Big interview: Keith Wright on Hall of Fame hat-trick and his Hibs knockback

Keith Wright jokes that the children at the SFA's Performance School at Edinburgh's Broughton High would probably have to ask their grandfathers to learn about his playing career.

Thursday, 22nd November 2018, 5:30 am
Keith Wright with his three Hall of Fame awards from Dundee, Hibs and Raith Rovers. Picture: Neil Hanna

But those youngsters would do well to take a closer look at the former striker, who can boast that he isn’t in one club’s hall of fame, but three.

The former Hibs player completed what could well be a unique achievement when he was inducted into Raith Rovers’ hall of fame having been similarly lauded by Hibernian and Dundee.

“I’m absolutely delighted to have been honoured in this way by the three clubs where I spend most of my time as a player. I loved every minute at each and they all played a different part in my life.”

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Keith Wright returned to Hibs in 1991 after being rejected by the club at 16

However, his career, which ultimately encompassed some 660 matches, was one which began very much at the school of hard knocks, Wright told by Hibs at the age of 16, the team he had dreamt of playing for, that he wasn’t good enough.

Four years of training at Easter Road came to an end, the fact the news was broken to him by one of his heroes, ex-striker Jimmy O’Rourke, making it harder to take.

“It wasn’t easy for Jimmy,” recalled Wright, the SFA’s performance coach at Broughton.

“He knew how much of a Hibs fan I was and how much it meant. Bertie Auld was the manager and while Jimmy, who was one of the coaches, told me he wasn’t totally agreeing with the decision, he had to go along with it.

Keith Wright at Dundee

“He was very good. He said he believed in me and I had to go and prove him wrong. But it wasn’t easy. I’d been at the club since the age of 12 on an ‘S’ form and hoping to move on to YTS at 16.

“I was told they’d put a fiver away for me every week and when I was 16 I’d get all those fivers. What they didn’t tell me was that if I didn’t get a contract I didn’t get the money. It wasn’t a massive amount, but for me money never came into it – I just wanted the chance to play full-time with Hibs.”

Wright returned to playing boys’ club football with Melbourne Thistle where, not unexpectedly, he took a bit of stick from his team-mates, but it was those games at Morgan Park which were to rekindle his hopes.

He said: “When something like that happens you can go one of two ways. There are boys that chuck it but I went back to Melbourne Thistle and it was probably the best thing that happened to me. The boys were all local lads, I’d been to school with them, and I enjoyed my football again.”

Keith Wright returned to Raith Rovers towards the end of his career

Not surprisingly, Wright’s goals caught the eye of Arthur Bellamy, then Raith Rovers scout in Edinburgh who persisted in taking him to Stark’s Park even though manager Gordon Wallace was initially uninterested. However, he finally relented, offered Wright a one-year, part-time contract and promptly left for Dundee United.

“But it was Raith where it all started,” Wright said. “I was lucky enough that they gave me a chance. It was the wee break I was looking for.”

Until that point, the story had been the same, Wright was, in the eyes of various managers, too small and not quick enough.

“They were probably right,” he admitted. “I don’t have any complaints. Hibs were honest with me but I had a late growth spurt and my dad Harry got me sprint training at Saughton Enclosure having said ‘we need to get you quicker’. I’d jump on the bus after school and go along there.

Keith Wright gained one Scotland cap

“He took me everywhere. He’s no longer with us, but my mum Doreen was there to see me inducted into Raith’s hall of fame and I know that like her, he’d have been very proud to have seen me honoured in this way by all three clubs.”

A goal virtually every other game for Rovers earned Wright a move to Dundee and the full-time football he’d been looking for. He was 21 and he went on to forge a formidable strikeforce with Tommy Coyne.

“Tommy signed a couple of weeks after me and the two of us hit it off. The Dundee fans used to call us the Cobra and the Mongoose, the cobra being the one who scored the goals. Tommy and I would argue about it, but he scored more goals than me so I suppose I was the mongoose.

“The two of us worked hard under Jocky Scott and Drew Jarvie, we’d be in the same team up front in training Monday to Friday and we scored a lot of goals.”

Although living in Dundee, Wright was kept abreast of all that was going on at Easter Road, Hibs then in a state of flux with financial problems followed by the attempted takeover by Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer, a backdrop Wright believed would prevent him ever realising his dream even though then Dundee supremo Angus Cook was keen to sell him.

Wright said: “He was looking for a lot of money and, to be honest, Hibs never looked like being an option given what had happened, or so I thought.

“Then Alex Miller called me out of the blue and said they were trying to get a package together. They were looking to bring a player in that summer in 1991 and he was hoping it would be me. It was the first I had heard of it. Mr Cook told me Aberdeen were willing to pay the same money so it was up to me. But there was only one choice. I remember going to the Station Hotel in Dundee to meet Alex Miller, Murdo Macleod, Dougie Cromb and Kenny McLean, [the deal] took only five minutes.”

A then club-record fee, according to which figure you choose to believe, varying from £375,000 to £500,000 was paid – the sort of money clubs outwith Celtic and Rangers don’t pay now some 27 years later – began to reap rewards almost right away as Hibs put their troubles behind them to win the Skol Cup within three months with Wright scoring in every round, most memorably the only goal against Rangers at Hampden in the semi-final.

“I feel at times I’m talking a lot about myself but I was lucky throughout me career to play with some great players. At Raith, Paul Smith taught me so much and at Dundee there were guys like Jim Duffy, Jim Smith, Stewart Forsyth and Stuart Rafferty.

“And, at Hibs, we had a terrific group of players. Murdo had just come back from Dortmund, there were boys like Graham Mitchell, Pat McGinlay Tommy McIntyre, Gordon Hunter, Brian Hamilton, Willie Miller. I wouldn’t say we had any big stars but what we were was a hard-working team which deserved a bit of success.

“We won the Skol Cup but lost to Rangers in the final a couple of years later. We were unlucky to lose in the Scottish Cup at the semi-final stage to Aberdeen, at Tynecastle, and Celtic, in a replay.

“Watching Hibs win the Scottish Cup two years ago was the best day of my life but we weren’t too far away.”

It’s been some journey but, now 53, Wright insists it’s not a story he’s inclined to repeat to the youngsters under his charge at Broughton High.

He said: “I don’t speak to them about myself but other examples. I speak to them about resilience, of being willing to take the knock; that if they keep working hard the chance will come.

“A lot of these kids have the ambition to be a professional player but that might not happen when their programme finishes at 16. That’s when I can talk to them about what happened to me at 16.”