Wright and Bright: the Palace’s frontline

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Ian Wright and Mark Bright. Their names doggerel and their rhythm extended to the partnership on the field. For fans of the top clubs, they’ll never be Bergkamp and Henry or Yorke and Cole, but for SE25, they pinnacled the team of the 80s, evinced Crystal Palace’s Premier League status, and ennobled football played on the south side of the River Thames.

Such as how life flows on the southern bank and below – these were two players with much to prove. Signed by Steve Coppell, Wright and Bright became the perfect alliance to spearhead an Eagles’ side that attacked with pace and purpose, pressed from the front, and broke on the counter without a trace of fear.

Their goal-getting rituals soared the Eagles to dizzying heights and loftier ambitions. They produced spectacles never seen before in south London. And today’s generation of Palace fans is partially blind to the work Wright and Bright put in so that the Palace was set up for a position firmly rooted in the excitement of the Premier League.

An untimely death to a two-man strike partnership means young Palace fans will never know how good a traditional 4-4-2 system can be. But if any duo could teach them, Ian and Mark, Wright and Bright, could.

The Formative Years

Wright arrived at the club from non-league Greenwich Borough, where he was paid £30 a week, a year before Bright in August 1985. The transfer was first thrown into the mix after just seven matches for his new team. He was spotted by a Crystal Palace scout after a tip-off from Dulwich Hamlet manager Billy Smith.

The featherweight expectation for Wright was set by the fact he was signed for a fee of weightlifting equipment. That, alongside the reality he was a late bloomer, breaking into football at 22, set him up for being a ‘rough diamond’.

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Wright was an impactful super sub in his early days at Palace. But he made his mark and scored nine goals in his debut season. Becoming the club’s second-highest scorer in the 1985-86 campaign set him up for a starting spot a year later.

His golden rise to the powerful striker he became at Palace followed him to Arsenal. Despite struggles off the pitch, Wright was a phenomenal player on it. Little did he know, it was just about to get better.

Steve Coppell had an eye for talent on Palace’s throne. Just a year after signing Wright, he prized Mark Bright away from Leicester City’s reserves with a deal worth £75,000. The initial contract was only a temporary three-month deal as there were medical concerns with his Osteitis pubis, meaning that if he was unfit at the end of this period he would be returned to Leicester.

However, he went on to form a scintillating strike partnership with Wright. Although Wright has already fired on all cylinders with Andy Gray, Coppell’s decision to shift the latter into midfield worked wonders. In their first season together, they set the second division alight.

In the 1986-87 season, The Eagles started to push for promotion but finished just two points from a playoff place. Then, in their second season together, recognition for Wright and Bright was starting to be felt.

The Palace’s Fearsome Frontline

The 1987-88 season was another near-miss for Palace as they finished one place outside the playoffs again. A positive amidst the disappointment was that Bright was named on the PFA Team of the Year and won the Golden Boot with 24 goals. Even better was the bond he was rapidly strengthening with Wright.

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By 1989, the two were unstoppable. Wright had carved himself into a self-exuberant and quick attacker. Bright, meanwhile, was the “target man” who provided the counterbalance. His excellent hold-up play would also allow the midfielders to join the attack. Geoff Thomas, David Madden, and the like, would share the goals across the pitch.

On the flanks, Eddie McGoldrick and youngster John Salako provided the perfect ammunition for Wright and Bright. Palace had quality all over the pitch. But the strikers were most important to their Division One efforts.

in the 1989-90 season, The Eagles clinched playoffs again. Ian Wright was instrumental, notching 24 goals in the league and 33 in all competitions. Bright played a crucial role after a third-placed finish as he would score one of the goals in a semi-final victory over Swindon Town to take Palace one victory away from promotion.

Wright scored twice in the home leg of the final as Palace earned promotion via a 4-3 triumph. Having lost the first leg 3-1, the pendulum swung to the opponent’s favour, but The Eagles dared to dream. The Team of The Eighties was complete, and the big time awaited the south London side for the 1989-90 campaign.

Wright and Bright take the topflight

Of course, the first season back at the pinnacle of English football would bring a rollercoaster of euphoric highs and troubled lows for Palace. But they managed to finish five points above the dotted line. Except for the 9-0 defeat at Anfield, their club record low, Palace maintained an exciting standard to their football.

Mark Bright was typically potent, scoring twelve goals in the division. Unfortunately, in his first season at the top of the pyramid, Wright’s effectiveness was reduced by a twice-cracked shin bone in December 1989. His season was cut short as The Eagles flew through the FA Cup.

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Revenge time was in the pipeline for Palace when they limbered up to face Liverpool at Villa Park in the semi-finals. Without Wright, Gray stepped up to the plate, scoring in a 4-3 thriller to send The Eagles to the old Wembley.

The moment was arguably Palace’s finest. Bright led the line admirably, scoring the equaliser at the start of the second half, and guiding his team to an emphatic win. Born from pure ecstasy, scenes of Wright galloping onto the pitch at full-time on crutches still fill the memories of a day steeped in red and blue.

In the club’s first-ever FA Cup final, they took Manchester United to the wire. After holding them to a 3-3 draw, with Wright making it his day by scoring twice from the bench upon his return from injury, one Lee Martin goal in the replay was enough to secure Alex Ferguson his first trophy in England.

Bright was particularly disappointed as he felt he hadn’t performed his best in the first game. But to numb the pain, he was named the club’s Player of The Year just a week later.

For both Wright and Bright, the final was the final act before the two would reach their peak year as a strike partnership in the 1990-1991 adventure.

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The peak of their powers

The 1990/91 campaign was the Wright-Bright era’s very best. Wright, now receiving international call-ups, fed Bright his confidence, and the duo wreaked havoc on Division One.

Crystal Palace went unbeaten for long periods of the season, finishing a club-best third in the top flight. In the same season, Wright would prove to be one of the finest strikers to capture the country’s attention. The Englishman reached 100 goals for his club, continuing to torment defenders with his speed and directness.

Bright was just as imposing. He proved his predatory skills at the highest level with a sequence of seven top-flight goals in just ten midwinter games. The potency of Palace’s frontmen was summarized in an 8-0 drubbing against Southend United in the League Cup where both strikers scored a hattrick each.

Wright further accentuated his deadly striking ability with an eighteen-minute hat-trick in the penultimate game of the season against Wimbledon before also helping himself to a double in a 4-1 Wembley win over Everton to reward Palace with a Zenith Data Systems Cup triumph.

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Between them, in just seven seasons, Wright and Bright directly scored 231 goals for Crystal Palace. Ian Wright is still the club’s leading goalscorer in the post-war period and third on the all-time list.

In 2005, he was voted into their Centenary XI and was named as their “Player of The Century”. But sadly, the 1990/91 season was the last time Wright and Bright would ever play together again.

The End of Palace’s double act

Wright’s tremendous ability would not go unheralded. In the summer of 1991, Palace would receive an offer of £2.5m for the striker from George Graham’s Arsenal.

Rumours were that the late Ron Noades’ TV documentary about the impact of black players in football was allegedly perceived as one of the main reasons behind Wright’s sudden desire to move to Arsenal. However, his time had come, he was too good for Palace, ready to take flight at one of Europe’s biggest powerhouses.

He would go on to become the Gunners’ all-time top goalscorer. He also won the Golden Boot in his debut season, eventually becoming Premier League champion in 1998 after having added two FA Cup winners’ medals to his cabinet.

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It was a club-changing moment and the end of a hugely significant and successful era for Palace. Wright was simply irreplaceable. Both in terms of his superb finishing, and in terms of his charismatic style off the field.

Coppell used the proceeds to sign the unseen Marco Gabbiadini from Sunderland. It didn’t work out. Although Bright toiled away and notched 17 goals to give way to a 10th-placed league finish, he was clearly missing his sparring partner.

Bright’s scoring record in that season was Palace’s highest in a Division One campaign. However, he had no rapport with his new partner. The 1991/92 season was his last in red and blue.

He was transferred to Sheffield Wednesday in September 1992, in a deal that involved Paul Williams joining Palace in return. In the goodness of time, Wednesday got the better deal. He played a significant role in guiding the Yorkshire club to Europe.

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But never again would either of them find a strike partner better suited than each other. The Palace duo fit together like a jigsaw. They were outstanding. Perhaps they are the most underrated two-man strike partnership in football history.

And even sadder is the fact Selhurst Park and SE25 may never see another combination that rips through defences like them. Not only were they so great, but the 4-4-2 formation is quickly going extinct.

The future

Instead, a three-man attack is the way forward. Bergkamp and Henry, Yorke and Cole, Suarez and Sturridge, Shearer and Sutton. These are all prime examples of what lies ahead for managers that find the instinctive formula for a successful 4-4-2.

However, it is now a thing of the past. Wright and Bright came, saw, conquered, and left their mark on English folklore. They were one of the best strike partnerships ever. They should never be forgotten. It’s just a shame we will never have another partnership like theirs in the top flight.