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Trying to make your way in football, despite being in the shadow of a famous father or brother can be hard enough, but when a player has both those things, the intensity of the shadow doubles and the shade is much more difficult to escape from. Just such a scenario faced Bradley Wright-Phillips as he launched into a footballing career hot on the heels of elder sibling Shaun, and father, the legendary Arsenal striker Ian Wright. In a race to catch up with the success of others in his family, Bradley always seemed to be the one lagging behind, never quite hitting the same heights.
Starting out at Manchester City, his debut from the substitutes’ bench against Middlesbrough brought a goal in his first four minutes of action for the club, but rather than the strike heralding a glorious career in sky blue, it was virtually the pinnacle of his time with the club. Playing out the remainder of the 2004-05 season, he’d make another 16 appearances without finding the back of the net again. The following term, 23 appearances brought another single strike, and a move to Southampton, as City decided he wasn’t going to make the grade, taking half a million pounds of the Saints money in exchange. The £21 million paid by Chelsea for his elder brother the season before would have done little for any self-confidence in the fraternal battle for supremacy.
Another debut goal was an ideal start, and although the Championship standard of defending appeared less of an obstacle to his goalscoring, the younger Wright-Phillips enjoyed a turbulent time on the south coast. Twenty-five goals in 121 appearances was hardly excessive, and a couple of brushes with the law, are probably more memorable. Time then spent, first, with Plymouth Argyle and then Charlton Athletic, before a brief loan spell with Brentford, skipping between the Championship and League One seemed to indicate that his career was heading in the wrong direction. At the end of the 2012-13 season though, then in his mid-twenties and at a crossroads in his career, came an offer to move to the MLS. Joining the New York Red Bulls, it seemed like the last chance to resurrect a career on the slide. In the land of opportunity, however, can there be a more significant location for such a pursuit?
Perhaps it was the distance from the shadow of his family members, perhaps it was just the culture apparent in the Big Apple. Perhaps it was here was the time and place, ideal for a now much more mature player. Whether it was one of those, a combination of all three, or something else entirely, Wright-Phillips found a home in New York and the MLS.
There seemed a strange theme circulating around the Red Bulls’ recruitment policy at the time, with younger siblings of more celebrated brothers taken to the club. Whether there had been some theory of inherited gene ability guiding the hand of the club is unclear, but with John Rooney, younger brother of Wayne, and the Brazilian Digão, who was a long way behind his elder sibling Kaká, the arrival of Wright-Phillips slotted right into the formula.
Joining as the 2013 term was coming to an end, he still contributed to the club winning the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular season record, but it was the following season that really marked out the Lewisham-born forward as a force in the game. Wearing a shirt bearing 99, he began a goal quest that would surpass the number on his back in less than five full seasons and would go on to create a legend for himself with the club’s fans.
Scoring 31 goals in just 37 appearances, he starred in a Red Bulls team that went all the way to the Eastern Conference Final before losing out to New England Revolution. On the way, a hat-trick in April made him the first English-born player to achieve the feat in the MLS, and in August a brace against Montreal Impact saw him past the club’s record goals scored for a season. Into the play-offs, more goals drove Red Bulls on, but in the first leg of the Final, a seemingly petulant moment saw him receive a second yellow during the play-offs condemning him to suspension in the second leg.
Despite the Red Bulls losing out, it was a still a season of personal triumph for Wright-Phillips, as individual awards flooded in. The MLS Golden Boot was secured for his remarkably prolific goals record. He was included in the MLS Best XI selection and the MLS All-Star team. His club made him their MVP and he won Castrol Index Top MLS Player award. For a player who, a few seasons earlier, had been toiling in the third tier of English football, seemingly on the road to nowhere fast, it was a remarkable turnaround.
Unlike the early debut goals he had enjoyed with a couple of clubs in England, before his star dimmed into invisibility, however, in New York, the start heralded a time of prolonged success. Another Supporters’ Shield followed in 2015, and the following term another Golden Bot was won, along with selection to that year’s MLS Best XI. In 2017 and 2018, the club recognised the value of his goals by making him their MVP in successive seasons, and in the latter of those two they again won the Supporters’ Shield and Wright-Phillips was selected for both the MLS All-Star and CONCACAF Best XI.
To the end of the 2018 season, across all games for the Red Bulls, he had scored 124 goals in just 210 games. Perhaps his most famous landmark came in July 2018, when his winning goal in the 1-0 victory over DC United took him to the century of strikes. He had achieved the landmark in record time, breaking the previous best by some sixteen games. Although there would surely have been a temptation for the shirt number to be upped by one, it was resisted and Wright-Phillips still carries 99 on his back. The occasion was marked however by a club decision to ‘retire’ the shirt after his time with the club was completed, so that no-one else would ever carry it again.
For a club that has seen a number of celebrity players don their jersey over the years, it’s significant that Bradley Wright-Phillips is seen as the outstanding star of the club. Lothar Matthäus, Thierry Henry, Youri Djorkaeff and Colombian striker Juan Pablo Ángel are just a few of the luminaries that he appears to have surpassed, the latter of which was also the player whose season’s goalscoring record Wright-Phillips had eclipsed.
What may mark a more personal achievement, however was, when in 2015, his brother, Shaun, also joined the club. Reversing the trend that had been very much the case in the early part of Bradley’s career, however, now it was the younger of the siblings who was the star, and Shaun’s single goal in more than two dozen games seemed to brook no argument to the newly found status of Bradley. The little brother had stepped up into the big time.