From Ironbridge to England legend: The great life of Billy Wright

Legend. No other word for it to describe Billy Wright, the golden boy of football.

The Wolves and England legend.
The Wolves and England legend.

The greatest player ever to pull on an England shirt? The greatest ever Wolves player?

People will have their opinions, but nobody would deny that Ironbridge-born Billy is up there with the very best.

It was in his genes. His father, Tom Wright, was also an able footballer, playing in local teams as a winger.

William Ambrose Wright was more than a footballer. He was an ambassador for the sport, and a respected gentleman of the game. He was never cautioned or sent off.

Despite a career of epic achievements, and the fame and glory which came with it, he kept his feet on the ground.

At Molineux, he was an idol of the terraces, leading Wolves to FA Cup final glory in 1949.

Playing for England, he was a hugely respected captain and was the first English player to achieve 100 caps.

The greatest ever? Billy towards the end of his Wolves career.

The late Bert Williams, a Wolves and England team-mate, said of him: “We were such good friends for 50-odd years.

“I was transferred from Walsall to Wolves in 1945 and we spent the next 12 years playing together. Whenever we played abroad for England or Wolves, we shared the same room.

“As a player, his record speaks for itself. You don’t get 100 caps unless you are exceptional. He was without doubt a good player, but was equally as nice a person. He never had any grandiose ideas or thought he was above anybody.

“He never altered from the day he left Ironbridge to the day he died.”

But young Billy's footballing aspirations almost ended as soon as they had begun. Wolverhampton Wanderers took him on, but manager Major Frank Buckley decided that he was too small to make the grade and said he was sending him back.

It was only assurances from his teacher, who persuaded him that he would grow, that changed his mind. According to one account Billy was kept on because he was particularly good at weeding the Molineux pitch. Whatever the reason, the rest is footballing history.

And he did grow, but at a little over 5ft 8ins was still no giant, although he could outjump much taller players in heading the ball.

Father Tom worked at the Coalbrookdale Works and in the 1920s and 1930s gained many successes playing in the works' welfare team.

Starting young. The Coalbrookdale Works Welfare Football Club in the 1927-1928 season. Billy is the little boy, far right with his mother, Annie. Front row, seated, far left, is his dad, Tommy Wright.

"I could see Billy was born to football," Tom was to say.

"He took to it naturally. We often used to play with a tennis ball in the house and broke many a gas mantle.

"Billy would spend hours kicking a ball up against the door. When he was eight we gave him a pair of boots for Christmas and a ball for his birthday in February."

Down on the level ground at "Gorby's Bridge" – most of the Madeley Wood area where Billy was brought up is on the slope – father helped son with advice.

At school the youngster's prowess soon attracted attention.

Billy holding the ball with Madeley Senior School football team in the 1937-38 season when they were unbeaten.

"The biggest thrill I ever had," recalled Tom, "was when he was playing in a school team and I saw him, on the right wing, score a goal with his left foot."

Billy first attended the Madeley Wood Methodist School and the head, Arthur Evans, had many memories of his evident ability.

"I remember Billy coming to me when he was five, and I think he stayed until he was 12. He played in my school side for about two seasons.

"I remember being a bit concerned when he first played. I thought him too young to go in with the bigger boys, but Billy got on all right.

"He played outside right, and you could see at once he was a good player. But then his father was, also."

When the time came for Billy to go to the senior school, Madeley Modern – later known as the Abraham Darby – Mr Evans was so impressed with his football ability that he sent a special report to the new school about him.

The man who had much to do with the rising star at Madeley Modern was the sports master, a Mr N D Simpson, who went on to become the head of Madeley CofE School.

And he quickly saw plenty which justified Mr Evans' glowing assessment. Billy was a member of the school team which gained many honours in the old Wenlock borough league, and also won the Wrekin schools shield.

"Billy could play in any position. He was an all-round athlete and especially good at jumping. I have never seen a boy to touch him at football before or since," said Mr Simpson.

Billy Wright

  • 1924: February 6, born at Ironbridge.

  • 1938: Joined Wolves. After serving as boot boy and general cleaner-up, signed professional forms at the age of 17.

  • 1946: First England international appearance, against Belgium.

  • 1948: Chosen as England captain.

  • 1958: Married Joy Beverley, one of the singing Beverley Sisters.

  • 1959: End of playing career. Arsenal manager 1962 to 1966, when he became head of sport for ATV.

  • 1994: September 3, died at his North London home. In accordances with his wishes, his ashes were scattered on the pitch at Molineux.

  • 1996: Wife Joy unveils bronze statue outside the Billy Wright stand, Molineux.

Achievements: 535 League and Cup appearances (sources vary on the number!) for Wolves, Wolves captain 1947-59. Billy collected the FA Cup 1949, and led Wolves to the League title in 1954, 1958 and 1959. 1952 Footballer of the Year. 105 England caps, including 90 as captain. Made a CBE 1959.

At the request of Tom, he got in touch with Wolves. He, along with Billy and another master, Mr F Geoffrey, went to see Major Buckley, the Wolves boss, and the lad was put through his paces and given a job on the ground staff.

But there was to be a surprise in store. After a few months Mr Simpson had a letter from Major Buckley saying he was returning Billy as it was not thought he had the stature to make the grade as a professional footballer.

Mr Simpson said: "He was going to send Billy back at the end of the week, but I wrote to him and gave him physical details of Billy's ancestors – they were all well developed – and said in my opinion Billy would make the grade.

"I said Billy would develop late and I advised them to keep him, and told them they would miss something if they didn't.

"After that letter, Billy was kept at the Wolves, and he soon made good."

He had played in March and April of 1938 for Cradley Heath before signing for Wolves, supposedly in exchange for three bars of chocolate, earning £2-a-week as a playing member of the ground staff.

Billy, second from left, in the garden of the house in Burland Avenue, Claregate, where he used to lodge in 1939-1940. Picture: Colin Bennett.

Tousle-haired Billy had arrived at Molineux on July 11, 1938, soon after his 14th birthday. After his early "reprieve" one story is that as he and Jimmy Mullen, as the boot boys and general cleaners-up, packed the gear to take to Wembley for the 1939 FA Cup Final they were told: "Perhaps one day you two boys will bring the cup back to Wolverhampton."

Wolves flopped in 1939, losing 4-1 to Portsmouth, but 10 years later those words proved prophetic as Billy was the triumphant skipper of the Wolves 1949 cup-winning side, which included Mullen on the wing.

Being held aloft with the FA Cup after Wolves won it in 1949.

Billy had turned professional in February 1941 and piecing together his early career involves a certain amount of footballing "archaeology." There is some conflicting information, and even Billy misremembered things in his autobiography, but research by former Express & Star sports editor Steve Gordos discovered that his debut Wolves outing came at the Hawthorns on September 23, 1939.

That game against West Brom was a week before what had previously been believed, including by Billy himself, to be his first game, against Notts County. He scored twice in two minutes in that later match, possibly making him, at 15 years and seven months, the youngest scorer ever in a Wolves first team game.

According to a 1959 article by Clifford Webb, the editor of the Sporting Record, the trophy Billy treasured most was the first he ever gained, a miniature cup for being on the winning side in the Midland War Cup Final of 1939 to 1940. So many players had been called up that Wolves had closed down for a spell, and it was while Billy was guesting for Leicester City for a few months that he won that first trophy.

At that time he was mainly an outside right, sometimes centre forward, and occasionally inside or outside left. But by the time he signed professional forms at the age of 17 he had also played in all three half back positions.

During the war he played a lot of army football – he served as a physical training instructor – and the first sign that he was being recognised as a possible international player came when he was chosen as reserve to travel to Belfast for England against Ireland in a "Victory international" on September 15, 1945.

He went on to be chosen to play outside left against Belgium at Wembley on January 19, 1946, but when Frank Soo had to drop out he was played at half back, where he proved a great success, and a new international star was born.

The Belgium game was a "Victory international," so Billy's full debut for England, according to a special Star supplement marking his 100th international appearance on April 11, 1959, (England 1, Scotland 0) came some months later against Ireland on September 28, 1946. Played at Belfast, England won 7-2.

He had made over 100 unofficial appearances for Wolves during the war years, but his official club debut came on January 5, 1946, in an FA Cup tie against Lovells Athletic.

Billy in the old gold Wolves strip.

His 1946 contract with Wolves shows that he got £3 a week with a bonus of £5 for every match he played in, which was good money in those days.

Billy was to captain both club and country. He was England captain on a record 90 occasions, leading by example, not by throwing his weight around.

Billy holding the cup on the triumphant return to Wolverhampton after winning the 1949 FA Cup. Picture: Ken Clibery.

He was to lead Wolves to league titles in 1954, 1958, and 1959, and in his day the club was providing the half back line for England of Bill Slater, Billy Wright and Ron Flowers.

By the time he hung up his boots in August 1959 he had accumulated over 650 first-team appearances playing in gold and black, including 490 coming in the top flight of the Football League, although it seems to depend on what you count as the Wolves website gives the figure as 541 Wolves appearances.

For England, Billy won 105 caps.

A year or so after leaving Molineux in a blaze of publicity he was appointed England youth team manager (October 1960), then became under-23 manager (1962) before moving into Football League management with Arsenal in May 1962, a position he retained until June 1966.

After leaving management, he became a television pundit and Head of Sport for ATV and Central Television, before retiring in 1989, becoming a Wolves director in 1990.

In his personal life he was married to one of the famous singing Beverley Sisters, Joy.

Billy returned to his birthplace, 33 Belmont Road in Ironbridge, for a trip down memory lane in 1979, and had a chat over the garden wall with Mrs Sue Wallace. Sue and husband Dave had bought numbers 32 and 33 and knocked them into one property.

"It's remarkable when you think there were six of us," Billy was reported as saying on his visit, which was televised on Midlands Today, prompting some headscratching as he was one of only two children.

However modern research by family historian Ruth Campbell showed there were other relatives living with them. Billy would not have remembered Belmont Road well as by 1928 the family had moved to 50 Madeley Road, and later the Wrights lived at 11 New Road.

Billy was awarded a CBE for his services to football, but if any sportsman deserved a knighthood, it would surely have been him. He never received one, and a campaign for him to be knighted posthumously was not successful.

A stand at Molineux was named after him and there is also a sculpture standing proudly outside the main entrance to the stadium in recognition of one of the club's greatest servants – Billy Wright.

The statue in his honour at Molineux.

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