Michael Wright played for Aston Villa over a decade-long period, and shares his memories with us over a career well spent at Villa Park.
Follow the writer on Twitter: @VILLAlan54
Born in Ellesmere Port in September 1946, Michael Wright played for Aston Villa over a ten year period between 1963 and 1973 and will be remembered by thousands of long-standing fans as a quick, tough-tackling right-back who initially played under Joe Mercer alongside the likes of Charlie Aitken, Vic Crowe, Ron Wylie, Harry Burrows and John Sleeuwenhoek. His career was brought to an untimely end by a knee injury in his prime, at just 27 years of age.
This week I caught up with Michael and his charming wife Olga, to reflect on just what it was like to play for Aston Villa in the 60’s and 70’s. Michael’s interview gives a fascinating insight into football before the ‘big bucks’ changed the beautiful game into what it is today.
Which football club did you support as a boy growing up near Merseyside?
Although I loved football, I didn’t actually follow a particular team as a boy.
Because my father had played in the same schoolboy team, Ellesmere Port Boys, as Joe Mercer and Stan Cullis, the only team ever mentioned in our house was Aston Villa.
Can you remember your first day at Aston Villa?
I can indeed. I was fifteen and joined Aston Villa straight from Grammar School.
I got on a steam train at Chester and travelled alone to Snow Hill Station in the centre of Birmingham. I had never been to a big city before and had to find my way to Villa Park by myself.
All I had been told was I needed the get on a number 11 bus (outer circle route) and after asking several people where the bus-stop was, I took the bus to Aston, before walking down Trinity Road with my case and eventually being taken to my digs in Witton Road above a shop.
What about signing your first professional contract and how much you were paid?
No, I can’t recall signing anything, I just remember being told that my weekly wage as an apprentice professional would be £14 a week and my digs in Witton Road.
When I turned pro at 17, my pay went up to £20 a week.
Later, as a more established professional, I was paid £50 per week plus bonuses, an additional £10 for a draw or £20 for a win.
You had just under two years as an apprentice before breaking to the first team at sixteen.
Yes, in 1962 I had part of the season in the reserve team and then started playing in the first team in the following season of 1963-64.
My league debut was in early September before my 17th birthday, away at Blackpool.
Once I got into the team, I stayed there – making 35 appearances in that first season.
Can you remember some of the ‘stand out’ Aston Villa team-mates who played in the team with you at that time?
It was quite a good team and we won 4-0 against that Blackpool team, which contained Jimmy Armfield, England captain at the time.
In this side we had an excellent left winger – Harry Burrows – who had one hell of a left foot shot on him. There was also Tony Hately, a centre-forward who was our top goalscorer.
As well as this, there was Phil Woosnam, a Welsh international, Bobby Thompson, the Scottish wing-half, Alan Deakin, an England Under-23 international, John Sleeuwenhoek, the son of a Dutch paratrooper, and of course Charlie Aitken.
But if there was one particular name who was a big help to me out on the pitch, playing at right-half just in front of me, that was Vic Crowe, a good, solid, hard professional.
Who was the Aston Villa manager at this time, and what kind of influence did he have on your career?
It was Joe Mercer. He was a big influence for me at that time.
He had been a famous player himself, and after his time as manager at Aston Villa he was appointed as manager of the excellent Manchester City team of the late sixties, where he worked with Malcolm Allison as his assistant.
In your entire Aston Villa career Michael, you’re credited as scoring one goal for the first steam – can you remember that goal?
I can remember it well and I tell my Grandson about this now, because one team I really love to watch play these days is Manchester City, and it was City I scored against at Villa Park.
Standing at just five feet and eight inches, and one of the smallest players on the pitch, I scored a header and we beat them 3-1.
Ironically, by then, Joe Mercer had become the manager at Manchester City!
In your playing days and before all-seater stadiums, there were often anywhere between 50,000 to 60,000 supporters on the terraces at Villa Park. What was it like to play in front of such huge crowds?
Well, to run out in front of crowds of that size, it was great, and the Villa Park atmosphere was tremendous.
To be honest though, once the whistle went, it was 100% concentration and you really didn’t notice it as much when you were actually playing.
So, how good were Aston Villa at that time?
We were a decent team, but unfortunately the Aston Villa board of directors were really old men at that time. They used come to games in spats, it was like Dickensian times and unfortunately one summer they sold our training ground in Trinity Road to building developers for £80,000, and suddenly Aston Villa Football Club had nowhere to train!
We had to go ‘cap in hand’ to places like HP Sauce and Dunlop to train on their grounds. It was a terrible time for the club and they also sold Tony Hateley and Harry Burrows as well who were our two top goalscorers.
After that we couldn’t score a goal, it was all defend, defend, defend! This remained the same until Doug Ellis bought the club and eventually built Bodymoor Heath and bought some better forwards.
There were a lot of good wingers in your time playing for the club Michael, the likes of George Best at Man United, Mike Summerbee at Man City and Eddie Gray at Leeds, plus many others. Can you tell us who your most difficult opponent was at that time, in the mid to late sixties?
I would have to say Peter Thompson of Liverpool, an England international.
A great left winger, he used to hug the touchline, had immaculate ball control and would come at you at great speed. That was always a difficult game for me.
During your 10 years at the Villa how many times did you get offered (and sign) a new contract with the club?
I know this will sound crazy, but I don’t remember any contracts or signing anything. I was told how much I was going to get and was very naive from a business point of view, there were no agents in those days and I just accepted that I was playing at Aston Villa, a great club, in the first team and just wanted to play for the team.
Did any other club ever come in and try to sign you and take you away from the Villa?
Well, Joe Mercer after he left Aston Villa, is quoted as talking about me and said that Bill Nicholson the Spurs manager wanted to sign me.
Joe was our manager at that time, so wouldn’t let me go. Then when Joe was at Man City they were interested in me, but opted for Tony Book instead, who was very well known to Malcolm Allison at the time.
They had a great team and went on to win the Football League and the FA Cup in the late sixties.
What would you say was your greatest achievement in the game Michael?
Perhaps my proudest time was the two years I played for the England Youth team when we won what was called the Under 18 UEFA Tournament, at age 17.
We beat Spain 4-0 in the final in the Dutch national stadium in Amsterdam. Some of my team-mates from that team, who went on to have great careers were Harry Redknapp, David Sadler (Man United) John Hollins (Chelsea) and Howard Kendall (Everton).
The history books tell us Michael, that your career was brought to a premature end far too early at the age of 27, after just 10 years in the game with Aston Villa. What can you tell us about your injury?
Two years before the end, I had a cartilage removed from one knee because the knee would ‘lock up’ in the middle of a game and I’d have to leave the pitch.
Then I had two cartilages out of the other knee as well This in time of course causes Arthritis, because of bone rubbing on bone and the result was a lot of pain and swelling.
The surgical techniques of today just weren’t around in those days and many players’ careers ended in this way.
So, suddenly you were faced with a future life without football, but the club granted you a testimonial match because of your excellent service over 10 years didn’t they?
Yes, we played Stoke City at Villa Park and there was a crowd of over 16,000 which was an excellent turnout when compared to other similar matches at the time.
I have Vic Crowe to thank for that. He made a case for me to the board and I was granted the match, which was very important for me.
Peter Shilton and Alan Hudson played for Stoke, but I couldn’t play myself due to my knees.
Finally Michael, you had to build a new life away from football. Aston Villa fans will be delighted to hear that you made a big success of this, can you tell us about it?
I was given an opportunity to start a career in the motor trade with British Car Auctions in Castle Bromwich and eventually after working hard and learning the trade, I was promoted to manager of the site.
Later I was offered an opportunity to run a bigger site at Measham, which is still a successful and ever growing business today.
I was there for about 10 years and then left to start my own business, also in the motor trade. This went very well and has given us a good retirement.
Finally Michael, who is your favourite player in the current Villa team?
Without a doubt John McGinn!
He never ceases to give 100% for the team and never stops creating havoc for the opposition.
A great little player and a real bargain by today’s prices.
Michael Wright now enjoys a happy retirement living in rural Warwickshire with Olga, his wife of some 48 years. They love spending time with their grandchildren Cameron and Cressy. Michael and Olga also love to go salmon fishing together in Scotland, which is an activity they both participate in, as often as they can.