Few full back partnerships in English football history – much less Everton’s – have matched the quality of that shared by Ray Wilson and Tommy Wright through the mid-1960s. For four years they were an indomitable presence on the flanks of the Everton defence; dependable, talented, rarely breached, and in their own right as vital a component of Everton’s success as the Harvey-Kendall-Ball partnership or Joe Royle’s goals. And yet, Wright, a brilliant and formidable defender, outstanding athlete and diehard Evertonian, is every bit as unheralded as Wilson has been eulogised. Perhaps it is a reflection of his modest demeanour, but it remains an anomaly of Everton history.
A boyhood Evertonian who grew up idolising Dave Hickson and Tommy Eglington from the Goodison terraces, Wright was a former Liverpool Schoolboys inside right, where he lined up alongside Liverpool’s Tommy Smith. He joined Everton on leaving school and although an A Team regular as inside right was eventually converted to right back. After being tried out in the reserves, Wright made his first team debut in September 1964 in an Inter City Fairs tie against Valerengen, a week short of his twentieth birthday. His debut was ‘solid’, but thereafter his progress was swift and by Christmas he had ousted Alex Parker as Everton’s first choice right back.
A calm, unflustered player he always played without fuss, sticking to his opponent relentlessly and dispossessing them with the crispest – and on occasion, fiercest – of tackles. He was never a hard man, but always held his own against even the most formidable of opponents.
Wright was one of the new breed of full backs, continuing the tradition set by Ray Wilson and Jimmy Armfield. Previously the position had been the preserve of hatchet men, whose first task was to nobble the opposing winger and second was to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. But Wright had a fine footballing brain. He never lost the first touch or passing skills learned as an inside forward. And while his first task was always defending, the attacking flourishes of his former position were never forgotten either. One of Everton’s most effective attacking movements of the era came when a winger cut inside allowing Wright to overlap and roam freely; a teasing cross or low first time ball from the defender would then wreak havoc in his opponent’s penalty area.
Wright was never a flashy or spectacular player, but many Evertonians of the era will confirm that he was the unsung hero of the Everton defence. At the back of the Blues’ team he was solid, dependable and fiercely brave. Perhaps it was his sheer pride in playing for Everton that inspired such courage. In 1996 this author interviewed Wright at his home in Garston for the fanzine, Gwladys Sings The Blues. Wright delighted in telling me how he had first started watching Everton as a seven year old in 1951, when the club were rooted in the Second Division. Twenty five years after leaving the club, he still attended as a season ticket holder and displayed all the passion and enthusiasm as the most ardent fan.
‘It’s a dream come true when you’ve always supported Everton and always wanted to play for them,’ he said. ‘That was always my one ambition in life, to play for Everton.’ Of Ray Wilson, he was unstinting in his praise: ‘Ray was one of the best left backs I’ve seen in any country. He used to help everyone on the pitch… A great asset.’ But despite playing a part in some of Everton’s most illustrious teams, he remained modest about his own contribution. ‘The likes of them [Alan Ball, Alex Young, et al.] took the pressure off if you got the ball. All you did was give it to them and let them do all the work. All my job was to get the ball off the other side and give it to them.’
Following Everton’s FA Cup win, Wright was virtually ever present over the next five seasons, including Everton’s league championship winning campaign, in 1969/70. So omnipresent was he – along with such stalwarts as Brian Labone and Gordon West – that he at times seemed indestructible. But often he played on through the pain barrier, with his knees particularly prone to knocks.
In summer 1968, while Wright was on tour with the England under-23 team, he was called up by Alf Ramsey for the full England squad, which was competing in the European Nations Cup – precursor of the European Championships. Picked to make his debut in the third place play off against Russia he was judged ‘magnifico’ by the watching Gigi Peronace, the Italian football agent who had once brought John Charles and Denis Law to Italy. Wright remained part of the England set up for two more years and was part of a strong Everton contingent in the 1970 World Cup squad. The last of his England appearances came in the group stage match against Brazil, a game made famous for Gordon Banks’ gravity defying save at the feet of Pele.
On his return from Mexico he was a constant in an Everton team that embarked on its mystifying decline from 1970/71. But thereafter injuries started to take hold and he missed large chunks of the 1971/72 and 1972/73 seasons. In an away match against Wolves in April 1973 he limped off injured and was never to play a senior game again; still aged only 29, he announced his retirement soon after. In May 1974 he was awarded a testimonial, against Glasgow Rangers.
Wright left football altogether, working in security and then at Garston docks. Just a few years after his retirement, his nephew, Billy Wright, became a stalwart of the Everton defence, even playing in the same number two shirt once distinguished by his uncle.
Everton struggled to find a sufficient replacement for Wright through the 1970s and he was never properly replaced with anybody of his standard until Gary Stevens’s emergence a decade after his retirement. He was, quite simply, ‘Magnifico.’