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Saluting a man who does more than look after No.1

HAVING played for seven different clubs in England, won 31 caps for Northern Ireland and enjoyed a coaching career that has seen him drill goalkeepers for his country, bring through youngsters in his hometown of Ballyclare and win the first major cup in 130 years for St Johnstone, it is fair to say Tommy Wright knows football, from the grassroots to the glory, inside-out.

Tommy Wright and wife Ann lost their only son Andrew when he was just five. The memory continues to drive the St Johnstone manager on. Picture: SNS
Tommy Wright and wife Ann lost their only son Andrew when he was just five. The memory continues to drive the St Johnstone manager on. Picture: SNS

It is not just his schooling in all levels of the game, however, that his long-term friend, Michael O'Neill, believes has been instrumental in the 50-year-old's rise to prominence.

Wright, for better or worse, is a graduate with honours from the university of life. He went through a frightening number of knee operations as a player that cost him seven years of his career and left him particularly well-acquainted with the frustrations of watching from the sidelines as others took his place between the posts.

O'Neill first got to know him 26 years ago when he arrived at Newcastle United on trial from Linfield and was looking for someone to give him a lift to and from his digs. At that stage, by his own admission, Wright was better-known for serving pints behind the bar in a Ballyclare pub called The Grange than stopping shots on the field of play.

All that experience adds up, though. Wright understands the unique worries of the professional footballer from those lying alone in hospital beds with their bodies in pieces to those singled out for rough treatment by their managers and wishing away their lives on the bench or in the stands.

Anyone who has spent long hours in licensed premises can testify to the insight that provides into all manner of human behaviour, too, and O'Neill insists there is no-one better than Wright at finding common ground with different characters and moulding them into the kind of solid, cohesive unit responsible for sending Perth into the mother of all benders over the weekend.

Of course, Wright also views the bubble in which he lives and works with a certain perspective. He and his wife Ann lost their only child, Andrew, aged five in November 1994 when he was at Nottingham Forest. Born prematurely and left brain-damaged following a bout of jaundice, his death drove Wright on through the tougher times of his playing career and he admitted recently that Andrew was the first person he thought of when his side defeated Aberdeen at Ibrox to reach the William Hill Scottish Cup final.

Wright knows what makes people tick. That, more than anything, is what O'Neill believes has made him such a popular success at St Johnstone and a man now attracting interest from elsewhere.

"Everyone talks about knowledge of the game, but Tommy has a knowledge of people," said the current Northern Ireland manager and former St Johnstone player. "His ability as a man-manager is really, really good. That game on Saturday was not about tactics and that was one of the good things about it. You had two teams trying to win. St Johnstone just looked like a team that believed they could come out on top and were going to do everything required to do that when they got themselves in front. That came from the manager and the relationship he has with those players.

"We live in an era in which coaches and managers let their egos get the better of them at times. Tommy is a very, honest straightforward guy and he manages with a real, commonsense approach.

"He has seen a lot and he understands. He suffered a lot of difficult injuries as a player and knows how players feel in that situation. He's seen the good and the bad of how managers treat players during the course of their careers.

"I wouldn't like to get into an argument with him and he is no soft touch in any shape or form, but he believes there is a way in which he should treat his players and he lets them know what he expects of them.

"Look at where Tommy has gone for players. He signed Michael O'Halloran after he left Bolton and brought James Dunne up from Stevenage. At the end of the day, it was Tommy that brought Stevie May into the team after a couple of loan spells and played him when other managers had questions. The belief shown by players on the field often comes from their manager showing they believe in them in the first place."

Wright, an All-Ireland cross-country champion before he quit running to start playing amateur football at centre-forward, has earned a reputation as a stand-up kind of guy. O'Neill has certainly learned the value of trust during his time in management and views his countryman as someone to hang your hat on. He installed him as goalkeeping coach at Shamrock Rovers and also brought him into the international fold in the same position when he took over the Northern Ireland job in 2012.

Wright wanted to carry on serving his country even after he had taken over as manager at McDiarmid Park following Steve Lomas's defection to Millwall last summer, and O'Neill admits he was forced to have a word in his ear.

"When I brought him into the Northern Ireland set-up, I knew I was getting someone who would offer a lot more than just being a goalkeeping coach," stated O'Neill.

"He was never like some goalkeepers, focused purely on their position. I think that was because he had excelled as a runner in his youth and had a broader interest in - not to mention knowledge of - the game.

"He was going to try to continue with the Northern Ireland thing when he was offered the manager's job at St Johnstone because he enjoyed it and didn't want to give it up. I actually said to him 'look, Tommy. You will have so much on your plate as a manager'. He eventually made that decision and I fully supported it because I felt he had to devote everything to the job to have a chance at Scottish Premiership level.

"It wasn't difficult for me to tell him that. Sure, you want people around you that you respect and trust, but I was delighted he got the chance and he has done a fantastic job.

"When I've had him, he has been great for me, but I have always known that it wasn't going to be something that would last forever. To say that Tommy has worked hard to get where he is would be an understatement and I am delighted he has gone on to great things."

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