Former Liverpool captain Mark Wright speaks to Adam Bate about the impact of Virgil van Dijk at Anfield and shares his memories of life at the club – including that Spice Boys reputation that stuck in the 1990s.
Virgil van Dijk has been routinely compared to Liverpool legends Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson given his calmness and control in possession but perhaps it would make more sense to liken the Dutch defender to another former Anfield favourite.
Mark Wright was 27, the same age as Van Dijk is now, when he became the most expensive defender in English history in the summer of 1991. He was a fellow former Southampton player and though this proved to be a period of decline for Liverpool, Wright still captained the team to an FA Cup win and still ranks among the 100 players to have shook the Kop.
As a centre-back of silk and steel in his own right, the ex-England man who was among Sir Bobby Robson’s heroes at the 1990 World Cup is, somewhat predictably, a huge admirer of the rock at the heart of Jurgen Klopp’s defence – for one reason in particular.
“You can talk about his ability in possession and, yes, he can head the ball, he is quick and he can do all the other bits and pieces as well,” Wright tells Sky Sports. “But you don’t come to Liverpool unless you can do those things. The biggest thing that has impressed me is what I see from him when the ball is at the other end of the pitch.
“He dictates. He makes sure people fill those pockets where previously Liverpool were being hurt on the counter-attack. He makes sure others are aware. It’s that organisation of others that has made the biggest difference because there aren’t a lot of leaders around but he can do that. Nobody is going to argue with him because Virgil is the kingpin.
“I see him as the key to Liverpool’s success. He is an exceptional player and I really cannot believe it wasn’t more of a battle to get him because there is a dearth of top centre-halves around. Look around. Name the top five in the Premier League and I think you would struggle to come up with five. Virgil stands out like a sore thumb, to be honest with you.”
Wright came from an era of standout centre-backs – Tony Adams and Gary Pallister did not even make Robson’s squad for Italia ’90. It was the ability to bring the ball out from the back in the sweeper role that set him apart from the rest, but Wright relished the fight too.
“I was a ball player who liked to do things the right way,” he recalls. “Would I be more suited to today’s game? Maybe. But I was brought up by Gary Briggs and Malcolm Shotton at Oxford, two real bruisers at centre-back let me tell you. I would come off many games with ball marks imprinted on my legs and chest because I wanted to block it.”
Despite a stop-start seven seasons at Liverpool – in total, Wright missed three major tournaments through injury – he remains fondly remembered by the fans at Anfield because of this wholehearted attitude. Speaking at the McDonald’s and FA Fun Football Festival in Liverpool, he reflects on the unique challenge of representing a club of such stature.
Mark Wright on the Fun Football Festival
“I am lending my support to grassroots football because it is so important in this country. McDonald’s and the FA have been partners on this for 17 years and we just want to get kids playing football. There are kids of all ages, abilities and gender here taking part and enjoying themselves in the sun so for me it’s a fantastic event to put on.”
“My story is that I never had a trial anywhere as a kid,” says Wright. “I stayed on at sixth form and did my A-Levels before getting my opportunity with Oxford United. So although I had played for my country at the highest level, I had been at smaller clubs in Oxford, Southampton and Derby before signing for Liverpool.
“It is everything that comes with being a Liverpool player. With the history and the rest of it, you are expected to be able to perform straight away and fill the shoes of others. Some did it and others didn’t. You have to be strong mentally but I never really felt the pressure.
“My attitude was that I was just lucky to be playing for Liverpool. With my dad being a Scouser as well as all my aunts, uncles and cousins, it was fantastic. Even now, I like to meet fans and just thank them for each and every moment. No-one could fault me for not trying and I think the Liverpool fans see that. I gave my best and that earns you respect.”
Unfortunately for Wright, he arrived at the end of an era. At the time, Liverpool had finished in the top two in 18 of the previous 19 seasons – winning the European Cup in the other. But the appointment of Graeme Souness was not a success and the glory years were at an end. Liverpool went 10 seasons without finishing higher in the table than third.
Gary Neville recently argued that Manchester United’s rise was sparked by Sir Alex Ferguson cutting out the drinking culture at Old Trafford – in stark contrast to their great rivals who became known as the Spice Boys in the 1990s. “They did not get that nickname for nothing,” said Neville. “They were still going out and drinking. We weren’t.”
Wright still finds the nickname funny. “If we were the Spice Boys then me and John Barnes must have been Old Spice.” But he acknowledges that the reputation for being a bit flash was not unfounded. “The cream suits didn’t really help,” he adds, referring to the infamous Armani attire that the team wore prior to their 1996 FA Cup final defeat to United.
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“We had lots of youngsters in the side,” says Wright. “Did they go out? Lots of players went out. But when you play for Liverpool or for Manchester United, there is so much more scrutiny from the media. Maybe they did go out too often. It was certainly a turning point.
“Going back to the days of George Best, it was always about the young stars going out and drinking. Sir Alex Ferguson changed that at Manchester United and made sure they all toed the line. It is no coincidence that they started winning things soon after that.
“But you can’t really blame the lads at Liverpool for that. It was a transitional time. Graeme Souness knew that things had to change because a lot of the players who had been there for a long time were coming to the end, but maybe he changed too many too soon.”
That was then and this is now. Liverpool are in the ascendancy again, champions of Europe once more, and Wright sees no reason why it should change any time soon.
“I hope this is the start of something,” he says. “They are already feared. Teams don’t want to play against them. That is where they are now. Liverpool and Manchester City are where everyone else wants to be. I think they need maybe two good players this summer and that would be enough. Maybe a centre-forward who could change the play if they needed to.
“But who am I to say anything to Jurgen Klopp? He is the manager and he knows exactly what he is doing. I am the same as the Liverpool supporters worldwide, I trust in him. If he doesn’t want to buy anyone then that means there aren’t the right players out there.”