Although any it’s true to say that the only sweeping generalisation that is ever true, is that all sweeping generalisations are oversimplifications at best, there’s often at least the grain of a valid point buried in them. With that caveat, it’s probably relatively safe to say that British players venturing abroad have tended to fall into one of two broad categories.
Firstly, there are the ‘big name’ moves. This is where players who have made their names in the British game, cash in on their footballing celebrity status for a bit of time abroad. Over the years, examples would be Beckham, Lineker, Hughes and, perhaps reaching farther back into time, Rush, Greaves, Charles and Hitchens.
The other category are the younger players, often stymied in pursuit of first team opportunity who look to bypass the log jam of imported stars by venturing abroad. Players such as Jadon Sancho and Ademola Lookman would fit into this category. Then, however, there are the others, whose careers, apparently veer off across waters to experience a success that, for whatever reason, has alluded them in the UK. The story of Bradley Wright-Phillips is a case in point.
Whilst it’s often said that having a father with an established name in the game can be a leg up to an aspiring young player, and perhaps the same can be said for a successful sibling, having both may perhaps be a mixed blessing. Inevitable comparisons will arise, and when considered to be less than favourable, there’s a tendency for any perceived weakness to be exaggerated. Other than the absolute harshness of results, most things in football are about opinion, and when there’s an outside influence colouring such thoughts, it’s hard to fight against them and convince.
As with elder brother Shaun, Bradley Wright-Phillips began his career at Manchester City, and when he made his club debut from the bench against Middlesbrough in the 2004-05 season, it took him a mere four minutes to register his first goal. It was a start that seemed to herald the beginnings of a stellar career into the ‘sky blue’ yonder. The remainder of that term however saw another 16 appearances without adding to his goal tally. The bright start had fizzled out into a damp squib. The following season, a further 23 appearances in sky blue brought just one more goal. City decided to cut their losses and took the £500k offered by Championship side Southampton. The £21million City received from Chelsea for elder brother Shaun put Bradley more than a little astray in the fraternal stakes.
After another debut goal Bradley would again experience a period of the ‘blues’ with the Saints, as his elder brother’s experiences wearing a shirt of the same colour, continued to flourish. Twenty-one goals in 121 appearances for Southampton was hardly eye-poppingly successful and some unsavoury news about brushes with the law would hardly have helped. Moves followed to Plymouth and Charlton, then a loan at Brentford. It reads like a career in decline, and so it seemed.
In the summer of 2013 however, a player then in his mid-twenties, seeking a fresh start and opportunity, seized on an offer from the country that enthusiastically portrays itself as the land of such things. Bradley Wright-Phillips crossed the Atlantic to take a bite out of the Big Apple and found a new home in New York with the Red Bulls, playing in MLS. At the time, the club’s recruitment policy appeared to have a theme of going for the less celebrated siblings of a more famous brother. John Rooney, younger brother of Wayne, was on their roster, as was the Brazilian Digão, elder sibling of Kaká. The signing of Wright-Phillips appeared to be bang on message.
He joined just as the 2013 term was running to its conclusion, but still contributed to the Red Bulls securing the Supporters Shield as the cub with the best regular season record. If his early successes with Manchester City and Southampton had failed be anything other than flattering to deceive, this would be a very different experience. In the new season, donned with the strange but distinctive number 99 shirt, the younger Wright-Phillips struck out for glory of his own. The following five seasons would mark him out as a record breaking goalscorer, bordering on legendary status in MLS
His first full term saw the Red Bulls go all the way to the Eastern Conference Final before falling to New England Revolution. On the way there, Wright-Phillips would create a revolution of his own. A strike rate of 31 goals in just 37 games was a remarkable achievement for a ‘rookie’ and saw him break the Red Bulls record for goals scored in a single season. He only missed out on a place in the second leg of the final of the play-offs, thanks to a less than judicious yellow card blotted his copy book, but there was much more recognition to come. His goals saw the MLS Golden Boot delivered, and inclusion in the MLS Best XI selection, plus the MLS All-Star team, followed. Unsurprisingly, the Red Bulls also recognised him as their MVP and he won Castrol Index Top MLS Player award. The player who had largely flopped in England had quickly achieved superstar status.
Awards and records tumbled as the Wright-Phillips goal scoring machine clicked into high gear – and stayed there. Across the years until the end of 2018, he would net 124 goals in 210 games. In July 2018, his winning goal in the 1-0 victory over DC United took his tally to the century mark. It wasn’t the first time any MLS player had achieved the distinction, but Wright-Phillips had got to the three figures mark in sixteen less games than any previous centurion. At the time, there was talk of a special dispensation for a change of number on his shirt for the next game, incrementing it by one. In the end, the idea was binned, but the Red Bulls administration announced that when the forward left the club, the 99 shirt would be retired in his honour.
At a club with a history of star players such as Thierry Henry, Youri Djorkaeff, Lothar Matthäus and Colombian striker Juan Pablo Ángel, it’s perhaps an even greater tribute to the success that the reformed striker enjoyed, that he is lauded by the fans above them. Indeed, it was Ángel’s season scoring record that Wright-Phillips surpassed in his debut full season.
There’s little publicly known about the intensity or otherwise of the rivalry between the two Wright-Phillips brothers, but for much of his time playing in England, it would be easy to understand any feelings of inferiority that Bradley may have felt compelled to experience, sitting in the shadow of his elder brother’s success. In 2015 however, there was some measure of levelling things up. With Bradley already established as a superstar with the Red Bulls, the club engaged in that fraternal pursuit again, by securing the services of Shaun.
If there was any established order to upset, and it’s important to say that there’s no suggestion of any animosity inherent between the brothers, Shaun’s 12 games and a single strike, whilst Bradley continued to strut his goalscoring stuff, would have been sufficient to do so.
Perhaps the story and success of Bradley Wright-Phillips would never come to eclipse the celebrity status of some British players who have succeeded overs seas playing for big name European clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, the Milan clubs or Bayern Munich. For all that though, ask any Red Bulls MLS fan about Bradley Wright-Phillips, and his success in the USA will be told with as much passion and vigour as any tales of Beckham, Lineker, et al.Iin the land of opportunity, the player who had struggled and laboured without much success in the UK found his home and triumphed as a Brit Abroad.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times ‘Brits Abroad’ series.