To celebrate 30 years of the Premier League, The Athletic is paying tribute to the 50 greatest individual performances in its history, as voted for by our writers. You can read Oliver Kay’s introduction to our Golden Games series (and the selection rules) here – as well as the full list of all the articles as they unfold.
Picking 50 from 309,949 options is an impossible task. You might not agree with their choices, you will not agree with the order. They did not. It’s not intended as a definitive list. It’s a bit of fun, but hopefully a bit of fun you’ll enjoy between now and August.
Neville Southall’s face says it all. The camera work and picture quality of Premier League games in 1993 leave a little to be desired, but there is no mistaking Southall’s reaction after Ian Wright lobs the Everton goalkeeper from just inside the penalty area…
It’s the non-verbal cursing of a man who has been thoroughly outwitted.
“Pure autopilot,” says Wright to The Athletic about his goal. “My first thought (when David Seaman’s long pass arrives) was to retain possession. Matt Jackson committed so much when I flicked it the first time.
“I thought he’d have backed off but he was so committed I just went. You see his number? That means I’ve committed him (to moving in one direction), I’ll go the other way, he won’t be able to rectify his move because he’s too overcommitted and not expecting me to do that. So I just went over him again.
“He had to go on, he had to turn again, by the time that happened, Neville Southall just looked like he was too far on the near post.
“This goal was probably the only goal I did not know was coming, because it did not have an origin. It was just like… (I was in a) key position. That was the origin of this goal. And my instincts just took over. ”
🗓 September 23, 1991: @ IanWright0 signs – and we’re so glad he did 🔴
Reckon this was Wrighty’s best goal for us? pic.twitter.com/tmzFcmWf7u
– Arsenal (@Arsenal) September 23, 2018
The description “natural finisher” is a bit of a misnomer as to what strikers do.
Consistency and repetition are the staple of any goalscorer’s diet. For a striker to play at the Premier League level, they would have likely practiced goal-scoring actions almost every day for the better part of a decade.
They execute close-range shots with their strong foot, then their weak one, then work on headers and volleys. Then they work on long-range shots. First touches are honed relentlessly. Number nines are instructed on their head movement, how to use a defender’s momentum against them and how to use different landmarks on the pitch to inform them how close they are to the goal at a glance.
To be a top Premier League striker, you need to know how to run to the front post, how to isolate a full-back and then attack the back post. You need to master the double movement and when you should stop making a run so you can then enter an area of the pitch outside the defender’s cone of vision. You need to learn to gamble on your team-mate’s shots, running towards the goal just in case the keeper spills the ball, so you can have a tap-in. You need to make sure your tap-ins go where they are meant to go, so they are tap-ins rather than embarrassing meme-worthy misses.
Speak to football coaches about their encounters with future greats and they’ll often describe young players as having “every tool in their locker” – footballers are trained to sharpen all of these skills to the point where it becomes an extension of their personality. Then they are asked to trust their personality to put everything together during a game’s most crucial moments.
To learn how to score using a bicycle kick takes hundred of hours of training. To watch a cross come in and then decide – in a split second – that a bicycle kick is the best way to score from it, takes a level of ideation and imagination that can be hard to quantify and so we can only describe it as “ natural ”. As autopilot, that intangible flow state where years of practice get filtered through a very particular mind and experiences and it just… happens.
That 1993-94 season was only the second Premier League campaign and it was marked with a strange newness.
One foot of English football was still in its previous era, with 22 clubs still competing in the top flight, but the big toe of the other foot was pointing towards a style of play that would become more commonplace later in the decade. Strikers including Wright, Andy Cole and Alan Shearer engaged in thrilling races for the Golden Boot, each man averaging a goal every other game.
English football was changing, but it needed top strikers to help define it. This game against Everton, on August 28, 1993, is nearly impossible to find in its entirety, but if you type “the game where Wrighty lobbed Southall”, you can find small highlights of it rather quickly.
Football writer Tim Stillman was present for the game, watching from the West Lower Stand at Highbury as Wright dazzled.
“One of the things I always thought about Wrighty, and which became more apparent after his retirement, was the variety of his goals,” Stillman says. “They were incredible. In that year alone, there was his hat-trick against Yeovil in January in the FA Cup (of the 1992-93 season). You can say, ‘It’s Yeovil!’, But the second goal is this amazing chip that goes off the bar.
“Just after Christmas that year, he scores this goal against Swindon away. He’s out wide by the touchline, maybe 45 yards away and he clips this ball that sails all the way in. I know Wright has talked about this goal against Everton as being his favorite goal but, for me, it might be his third-best goal in 1993. ”
Both Stillman and Wright find it hard to recall the striker’s first goal against Everton that day, which occurs in the 48th minute after strike partner Kevin Campbell works some space around the box and feeds a short pass to him to finish.
Across the 90 minutes, there are multiple moments where Wright sizes up a defender and thinks of how to create a goal in a manner his opponent cannot comprehend, before he then acts on that desire at a pace that few defenders at the time could stop. He’s just a bit quicker in his movement than everyone in an Everton shirt, and occasionally makes runs that his own team-mates can’t quite figure out.
Wright in 1993 makes for a curious watch, the natural part of his natural goalscorer’s movement standing out. He had been a professional footballer for eight years by this point, but in that match against Everton, he has moments where his years of football for Sunday League team Ten-Em-Bee come through. Defenders Andy Hinchcliffe and Paul Holmes think they have a handle of him in the first half, often going touch-tight and trying to bully him off the ball, but Wright has the strength and balance to match them in physical duels and tricker moments.
By the second half, he has realized that Everton want to get touch-tight, so starts drifting into wide areas, luring his marker to push up the pitch and challenge him before cutting inside. It’s a fun game-within-a-game between Wright and the defenders that begins every time the Arsenal striker gets the ball into his feet. Everton want things to be like a boxing match but Wright has the talent to make his opposite man look like a clumsy dancer.
This version of Arsenal needed the inventiveness Wright brought to the side. As Stillman mentions, 1993-94 was the season when the “One-nil to the Arsenal” chant was born, coming after one of Wright’s goals helped secure passage to the European Cup Winners’ Cup final. The midfielders were workmanlike, outside a sprinkle of flair from a young Ray Parlor, and Wright is keen to stress how Campbell helped his performance that day against Everton.
“Kevin had everything – pace, power, intelligence and his movement. Him and Alan (Shearer) at under-21 level were unstoppable, ”he says. “I thought he could take two players with him (during games). Two players from my space. He was so strong – once he got the ball, you weren’t going to lose it. “
When Wright sensed opportunities on the field he sprang into life. That is how the second goal of that match – the one he considers his greatest ever and the moment from this game that people treasure – is born.
Watch Wright goals for long enough and a certain playfulness emerges. He’s not just a striker capable of scoring beautiful goals; he actively has moments where he takes an extra beat to apply a more precise finish when others would opt for power. It’s artistic finishing born not just from an urge to entertain, but also a desire to prove himself at the top level.
Despite his 113 goals across 213 Premier League appearances, Wright gives himself a very particular ranking in the list of great Premier League strikers.
Match Of The Day viewers will be used to his light sparring with Shearer and Gary Lineker over who had the best record: every so often, Wright can admit Shearer has the edge on him in the air, or outscored him in a particular season.
His striker’s confidence has not completely ebbed away, though.
During a memorable segment for UK broadcaster BT Sport, former strikers Wright, Chris Sutton and Michael Owen were asked who had the better left foot. Wright’s reply: “Me. Don’t even ask them two – they can’t get near to where my left foot was. “
Wright practiced working on his left foot at the age of seven by kicking a tennis ball against a brick wall on his council estate in Brockley, south London. He was driven to do it by elder brother Maurice, who would relentlessly tease him about any weaknesses to his game whenever they would play in the park at Hilly Fields. Wright is a striker who worked hard to make it look easy and then worked harder still to respect it as an art form.
“People only talk about the goals, but my whole being when I was playing was trying to make people say I was complete,” says Wright. “(His former Arsenal manager) George Graham always said it when I was playing – I was working to be a complete striker. Not like Shearer, but Shearer for me was a complete striker. He wasn’t as beautiful in the way he looked when he played football as Teddy Sheringham, but he was complete. Linking play, left foot, right foot….
“Obviously (I had) more pace than both of them, but that’s what I needed to be, to play at a higher level. That’s what I was always working for. But people talk about my goals more than anything else in my game. ”
It is a pity that so little remains of Wright’s game against Everton in August 1993.
According to Stillman, it was so early in the season that the replay screens at Highbury were still in the process of being fitted, so even those who watched the game live could not quite grasp what Wright had done until they switched on Match Of The Day that evening.
Had Wright’s performance occurred a decade later, there would have been more screens, more angles of both of his goals and how he toyed with a defense that did not really know what to do with him. If you were one of the lucky Arsenal fans at that game, you will know that it saw Wright display the best of his technical ability and intuitive imagination.
If you did not watch it live but have seen the second goal before, you will have one final question: Why did Wright lob Southall rather than blast it?
“Because it wouldn’t have felt beautiful enough,” Wright says, with a laugh.
“If I’d blasted it, I’d have no control over that finish. I’m hoping that it (the ball) goes over to the right-hand side of the goal. If I’d blasted it, Neville Southall and the way he would have covered it, it would have had to have been so precise with a shot that’s so hard.
“It would have been pure luck if it went in. Whereas, to lift it over, it gives me a much better chance of doing it and it’s a much more beautiful goal. Because he was totally helpless. ”
Artistry mixing with ambition. That was Ian Wright for Arsenal on a late summer’s day in 1993.
(Main graphic – photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)