IT HAS almost gone unnoticed but arriving discreetly before grabbing everyone’s attention is what 31-year-old Jake Wright does best.
Signed from League Two Oxford United last summer, unassuming Wright not only stepped up a division, he seamlessly established himself as a defensive rock. A cool head, an organiser and a cornerstone of Sheffield United’s title-winning campaign.
Richard Stearman’s move from Fulham in July confined Wright to the dug-out, the general perception being that Championship football was better served in the central position by experience at this level. Stearman, a remarkably similar player but with a greater pedigree, hasn’t disappointed. A severely pulled hamstring suffered by the 29-year-old in defeat at Cardiff City, however, allowed for the 35th-minute introduction of Wright.
It was a significant moment for the central defender who has never commanded a transfer fee as he stepped onto the turf in the Welsh capital. Into his early thirties and now playing at the highest level of his career. You would never have known. From that moment on he has looked as if he’s operated in football’s second tier for years.
Indeed, so much so it is by no means certain that a fit-again Stearman, who cost just shy of £1million and is expected to be ruled out until the end of September, will automatically return.
The back three of Wright flanked by Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell, a combination that served so well last season, demonstrated it can do so again during home wins against Barnsley and Derby County. Tottenham loanee defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, a 19-year-old British-born US youth international who went straight onto the bench against Derby, may also have an anxious wait in line.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
United defender Jake Wright and young Blades fan Daniel George-Herbert enjoy a splashing time during a hydrotherapy session for the youngster in Sheffield.
Music to boss Wilder’s ears in his much publicised quest to have competition for places all over the pitch and Wright is most certainly the manager’s type of player. Journeyman is a fitting, but misleading description to summarise a career encompassing six clubs. During which time Wilder has signed him three times, at non-league Halifax Town, Oxford United and now at Bramall Lane.
“Everytime you step up a level, people question whether you’re good enough,” said Wright whose ethos is the embodiment of everything his boss has brought to the club. “But you’ve just got to work hard and have belief in your own ability.
“I knew when I came here, because I’d not played at that level before, I’d have to be patient and show what I can do. The same went when I didn’t make the team on the first day [of the season] too. Really, whatever the level, my job doesn’t change. I just try and do it to the best of my ability.”
Wright admits he was taken aback when Oxford United manager Michael Appleton, who in June became No2 to Leicester City’s Craig Shakespeare, informed him he was surplus to requirements before joining the Blades.
“It was a shock to be told, especially after we got promoted with the best defensive record in the league,” said Wright. “I had been here [at Oxford] six-and-a-half years and I was settled, my kids were at school, so it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I saw myself staying at Oxford for as long as I could and hopefully retiring there.”
But Oxford's loss, which now looks like a big mistake, was United’s gain. Wright added: “At 30 to get a two-year contract at a massive club like Sheffield United was incredible.”
Wright, from Keighley, began his career as a trainee at Bradford City, making a single League One appearance in three years at Valley Parade. Three months of that was spent on loan to Halifax in the Football Conference before Wilder signed him permanently in the summer of 2006.
When Halifax went into liquidation in 2008, Wright moved to Blue Square Premier Crawley Town, managed by former Rotherham boss Steve Evans. An impressive season at the Broadfield Stadium earned Wright a move to League One Brighton. A switch that didn’t work out during turbulent times for the Seagulls whose manager Gus Poyet quickly loaned Wright to Wilder’s Oxford, then a Conference club. He played in the Wembley play-off final win against York City which clinched promotion to the Football League.
The move became permanent the following season. Wright made the Kassam Stadium his home for six years, captaining the U’s, appointed by Wilder, for five of them and winning promotion to League One under Appleton in 2015-16. Recovery from a hamstring injury meant he had to sit on the bench for Oxford’s Football League Trophy final defeat to Barnsley at Wembley.
Recalling his non-league upbringing, Wright said: “It’s difficult to become a professional footballer, so many lads try it, get released and then go into non-league. Being in non-league you’ve got that hunger. This [Sheffield United] is the biggest and the best club I’ve been at. But I’ve seen the other side [of football] and it’s not so good.”
Wright had famously never been on the losing side [31 league and cup appearances] in a Sheffield United shirt before defeat at Cardiff. That record, however, still holds for League starts.
A big player on the field Wright demonstrates a big heart off it. He was recently pictured, above, in a hydrotherapy pool with 11-year-old Blades fan Daniel George-Herbert who suffers from chronic and debilitating joint pain which often reduces him to tears.
The youngster also has autism, making it difficult for him to interact with people, especially those he doesn’t know. Mother Kerry said: “Jake really won him over and when they were outside Daniel gave him a high-five, which is something not even I get very much. That meant Daniel had accepted Jake into his personal space which is a really big deal. Jake has a friend for life now."
Wright when captain at Oxford United helped raise cash to buy eight-year-old Charlotte Nott running blades so she can take part in sport. Charlotte lost her lower legs and arms after contracting meningitis as a baby.
Wright is no stranger to supporting the disadvantaged. At Oxford he spearheaded the team’s effort to raise cash in conjunction with a local pub, for eight-year-old Charlotte Nott, pictured. She lost the lower part of her arms and legs after contracting meningitis as a baby. A pair of custom running blades were funded for the youngster who loves sport.
Wright it seems is a model professional who views life in perspective. “When I first came here [Bramall Lane], I knew I didn’t have to prove anything to the gaffer because he already knew me,” he said.
“But I did feel as if, with the rest of the lads, I had to come in and show them what I was about. A lot of them have played at Championship level and I wanted to prove I could play, too. I didn’t want people thinking I’d only signed because I knew the gaffer. I wanted them to see that I could help and improve the team.”
Of that no one is in doubt.