England have the quality to win the World Cup in Qatar later this year says former Three Lions winger Shaun Wright-Phillips as excitement continues to build ahead of the start of the highly anticipated tournament.
The Manchester City legend and his dad, Ian Wright, have experienced England frustration but current coach Gareth Southgate has proved he can get the best out of the players available to him. He lead the team to the final of Euro 2020 where they were beaten by Italy on penalties while at the 2018 Russia World Cup, they made it to the semifinals but lost 2-1 to Croatia after taking an early lead.
With a relatively easy group featuring USA, Iran and one of either Scotland, Wales or Ukraine, the confidence is high and Wright-Phillips feels the team can kick on to another level.
“I honestly think we can go all the way,” he says in an exclusive chat with Gulf News. “Obviously at some points we will face harder draws after the qualification stage but I think we have enough in our locker to beat pretty much all of the teams on our day.”
He’s had a glittering career having represented City and Chelsea picking up two Premier League titles and two FA Cup winners medals not to mention a handful of Player of the Year accolades but Wright-Phillips’ career looked to have stalled before it even began after he was released by Nottingham Forrest when he was 16.
“Steve Wigley, one of the coaches at Forrest, said I wasn’t physically big enough or good enough to play for Forrest. And then after I joined Man City Steve also arrived at the club as first team coach and players like Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman always teased him about the fact he let me leave Forrest and that I went on to prove myself at City! It became a running joke around the club.”
But the 40-year-old doesn’t hold any grudges. “That’s just football, sometimes it’s timing sometimes it’s that little bit of luck and other times it’s just an opinion. It’s what you do after you get negative news and how you handle it and thankfully I had my mum and my brother to support me at the time. They told me just to get on with it and keep trying and turn another page and go again. Football is a very opinionated game whether it’s from the fans or coaches or managers – you might not suit one manager’s style but you might the best thing ever another one has seen. It’s a matter of just finding that right niche and fit for yourself and City just happened to be that for me.”
Most important coach
Wright-Phillips was brought to the club by then City manager Joe Royle who gave him his big chance and he only has kind words for the Everton legend. “He was hands down the most important manager of my career, he set the pace that made me the person I am on and off the pitch. He taught me a lot of values not only within the game but away from the game and how to handle a lot of situations because I moved up to Manchester at a young age and my career went from rock bottom to the very top and it was all thanks to him, Willie Donachie and Asa Hartford. They all believed in me and let me be as free as I could possibly be. But I am so laid back as a person I don’t think it hit me, that I had made it, it was more my friends who were overwhelmed and excited for me. I just took every day as it came and tried to enjoy every moment as a footballer for Man City. It would be nice to see Joe Royle again and give him a hug and thank him for what he did for me in my career.”
But it was under the next coach, Kevin Keegan, where he was allowed to attack a lot more and his game flourished. “It was fun playing for him but it was weird because when he first came in he didn’t play me because, again, he thought I was too small to play the wing-back role and I hadn’t played there before but I learned along the way. The fans were always questioning why I wasn’t playing and in the end he gave me that chance and it worked out for the best for both of us.”
He would go on to play 153 times for City between 1999 and 2005 and score an impressive 26 goals before a big-money move to Chelsea followed. He signed for the Stamford Bridge club for £21 million on a five-year contract but his appearances were limited and he missed out on the 2006 World Cup.
“It was a different kind of football with Jose Mourinho in charge there,” he explains. “At City I was key for counter attacks and I would get the ball a lot quicker but when I signed for Chelsea I had to learn how to play football in a completely different way I had to learn and understand that it wasn’t only me who could make those runs. The team also had the likes of Arjen Robben, Damien Duff and Joe Cole and we had a great chemistry together and when any of us were not playing we all supported each other because all wanted each of us to do well.”
Spell in US
He left Chelsea after 82 games and 4 goals and headed back to City where he started to enjoy his football again and played at the 2010 World Cup. But then things changed again. “Roberto Mancini liked to rotate his players at City and at that stage of my career I knew I just wanted to play as much as possible so on transfer deadline day in 2011 I moved to QPR and got to work with Harry Redknapp. And then, almost by accident I had a career in the US too! I went there for my brother Bradley’s wedding and just wanted to do some training to keep fit. I went to watch him play in the MLS and on the way back on the plane I was speaking to New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch and he said he would love me to come and train with the team and I said ok. And within three days he asked me if I would sign and I said yes because it would be great to play with my brother before I retired.”
During his time in the US he enjoyed playing for Marsch and believes the now Leeds United coach can keep the Premier League strugglers up this season. “He is a good manager and doesn’t allow his defenders to be one on one, or man to man as that leaves a lot of gaps. You can see that Leeds have nullified that and they seem to be picking up results to stay up.”
Having just witnessed arguably the game of the season between City and Liverpool which ended in a thrilling 2-2 draw, Wright-Phillips says he would have loved to play under Pep Guardiola. “I like the way he defends from the front. The freedom he gives the attackers is a nice feeling for them in general as he allows you to use your creativity and make unselfish runs to give your teammate the space to create a chance and I would have really enjoyed it.”
He explains that City and Liverpool are on another level and it is down to the coaches. “It’s Pep’s and Jurgen Klopp’s philosophy that makes the teams play so well. They haven’t just evolved the game they evolve with the game so every time it changes they have something else to bring to the table and that’s why they’re the best two managers in the world right now and they’re managing the best two teams in the world.”
Following the share of the spoils at the Etihad some feel Liverpool missed their chance of winning the title. The Reds still have to play the likes of Man Utd, Tottenham and have a Merseyside derby against Everton. But Wright-Phillips says City also have tough games coming up. “I don’t think Liverpool have missed the chance, both teams have tricky fixtures – City play several teams fighting relegation and so they will defend with their lives and try to spoil our party by gaining valuable points to stay up. Liverpool have to play an in-form Tottenham which could cause them a problem – so it’s set up to be an interesting end to the season. For me it’s great City are leading but for a neutral everybody’s tuned into it now and everyone wants to see the title race go to the very end. I don’t think I can handle any more last day drama though, I hope they win it in the next two or three games!”
The two sides are meeting this weekend at Wembley stadium in the FA Cup semi-final but this time he feels the outcome will be different compared to the league clash last Sunday. “I think it’s going to be a similar kind of game to the one we just saw but the difference this time is City are going to win.”
His father is a legend of Arsenal and one of the best strikers the Premier League has seen and Wright-Phillips is one of the best wingers. Now a third generation of the Wright family is aiming to make it to the big time. His son Dmargio currently plays for Championship side Stoke, but can he make the step up? His father offers some wise words. “He has the ability to do it but as you know football is not as simple as that, he has to stay focused, he has to work hard, he needs to be dedicated and he’ll have to make sacrifices. You don’t get to play in the Premier League without those things – but he also has to enjoy it.”
And hopefully he can enjoy it without suffering any racial abuse but sadly the game is still littered with hatred hurled from the terraces at black players. It is a big problem that needs tackling. “I put it down to a lack of education,” says Wright-Phillips. “Racists will never understand how it feels to suffer abuse. But I think what the leagues all around the world are doing by taking the knee is good. They are taking a stance against racism and I think the actions that they are taking are right. They are banning people for life from attending matches at stadiums because you don’t want that in or around the sport because football is a multicultural game. You’ve now got players from different races and cultures playing in it so for me there’s no room at all for racism.”