It’s hard to believe that it’s been 19 years since Sheffield Wednesday were playing in the Premier League. The Owls have spent the better part of the last two decades attempting to recapture former glories which at one point saw them as one of the most feared teams in the country. In the 1992-1993 season, Sheffield Wednesday recorded one of their best campaigns finishing 7th in the Premier league, reaching both the FA Cup and League Cup finals and the second round of the UEFA Cup. That side had some iconic figures including captain Nigel Pearson, Chris Waddle and Carlton Palmer. But spearheading their attack were the duo of David Hirst and Mark Bright who became a lethal strike partnership scoring 36 goals between them.
Bright himself hit 20 of those in all competitions which should have been enough to earn him an England call up. But in a golden era of English strikers, Bright never got the call up he deserved. Nevertheless his legacy as one of England’s best goal scorers is secure, as is the admiration of the fans who revere him even to this day.
We sat down with Mark recently on the eve of his book launch “My Story: From Foster Care to Footballer” to talk about the highs and lows he had as a player, what it was like playing with Ian Wright and how his time spent in foster care made him the man he is today. Enjoy!
Back Of The Net: You started in non-league with Leek Town before being picked up by Port Vale. It’s a familiar path that numerous players have followed yet the value of the lower league structure is often understated. How important do you think non-league is to the success of the Football League?
Mark Bright: I still believe that players making the transition from non-league to football league will continue in the future. There are many players who drop down after being released from the football league who find their feet and bounce back. It’s also an important training ground for many young players who go on loan to gain experience from Premier League, Championship, League One and Two.
BOTN: It must have been strange going back to Port Vale after being released by them three years previously when you were only 16-year-old. Did that original rejection come into your consideration about re-signing for them or was the draw of playing in the football league too strong?
MB: I dropped down and played my way back up. I didn’t hesitate once I was asked as I still believed in myself and wanted another chance to play league football. Quite a few team mates at Leek Town said to me don’t go back, but I wanted a chance to show everyone what I could do.
BOTN: You spent three seasons at Vale Park, establishing yourself in the final season scoring 10 goals in 31 games as Port Vale struggled to stay in the then Third Division. Now 22 years old, you rejected a contract extension and as a result were sold to Leicester. With that move, did you feel that you were now fully on your way to becoming a full-time professional player?
MB: I was full time at Port Vale. I signed a one-year deal as a part-time player, then I turned pro the next season. All I was interested in was progressing. Leicester City were in League One (now the Premier League) so it was a no brainer for me.
BOTN: How significant was that move in terms of your career?
MB: The move was a game changer for me in terms of joining a club in the top flight; having the chance to be seen on Match of The Day scoring and establishing myself as a player at the highest level.
BOTN: In your first season at Leicester, you played as a backup for Gary Lineker and Alan Smith and struggled to find the net in 16 appearances. But in your second season you had more of an opportunity to shine after Lineker was sold in the summer to Everton. For a player in your position at that time, was it good to see Gary depart as it gave you more of an opportunity or were you thinking more about how the team would fare without him?
MB: I helped Gary to pack and join Everton! Of course I was sorry to see Gary depart but the manager Gordon Milne said this was the chance I’d been waiting for; he gave me my chance. We actually played Everton on the opening day of the season and we won 3-1. I scored two goals and Gary failed to score although as he reminds me, he did go on to win the Golden boot that year while I managed to only score another four goals the rest of the season!
BOTN: It was at Palace that you arguably had your most successful spell as a player, forging a great partnership with Ian Wright. Steve Coppell, the manager at the time saw something in pairing your power and pace with Wrights enthusiasm and dynamic play. Why do you think that partnership worked so well? How long did it take for you and Ian to “click”?
MB: Pace????? I’m not sure about pace. Ian was fresh from non-league so I understood where he was from my own journey. Steve said he needs your help and we worked at it with the coaches who worked hard with us. Ian Evans was the coach who used to work on movement with us, we talked and worked it out and got better each season. They were great times as we were maturing as individuals and as a partnership. It took time but we nailed it in the end.
BOTN: In September 1992, you made the switch to Sheffield Wednesday and continued your rich vein of form, finishing as the club’s top goal scorer three seasons running. That period was when the game in England began to drastically change with the introduction of the Premier League and the riches that came with subscription TV. As a player at that time, did you understand how dramatically things were changing or was it simply business as normal?
MB: At the time I didn’t realize how much impact Sky Sports would have on the game. It was incredible, it transformed football and the way it was covered. They had wall to wall programmes on their channels including The Boot Room which was one of my favourites. I know Andy Gray and Richard Keys messed up but they were fantastic for Sky. Great coverage, great presentation. Players soon realized everyone was under scrutiny plus the money element started to filter through to the players.
BOTN: The move to Sion was clearly a surprise to you when it happened. I understand things weren’t going well at Sheffield Wednesday so when the switch to Switzerland became a realistic option, it seemed too good to turn down. The move was bittersweet in the end, and you left after failing to get paid what was owed to you. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Do you think the situation in Sheffield clouded your judgement around that move or was there simply no way of telling what was going to happen? Would you change anything if you had the chance?
MB: I loved FC Sion. I was really disappointed when it was cut short but everything happens for a reason. I worked with some good people in Switzerland. David Pleat left me out of the team; I still thought I was good enough but he had other plans. Looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. I was having French lessons three times a week, working in beautiful conditions, I used to drive over the mountains to Milan and watch Paul Ince play for Inter; his wife Clare used to meet and drive me there. I was experiencing a different culture, I loved it. In the end I had to go to UEFA who got some of the money I was owed from the Club.
BOTN: You finished your career at Charlton under Alan Curbishley, helping them to gain promotion through the playoffs. After what happened at Sion, how pleasing was it to play at a well-run club like Charlton and a manager like Curbishley?
MB: I know it’s one of those things fans don’t take kindly to (playing for rivals) but I had to get back to the UK and Curbs was very good to me. I had two really enjoyable years there. The team was young but he needed some experience so Mark Bowen and myself joined. It was a fantastic journey for the club to get back to top flight football. Reaching the play-off final at Wembley was a match in a million, 4-4 after extra time, 7-6 to Charlton on penalties.
BOTN: Are you surprised that he hasn’t managed to get back into management after leaving West Ham in 2008?
MB: I find it incredible Curbs hasn’t worked since leaving West Ham. It’s a shame that all his knowledge is lost to the game.
BOTN: Your father was from The Gambia and you were born in Stoke on Trent, England meaning that you could have played international football for both countries. Despite scoring 213 goals you were overlooked by both England managers during that time, Graham Taylor and Terry Venables. How frustrating was that? Did you consider playing for Gambia or was that not an option?
MB: No. I did trained with the Gambian national team in 1996 when I was on holiday, something my uncle arranged it for me. I did give it some thought but ultimately decided not to. I was told by Trevor Francis that he believed I would be in the England squad when it was announced after the weekend, but Gordon Watson jumped on my back after I’d scored and something popped in my knee. I had to have a small operation on it so it wasn’t meant to be. It was a golden era for strikers back then:- Lineker, Beardsley, Shearer, Wrighty, Teddy Sheringham, Andy Cole, Ferdinand, Kerry Dixon, Mark Hateley etc.
BOTN: It’s fair to say you had a tough childhood spending a majority of it in foster care whilst also enduring racism on a regular basis. In your book “My Story”, you talked openly about your life and how those experiences early on drove you to succeed. How much do you feel your childhood has defined you as a man and the way that you now live your life? Did it alter your approach to being a professional footballer?
MB: Good question. Good foster parents shaped me. My foster parent, Grandad Davies installed good values in me and my brother and taught us to respect people and money. The actor Neil Morrisey was in the same foster home as me and he believes it drove us on to be successful. I would say it played a part for sure. Desire to succeed in football has to come from within as it’s a tough industry. My Grandad worked in the coal mines in Staffordshire, he was all about hard work and it filtered through to me. I feel I was the best I could have been as a player and a person.
BOTN: As Crystal Palace’s director of the Under 23 development squad, you must have been happy to see the progress that Aaron Wan-Bissaka made at the club before earning himself a £45 million move to Manchester United this summer. Does his development through the youth ranks at Palace and eventually into the first team vindicate the work that you and the rest of the youth development team are doing?
MB: Aaron’s success wasn’t anything to do with me. Richard Shaw, Dave Reddington and Roy Hodgson who believed in him should take the credit for his development. He showed others below him in our academy there’s a pathway to the first team if you work hard, listen and dedicate yourself. The opportunities maybe limited so when your chance arrives, you’d better be ready.
BOTN: Finally, some fan questions. 213 goals in total over your career. Do you have a favourite one?
MB: I scored a great goal at Barnsley, a left foot 30 yard strike into the top corner, and a good one at Leicester City against Everton. I turned Kevin Ratcliffe and curled it with the outside my right foot over Neville Southall. A beauty; unfortunately there was a dispute which lead to no Match of the Day coverage so only those in the stadium remember it! I also scored a decent one for Palace when we beat Millwall 4-3 at Selhurst, again into the top corner.
BOTN: What was the best team you played in? Sheffield Wednesday 1992/1993 season?
MB: Two teams; the Palace team that finished 3rd in 1991, and the Sheffield Wednesday team of 1993. Two great teams.
BOTN: Since retiring in 1999, you have run quite a few marathons for charity. Do you actually enjoy doing them or are you driven purely by a sense of wanting to help the charity?
MB: I ran them to stay fit and raise money for good causes. My best time was 4hrs 3min, to think Eliud Kipchoge could have ran two marathons in that time!
BOTN: Thank you for your time Mark and good luck with your book!
My Story: From Foster Care to Footballer by Mark Bright is published by Constable on 7 November in hardback, £20.