Why ex-Arsenal striker Ian Wright will be sorely missed after Match of the Day exit

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The pundit has left the show after a 27 year run

The year is 1993. Oversized berets are popular, as are house tracks with vaguely moralising messages about self-betterment. Ian Wright (with a little encouragement from Arsenal teammate Paul Merson and one of the Pet Shop Boys, according to the all-knowing internet) seizes on both fads like a dog with a chew toy in a frenzied moment of zeitgeist exploitation to release his debut - and to date, only - single ‘Do The Right Thing’. Presumably the pun is intentional; the prospect of it being an accident is almost too frightening to consider. The song is a top 43 hit in the UK, and three decades later, approximately 17 people remember it exists. It is also one of the first concrete indications we are given that Wrighty might well be national treasure material.

Last weekend was one that lent itself to plenty of sadness and plenty of leaving; Jurgen Klopp left Liverpool, David Moyes left West Ham, I left a big pink scratch down the passenger side of my car after scraping it along a pillar in a multi-storey car park while on my way to watch Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. (Film: decent. Standing outside Halford’s at 10am the next morning waiting for it to open so that I could buy a bottle of T-Cut: not so decent.) But perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment of them all came when Ian Wright left Match of the Day on Saturday evening.

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It has been 27 years since the former striker made his debut on the BBC’s flagship football title. Back in 1997, he was but a bright-eyed 33-year-old, still playing for Arsenal, closing rapidly in on a Premier League title himself. Sat opposite Des Lynam that night, Wright flashed a glimpse of the earnest vulnerability that has cemented his status as one of the nation’s most universally beloved pundits. ‘This is my Graceland, Des,’ he says. All this time later, he departs Match of the Day as The King.

Perhaps Wright’s appreciation for the show stems from a childhood that was, by his own admission, difficult. Cooped up in a house with a stepdad who was ‘a weed-smoking, gambling, coming-home-late, gambling-his-wages, womanising kind of guy... rough with my mum and rough with all of us kids’, one of Wright’s few solaces was Match of the Day - and even then, sometimes he was deprived of that.

Writing for The Players Tribune once, the ex-England international said: “My stepdad used to take that away from us — just because he could. Depending on what mood he was in, he’d come into the bedroom just before it started and he’d say: ‘Turn around to the wall.’ We had to face the wall the whole time Match of the Day was on. And the really cruel thing was that we could still hear everything. It was awful. Whenever I heard the theme music come on, I would feel that pain in my chest. The first time I went on the show as a presenter, Des Lynam walked up and said: ‘Ian Wright, welcome to Match of the Day.’ I nearly broke down crying.”

Tears are never too far away where Wright is concerned, whether sorrowful or joyous. (Indeed, that Tribune article begins with the lines: ‘I like a good cry. Takes a man to admit that, I think.’) There’s that video of him reconnecting with his old school teacher, Mr. Pigden; his passionate denunciations of racism in sport; his vocal support of the women’s game; his willingness to openly and candidly discuss his feelings in a sphere that has, traditionally, not always been hugely sympathetic to such things. People like Wrighty have, however, been changing that for a while.

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Even his farewell on Saturday night was a perfect encapsulation of the man. Addressing a tattoo he got over lockdown that reads ‘8, 9, 10’ - his, Alan Shearer’s, and Gary Lineker’s shirt numbers respectively - Wright said: “People laugh at me for the ‘8,9,10’, but it’s because I love you, man. You’re my guys.” Cue more damp eyes.

Because really, that is what sets Wright apart. Yes, he is wonderfully insightful and articulate with a bulging footballing brain and an effortless ease in front of the camera, but it is his decency, his humour, his willingness to show a softer side that has made him such a special presence for so long. He is a character, with his roaring laugh and his sartorial flair, but more importantly still, he is himself. And it just so happens that the Ian Wright of 2024 takes his lead more often than not from the Ian Wright of 1993; he does the right thing.

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