Wright moves back to home town

Home at last - footballer Richard Wright and his wife Kelly tell LYNNE MORTIMER why they are happy to be living back in Ipswich, and why he's fighting to get back in the Premier League.

Home at last - footballer Richard Wright and his wife Kelly tell LYNNE MORTIMER why they are happy to be living back in Ipswich, and why he's fighting to get back in the Premier League. Read part two tomorrow.

STILL only 30, West Ham and former Ipswich and England goalkeeper, Richard Wright says: “I love this town.”

After a sojourn in Cheshire while Richard was an Everton player, he and wife Kelly, 29, are revelling in the happy turn of fate that has made it possible for them to come back to Ipswich.

Two of their four children are at school - nine-year-old Harry and five-year-old Bo, while two-and-a-half-year-old twins Poppy and Sonny are spark out on the sofa.

This is the upbeat beginning of another instalment in a Roy of the Rovers-type success story in which an ordinary lad gets catapulted to fame and fortune because of his sporting talents. But even fairytales have their darker moments - most of them provided by the very game that Richard is so passionate about.

We rewind to the age of four, when a pre-school Richard and Kelly went to the same playgroup in Dryden Road, Ipswich. They don't remember quite that far back but they do remember each other at Castle Hill primary school, where they were in the same year.

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At primary school, Richard was already attracting attention as a football goalkeeper - not least because he was so much taller than most of his age group. But he wasn't only good at football.

Kelly said: “Richard was the popular guy at school - good looking and good at everything.”

Richard eventually conceded: “If I put my mind to something I can do it… but football took over.”

The young goalie played football for Whitton Sports Youth (later the Hollies) - a team that must have struck fear into the hearts of any opposing side. Not only was goal scoring a real problem with Richard in goal, they would have also have had a problem keeping goals out with Keiron Dyer up front.

Together in their youth team, both Wright and Dyer would go on to play for Ipswich Town and their country. Today, in another quirk of fate, they are team mates again, both at West Ham. The two men are firm friends and share the journey to their new club.

Although Kelly and Richard knew each other at Castle Hill it was not much more than a nodding acquaintance until they went up to Thurleston High School.

Richard said: “I loved football, it was a passion of mine but it wasn't the only thing I wanted to do - just going with the flow, really. At school, people would say - and rightly so - 'don't put all your eggs in one basket and worry about your football, you've got to do a bit of everything'.”

Kelly had her own passion: “I had a pony from the age of 10 so that was all I wanted to do - ride my pony and be a horse rider - anything to do with horses. I was weird because my horse was kept behind Thurleston school and Richard used to play football on Thurleston field every night after school and there I was, riding my horse and I could see him in goal, playing with his mates.”

At the age of about 12, Richard started playing at Ipswich Town's Centre of Excellence (as it was then called) when he was about 12-years-old. He acknowledges his physique was ideal for goalkeeping as he grew ahead of his mates - the photograph of the Whitton side confirms it - and confesses his height was one of the reasons he didn't ask Kelly out.

He said: “I did like Kelly when I was younger but I wouldn't ask her out because, it was like, 'I'm too tall' and 'It would look silly' and I was worried about what people would say…” He smiles affectionately at his wife: “… But it doesn't matter, does it?”

It doesn't and today Richard at 6ft 2in stands about a foot taller than his petite wife.

There is a little Mini Cooper car outside, standing next to a big 4x4 and I guess the Mini is Kelly's but I couldn't be more wrong! It's Richard's - he loves the car and says it is remarkably spacious.

At the age of 14 he was selected to play for England Schoolboys. He said: “Going through the selection process it went down from 100, then down to 60, then down to 30 and then to the last 18 and never, at any stage, did I think I was going to get in. Then a letter arrived - I remember the day it came. The postman would call at half-past seven and I was really terrible about getting up for school and I remember dad running upstairs with this brown envelope. I was still half asleep and I opened it and read it and it said 'you've been selected to represent your country' and I was a bit excited but my dad was over the moon.”

Richard now gets that same swell of pride watching his own son, Harry, play well for his school and a local team.

Richard and Kelly started going out when he was 16 and she was 15. Both left school at 16 and Kelly went to the John Oliver hairdressing salon where she trained and qualified as a hair stylist, a job she loved. Meanwhile on the football field, more and more people were starting to talk about this talented young goalkeeper.

At the age of 17, Richard experienced one of his happiest and saddest moments. It was the year he first played for Ipswich Town but also the year his dad, Colin, died from cancer.

He said: “I made my Ipswich debut and he came to watch me play. He was really ill at that stage so it was really nice he got the chance to see me play for my club.”

His dad had never doubted Richard's potential. “I remember doing a newspaper interview and I was sitting there with my dad and he said that I'd play for England before I was the age of 21 or 22. They printed that. And I was sitting there - me and my brother, in the lounge - thinking 'what is he saying'. I remember my brother looking over as if to say 'what is he on about?'.

Richard was 22 when he won his first full England cap.

Kelly and Richard moved into their first house in north Ipswich in 1998 and son Harry was born that November.

“The day he was born…” Richard said.

“… You had a game, didn't you,” said Kelly.

Richard picked up the story. “We went to the hospital the night before and Harry was born about two o'clock the following afternoon. And then I played that night and we won 2-0. It was great, really good.”

While football didn't impact too much on the birth of their first child, it certainly affected their wedding in 2000. Richard said: “I was in the full England squad at the time and we were organising our wedding in Mauritius in the summer. All the family were going to go and we were really looking forward to it - we'd put a deposit down and everything.

“And then, when I met up with the England squad I got told, if I was fit, I'd be going to Euro 2000. We had to cancel the wedding in Mauritius and within the space of three months we reorganised the wedding for May, in Ipswich. Then, as we got into May, Ipswich were in the play-off games (for promotion to the premier league).”

After beating Bolton over two legs, Ipswich went into the play-off final against Barnsley at Wembley.

Using the small lull after beating Bolton and before facing Barnsley, Richard and Kelly married at St Margaret's Church on May 19, ten days before the final.

The newly-wed Richard was then in the triumphant Ipswich team at Wembley although he missed the open-top bus victory parade because of his international commitment.

He said: “To win the play-off final at Wembley was the best thing. In football terms, that was the best I've ever felt after a game and the best feeling I've ever had… playing in that play-off final and winning it was amazing.

“At the start of the game they (Barnsley) hit the bar, it hit me and went in - sort of an own goal. Then the penalty (he gave away) - I saved it which was brilliant. So I went in at half-time and beat myself up 'cos I was a bit disappointed. Then I came out for the second half… we knew we could beat them - we knew we were the better team.”

And so they were. Kelly was watching from the stands with little Harry perched on her dad's shoulders. “It was brilliant that day,” she said.

“Best day ever,” Richard confirmed.

When the summer of football was over, Kelly and Richard went on their honeymoon to Miami, with Harry. Then followed a season in the Premiership with Ipswich when Town finished an “amazing” fifth.

At the end of that season, Arsenal made an offer for Richard - which was irresistible. He said: “Things didn't go as well as I would have liked (with Arsenal) but I can never look back on my life and have someone say 'why didn't you go to Arsenal?'… I would never have known.”

Kelly said: “Whatever Richard was happy with, I was happy with. I was a wife and a mother and that was my priority.”

Transfer complete, the family moved to north London, near to where the Gunners' trained.

Meanwhile Richard was away from home every Friday because, even when there was a home game, the team stayed at a hotel the previous night. It is not the aspect of being a footballer's wife we are used to hearing about. Richard said: “I don't think Kelly has been caught up in that (sort of WAG lifestyle). She's always been Kelly. We don't expect to be treated any differently because I play football and we treat everybody the same (as we always did). It's nice to have nice things but we like to think we do it the right way.”

Richard was at Arsenal for one season and played 25 games. He said: “The hardest thing for me was that we had an FA Cup run and I played every single game leading up to the final and then, in the final, they played David Seaman instead of me. That was a time when I thought does he (the manager) really want me here. And then, the following summer, Everton made an offer for me.

“Everton is a great club,” said Richard with real warmth.

“We had a great few years there,” agreed Kelly.

In the summer of 2002 Richard had surgery on his knee and started the next season with optimism but: “I played the first three games and my knee just 'popped' - made a popping noise and swelled up again - same knee. I'm thinking, 'this is terrible' and saw a surgeon the night before the Liverpool v Everton derby and he drained off my knee, which was full of blood.”

Richard was advised not to play and more surgery followed and six weeks of rehab followed. He said: “That was one of the hardest times we've had. I was coming home frustrated by the injury and when you're frustrated, you take it out on the people closest to you. It was hard.”

When Everton brought in another goalie, Nigel Martin, Richard was sidelined. He said: “I just couldn't get him out of the team. And when I did get in the team I'd play one or two games and that was it.”

The injury cost Richard virtually the whole season and he said: “I started to lose a bit of self belief.”

Away from football, life was grand. The family grew with the birth of daughter Bo and then the twins Poppy and Sonny. Living in a lovely home in Cheshire, the Wrights made a lot of good friends - both in and out of football. “We had a great social life up there,” said Kelly.

Richard was determined to get back to full fitness. In fact, he said: “I got really fit, I got as fit as I've ever been, physically - fitter than I had ever been at Ipswich. I was working really hard and just not getting my reward on a Saturday. I wanted to play but I wasn't playing and that went on for another two years.”

He says there had been opportunities for him to move to other clubs but Everton had been reluctant to let him go - in the end they did, of course, and Richard is now at West Ham.

He accepts that the financial rewards of top flight football are good but, for him first of all, it is about the beautiful game: “People say that football is about money. There was a time at Ipswich when there were rumours I was demanding (a particular) wage. I've never been like that…”

He says happiness and family are most important to him and now he is back at the heart of his family, in Ipswich.

In the space of a decade the couple have married, had four children, and Richard has played for four Premiership clubs and for England. But despite the pace of their life, they do not seem fazed.

Richard said: “We love this town. We're so happy to be back - we've got the kids and we wanted our family around us.”

Kelly says they are still prepared to move if Richard's career demands it: “I would have moved somewhere else - I'd have gone anywhere.”

He said: “Over the summer (this year) I had spoken to Ipswich Town (with a view to coming back) and it was something I really wanted to do to but I think as is always the case with football it's all about timing. It just wasn't quite there and unfortunately it didn't work out.

“Ipswich has always been my team. When I see the scores come through I always look for Ipswich.”

Although his confidence has been dented, Richard keeps his eye on his goal.

“No matter what other people say, I still believe I can play in the Premier League. I still believe in myself and I believe it's given me an opportunity within the next… however long. Of course Robert Green's the goalie now (but) if I can get one chance; one sniff at a regular few games in the first team. I believe I still can do it.”