why TfL need look no further for train route’s new name

Illustration: Nathan Daniels

London transport can be a sensitive topic for discussion. This is because despite the fact it remains laughably overpriced and scandalously overcrowded, it’s still nowhere near as bad as transport in the north, where the hourly trams are still powered by sand and where most of the municipal bus network was personally dynamited in a series of overnight raids by Geoffrey Howe in the mid-1980s because, according to his memoirs, he “just felt like it”.

Nonetheless this is still a vast and a significant economic entity. And Transport for London is doing an interesting thing right now. A consultation is under way to choose names for the various London Overground lines, a mess of meandering ribbon pegged out across 113 stations, shuttling 189 million journeys each year through the lateral neighbourhoods of the city, but which is still known, with a kind of shrug, as the Orange Line.

Related: Ian Wright: Home Truths review – a childhood blighted by fear

By the end of next year the nine routes that make up this piece of grudging, piecemeal engineering will have their own names. And here is a good thing that people who like sport can do. There is no acceptable version of this scenario where the Highbury and Islington to West Croydon branch, spread over 13 miles to the east of the city centre, should not be named the Ian Wright Line.

Vote now. Lobby via the appropriate links. Do not let this slide or fail to happen. The most obvious reason is otherwise someone less deserving will get it. We don’t need the Pringles London Gateway Line or the Mayor Sir Jeremy Timeserve-Facedongle Line. We need the Ian Wright Line, swerving through the rich post-industrial shadows of the Ian Wright heartlands: Crystal Palace to the south, Brockley in the centre, Highbury Corner at its northern end.

He has had the skill in his mature years to fold nuggets of analysis in with that warm and genuine love of the game

Mainly we need it because Ian has now reached the status – unasked for, but sorry, that’s just the way it is – of local-to-national treasure. And because he is just a very interesting person, one whose life has spanned a remarkable time and space in the fabric of post-imperial Britain, and which has been lived out almost entirely along these urban staging points.

The reason for saying this here and now is the fact Wright announced this week that he would be leaving his role as co-chief pundit on Match of the Day, which is, for all the change around it, still very much part of the cultural fabric. This is in the first instance a great shame, because he has been very good and very watchable, with the skill in his mature years to fold the nuggets of analysis in with that familiarly warm and genuine love of the game, and to do so in a fast-cut recording where other people are also battling for space and air.

The second reason for writing this here is that I am basically a kind stalker at one remove. Ian was a local hero when I was growing up in the same places more than a decade later. Everyone knew of him through football, even before the ignition at Crystal Palace.

He was, it was said – and I don’t want to know whether this isn’t true – the skinny kid doing keep-ups on the poster for the Metropolitan five-a-side, which everyone entered every year. He played constantly on Hilly Fields, which is now occupied chiefly by people in Hunter wellies carrying small plastic sachets of pedigree dogshit, but which was back in the day the undisputed home of (having your) football (stolen by the big kids) in (a very small part of) south-east London.

There are, of course, wider stories that creep in here, unbidden but unignorable. Wright was born in 1963, a son of Jamaican migrants. This is, lest we forget, only 15 years after the HMT Empire Windrush sailed to Tilbury from Jamaica carrying 500 citizens of the British empire, many of them ex-servicemen and their families.

Generations of people with roots in the Caribbean have made south-east London their home since. It hasn’t always been easy. There was plenty of poverty and racism to go round. Ian would have been 13 years old when the Battle of Lewisham took place, a day in August when local people fought the National Front in the streets around New Cross station.

The young Ian spent those years between Brockley and Honor Oak. These days Rocastle Road sits between the two stations, just across from Turnham Academy, where Sydney Pigden, inspiration to Ian and many others, has his plaque.

From there he took the journey south, trundling down through Forest Hill and Sydenham to Crystal Palace, lured by the repeated offers of yet another trial (further stalker alert: at this point he was working for Tunnel Refineries in Greenwich, near my mum’s house). And, of course, it worked, although Palace was also tough at first. Even that moment of ignition, the brilliant FA Cup final goal three minutes after coming on, aged 26 now and wreathed in a luminous sense of destiny, came after he had twice broken his leg that season.

A year later he headed north up the Orange Line spine, through the docklands and all the way to Highbury, the move that really made him. Seven years at Arsenal ended with that spell under Arsène Wenger where he just seemed to be deliriously happy, where the goals became miniature works of art, the celebrations genuinely funny, in its own way a perfect prep for the entertainer years in retirement.

Change at Surrey Quays for the swerve west towards Television Centre and the start of that 20-year TV and radio career. It has been a flip-book of vehicles and formats, steadily narrowing toward his best role, the current one as reasoned but still agreeably spiky – when he wants to be – sofa-uncle of the BBC’s flagship show. There have been moments here too. Quitting MOTD in 2008 because he disliked being asked to joke and jape a little too much was, in retrospect, a move ahead of its time. What he was saying was: treat me like an equal not a novelty. He came back in 2015 and has been really good in those elder statesman years, a black British pundit who talks and looks the way many people not previously represented talk and look; and more widely someone who has been brilliant at talking about his own journey to this point, about the importance of giving and taking opportunity, about processing anger and hard times, but also using it as jet fuel.

It isn’t hard to understand why he may want to switch gear a little now. But there is still one poignant parting note here that only the hardest heart could fail to take any joy in. Young Ian loved Match of the Day, which was the only football on TV. He has also told the story since of a punishment enacted by his stepfather where he was made to stand and face the wall while it was on, forbidden to turn and watch, an experience so bruising that for years even the sound of the theme tune could give him chills.

It is such a haunting image. But what a pleasure now to see the adult Ian Wright, Match of the Day old hand, closest of pals with the presenters, a much-loved human part of the institution, leaving Graceland on his own terms and in his own time. It feels, from afar, like a hard-earned note of closure, another stopping point in a life well lived. TFL naming department: over to you. We must surely be there by now.


Recommended For You

About the Author: soccernews