“I should have swapped shirts with him, shouldn’t I? That’d have been worth a fortune once this tournament is over!”
Mark Wright is in his element, talking about England’s newest star.
“Kalvin Phillips, I absolutely love him,” he tells Goal. “Did you see him against Croatia? What a player!”
Wright, the reality-TV-star-turned-presenter-turned-pro-footballer, posted a picture of the two together back in January, when he played for Crawley against Phillips’ Leeds. Wright was a late substitute as the League Two side recorded a famous 3-0 win in the third round of the FA Cup.
The game was documented in ‘The Last Chance’, a BBC documentary which followed Wright’s attempts to forge a professional career, some 15 years after being released by Tottenham, where he had captained the Under-18s and played alongside the likes of Jamie Redknapp and Helder Postiga at reserve-team level.
He managed it, too. Those few minutes against Leeds were followed, a few weeks later, by a League Two start against Harrogate. He was released at the end of the season, but it was mission accomplished, for a man better known for appearances in shows such as The Only Way is Essex, I’m a Celebrity….Get Me Out of Here, and Strictly Come Dancing.
“Well, you say that,” Wright says. “But it doesn’t feel like I’ve done it, you know?
“I played that game against Leeds, and I started a game in the Football League, but you know what people are like, they love to put you down. I know I earned my place in the team – a manager under pressure is not going to play you for the sake of it – but I wanted to play 10 games. That was my target.
“If I’d done that, I’d have thought I really did it.”
Wright’s footballing pedigree is strong. He was on the books of West Ham, Arsenal and Charlton before signing YTS forms at Tottenham, where he played alongside the likes of Jamie O’Hara and Charlie Daniels, among others.
His younger brother Josh, meanwhile, has racked up more than 400 Football League games for the likes of Scunthorpe, Millwall and Gillingham. Like Mark, he joined Crawley in January. It was a proud moment when the two shared a pitch for the first time in a competitive game.
Those who played with the older Wright say he had the talent to go far in the professional ranks, but he admits dedication was an issue as a youngster.
“I loved the game, but others really loved it, you know?” he says. “I didn’t love it enough, when I look back.”
He continues: “Charlie Daniels, for me, is the example any young footballer should follow. We were at Tottenham as teenagers. I pushed him out of his position at left-back, he went to left mid[field], I took the captain’s armband off him. I was ahead of him at 16, 17.
“But whereas I was the first one off the training ground, straight in my car and off to meet my mates, I’d be gone, he’d stay and do the extras, practising every day while I was driving off. He absolutely loved it.
“We both ended up getting released. I went to Southend and sacked it off, made excuses and drifted out of it, into non-league and he went to [Leyton] Orient, then Bournemouth and ended up playing in the Premier League.”
Wright, of course, headed off on a different path. He was a stockbroker and a nightclub promoter before arriving in the world of showbiz with TOWIE. Football, though, was never far away.
“I represented England when I was playing in the Conference [for Thurrock],” he says. "It may have only been a ‘C’ international [for non-league players] but I still wore the Three Lions and sang the national anthem.
“It was out in Bosnia. We actually got beat on the day and I didn’t have a good game at all, but hey!”
He adds: “And I’ve been lucky enough to represent England in charity matches like Soccer Aid. The likes of myself and [singer] Olly Murs get laughed at because people say we’re taking it too seriously, but what would you do?
"You’re playing with and against world stars, some of the greats of the game, and you’re wearing an England shirt in front of thousands of people in the stadium, and millions more at home! You want to show you’ve got a bit, don’t you?”
Judging by some of the praise which has come his way, Wright has certainly showed he ‘has a bit’. Jose Mourinho once said, straight-faced, that he would give him a trial, as did Sam Allardyce. John Terry and Wayne Rooney are admirers, as is Joe Cole, a boyhood hero as a West Ham fan.
It begs the question; does he have any regrets?
“I used to, to be honest,” he says. “When Jose Mourinho was saying stuff, John Terry, Wayne Rooney, sometimes I’d think: ‘Ah, did I miss a trick?’
“That was why I did the Crawley thing, to be honest, but the big regret I have is that I didn’t do it when I was 29. When I did the first Soccer Aid, in 2016, I was training with the likes of Jermain Defoe, who was still playing in the Premier League, and holding my own. That was when Mourinho said what he said. I wish I’d had a go then, but instead I went to LA and got a [TV] job there.
“It wasn’t until lockdown came last year that I thought: ‘This is my chance.' The thing is, you don’t realise how quickly those years go from 29 to 34, and how much it catches up with your body!”
He grimaces as he recalls how it ended at Crawley, substituted at half-time of a 3-1 home defeat to Harrogate in February.
“I shouldn’t have played really,” he says. “I was actually injured before the game. I woke up in the morning, looked down at my toes when I got out of bed and just completely jarred the whole of my neck and top of my back.
“So, if you notice in the pictures against Harrogate, I’ve got black tape going up my back underneath my shirt. I couldn’t even look round! The bench were shouting me and I was having to turn my whole body!
“And what happened was that because I was holding my body wrong, I damaged my hip and had to come off at half-time.
“I took about three weeks to get back. Then, I played in a friendly against Dorking and tore my groin. I was nearly in tears. It was like: ‘I’ve done all this for f**king nothing?’
“I did the silly thing. I rushed back. The physio advised me another two weeks but I said no, because I couldn’t feel it. So, I trained, like a d*ckhead, and felt it straight away in the warm up. I turned it into a Grade Two tear, and that was it then. I got back for the last game of the season, where I was on the bench, but that was it.”
He left Crawley last month, and says the book is now almost certainly closed on his professional career.
“I feel like I’ve had my go,” he says. “My body let me down, and it was a lot of strain on the mind as well, with everything else going on (he has a daily radio show on Heart, as well as a popular fitness app). I was starting at 7am and not finishing my day until 11pm, five, six times a week. It was very challenging, and very tiring.
“I think if I did it at 29, I think this story would have been a lot bigger and a lot better. I really do. I think I could have played League One, if I’d really pushed myself.
“John Terry said to me I could have played Championship, and Harry Redknapp said something similar on a podcast we did together.
“It makes you think, doesn’t it? But hey, you can’t do everything!”
“New research, commissioned by Booking.com , the official Accommodation and Attractions Booking Partner of UEFA EURO 2020™, reveals that Scotland supporters feel so passionately about this match, that nearly nine in ten (86%) believe beating England would be as emotional as winning the whole tournament.”