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Gone but not forgotten:
Nick Wright
Position: Right wing / striker
From: Carlisle United - £100,000 - July 1998
Record: Played: 39(6) Scored: 7
To: Retired - March 2003
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Past player profiles
He was: Unforgettable

It's about much, much more than a few sublime seconds. Although, my word, they were sublime.

Ironically, when Graham Taylor signed Nick Wright from Carlisle along with Allan Smart, he did so in the belief that he'd be a player for the future. Happily, and then so sadly, it didn't turn out quite like that. It didn't turn out like that at all.

It's still recent enough to remember the excitement that surrounded Nick Wright's home debut against Queens Park Rangers in September 1998, after he'd energetically forced his way into the first team much earlier than expected. My goodness, there was a buzz around the pub on that afternoon....

"But one player stole the spotlight on Saturday. One player made me leave Vicarage Road feeling thrilled, rather than merely content. On this evidence, Nick Wright is a potential Vic Road hero."

You didn't need to be greatly perceptive. Sometimes, it's just obvious. Whereas Johann Gudmundsson scored twice on his debut and failed to impress in any other respect, Nick Wright missed a load of chances and sent you away with a huge spring in your step. It wasn't only the wildly eager and impatient way in which he flung himself into the game, it was his vivid, vibrant presence in and around the penalty area.

From the start, Nick Wright was a bundle of yellow and red mischief. Whether rampaging up and down the right wing, darting unseen into goal-scoring positions (and finishing erratically), or throwing himself around in the midfield, he was simply tremendous to watch. A fans' player, if you like. But more than that, though. His tigger-ish nature couldn't disguise considerable and rapidly developing talent, for Nick Wright was a quick-witted, sharp and perceptive player with feet to match. The skill of an out-and-out winger paired with the constant desire for involvement of a central midfielder or a striker...indeed, there was always a sense that we hadn't quite worked out where to put him, particularly when the formation no longer allowed for a just-behind-the-front-two player in the Rosenthal mould.

In the end, he settled down on the right wing. And, on anything like top form, he must've been a total nightmare to play against. Irrepressible, he'd go searching for the ball whenever the supply began to dry up...and then everything was geared towards attack, whether it meant running at defenders, picking out a cross, or playing a pass and charging for the return. If it didn't work, he'd pursue possession again, then attack again. And again. And again. Until he was substituted on the point of collapse. His absolute inability to pace himself for ninety minutes was to be an especially endearing feature of his Watford career, and he finished just twelve of the thirty-four matches that he started in the 1998/99 season.

And the best thing? That he was still so raw. In Nick Wright, we saw everything that we love about supporting Watford Football Club. We saw a player in a great rush to be something special, to fulfil dreams and ambitions. A player with everything ahead of him, seeing it all and chasing after it before it could escape. A player with such an obvious, adorable love of the game, the joy of being on the field matched only by the joy of those who were privileged enough to watch and applaud. And a player without an ego too, no tantrums when he was dropped or arrogant strutting when he was brilliant. Nick Wright was an absolute gem.

That he was completely capable of playing like a drain, with the ball bouncing randomly off various parts of his anatomy while his feet stayed set in concrete, only added to the appeal for me. After all, young and enthusiastic talent shouldn't have to worry too much about the occasional off-day, especially when it was just as capable of producing match-winning on-days. That Nick Wright had yet to find the consistency that would surely see him playing at a higher level seemed entirely right and proper, and did him no harm at all. There was never any doubt that his toast would eventually fall butter side up.

And he was already growing as a player. In particular, his characteristic darts into the penalty area were being finished more regularly. It's easy to forget that of his first six goals for the club, five were those of a classic poacher, snapping at a chance from close in. Indeed, three of them were headers, including the opening goal in that memorable encounter with Sunderland in January, a game in which Nick Wright was utterly sensational. His football often sparkled, but he wasn't an unnecessarily flash player, and only one of his goals in the regular season - a superb, dipping half-volley at Loftus Road - gave an indication of what was to follow.

No matter how many times you write about it, you still feel ready to write about it some more. And yet, it doesn't need description, explanation, hype. No amount of words can make it more poetic, more graceful, more perfect than it already is. While some things are romantically enhanced by the mind's eye and cruelly exposed by video, that goal is just as special when seen through the countless camera lenses that captured it for our grandchildren. We didn't just visit Wembley, we didn't just win there. Thanks to Nick Wright and his insatiable ambition, we gave the ancient stadium something truly special to remember us by.

Nearly four years later, Nick Wright has made less than a dozen further first team appearances, ruled out by a knee injury for months at a time, returning for a spell in the reserves, then back in the treatment room once again. Even on the extremely rare occasions when he has been fit enough to play, he's looked far from comfortable, far from the player that we all remember. There has been no way back. In the end, retirement became inevitable. That I'm able, having struggled to squeeze a few short months into the preceding paragraphs, to sum up four years of his career in a handful of short sentences says it all.

Of all the dreams that we've had to let go since May 1999, that is, perhaps, the most painful. From a slightly selfish point of view, it's hard not to feel cheated by fate, for the injury robbed us of so many wonderful adventures, so many afternoons of pleasure. People said that our Premiership-bound team had no stars. Well, Nick Wright was a complete bloody star. He was everyone's favourite player, and we've missed him dreadfully.

But there's more to it than that, obviously. It's hard to imagine what Nick Wright must've been through since that famous day at Wembley, when it appeared that he was about to launch himself at the Premiership as he'd launched himself at so many First Division defences. He belonged in the top flight...and yet, by the end, he'd have settled for a playing career at any level. If it breaks our hearts, just imagine how he must be feeling....

It would've crushed most people. It would've crushed me, anyway. And, somehow, that Nick Wright has continued to smile only makes it seem more unfair. When you think of all the players who've lazily wasted their careers, who've never understood why they should savour it, who've simply not bothered....

In a way, it's so desperately sad. Writing this is damn hard. And yet...and yet....

Well, there's a famous Alan Cozzi photograph of the celebrations that followed Allan Smart's goal at Wembley. In the crowd of players, there's Nicky Wright...who'd been substituted earlier but had sprinted up the touchline to join his teammates. His arms are reaching towards the sky, fists clenched, veins bulging. And he's just screaming, face red and mouth stretching wide. Nothing held back, nothing but pure, ecstatic celebration. If you'd been able to take a photo of yourself at that extraordinary moment, it would've looked much the same....

Whatever happened afterwards, Nick Wright will have that afternoon of spectacular individual and collective glory forever. And he understood it, he knew what it meant.

Nothing can ever take it away.