One of the most consistent players of Hereford’s first Conference era was centre-back Ian Wright. His arrival at Edgar Street in the summer of 1998 coincided with the news that Graham Turner had bought up ex-chairman Peter Hill’s shares in Hereford United (1939) Limited. Financial matters dominated the agenda and yet, despite cost-cutting and a much lower wage bill, Turner was able to persuade the Football League experienced defender to join the Bulls.
Ian Matthew Wright (born Lichfield 10 March 1972) first joined Stoke City as an apprentice in 1988, before progressing through the youth and reserve teams. He was handed his first professional contract at the age of eighteen and made his Football League debut against Swindon Town on the final day of the 1989/90 season with the Potters already relegated to the Third Division.
As a youngster he found it difficult to breakthrough into the first team and had a spell on loan at Corby Town in 1992 to gain regular football. Indeed, after just 6 appearances for Stoke he was released at the end of the 1992/93 campaign.
However, Bristol Rovers quickly moved in to sign him and the imposing centre-half became a solid performer. Over the next three seasons he was to chalk up 54 appearances for the club and was offered improved terms but linked up with Hull City instead in the summer of 1996. Here he was to become a fans-favourite, not least due to his cup heroics after scoring a crucial goal for Hull as they knocked Premier League side Crystal Palace out of the League Cup in the 1997/98 campaign.
Ian was to chalk up 73 appearances for the Boothferry Park based side in the Third Division but left for Edgar Street, with Bulls’ supremo Graham Turner offering him the club captaincy as Hereford came to grips with non-league football. With the league “parachute payment” ending this was to prove a tough assignment, and it is a credit to his loyalty that Wright remained with the Bulls for the next five years when he could easily have moved back up the pyramid.
Wright was to make his debut for Hereford on the opening day of the 1998/99 season as the Bulls stuttered to a 0-2 defeat at Kingstonian but made amends for this three days later in a 1-0 victory over Leek Town at Edgar Street. Indeed, Wright scored the only goal of the game rising to head home a Richard Walker free-kick.
The centre-back, noted for his prowess in the air, showed another side of his game when he netted with a screaming volley from a Mark Taylor cross in a 1-0 away win at the New Bucks Head against Telford a month later.
Wright was to star in a 2-2 draw at eventual champions Cheltenham on 9 March 1999. Hereford ended the match with seven players under-21 on the field, but the game management from Wright was clear to everyone. Ex-Bulls Neil Grayson and John Brough lined up for the Robins against their former colleagues, but Cheltenham could not stop a Christian Roberts brace earning Hereford a point in the very last minute.
Resources were stretched to the limit that year, with players having to feature out of position and when less than fully fit. Turner used almost 30 players during the season, and the most telling statistic was that Ian Wright was the club’s leading scorer on 9 goals from 40 matches. The majority of Wright’s efforts were headers from set-pieces and it was no surprise when he was handed the Player-of-the-Year award at the end of the campaign.
The following season was to be a memorable one. Hereford beat two Football League sides in the FA Cup and more than matched a Premiership team over two games, drawing respectful praise from Leicester boss Martin O’Neill.
Wright showed majestic form against the league teams. Hereford bagged a 1-0 home win over York City on 30 October 1999 with Leroy May scoring the winner, before featuring in front of Sky TV cameras in another home victory. Rob Elmes’ 54th minute goal against Hartlepool proved to be vital, thus setting up a 3rd Round clash with Leicester City.
BBC Match-of-the-Day cameras arrived at Edgar Street, and with John Motson providing the commentary, hopes of another famous cup scalp were high. Wright dealt with Emile Heskey despite City dominating the first half. Hereford then took the game to the visitors with Gavin Williams and Paul Fewings missing chances before Paul Parry looked to have won it after a mazy run but his shot hit a post and bounced out.
Although Hereford bowed out at Filbert Street 2-1 after extra-time in the replay, Wright again marshalled the Bulls defence brilliantly and but for a Matt Elliott headed equaliser from an offside position with 12 minutes left on the clock, United could have won. Paul Fewings got on the end of a Parry cross just before the break to nudge Hereford in front, but Muzzy Izzet bagged the winner in the 104th minute for Leicester.
Wright looked to be taking Hereford to Wembley the following year in the FA Trophy. Victories over Dover Athletic, Leigh RMI, Morecambe and Burton Albion meant a two-legged semi-final clash with Forest Green Rovers. A 2-2 draw at the Lawn with over 2,000 Hereford fans swelling Rovers’ gate to 2,711 saw the Bulls dominate before a late Meechan penalty left the tie all-square. Captain Wright scored for Hereford in the 2nd leg, but to no avail. Somehow, the Bulls lost their nerve in front of goal. “The lads are absolutely gutted,” admitted the skipper after a 4-1 defeat.
The defender was virtually an ever-present whilst at the club, and in the 2001/2 season he was to became a cup hero grabbing the winner against Wrexham and scored another goal in the next round against Swindon Town. Speaking after the triumph over Wrexham he said, “I had visions of blazing it over. It was too easy really!”
After 201 appearances and 28 goals, Wright moved into part-time football with Burton Albion after training to be an electrician. Indeed, he was to score on his debut for the Brewers but picked up a persistent ankle injury which forced him onto the side lines. He returned as defensive cover for Hednesford and later Chasetown but a serious injury to his eye socket/cheekbone ended his playing career in 2007.
Whilst at Hereford, the Bulls’ supremo Turner described Wright as, “a dominant character who is excellent in the air, and that is something we needed both defensively and as an attacking threat from set-pieces”.
Club historian Ron Parrott says, “He was an imposing figure but very approachable. Ian made an immediate impact and dominated the back four, being a superb header of the ball with great timing and a wonderful sense of awareness. Ian led from the front. He was well respected on the pitch and well-liked by everyone off it”.
Wright now lives in Hednesford and is a fire-fighter based in Wolverhampton with the West Midlands Fire & Rescue Service. He enjoyed his time at Edgar Street, “We were an honest team with experienced players and promising youngsters like Paul Parry and Gavin Williams. When Phil Robinson took over as player-coach I remember we had all sorts of phrases and words pinned around the dressing room, but don’t ask me what they were about. I just got on with my job!”
By Keith Hall