Ian Wright's League Debut for Arsenal

Ian Wright in Arsenal's yellow away kit in 1992

Alan Smith recently admitted in his autobiography that Ian Wright’s arrival at Arsenal sent him into a dark period - during which Smith fundamentally questioned his ability and worth to the team. On the face of it, this appears fairly extraordinary - Smith’s 22 goals the previous season had bagged him his second Golden Boot in three years and helped fire Arsenal to the First Division title. Just one week before Wright’s signing, Smith had scored four goals in a European Cup match against Austria Vienna - and Arsenal had scored 15 goals in their previous 3 matches.

With the 1991-92 season seeing the return of European football to England, George Graham was keen to strengthen his side in anticipation of the extra burden on his squad. As it turned out, Arsenal were out of Europe by early November and their interest in the domestic cups was over in January after a disappointing exit to Coventry in the League Cup was followed by a stunning defeat to Wrexham in the FA Cup George Graham had been tracking Wright for some time but it was only after Ron Noades, the Crystal Palace chairman, made comments about black players in a Channel 4 documentary that Arsenal were alerted to the possibility that Wright and his striking partner Mark Bright might be open to a move. Palace agreed to let Wright go and famously, on being invited to Arsenal to review contract terms, Wright simply asked “Where do I sign?”
The fee was £2.5 million. While Wright had proved himself as a regular scorer in his two full seasons in the First Division, heads turned at the size of the fee for a player weeks short of his 28th birthday. It now seems all the more extraordinary that he would go on to overtake Cliff Bastin’s 178 goals and become Arsenal’s all time top scorer -
at least until Thierry Henry turned up. Ian Wright’s impact on Arsenal was immediate, on and off the pitch. George Graham says in his autobiography: "Ian lit up the pitch and dressing room with the electricity of his performances and his personality.” By the time his league debut came around on 28th September 1991, less than a week after his transfer, he had already scored his first Arsenal goal 44 minutes into a League Cup tie against Leicester. The Gunners visited Southampton and fielded an attacking line up featuring David Rocastle, Anders Limpar, Paul Merson and Alan Smith - as well as Wright. With a young Kevin Campbell on the bench, this was a team bursting with creativity, flair and fire power. Arsenal finished the season with 81 league goals but finished way off the pace, in fourth. Graham’s faith in some of his more creative players would dip as he looked for more balance and Rocastle and Limpar were soon moved on.

At Southampton, it was Rocastle who opened the scoring to give Arsenal a half-time lead, netting the rebound after a Wright shot was saved. Rocastle had been instrumental in Wright’s enthusiasm for his Arsenal move - although Wright was five years Rocastle’s senior, they’d grown up on the same estate in Brockley, South East London, and were firm friends. Wright later reflected: “... to be there with Rocky, two boys from Brockley and both of us scoring, it was the perfect day.”

The second half belonged to Wright: his first two goals typically well taken one-on-ones, after great through balls from Limpar and Smith, and his third an emphatic follow up to a parried Smith shot. Wright’s YouTube video - in which he talks through each goal with his usual passion and enthusiasm - is well worth a watch.

Wright finished the season as the First Division’s top scorer, pipping Gary Lineker to the golden boot on the final day of the season with another hat-trick … against Southampton.
See also: Ten of the best Ian Wright goals for Arsenal

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