Former United striker Tommy Wright was another of the club’s 1980 starlets who went on to have great success elsewhere, but tells Leon Wobschall he still loved it at Leeds United.
THERE was plenty of silent treatment going on among a group of housemates living in Barwick-in-Elmet back in the late eighties – as Tommy Wright remembers too well.
And for the former Leeds United star, one of a plethora of promising Elland Road talents who left for peanuts and later went on to be transferred for hefty fees, the silence wasn’t neccesarily golden. Not on the occasion that mattered anyway...
Wright, sold by Billy Bremner to Oldham Athletic for a bargain £80,000 in October 1986, regularly came out on top along with Latics team-mate Denis Irwin in Roses battles against United, with the Lancastrians a bogey side in the eighties.
But back in the spring of 1987, when the pair were pitted together in a trans-Pennine play-off semi-final, it was United – and more especially Wright’s big buddy John Sheridan – who were the ones smiling at the expense of both him and fellow housemate Irwin as last-gasp Leeds went through on away goals thanks to ‘supersub’ Keith Edwards.
Wright, assistant manager to Sheridan at Chesterfield, said: “I remember the games against Leeds well. It was amazing really; as when we drew each other in the play-offs, me, John and Denis were living in the same house!
“We didn’t speak on the night Leeds went through. Me and Denis just didn’t bother and it was a bit of a strange scenario. I’ll always remember Keith scoring twice in the last minute of both ties, especially at Oldham when we went 2-0 up and thought we’d won. But that’s football..”
That Wright went on to bang on the First Division door in the blue of Oldham and not the white of United was a source of regret to Whites punters, who had watched with admiration as the Fife flyer burst onto the scene as a teenager in the early eighties.
Whole-heartedness and industry – not to mention talent – was in his footballing DNA and soon earned him friends during a pretty dark era for the club at a time when football was pretty much in the gutter and attendances were pitifully low nationwide.
Wright and the likes of Scott Sellars and Sheridan were the shining lights for United at a time when the club largely achieved notoriety for some horrendous outbreaks of football hooliganism, with other young talents such as David Seaman, Terry Phelan and John Scales waiting in the wings.
Dunfermline-born Wright, whose father Tommy snr served Sunderland with distinction in the fifties and was capped by Scotland, flourished under a manager intent on letting the flower of youth blossom in compatriot Eddie Gray.
But his career couldn’t fully germinate at Elland Road with Wright becoming one of the countless casualties of the Billy Bremner regime, when the legendary ex-United captain opted for hardened experience ahead of youth and sold off a raft of fresh-faced talents in the first year of his tenure after taking over from ex-team-mate Gray, controversially sacked in October 1985.
With the benefit of hindsight, Bremner’s policy proved akin to selling off the family silver with Wright confident United would have risen from the ashes sooner if a different course had been sailed.
He said: “Looking back over the years, I think Leeds fans would say if he (Gray) was given more time and patience, it could have been a lot better.
“After the club had been relegated, finances were tight and I think Eddie saw the young players’ potential. But he didn’t pick a squad that was just young; he felt we were good enough and I think we were, looking at the careers and players we had in the team such as Denis, Scott, John, Terry Phelan and Andy Linighan. Eddie was a great manager and a great man as well.”
On his exit in the autumn of 1986, Wright – who had been out for almost a year with a pelvic injury, added: “I just didn’t think I was going to play. Billy Bremner was a great man and player, but didn’t want to change it for the young players and a lot were leaving at the time. The club were going in a different direction, but I was just lucky another great manager in Joe Royle came in for me and obviously he’d also signed Denis and Andy Linighan.”
There was definitely a case of ‘if only’ following the departure of Wright from United – at the tender age of 20 – with the Scot going on to carve out a reputation as a goalscoring winger at Oldham and then Leicester City and Middlesbrough.
Despite his time at Elland Road being cut short prematurely, Wright remembers his time there with affection, particularly during his late teen years when he started to become a man in a footballing sense.
Right up there is a goalscoring debut at the age of just 17 against Malcolm MacDonald’s promotion-chasing Fulham in front of 24,328 in April 1983.
Wright, only told he was starting an hour before kick-off, netted a first-half opener, with his display lauded afterwards by ‘Super Mac’, who admitted to being ‘enthralled’ by his performance.
The club top-scorers’ award in 1983-84 and 1984-85 is also a source of pride to Wright, with that haul including his first-ever hat-trick in a 5-0 drubbing of Notts County, watched by under 11,500 at Elland Road on a freezing winter’s day in late 1983.
Wright, who sent the match-ball back to his parents in Dunfermline, said: “I remember scoring a hat-trick against Notts County around Christmas time and what I remember is it being really cold, but our game being on because of the undersoil heating.
“My debut was also right up there. I remember they told me to just report to Elland Road and it was quite a big game as Fulham were going for promotion.
“I ended playing up front with Arthur Graham and scored early, but they equalised late on. It was a surprise to play and obviously a great feeling to score on my debut.
“My time at Leeds was a tough era and also the time of hooliganism, which was quite bad.
“But I’m proud of my time there. I came through the youth system and had a great time and then got in the first-team when I was young. It’s definitely one of the decisions I made that was right.
“When I was growing up, I was a big Celtic fan and when I started coming down at 14 or 15 to Leeds, I just got a feeling for the club, with the way they treated me. There were also a few Scottish players there, such as Eddie, Arthur Graham and Kenny Burns; it was like a mini-Scotland really!
“I had a good rapport with the Leeds fans and have always been welcomed back since. I always find that if they see you are trying, they will stick with you, even if you are having a bad day. As long as you play for the jersey, they have a lot of trust and loyalty.
“There was actually talk of me coming back later when I was at Leicester and Leeds were managed by Howard Wilkinson. I remember David Pleat getting me in the office and saying: ‘Leeds want you; I’m going to do a swap for you’. I don’t know what happened, I think it just kind of went dead. I think the swap might have been for Chris Kamara. But it wasn’t meant to be.”
After winding down his playing career, Wright, from a real sporting family with his uncle Jackie Sinclair enjoying a successful career in the 60s and 70s and his brother Barrie being a National Hunt jockey, not surprisingly had his sights set on the coaching/managerial realm.
Spells as youth boss and no.2 to Sheridan at Oldham followed, with the pair now together at Chesterfield, with Spireites fans still coming to terms with a bittersweet season, which saw them win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley but suffer relegation to League Two.
On his partnership with Sheridan, Wright, whose father died on the day the Spireites were crowned League Two champions in May 2011, added: “Me and Shez go back to when we all joined Leeds and were in digs together – me, John, Denis Irwin and Scott Sellars – for about four or five years.
“You have to have different opinions and it’s not a case of us agreeing all the time. No-one’s right all the time.
“It’s worked quite well, although obviously not that well this season!. But overall, we’ve been quite successful.”