If 'Boys Own Paper' had cast a character as a good looking, blond haired, clean living footballer, who became the captain of England's top club, won the FA Cup and several League Championship medals, was selected to play for England's national team, went on to captain it a world record 90 times, became the first man on earth to receive 100 international caps, played in world record 70 consecutive international matches, captained England to 3 consecutive World Cup finals, and in a career of nearly 700 top flight games was never either cautioned or sent off by any referee, was idolised and adored by the whole nation, became world famous and married the glamorous queen of pop music, and that the two of them lived 'happily ever after', then readers would say this was all too unbelievable. Yet however fantastic it may seem, for Billy Wright this was no fairytale, it was the real story of his life…
William Ambrose Wright, who was known to us all as Billy Wright, was born at 33 Belmont Road, Ironbridge, Shropshire on 6th February 1924. His father worked in an iron foundry and was a top amateur player. Billy attended Madeley Senior School where he played centre forward for the school's team. He was an outstanding young footballer, a prolific striker who once scored 10 goals in a single game.
In 1938 he was encouraged by his schoolteacher Mr. Norman Simpson, to respond to an advert that appeared in the local 'Express & Star' newspaper. The advert read that the mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers were inviting boys for trials. At first the club's manager Major Frank Buckley said he was too small and Billy was broken hearted, but fortunately for football, 20 minutes later the Major changed his mind and gave him a chance, signing him as an apprentice on an eight month trial.
Known to his team mates as 'Snowy', because of his blond hair and also as 'The Ironbridge Rocket', Billy switched from playing centre forward, to wing half and later in his career to centre half. He made his first appearance for Wolves reserves at 14 and his full team debut at 15 in 1939. In his first season 1938-39, Wolves finished 2nd in the League, the sensational Dennis Westcott scoring 43 goals in 43 games.
A few months later World War 2 broke out and the 1939-40 football season, was abandoned after just 3 rounds. Billy signed professional forms at 17 in February 1941. There was some regionalised wartime football and he played as a guest for Leicester City, but his career proper was very much on hold.
He also suffered a broken ankle, and for a while there was uncertainty as to whether he would play again. Fortunately he made a full recovery and when he was old enough in 1943 he joined the army, becoming a physical training instructor and being promoted to sergeant. The Football League resumed a full programme again in 1946.
On 28th September 1946, aged 22 years 234 days, he won his first cap for England (Match number 227), in a match against Northern Ireland. England won that game 7-2. In the same year he also played against the Republic of Ireland (1-0), Wales (3-0), Holland (8-2), Scotland (1-1), France (3-0), Switzerland (0-1) and Portugal (10-0).
From 1946 on, Billy was a vital member of the Wolves team and the club resumed its pre-war successes, with high league finishing positions. In 1948 he was made captain of England and a year later, in 1949, he led Wolves to an FA Cup final victory over Leicester City at Wembley Stadium.
Throughout the late 1940's and 1950's Billy captained Wolves and England. During that time Wolves won 3 Football League titles, were 3 times runners-up, 3 times finished 3rd, 3 times finished in the top 5. They won The FA and were FA Cup finalists and semi-finalists. The big teams like Wolves pioneered European football and Billy continued to add to his amazing tally of international caps.
In general, there were fewer international matches played in Billy's day. Also, World War 2 cut short his career by 7 full seasons. It is therefore even more remarkable that he achieved his 105 full international caps in just 14 playing seasons (1938-39 and 1946-59), an average of 7.5 caps annually (He also played in 5 x Victory Internationals, 4 x England Xl, 1 x 'The Rest of the World' and in 21 x Inter-League Internationals).
By applying this annual average, we see that had Billy enjoyed a full career, in his case probably 21 playing seasons (1938-59), then in all likelihood he would have received another 52 caps, giving him an astonishing total of 157 full international caps. There were no substitutes in his day, so a cap was awarded for a full game. Whereas today's players will often play for a few minutes near the end of a game, just to gain a cap.
A master of the perfectly timed ferocious tackle, Billy was also blessed with an aerial agility. He could lift his muscular 5ft 8in frame high above any opponent in duels of the sky. Somehow he appeared to hang in the air, as if invisibly attached to skyhooks. His greatest gift though was his genius for reading the game, for he instinctively knew in advance what opponents planned to do.
Time and again he would break up attacks with perfectly timed runs and interceptions, frequently rescuing stranded team-mates. "I only had two things on my mind as a player: to win the ball and then to give the simplest pass I could to the nearest team-mate," he said. For Billy captaincy was the art of leadership, it was never dictatorship. He was a wonderful sportsman who set an impeccable personal example.
The Rt. Hon. Ken Purchase MP said, "I was fortunate too see Billy play, he was tremendous and a real gentleman too. Although he was only 10 stones in weight, he was 10 tons in a tackle. It's a wonderful idea, I am not sure if there is a precedent for a posthumous knighthood, but he deserves a knighthood and I will speak to the Prime Minister."
It's true… Billy Wright was a real gentleman of sport, an inspiration to all the players around him and all who played against him. He trained extremely hard, but always had time to help the younger members of the team. So skilful a player was he, that despite playing much of his career as a tough defender, in a professional career totalling almost 700 games, he was 'never once' either cautioned or sent off by any referee. Perhaps this achievement too is unparalleled.
Billy Wright found 'Miss Right' in the lovely Joy Beverley of the famous Beverley Sisters and he married her in 1958. Make no mistake… Billy & Joy were the glittering 'Posh & Becks' of their day and huge crowds flocked to see them wherever they went. Billy was also the first player to enter the world of celebrity endorsements, advertising famous hair and soap products.
Billy's daughter Vicky told me that when her mom and dad got married they had planned a secret ceremony at Poole Registry Office, but on route to the ceremony, they were made late by huge numbers of cars and people queuing for something. So Billy asked a policeman, holding back the crowds, what was going on. The policeman said, "Billy, these people have all come to see you and Joy get married."
He was actually selected for his 100th cap on the day his daughter Victoria (Vicky) was born in April 1959 and the match was played on 11th April 1959. He won his 105th and final cap against the USA on 28th May in that same year. His final season for Wolves was 1958-59, by which time he had made nearly 600 league and cup appearances in the famous old gold and black strip.
The announcement of his retirement at the end of the summer break in 1959, unleashed a nationwide explosion of public praise for English football's finest son. It came ahead of the pre-season curtain-raiser between Wolves Colours (First team) v Wolves Whites (Reserve team) at Molineux on 8th August 1959. The game attracted a crowd of nearly 30,000 fans, with many, including Billy himself, reduced to tears. .
His contribution to Wolves magnificent successes of the 1940's and 1950's had been monumental, and notably a series of high-profile European friendly matches, some played in the evening under the club's famous floodlights, had opened the door for British clubs across Europe. The Times wrote, 'Billy Wright, the man, is a human being of exemplary character. Billy Wright, the footballer, is a national treasure'.
In 1959 amidst a frenzy of publicity, he was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire), by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace. From 1960-62 he managed England's Youth, Under 21 and Under 23 teams. In 1962 he replaced George Swindin as manager of Arsenal. In his first season he finished in 7th place in the First Division. He was later appointed Head of Sport for ATV and Central Television. In 1989 he was invited to join the Board of Directors at Wolves.
In 1993, when Wolves' former owner, the multi millionaire businessman and philanthropist Sir Jack Hayward, a Wolves fan through and through, re-developed Wolves Molineux Stadium, he named the main stand the Billy Wright Stand. Sir Jack, a fine gentleman, had seen Billy play many times. He also commissioned a 15ft high bronze statue of Billy that was erected 3 years later, outside the stand, in front of the clubs main entrance. Sadly Billy never lived to see this wonderful tribute to him.
The great Billy Wright CBE died on 3rd September 1994, at his home in Barnet Hertfordshire, aged 70. To those who knew him or played alongside him, to those he inspired to themselves achieve great things, to his family and friends, to those fans who were fortunate to have watched him play and to those of us who never saw him play but who are just astounded and in awe of his achievements, his wonderful legacy and his legend live on.