Bosnich in behind, presented a formidable barrier to opposition attacks. Bozzie referred to the lads in front of him as The Three Rocks, hardly an inappropriate description. The defence was well-served out wide as well. Gary Charles and Wrighty made for an interesting contrast; Charles used his pace and freedom to maraud down the right to great effect; many were the assists that came from his forward moves. As a tackler Gary wasn’t always convincing, though few could beat him for speed. On the other side, Wright performed his defensive duties very well and enjoyed playing his way out of the last quarter of the pitch by linking up triangles with Staunton or Townsend. Moving forward, Alan was always comfortable in possession and laid the ball off easily, as you might expect from someone who had played in the midfield for much of his career.

If the Mighty Atom was neither a great goal-scorer nor a scorer of great goals, it’s fair to say that when he knocked one in, it was usually worth seeing. Enjoying the freedom to push up, both full-backs attacked the home penalty area at Middlesbrough. Charles crossed from the right but Savo Milosevic couldn’t climb to meet the ball, which duly reached the far corner of the box. There, Alan flipped the ball up before arcing it over the home ‘keeper perfectly for the first goal in a 2-0 New Year’s Day win. His next big moment came in a routine 3-0 home win against Leeds from about the same distance but a little more central.

By this time, it had become clear that Villa’s flying start to the season had been no fluke. As well as pushing hard for fourth spot (sorry, no Champs League in those days) Villa were doing very nicely in both cups. In the League Cup, they were finalists and, rarely enough, favourites. Their opponents were the Leeds team they had convincingly beaten only weeks before. Alan more than did his bit by helping keep a clean sheet that was rarely under threat. In the second half, he got on the end of a diagonal pass from Townsend to make the cross that was put into the net by Ian Taylor’s left foot, the goal that effectively decided the game, won us our last major trophy and guaranteed European football for the following season. An unlucky semi-final defeat to Liverpool and a fourth-place league finish added up to a highly-successful season all round.

Fans looked forward to the next autumn with keen anticipation, though things didn’t quite work out so well. Fernando Nelson was brought in to play right wing-back in Gary Charles’s long injury absence and, though solid enough, didn’t pose the same threat out wide as the former incumbent. Sadly, Alan couldn’t fill the creative gap, with both players too often coming inside with the ball and the momentum of moves tailing off. Perhaps Alan didn’t think he had enough speed to get away from defenders and certainly lacked a trick or two to create space. With some players showing signs of being unsettled and injuries laying waste to the midfield, coach John Gregory departing for the manager’s job at Wycombe, there was a general sense of disruption after the brightness of the previous campaign. Still, Wright was part of a back line that didn’t leak many goals and Villa were able to win often enough to stay in the European race. The win at Wimbledon helped, featuring Alan’s only goal of the season, yet another left-foot special from the edge of the box.

Villa finished strongly enough to get fifth place and it shows how times have changed that Sheffield Wednesday were Villa’s closest pursuers in the race for continental football. The purchase of Stan Collymore in the summer cost so that there was little left for team-building in other areas. Some thought that a Yorke-Collymore combination up front was a clear indicator of a title challenge. In fact, these two, and Savo Milosevic gave Little more selection problems than a few, the balance of the side was ruined and Villa proceeded to lose their opening four games. Things got better, but only in fit and starts. Wins tended to be mixed in with defeats which meant that after such a poor opening, we were always looking down the table apprehensively. The defence generally acquitted itself well, especially in Europe, where Villa began to make something of an impression. We were hardly free-scoring so all the wins were in the one-goal category, thanks to the back line’s ability to step up when needed. When we were finally knocked out by Atletico, it was hard to take; only in the first half-hour in Madrid had Villa looked the inferior side. The second leg at Villa Park deserved better, for both the performance as well as the incredible atmosphere generated by a supportive crowd.

By this time, Brian Little had departed and John Gregory was ushered in as his replacement. The move smacked of desperation but Gregory knew almost all the players well and his upbeat manner seemed to click with the team. Suddenly, from looking like relegation candidates, nine wins out of eleven games rocketed the team up the table so that a last day win against champions-elect Arsenal meant, incredibly, European qualification once again.

During Little’s last weeks in charge he had reverted to a back four, which changed Alan’s duties slightly, but the return of Gregory meant he was a wing-back again. You wonder what was in Alan’s thoughts in the summer when Steve Staunton made his return to Anfield – who would be his inside partner for the new season? Signing David Unsworth seemed to have settled that issue but he flew the coop before he’d even had time to stretch the shirt. Other players who had been prominent in the Gregory Revival chooe to move on, and it seemed that even putting together a winning run and being able to offer European competition wasn’t enough to persuade some to stay.

With only Alan Thompson coming through the entrance before the season kicked off, Villa’s squad looked pretty thin. Thankfully, the advent of the teenage prodigy soon to be known to the world as Gareth Barry added good ball distribution and vision to a backline that looked stronger than ever. At the same time, Barry’s calm passing and link play gave Wright a strong partner on the left side as Villa got off to a flier and led the league early on. Further signings Merson and Dublin gave the hope that the Dwight Yorke transfer money wouldn’t be wasted and would keep us where we were. For a while, the dream came true. When was the last time you can recall Villa being top of the pile for four months, including over the Christmas period? Gary Charles had started the season in the other wing-back slot, performing so well that Gregory put his name – and a few others – forward for an England spot. He then sold Charles to Graeme Souness’s Benfica side, replacing him with the solid but uncreative Steve Watson from Newcastle.

The Gregory spell was broken in the new year, as injuries, addictions and illnesses combined to strip Villa’s squad to the bare bones. Southgate and Wright were two who kept up their quality levels as the hopes of a league title quickly faded, along with even the hope of a European place for next season.

Still, the fine start to his managerial career gave Gregory plenty of credit in the bank when things started to go wrong. The message from the 1999 experience was that Villa needed a stronger squad that could cope with injury and other disruptions. Few would have disagreed with this idea but fewer would have thought it would have involved concerns over the left-back position. Nevertheless, Gregory brought in Najwan Ghraib from Hapoel to compete for Alan Wright’s position. The only possible assessment was that the money was wasted; Alan not only kept his form up to the usual high standards, he also maintained a fine record of fitness and enjoyed the continued good fortune to escape significant injury. Those who bemoan missing out on Robbie Keane from Wolves at this time could have added fuel to their argument that the money wasted on this signing would have been far better spent bringing the Molineux Maestro to B6. Nevertheless, Villa got off to a good start. Wright’s perfect cross to Dublin against Everton resulted in a ‘stab’ shot that was the second goal in a 3-0 win. After six games, a slightly unfortunate defeat at Stamford Bridge was the only blemish in a run that included four wins and as many clean sheets.

With Gregory it often seemed to be a matter of ashes or diamonds, with nothing in between. A run that brought Gregory to the brink of dismissal was followed by twelve unbeaten in the league. As Villa ran into winning form, it couldn’t help but be noticed that this coincided with the annual Agony Event that is the FA Cup. Playing well, a series of home draws… it couldn’t be, could it? It didn’t seem likely when Villa were 2-1 down to Dirty Leeds in the fifth round. But this was Carbone’s hat-trick day, as Stone and Boateng took an iron grip on the midfield. Little Al’s best moment was when he laid off a simple square ball to Benni thirty-five yards out. In modern football Statspeak, it must go down as one of the easiest assists ever. A narrow win at Goodison meant that we were in the semis. Alan’s inadvertent deflection from an early Bolton shot at Wembley saw the ball edge just past the post, one of the few excitements of the match proper. When it came to penalties, Villa were perfect, with David ‘human fly-paper’ James saving two to help us through.

We all remember the final, if not for good reasons. Many blame the manager for being over-cautious, maybe too few players showed what they could do. No-one reached for the Graeme Souness excuse of the grass being too long, so we just had to settle for being fed up at losing to one of the most awful clubs in the history of the known universe, to whose fans the victory meant little enough.

There was a chance to exact a measure of vengeance when the teams met early in the autumn; though Villa showed far more attacking intent, they had to settle for a 1-1 draw. The most memorable moment of the match came when Wright, surging down the narrow left, clipped the ball into new signing Luc Nilis. The striker cushioned the ball on his right foot, simultaneously flipped the ball onto his left to fool Chelsea defender Mr. Beef, before thrashing his shot past Cudicini. It was impossible to avoid wondering what Nilis’s contribution could mean to Villa in the years ahead. Most will recall what happened next. This proved the last occasion when it looked like Villa might seriously challenge the top four. Ellis’s ambition had mostly been a matter of words; Gregory bade farewell to the last of his chances by wasting money on players few of whom were to make an impact. Other players saw the drift going on and wanted out, as the team and club declined.

Still, there was always Alan Wright, although, for the first time, he faced a serious challenge for his place. JLloyd Samuel had come through the youth system originally as a centre-back but perhaps lacked the physical power for the position. A switch to left-back followed and he competed for that first-team spot. The contest was very much a live one when Gregory made his departure, to be replaced by the second coming of Graham Taylor. Taylor was hobbled by the collapse of the ITV Digital deal, which had the immediate effect of knackering the finances of many championship clubs, meaning that his market for getting rid of some of Gregory’s dead wood was much diminished. This meant that there wasn’t going to be much money for the time being so, in typically fearless Taylor style, he set about promoting some of the players who had won the Youth Cup the previous season, into the first XI. JLloyd was not one of these, but he had travelled the same path.

When Taylor’s only full season came to an end, he didn’t hang around for too long but before he left he did some necessary, if unpopular, house-cleaning when he told both Alan and Ian Taylor that they wouldn’t be receiving new contract offers. These were cost-cutting times at Villa, and Sir Graham apparently said to Alan that he was “too embarrassed” to make him the offer that financial restrictions demanded. It would have been interesting to know what Alan’s reaction to the mystery offer would have been. Certainly, a player who leaves the training ground for the last time with tears running down his cheeks doesn’t appear in an urgent mood to leave. Such are the ironies of football that the Great Man released a player who fitted him perfectly; great attitude and energy, no tantrums, turns up on time every day for training, a good level of performance every week, doesn’t knock on the boss’s door demanding a pay-rise and gets on well with his team-mates.

At this time, the man soon to be known as Schteve McLaren was manager at Middlesbrough and they were quite happy to add Wrighty to their colony of ex-Villa players ooop north. The fact that Alan was a defender was probably enough to convince McLaren, one of the few bosses negative enough in his outlook to make Alex McLeish look like a disciple of all-out attacking football. A lack of chances there meant he had to leave, heading for Sheffield United in January 2004 where he played enough games to earn a permanent contract. Knowing the little we do of Alan’s character, I doubt whether he particularly enjoyed the Blades’ 3-1 Cup win over David O’Leary’s underperforming side in January 2005. He doesn’t seem the type to bear grievances. As his time at Bramall Lane ran down, Alan got a few loan moves before settling at Cheltenham Town and then Fleetwood where he played a full thirty games, helping them to promotion to the National League for the first time. No doubt he would be playing today if his body allowed him. Instead, he has moved into coaching and managing, last seen at Southport.

In researching this, it came as a genuine shock/pleasure to discover that Alan Wright made twenty-nine competitive European appearances for Aston Villa, placing him only behind Dennis Mortimer and Sid Cowans. Some might feel Alan doesn’t belong in such illustrious company as a player. Others would say that as a 100% reliable performer for us he certainly does.