16 March 1962

Beware the untried manager

Billy Wright was one of Arsenal’s most unsuccessful managers – and certainly the most unsuccessful of modern times.

Quite why he was such a failure may be because top footballers generally are – Andy Kelly and I did an analysis of Arsenal managers based on how good they were at playing football (it was published in the Arsenal programme in the Arsenal Uncovered series) and it showed beyond any doubt that our most successful managers were by and large average (or less) at playing the game.

So there is no point in looking at our table of Arsenal managers analysed by top four finishes – because Billy Wright doesn’t figure.  But if we look at Arsenal’s managers analysed by history, games and success then we can see that he comes near the foot of the table.  Excluding temporary managers the only people who did less well than he did across more than two seasons were Leslie Knighton and George Morrell from the early days of the 20th century.

The only insight I have into this (apart from analysing managers by their playing ability) comes from the ex-Arsenal players and stadium staff who visited my father’s garage on Westbury Avenue.  He was told that Wright did not arrange the supervision of training properly, and that players would come in, put their track suit over their clothes, jog round the pitch one, and go home again (or down the pub).  Of course that might just be tittle tattle, but certainly results on the pitch sometimes suggested this was how it was. 

So, what to make of Billy Wright (1924 to 1994)?

Part of his problem might have been that he only ever played for Wolverhampton, so had no understanding of the huge variety there is in the way clubs work.    Then there is the fame associated with being the first football player in the world to get 100 caps, and holding the record for longest unbroken run in competitive international football.  Or captaining your country 90 times.  Maybe he just thought everyone else ought to be able to do what he could do.

He joined Wolverhampton aged 14 and made his first team début aged 15 in 1939 in a wartime game. His postwar début was in the 1945–46 FA Cup in a two legged tie against Lovells Athletic.  (It is an interesting side note that there was no league that season – only the FA Cup, so all games were played home and away, what with the clubs having little else to do!  Arsenal were knocked out in the third round by WHU – but of course the ability of the clubs to compete depended on how many players they had been able to round up after the end of the war.)

But, really Wright should have known more about training since Billy Wright was a Physical Training Instructor in the army.

As a player he won the league three times and the FA Cup once retiring in 1959 to become manager of England’s youth team.  He then came to Arsenal in 1962, a high profile non-Arsenal man, to wipe aside the failures of the Swindin era.

His results were uniformly depressing…

SeasonLeague positionFA Cup
1962/37th5th round lost to Liverpool
1963/48th5th found lost to Liverpool
1964/513th4th round lost to Peterborough
1965/614th3rd round lost to Blackburn*

* Blackburn finished bottom of the 1st division that season.

Amazingly the 7th position gave a qualification to the Inter Cities Fairs Cup.  Arsenal were knocked out in the second round in the 1963/4 season.

What he did do was sign or promote from the youth team the likes of David Court, Jon Sammels, Bob Wilson, Peter Simpson, Jon Furnell, John Radford, Don Howe, Frank McLintock and Peter Storey.

Brian Glanville is quoted as having written of his time at Arsenal, “he had neither the guile nor the authority to make things work and he reacted almost childishly to criticism”.

He gained the CBE in 1959, and has a stand named after him and a statue of him at the Wolverhampton ground.  A campaign has been run in recent years to award him a posthumous knighthood.