Bailey Wright Wright Wright

by John Green

 

It was on the nine msn news on the desktop of the family computer that I first saw the report. Bailey Wright was tipped to be the final addition to the Australian squad for the World Cup. Bailey Wright, the young Aussie from Langwarrin, just outside Melbourne, who plays for English soccer club Preston North End. Preston competes in League One, the third tier of the Football Association.

I was thrilled. Last January when I was in England I saw Preston play six times; three times at home and three times away. I had contacted the club before I left home to make arrangements for me to interview Bailey for the Footy Almanac website. And so it was that I caught the bus to Springfields, Preston’s training venue at Lea, on the outskirts of the city, to meet Bailey in a small dressing room at the facility with press officer Stephen Watson sitting in. Try doing that with one of the Premier League giants.

At the age of 21 Bailey has already played over a hundred games for the Lilywhites. He is a regular fixture as a central defender and received the club’s Young Player Of The Year award in the 2012/13 season. He judges the ball in the air to perfection, lays off effectively to teammates and plays the game with a maturity far beyond his years.

The local fans love him. They even have a Bailey Wright Wright Wright chant on the terraces.

We spoke about his history as a junior at Langwarrin, Mornington and Dandenong Thunder and his brief tenure in the Australian under-17 team. He was overlooked by the Australian Institute Of Sport and the A-League clubs and felt that his career prospects in the round ball code in his home country were extremely limited. Bailey took a chance and travelled to England with his father at the age of 17 for trials with Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End. Preston were impressed with what they saw and offered him a contract. He worked his way up through the ranks and made the leap to playing professional football in England.

Bailey told me that playing for your country is “the highest level anyone can play at.”

“That’s the target. I don’t know whether it will come true or not, but I’m going to work as hard as I can.”

But there was very little interest shown by the Socceroo selectors. This changed when national team coach Ange Postecoglou visited Europe later in the month to watch Aussie hopefuls strut their stuff for clubs big and small in various leagues across the Continent. My last Preston game took place at Coral Windows Stadium, the home of Bradford City. Postecoglou was in the audience to watch Bailey  and his more experienced teammate Neil Kilkenny, who made 14 appearances for the national team between 2006 and 2011.

Bailey wasn’t selected in Postecoglou’s initial 30-man squad. Without knowing too much about the players who were given the nod, I informed everyone who would listen that Bailey should have been there. After all, in League One in England he competes at a much higher standard than most of the other players, including, I would argue, those who play in the A-League.

Then last month I learned the shattering news that Bailey, along with five Preston clubmates, had been arrested by police at the behest of Britain’s National Crime Agency for alleged spot-match fixing. Spot- match fixing is when players are paid by gamblers to do something specific during a match such as earning a red card or giving away a penalty so that punters with inside knowledge can cash in by betting on those outcomes.

I was astonished. Why would a promising young player with national team aspirations risk everything? Bailey is on good money at Preston with the possibility of even higher earnings in the future as his stocks rise. Bigger clubs are going to come knocking if Bailey continues on his present trajectory.

All six Preston players were released without being charged. This brought to mind the shambolic nature of ASADA’s investigations into the Essendon players’ drug scandal here in Australia. On what evidence were the Preston players arrested? Was there not enough evidence to charge them? If not, then why were their names made public? The club believes its players have no case to answer and has continued to play them.

In the meantime Australian defenders such as Rhys Williams and Trent Sainsbury were going down like sideshow skittles at a country fair. Postecoglou was running out of defensive options for his World Cup campaign. Bailey received the phonecall informing him of his selection in the 30-man squad, to be whittled down to the 23 who will actually take part in the carnival in Brazil.

Bailey was referred to as the ‘World Cup bolter’ by the Australian press. There were two action photos of him in the Herald-Sun, as well as another one from his junior days at Langwarrin.

Bailey was both surprised and elated. The club was delighted for him, although his ascension came at a cost. Their number six would have to make himself available for Australia’s warm–up match against South Africa in Sydney on May 26. The complicating factor was that Preston, by virtue of finishing fifth on the ladder, was involved in the semi-final play-offs for a spot in the Championship, the division above League One. Wolverhampton Wanderers and Brentford finished first and second respectively and booked their places in the Championship for the 2014/15 season.  Preston was involved in a four-way fight with Leyton Orient, Rotherham and Peterborough for the last promotion place.

Bailey spoke to me in his interview of the strong belief at Preston that they don’t belong in League One. They see themselves as Championship material at least. And after that, anything is possible. Perhaps a return to the realm of the gods, the Premier League, where the club has not appeared since 1961.

Preston was playing fourth-placed Rotherham in a home and away tie. If they overcame the Millers they would meet the winner of Leyton Orient and Peterborough in the play-off final at Wembley on May 25. If Preston won through Bailey wouldn’t be available for selection. He would be in Sydney with the Socceroos squad.

Preston has an unfortunate record in play-offs. Supporters I met during my sojourn in England always expressed their hope that they would finish first or second in the present season and avoid the play-offs altogether. Since the system was introduced in the 1986/87 season Preston has appeared in 16 of them and has never made it through to a higher division. Not even once. It is a tale of woe that makes Collingwood’s collywobbles seem like a record of unparalleled sporting excellence. Most heartbreaking of all, they played in the Championship from 2001 to 2010 and almost made it back to the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League on two occasions. They fell in play-off finals at Wembley to Bolton Wanderers in 2001 and West Ham in 2005. Preston’s only promotions under the present system have come after they won the titles in League Two in 1996 and League One in 2000, stepping straight up without the need to play off for the final promotion ticket. The irony is that the points that Preston earned this season in finishing fifth would have been enough for them to earn automatic promotion last season.

Rotherham hails from South Yorkshire. They were promoted to League One after finishing second in League Two in 2013/14. Preston and Rotherham were evenly matched, having drawn with each other on the two occasions they met during the regular season. The first of the play-offs also resulted in a draw after Preston’s Joe Garner equalised with a stunning volley at Deepdale, Preston’s home ground. The return bout was scheduled for New York Stadium on the following Thursday evening.

I saw New York Stadium when my train passed by on a journey from Sheffield to Leeds. Why is Rotherham’s headquarters known as New York Stadium? While the club might be hoping for sponsorship from some wealthy businessman from the Big Apple, the land that the stadium is built on is in a section of the town that was originally known as New York. Rotherham left their former home ground of Millmoor after a dispute with the stadium owner. The club decided to build a new stadium at the former site of the Guest and Chrome Steelworks, which coincidentally manufactured the iconic fire hydrants for the American city of New York. I had originally been scheduled to see Preston play Rotherham at Deepdale on January 4 until the game was rescheduled to allow the North Enders to play its third round FA Cup tie against Championship club Ipswich.

I ate my breakfast on Friday morning, Melbourne time, knowing that Preston was going into battle with Rotherham as I tucked into my Sultana Bran. The winner would play Leyton Orient on May 25. I drove to school and endured a staff meeting before welcoming my Year 3 and 4 students into the classroom at 8:30am. I opened the laptop, called the roll, collected their homework books and told the kids to prepare for their weekly spelling test. As they took their places at their desks I went online to see how the Lilywhites fared. I was sure they would be on Foxtel next weekend. And if they won through to the Championship, the club was sure to release a DVD of the season highlights. What glorious possibilities were at my fingertips. Here’s Preston’s official website.

Rotherham 3 Preston North End 1.

I conducted the spelling test but had to do it all over again as I provided the wrong list of words to one of the groups.

Later on I had the opportunity to read about what happened. Preston actually took the lead through Paul Gallagher, but the home team replied with two strikes of their own before half time. Two of Rotherham’s shots hit the post before bouncing into the net. Preston hit the post a few times and the ball rolled along the line to the keeper. It was one of those promotion play-off nights for Preston. In his post-match press conference manager Simon Grayson stated his belief that the disappointing result would spur them onto greater heights and hopefully first or second place next season. Captain John Welsh was in tears.

As for Bailey, it’s time to fly south to the Socceroos training camp at Terrigal on the New South Wales central coast. His task now is to get himself on the plane to South America by shining in the training camp and in the warm-up match against the South Africans.

The Australian squad will be cut from 30 to 27 before it departs for Brazil on May 28. It will be reduced further to 23 participants on June 2.

I would gladly get out of bed at two in the morning to watch Bailey Wright in green and gold as he takes on the might of Spain and the Netherlands with his compatriots. It would be compensation for another missed opportunity for Preston. I can only hope that when Bailey gets his opportunity to play in the upper echelons of English soccer that he will still be wearing the white shirt of Preston North End.

 

Check out John Green’s Bailey Wright interview HERE

 

Comments

  1. Peter_B says:

    Great stuff John. There will be no more “bolter Bailey Wright” or “dark horse” on this website.
    All Editors are reminded that he is henceforth exclusively known as “the Almanac’s Own Bailey Wright”.
    Any offenders letting other titles slip past will be punished with a Richmond season pass.
    Can I take it from your article that the 6 PNE players arrested are now in the clear, and that there will be no further action if that is the case? Good news if I read it right. It always seemed illogical as there are no viable markets for spot bets in League 1. A hundred quid wager would raise the red lights in bookies offices.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Well done John great stuff and ditto , PB above

  3. “The Almanac’s own Bailey Wright” has a certain ring to it.

  4. Michael Viljoen says:

    Great article, John.
    Over here in Cameroon, everyone is gearing up for the World Cup. All it needs is for Cameroon to top their group, and for Australia to finish second, and then they’ll meet each other in the second round. Odds of this are about 5000 to one. At match’s end Bailey might swap his shirt with Samuel Eto’o.
    Michael V., Yaounde.

  5. Wonderful victory by the Socceroos in 2 legs over the last week to qualify for the World Cup in Russia 2018. No team has ever played more games or travelled further to qualify! A squad of Australians playing in 16 different leagues! Amazing – the world is your oyster with talent and determination. The world’s second biggest sporting stage after the Olympics. Great achievement by Bailey Wright from Langwarrin to be playing on the same stage as Messi and Ronaldo (sorry no Italy – only Socceroos!). But would Bailey still be languishing at the Lilywhites without his Almanac publicity agent? Brilliant.

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