Mark Bright is one of my footballing heroes: one of the finest centre forwards to play for Crystal Palace and part of our best-ever team which came third in the league. I have spent hundreds of hours watching Mark Bright play football. Some of his goals I have seen dozens of times, each accompanied with the tannoy announcement: AND THE SCORER FOR PALACE! NUMBER 9! MARK BRIGHT! And yet when he signed for Sheffield Wednesday I didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt. His reported comments on leaving Palace to my over-excited eyes lacked warmth. Off he went to Hillsborough, and we moved on too. AND THE SCORER FOR PALACE! NUMBER 9! CHRIS ARMSTRONG!
Never meet your heroes, they say. We football fans generate rather a lot of heroes, over the years, and we can be rather a needy bunch. We can also be fickle, inconsistent, ungrateful, hard-to-please and over-emotional. We speculate endlessly about players’ love for our club, seek constant affirmation of their passion for the shirt and look for signs of potential betrayal. Our interest in footballers is generally limited to their work on the pitch (although the philanthropic work of the likes of Marcus Rashford and Wilfried Zaha is increasingly known). Despite all that WAGs nonsense a decade or so ago, we are happy to be completely ignorant of their home lives.
That view extends to footballers’ autobiographies. In the main, they are bought by the fans of the clubs the player turned out for. These books are all about the anecdotes. We want to know who did what in the dressing room or in training, or who was a terrible team-mate, or who was an inspiration or a mentor. We don’t really care about the players’ lives outside football.
Is that a bit shallow? Maybe, but I didn’t care until I read My Story, by Mark Bright (with Kevin Brennan). Brighty’s autobiography is not your usual trundle through matches and seasons: of the three hundred or so pages, between a quarter and a third are devoted to his family story.
My Story helps to resolve my mess of ambiguity. It tells us how Bright made his career decisions. It did make perfect sense for him to leave Palace at the time. Phew. His affection for Palace is undisputed. So my shallow supporter mind is sated. We also get plenty of material on Steve Coppell, Ian Wright, Davids Hirst and Pleat, Alan Curbishley and others.
But as well as providing answers we get a whole bunch of questions. This isn’t a simple gallop down memory lane and Bright uses this opportunity to challenge us. I wasn’t expecting the cast of Coppell and co to be joined by equally important characters: brother Phil, and foster carers ‘Nana’ Parton and ‘Gran and Grandad’ Davies who gave the Bright boys the care, affection and love that they should have been able to expect. Bright asks us about about our attitudes and our responsibilities to those around us. He doesn’t seek to gloss over the insecurity he, Phil and their siblings experienced. Nor does he try to gloss over his own occasional unthoughtfulness, as when he sloped off to Vegas to marry Michelle Gayle without keeping his family involved. He also reminds us of 1980s attitudes to depression – and 1980s and 2020s attitudes on race.
We know exactly how much racism there was in football at the time Bright was playing. Bright recounts receiving abuse from his own fans at Leicester. (It was, I believe, widely enough known for it to be part of Steve Coppell’s pitch to Bright to come to Palace.) The scenes he describes are recognisable to all of us and Bright notes that it’s impossible to pretend that football has managed to eradicate it. He tells us of clumsy, well-meaning efforts to do the right thing, and of dilemmas he and others face when confronted by abuse. This book shows exactly how important it is that football has backed the message #blacklivesmatter.
I get to the end of the book and I realise I have no new insight into the 1990-91 season. That doesn’t matter. I have instead read a three-dimensional account of a life I thought I knew a little about. Nice one, Brighty.