Billy Wright

Football Pioneers: Billy Wright

Professor Matt Taylor recalls Billy Wright, the first footballer to win over 100 England caps, as part of Leicester City Football Club's partnership with DeMontfort University’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture.

No player represented English football in the post-war period more perfectly than Billy Wright. A one-club man, he turned out 490 times for Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Football League, mostly as captain. He was the first footballer to receive over a hundred England caps, eventually playing in 105 international games, 90 as captain.

A popular role model for 1950s schoolchildren, and dubbed the ‘Head Boy’ of English football, Wright was known for his calm demeanour and impeccable disciplinary record.

Wright made his first appearance for Wolves as a 15-year-old in a wartime fixture in 1939. He started out as a forward, even scoring 12 goals while guesting for Leicester City during the 1940-41 season. But he soon moved back to defence, first as a right-half and then a centre-half for club and country.

At only 5 foot 8 inches, Wright was small for the latter role but his positional sense and jumping ability were considered exceptional. "I have never seen another centre-half," Wolves manager Stan Cullis commented, "whose football instinct guides him so unerringly to precisely the right spot in the moment of danger."

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Billy Wright & Norman Plummer
Billy Wright & Norman Plummer

Wright shakes hands with Leicester City captain Norman Plummer ahead of kick-off at the 1949 FA Cup Final.

Although far from the most naturally talented footballer of his generation, Wright trained hard, prepared meticulously and was remarkably consistent. He captained Wolves to victory in the 1949 FA Cup against Leicester City and then to First Division championships in 1954, 1958 and 1959.

His leadership was based on quiet encouragement rather than screaming and shouting. Not everyone appreciated Wright’s laid-back style but team-mates such as Ron Flowers remembered his help and guidance on the pitch and constructive criticism in the dressing room as being instrumental to Wolves’ success.     

Wright is sometimes viewed nostalgically as an exemplar of the traditional working-class footballer of the 1940s and 1950s. But in many respects his career anticipated the more modern, commercialised football world of the 1960s and 1970s.

He married a pop star (Joy Beverley), was regularly featured outside the back pages of newspapers and put his name to no fewer than five autobiographies between 1950 and 1962. Perhaps most significantly of all, Wright helped usher English football out of its decades-long international isolation.

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Billy Wright
Billy Wright

Wright led England at three consecutive FIFA World Cup tournaments in the 1950s.

He captained the national team at its first three World Cup finals – in Brazil (1950), Switzerland (1954) and Sweden (1958) – and led England on summer tours to South America in 1953 and 1959.

He may have been implicated in England’s great humiliations against the United States in 1950 (0-1) and Hungary in 1953 (3-6) and 1954 (1-7), but this was more than countered by his involvement in Wolves’ famous floodlit friendlies against mainly European opposition during the 1950s.

These matches, many of them broadcast by the BBC, were crucial in introducing the idea of European competition to British football fans. The victories over Spartak Moscow and Honved of Hungary in 1954 indirectly led to the creation of the European Cup a year later.      

All this helps explains why he became so popular as a national idol as well as a Wolves star. Ultimately, as Cullis wrote of his loyal captain, Wright ‘belonged to England as much as he belonged to the club’.

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