Getting the call that told me ‘You’re in the England squad’ was surreal. Five years previously I’d been playing Sunday morning football and going to work every day. Now I was being considered as one of the best couple of dozen English players. Yes, I was scoring goals at a regular rate for Palace, but getting asked to represent your country is the pinnacle – it’s every footballer’s dream. After a player gets that call, he’ll be sent a letter confirming it, which is when it really hits home, because then you get to see all the other players in the squad written down. Shilton . . . Lineker . . . Barnes . . . Waddle . . . Everybody was there on that list, and although I knew those guys would be in the squad, I could hardly believe my name was in there too. Why I didn’t keep that piece of paper is beyond me.
It was for a friendly against Hungary in September 1990 and the England camp was at Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire. After dinner on the first day, we had to go and get the training kit. I went straight back to my room with mine and tried it on! I remember just walking about in the room wearing it and looking in the mirror.
Of course, I didn’t sleep properly that night because I couldn’t wait for the next morning and going out for training. Breakfast couldn’t come quick enough. The warm up couldn’t come quick enough. Everything couldn’t come quick enough.
Then there I was, running alongside Gary Lineker and John Barnes, watching people like that in training – I was part of the England set up! The only cloud in that sky was Steve McMahon: he was really horrible to me on that first day. I was really nervous taking part in training, because even though I had been picked for an England squad I was still not far away from feeling that I was not going to be good enough in any situation, and he went out of his way to be nasty.
On that first day, we were playing in a six-a-side game and they’d picked three teams, but what happens in those games is if you lose the ball you have to go in the middle and chase it. Of course, I lost the ball quite a few times because I was so nervous and when I did McMahon really laid into me, loudly saying things like, ‘For fuck’s sake, who are these players?’ and, ‘How can players like this get into the England squad when they can’t even keep the ball?’ Naturally that didn’t make me perform any better, and he carried on.
Bryan Robson quietly told me to take no notice of him, and while I appreciated that support, it didn’t make that game any easier. I guess McMahon just thought it was the sort of thing he could get away with because I was at Palace at the time when we weren’t particularly fashionable, while he was part of that Liverpool side that was winning everything.
It was just bullying, plain and simple. I wouldn’t do something like that to somebody, in fact very few players would, and it was something I never really forgot.
I don’t think he did either, because a few years later when I was at the peak of my powers at Arsenal and he with Manchester City playing against us at Highbury, he had this look about him that made me think if he gets an opportunity he’s going to try and do me.
Sure enough, we went in hard for a challenge, but I’m not trying to do him because all I’m thinking about is how I’ve got to watch myself. My foot went over, skimmed up his leg and gone bang into his groin.
After the game when he was in the treatment room with the doctor, getting himself stitched up, he called me in and said, ‘Jesus Christ, Wrighty! Look what you’ve fucking done!’
Of course I was telling him how sorry I was, but all the time I thinking, ‘Good!’
I didn’t do it on purpose – there are other ways of getting your own back – but I won’t pretend I wasn’t glad it happened.