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An Interview with former Aberdeen full back Stephen Wright

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Former Dons full back Stephen Wright won two international caps in his time at Pittodrie such was the high standard of his performances in a Red shirt. He was part of the Dons side which was pipped to the league on the last day of the season against Rangers at Ibrox and also involved in the play-off matches which ensured the Dons safety in 1994-95.

Stephen speaks to Scotzine’s Chief Feature’s writer Sean Graham about his career with the Dons and beyond and how he is enjoying his role as Head of Youth Development at Dunfermline.

Stephen, you had come into the Aberdeen team which had won the Cup Double the season before did you think that this Dons side could have gone on to bigger and better things the following season?

Yes, I had watched them winning the double as I had just broken into the team, I also watched Eoin Jess break into the side and he was used in both cup finals. I knew that the team were going to go on to bigger things after that because we were a fantastic team and it was a lucky time to be coming through as a player.

Coming into the side you still had players like Willie Miller, Alex McLeish, Brian Irvine, Stewart McKimmie around you as well as a top quality goalkeeper in Theo Snelders, did this make it easy for you having these quality players around you , Did you look to any of these guys for advice?

I think just by training with them every day and also the management team of Alex Smith Jocky Scott and Drew Jarvie were great also. It was a good time to be a player coming through because the experienced players were great with the young ones. We had a really good mix of experience and youth, I learned so much just by watching Alex, Stewart and Willie in training being a defender and I know that Eoin Jess and Scott Booth learned a lot from the strikers and with Drew and Jocky being great strikers in their day also, it was a great help to them.

It was a good batch of young players coming through at the time, there was Eoin, Scott and Gary Smith who came through a bit later and Michael Watt in goals and before that there was Graham and Gregg Watson, players like that also coming through and I am sure the experienced players were looking over their shoulders.

I was lucky enough when I made my debut at Aberdeen, Stewart McKimmie was injured and I played right back and it was a compliment to me when Stewart was fit again that Alex Smith put him to left back. Alex Smith kept his word and kept the younger ones in as he had faith in them.

You don’t know how the young kids are going to be until you actually have to throw them in and it is a case of sink or swim.

I know that Alex and Jocky did that the season previously when they won the cups, they had put Eoin in and he did well but you don’t know that until your hand has been forced and it is time to do it but I suppose he had faith in our ability as well.

Despite a poor season in the cups and a European exit, Aberdeen pushed Rangers all the way for the title in 91, going into that last league match at Ibrox, did the players believe they could win it?

We had gone on a fantastic run of about 16 games unbeaten and I remember it was the penultimate game at Pittodrie and we heard that Rangers had been beaten at Fir Park as we came off the pitch and we knew that we only needed a point at Ibrox. I didn’t think of the enormity of it all until years later, when you look back and think what a chance we had to actually win the league that day. Looking at how things transpired throughout the years.

There was no reason for us to think we were not going to win the league that day but there you go!

After Mark Hateley’s thump on Michael Watt, do you feel that this unsettled Michael for the rest of the match? Losing 2-0 at Ibrox that day, the Dons had been accused of bottling it; do you feel that this was the case?

Absolutely not! I am sure that was an early tactic of Rangers that day! They knew that Theo was injured and they wanted to give Michael an early dunt but if you look at the game, we had two or three great chances to take the lead. A lot of people wondered if we had bottled it or Alex Smith changed the formation that had nothing to do with it, we just didn’t take our chances on the day and then Rangers scored.

We just did not take our chances on the day and then Rangers scored which actually was a great cross from Mark Walters and a fantastic header from Mark Hateley.

Even after the first goal we still had chances and maybe on another day we could have won it. I don’t think that you can read anything into it as we were just probably unlucky that day and to be fair to Rangers they were decimated with injuries and suspensions.

What was the mood in the dressing room like after that?

Actually at that time Rangers had been moving dressing rooms and were getting chanced in portacabins and so that was even worse as you could hear everything that was going on out side with the fans etc and I remember Alex, Drew and Jocky all looking pig sick but I remember thinking to myself, maybe we’ll get this close again next season or the season after that, but maybe that was the naivety of being young but maybe it hit the older players more because of the enormity of it all and they might never get that kind of chance again, whereas being a young player and being naive, I thought I would get more chances to do it in the seasons ahead.

Do you think that Alex Smith and the team suffered as a result of losing the title? Should Alex Smith have been given more time at Pittodrie?

Yes, definately he should have been given more time! He had a few bad results one of the seasons and he lost his job but I think that coincided with the fact that Willie Miller was coming to the end of his playing days and we had lost a few games.

Now I don’t know whether it was just a progression with people thinking that Willie was going to be taking over as manager, I don’t know if that speeded up Alex’s departure but hindsight is a great thing and you can look back now and say no way that Alex should have lost his job but circumstances obviously dictated that and at the time the board obviously felt that they had to make a change and I think looking back it was the wrong decision.

The 1994-95 season was one of the worst seasons in the history of Aberdeen Football Club, not only did the club go out of the Scottish Cup to Stenhousemuir but they also went out of Europe to Skonto Riga on away goals and flirted with relegation, how difficult a season was this for you?

That was really bad! I think when Willie Miller had taken over, to be fair to Willie, quite a few of the experienced boys had left, big Alex (McLeish) had gone to Motherwell and the likes of Jim Bett and Robert Connor, the good experienced players, they had left as well it was a really strong nucleolus of the team that had left and it was going to take Willie a bit of time to bring in the players that he wanted but that is not taking away from the fact that we were poor that season and we should have been good enough to beat the teams that you have mentioned and from going from a high of almost winning the league to almost relegation was really disappointing.

The Dons saved themselves with two play-off wins against Dunfermline, what was that like knowing those matches could make or break the Dons season?

It was! I can remember coming back up the road on the bus from Dunfermline after the second match when we knew that was us safe it was great but deep down I was thinking I cannot believe we were celebrating staying in the league! A club like Aberdeen who have been celebrating staying in the league, just didn’t sit right but we went out and did the job against Dunfermline, it was a nightmare at the time but we went out and done it….in fact I got married the day before the home game against Dunfermline at Pittodrie …what had happened was I had organised my wedding a year and a half before the wedding, as you do, then when it came to that season, I knew I was getting married on a set day and then the SFA had brought out the fixtures saying that the relegation play-off’s would be the 20th of May but little did I know that Aberdeen would be involved in a relegation play-off when I was organising my wedding! So my memories of the two legged game against Dunfermline are my memories of getting married as well that weekend, so it was kind of highs and lows.

Both happy occasions although I wasn’t allowed any glasses of champagne or bottles of beer on my wedding day, it was all worth it because you have won the next day at Pittodrie and then we won the away game down at East End Park, so it was good.

You left Pittodrie to move to Rangers in the summer, do you have happy memories of your time at Aberdeen Your time at Ibrox was marred by injury, what memories do you have of your spell at Ibrox?

Moving to Ibrox in the first place was a compliment to me that Rangers were wanting to sign me when I was in an Aberdeen team that wasn’t doing too well but it was good for myself that Rangers were watching me and there was another couple of clubs in England watching me, so signing for Rangers was a big highlight and meeting some of the players who were at Ibrox at that time was a big highlight for me as well.

Did anyone ever talk to you about the Aberdeen-Rangers rivalry as you had played for both clubs? (Did you ever get abuse coming back)

You expect it going from a club like Aberdeen to Rangers and it is the same when you are at any club when you have rivals you expect stick when you go back and I did get stick when I went back but its nothing that you can’t handle as a professional footballer, you just get on with it. You have got to turn it into a positive, if they are giving you stick then I suppose it’s a sign of respect that maybe you made your mark when you were there for them to give you stick and you may be worried if you went back and they never mentioned a word, so in a way you kind of expect it. Davie Robertson experienced it before myself and then I had experienced it after I had gone to Rangers.

It is a different generation now and I look back on my Aberdeen days as my happiest times as a player and I played most consistently there and was more injury free because obviously I was injured quite a bit in the rest of my career, so I have lots of good memories of Aberdeen, obviously my wife is from Aberdeen and we have still got family there and I know working in the youth department at Dunfermline how highly regarded Aberdeen’s youth set up is held, I know it is a fantastic club.

But you are right, Ricky Foster did the exact same last year, he went to Rangers and he has come back but to be fair to him he has knuckled down and now he’s captain and that has brought him added responsibility as well but I think the fans realise that you are working hard and doing everything for the club they just forget these things.

You also tried your luck down south with Wolves, Bradford and latterly Scunthorpe did you enjoy your English experience?

That was great, I really enjoyed that! I went down to Bradford, lots of players had left Rangers at the end of the season after Walter Smith resigned, Stuart McCall had gone to Bradford first and Paul Jewell was the manager that took me down to Bradford and I had a fantastic two years there, the first year we got promotion, it would be the Championship now but it was the First Division then and we got automatic promotion into the Premier Division, so that was a great experience to go down and sample English football.

When I left Bradford, I came back to Dundee United when Alex Smith was the manager and I had played for the team but I was picking up a lot of injuries then and Alex had got me involved with the reserves and going to watch some games and the reserves and some players, so I was getting used to actually studying the game and watching players so that gave me the appetite to do it and Alex was always at me to do my coaching badges when I was still playing, so that was a great thing to do then as well it was just a natural progression.

Being at Rangers and being involved at the various clubs you have been in your career as well as on the international scene, did you have an idea that you wanted to go into coaching when you finished playing football?

That was good, Alex had left Dundee United and I was getting to a decision of what to do as I was getting too many problem with my knee and I thought the next progression was to go into coaching full time so I managed to get involved at Rangers through George Adams as I had known George from my time at Aberdeen when I used to go up as a school boy and George Adams and Lenny Taylor were the coaches, so George came over at Rangers and he got me involved in watching the community programme at Rangers and so I was in there and that is when I started to go up the ladder, I was at the community then I worked my way up to the Academy at Murray Park as well so that was the next progression.

What was your opinion of the set up at Murray Park -is there enough talent coming through there?

I think it does take time, the lads who are now coming through to the first team, the ones that George brought in many years ago when he was still there, I was watching some of the young lads the likes of Gregg Wylde, Kyle Hutton ,Jamie Ness and Danny Wilson, we had them at 16 year olds so they are now obviously getting the fruits of that but it does take an awful long time to get these kids through but Murray Park is a fantastic place to learn your trade and the kids have every opportunity to do it but that was a good kind of learning curve obviously for me as well working with the kids.

In your role as Head of Youth Development at Dunfermline, have you seen any real talent coming through the ranks to make the first team?

That has been really good. Jim had taken me as the first team coach when he got the job and I enjoyed that and then obviously I have shifted to the side a little bit and taken on the Head of Youth and its great, I picked up quite a few bits and bobs when I was at Rangers and as I have said before it’s a really long process, I have been in the job two years now and it really takes, 5, 6, 7 years to try and leave your mark and hopefully get players through.

The kids that you get in have got potential but whether they get the opportunity or whether they can maintain it is another thing but you have got to try and develop them and you have got to try and be patient with kids, I can go back to my days at Aberdeen when I was a 15 year old school boy form and Alex Ferguson used to come down to train us once a month in Glasgow and the way that he has looked after his young players through the years is something that you try to take on board yourself, Alex Smith did the same at Aberdeen so hopefully you can pick up wee bits and bobs along the way.

The game in Scotland has taken a battering recently with all our clubs going out of Europe, although Celtic have been reinstated, what do you think can be done to help bring our game back from its knees?

I think we really need investment in young kids coming through, I think that clubs could maybe put some more resources and efforts into youth but I think at the top I think something has to be done at the top because when Alex Smith was blooding all us young kids at that time, it was never in any doubt that he was going to get sacked after 3, 4, 5, or 6 games but I think now there is more pressure on managers to actually blood young kids at the moment because there is such a cut throat world at the top and I don’t know whether we need to change the leagues and make them bigger so that there is more emphasis on getting the kids a chance, so I think right from the top it needs to change to give the managers a wee bit more freedom to play the kids so hopefully that can happen and hopefully clubs can invest a bit more time and resources in development.

It doesn’t stop Sir Alex Ferguson from doing it! He has been doing it for years and years and he has rebuilt his team so many times but to blood the kids in you need the right players around about them to help them I think that’s where Aberdeen have struggled over the past few years, they have got really good young kids coming through the system but they have maybe not had the right experienced players to guide them through whereas if you look at the players we had at Aberdeen that you have mentioned before, Alex Ferguson has always had really good experienced players to help these kids come through at the same time, he did the same at Manchester United players like Beckham came through but he had the experience of Cantona, Pallister and Bruce, so I think you need good experienced players allied to the young ones to give them that opportunity.

Do you think enough is being done at youth level to help encourage kids to go and play football? What changes would you like to see in our game Stephen for the future?

I think the SFA are working hard and they are changing things but I just think that it is a society problem and the kids are not practicing enough, they are too busy with their computer games and they don’t have to leave their couch to be a world champion or be the best player in the world just by playing computer games I really think it is a society problem and I don’t think kids in general practice enough and I think it has got to come from within but if they can change it and I know the SFA are working hard in schools etc but again it is a slow process but there are kids coming through and you have just got to look at the national team at the moment with some good kids coming through, so I think it is changing again.

Do you think that the number of clubs who have high pro-file ex professionals at their clubs, help entice the kids to come along?

I think it is a compliment to Aberdeen and Dundee United the number of players who have came through their systems through the years through Jim McLean and Alex Ferguson who have all gone on to manage or to be successful coaches, I think it comes down to the standard and expectations that were being set at these clubs years ago.

I was brought up years ago at a club like Aberdeen which was fantastic and was really of a high standard and I take that into my job now that I want kids to experience the good standards that I was brought up in and that will be the same for guys like Tommy McIntyre and guys I have worked with like Paul Hegarty who came though at Dundee United, so it is no coincidence that all these students who have come under McLean and Ferguson and Alex Smith , I would put in that bracket as well, they have all came through and had good educations in the game so fingers crossed that I’ll be one of them as well.

Would you consider management in the future….maybe the Aberdeen job after Craig retires when he’s 100?

Ha, ha, no no not for me I am enjoying working with the kids, I am enjoying coaching, I have sampled coaching at first team level, I have sampled coaching at kids level, at this moment in time I probably prefer working in the Academy side of things with the young ones, I get a lot of satisfaction seeing them developing, so I think Craig Brown’s job is pretty safe at the moment to be honest!

Featured in the Aberdeen FC matchday programme

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About Author

Chief Features Writer for Scotzine.com. Sean has written for various publications and websites over the years and has been involved with making documentaries on Aberdeen Football Club, Dundee United Football Club, Henrik Larsson, Paul Lambert and Jock Stein and also Radio programmes, one of which "Old Firm Day" won a Bronze Sony Award. He also worked in the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park. His love of writing started off with The Punter and has gone on to write for the following FIFA magazine, 442, Scotland's Oracle, Players Inc, British Football Week, ESPN, Give Me Football, Inside Futbol, 67 Fanzine and the matchday programmes of Aberdeen, Carlisle United, Montrose, Partick Thistle, Stockport County and Queen's Park. He has also been asked to write a blog for Youth Football Scotland on St.Mirren YFC such was his passion for football at every level from Grassroots to the professional game.

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