By Les Crang,
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Annus Mirabilis By Philip Larkin
Billy Wright was Arsenal’s manager from 1962-1966 and is often the forgotten man of Arsenal history. Predominantly, Billy Wright is remembered for his time at Wolverhampton Wanderers and England captain as a elegant centre half. For Wolves he would make 541 appearances between 1939-59, as well as a world record (at the time) of 105 caps (90 as captain) for England between 1946-59.
Billy Wright’s international career was maybe best remembered for being the captain in 1953 in the 6-3 home defeat to Hungary. Of their third goal it was said:-
Their third was a goal of rare beauty and mesmerising skill, the ‘Galloping Major’ Puskas expertly dragging the ball away from Billy Wright “with the art of a bullfighter”, according to Sewell, before crashing a shot high into the roof of the net. “Wright rushed into that tackle like a man racing to the wrong fire,” surmised Geoffrey Green in the Times the next day.
Billy Wright, prior to joining Arsenal had been working with the England youth and under 23 team (a precursor to the under 21’s side) and had been strongly tipped to take over the full international team in due course from Walter Winterbottom. Unfortunately, the manager from small, provincial, Ipswich Town had won the title in 1961-2; he was called Alf Ramsey and was making waves for the England job.
Walter Winterbottom resigned after the 1962 World Cup, and the papers had Alf Ramsey as favourite for the job, with Billy Wright second favourite. In the end, obviously, Alf took the job, but Billy Wright was certainly held in high esteem by both the press and the F.A. His near appointment would also underline that Billy Wright had more of an affinity with the young players at the time.
After the 1961-2 season, the Arsenal manager and ex-player George Swindin resigned from the post finishing a disappointing 10th in the league and losing in the 4th round of F.A Cup, away to Manchester United. Worse, in 1960-1 Spurs had won the double and followed it up in the season of 1961-2 winning the F.A Cup.
Making Billy Wright the manager of Arsenal was a change from the previous four managers of Arsenal, George Allison, Tom Whittaker, Jack Crayston and George Swindin, in that they had worked in some form prior to taking over a manager. Billy Wright, although an Arsenal fan, would struggle at Arsenal. He started at Arsenal though with a fanfare, telling the Daily Express on joining Arsenal:-
I want to bring trophies back to Highbury and get people talking about Arsenal again for the right reasons.
Bob Wall said of Billy Wright’s appointment:-
Everyone spoke well of him. Not the least of the recommendations was that he was still an idol of the football-minded lads had all over the country and the Arsenal board believed he would attract young talent to Highbury.
Billy Wright started the pre-season by trying to improve the forward line, signing an ‘English’ striker from Italy (Spurs had done it the previous year with Jimmy Greaves). This would be the legendary Joe Baker, who was bought from Torino for £70,000. Joe Baker was a diminutive striker from Scotland, but born in Liverpool, becoming the first Scottish based player to play for England.
Jon Spurling in his excellent chapter on Billy Wright in Red Letter Day said:-
The Gunners began the 1962/63 campaign well, winning matches against Leyton Orient and Birmingham. Before game three, a Highbury contest with Manchester United, Wright walked down the tunnel, saw the expectant 62,308 crowd and returned to the dressing room, barely able to contain his excitement. Baker recalled, ‘Billy told us, “This is what Arsenal is about. Packed crowds, sunshine, playing teams like Manchester United, and (he leant over and rubbed my sleeve between his forefingers) these lovely red and white shirts. Beautiful. Now go and win boys.”’ His team went down 3-1, and didn’t win again for six matches.
The first season under Billy Wright would end with Arsenal finishing a commendable 7th in the league. They would lose in the fourth round of the F.A cup to Liverpool, at home. In many ways it was actually a fairly impressive first season with Arsenal getting into Europe for the first time in their history.
Going forward Arsenal looked impressive, scoring 86 goals. Unfortunately, at the back, Arsenal conceded 77 goals. Joe Baker would score an impressive 31 league and cup goals, scoring a hat trick in the final home game against Fulham. Baker had formed an impressive partnership with Geoff Strong, who had scored 21 league and cup goals. Although Wright had done ok in his first season, Spurs had won the European Cup Winners Cup.
Arsenal, were nothing if not interesting during Billy Wright’s first season: at White Hart Lane, Arsenal played out a 4-4 draw, they also beat Wolves 5-4, and drew with Blackburn 5-5. Wright felt Arsenal needed a new defensive pair and captain the following season. So Billy Wright infamously went out and bought a new centre half. Ian Ure for a fee of £62,500 from from Dundee. At the time it seemed a great signing, as Dundee in the season of 1961-2 had won the Scottish title, and the following year made the Semi-final of the European Cup. Unfortunately, he wasn’t that good on the ground. Nick Hornby, in Fever Pitch, famously called Jeff Blockley ‘”an incompetent to rival Ian Ure”.
Billy Wright had made me club captain at the age of twenty the year before, and though I was honoured to be given the job, I knew I was too young and inexperienced. I think Billy Wright saw me as a reincarnation of himself, a centre-half who was destined to lead the side from an early age. With senior players like Joe Baker, George Eastham [who took over the captaincy in 1963-4] and Geoff Strong around, I did not find it easy.’
The following season, Arsenal had qualified for Europe for the first time. If anything can underline Billy Wright’s time at Arsenal, it could perhaps be the European expedition. Why? Well, it was short, the results showed a team that yo-yo’d, and was also a money loser (though that was hardly Wright’s fault).
In the first round of the European Fairs Cup, Arsenal faced Danish team Stævnet. Hardly a big tie. Arsenal went to Denmark and won 7-1, with Baker and Strong both scoring hat-tricks. In the next leg, Arsenal’s first tie at Highbury, it would attract just 13,569 fans. Arsenal 3-2 to Stævnet.
In the next round we faced RFC Liège. Hardly the biggest tie in the world. Arsenal then drew 1-1 at Highbury (an attendance of 22,003) but in the next tie, Arsenal would lose 3-1. The European expedition was turning financially disastrous, with Bob Wall stating:-
In January 1968, Mr.Denis Hill-Wood, our chairman, stated that, if Arsenal qualified for the Inter-Cities Fairs cup, he and his colleagues would have to think seriously whether to accept an invitation to play in Europe.
When Arsene Wenger talks about 4th place in the Premier League being like a trophy, many of us agree. As a revenue stream via television rights, advertising and tickets, one cannot doubt its importance. But back in the 1960’s things were different. There were no cheap flights or many travelling fans then. Bob Wall explained that the first time Arsenal had played in Europe in 1963 they had played Staevnet of Denmark and lost to R.F.C Liege, writing ‘when we came to work out all our expenses and income, we discovered we had lost money’.
Over the next 3 season, Arsenal would go into steady decline. In his last season of 1965-6, Arsenal would end a disappointing 14th and be knocked out the F.A Cup in the third round, 3-0 to Blackburn (who would finish bottom of the 1st division by the end of the season). Billy Wright struggled at Arsenal.
By the conclusion of 1965-6, the fans at Arsenal had become disgruntled. Fan, Richard Stubbs said in Tom Watt’s The End: 80 Years of Life on the Terraces: 80 Years of Life on Arsenal’s North Bank:-
I remember the Wright must go season. It was bad enough going to Blackburn and losing 3-0 in the Cup. Then the friday I read in the paper : Baker and Eastham can go. I cried. They were my heroes, you know. Putting them on the transfer list! With Billy Wright, even though I was only 14 or whatever, I knew we wouldn’t win anything with him. I mean, 105 caps, he was a good player and a decent man. But we have to have him out: Wright must go. Saying that though, there was this incredible mixture. There was an intense loyalty that 65-66 season as well.. There was a big game against Liverpool and the chant stated: The Arsenal! The Arsenal! It was actually written about in the papers. We were having a terrible time. We lost 1-0. But I remember the crowd keeping the chant going. I mean, as supporters we don’t have the chance to say : Look we know you’re a decent bloke and we don’t want to do this to you. But we can see this team is crap and it’s getting worse. Our lives are at stake here. So Wright must go.
The season would conclude with the infamous game against Leeds United in may 1966, when Arsenal would lose 3-0 in front of a crowd of 4,554.
Some of those present in the North Bank danced around a bonfire at the front of the terrace, and in the East Stand one bugle-carrying supporter played the ‘Last Post’.
Ironically, ten weeks later England won the World Cup and Billy Wright was sacked by Arsenal. One wonders, if Wright had been manager, would England have won the World Cup?
So where did it go wrong for Billy Wright? For many, it was that Wright was never ‘an Arsenal man’. In other words, he had never been a player at the club and aware of the club. It was said that Wright would come into Arsenal and see the Herbert Chapman bust and shake his fist at it. Ironically, the rumour with George Graham was that he wanted his own bust (and why has he not?) next to Herbert Chapman. Two different characters, two different approaches.
Billy was also not helped by the players at times with Ian Ure saying of his tenure as manager:-
Billy wasn’t a good manager. He wasn’t hard enough and he didn’t have the willpower to get the players to work together. Forwards played as forwards, and midfielders purely as midfielders. The groups didn’t help each other out. Some players simply played for themselves.
Peter Storey also says in his biography that Billy Wright struggled with the pressure and was often found passed out in the changing room and often sided with the more senior players (read Joe Baker and George Eastham), although he gave the youngsters opportunities to get experience.
To me, the reason for the Larkin quote at the top of the page, is (and it is only an opinion), I feel he was a man from a different era. Billy was a 1940’s and 1950’s man. A period when players were deferential to their peers, but by the 1960’s society plus football was changing. George Eastham, in pushing through his transfer to Arsenal from Newcastle in 1960 had seen that, when it came to wages, there was no glass ceiling. Players were now assets and not slave labour as previously. Also, football and management had become more ‘professional’ and certainly more aggressive. Don Revie’s team at Leeds a case in point. Ian Ure pointed out in the 1968 League Cup final, under Bertie Mee, Arsenal took exception to Leeds dirty tactics and hit back. Something Wright would not have done.
For all the criticism Wright did get though, he did do many great things. He bought Frank McLintock from Leicester. He made Jon Sammels, Peter Storey, Geordie Armstrong regulars in the Arsenal the side. As Jon Spurling indicates:-
Wright’s biographer Norman Giller claims that the former manager’s ‘fingerprints were all over Arsenal’s 1971 Double team’. Radford and Sammels both recount Wright’s decency and kindness to them personally as they began to make their way in the game. But it takes far more than the occasional kind word in a footballer’s ear to make a great manager.
*Big thanks, as ever to Andy Kelly for helping with this article.