Belfast Telegraph

How tragic son inspired Northern Ireland star Tommy Wright to a legendary cup victory

St Johnstone boss driven by memory of Andrew

By Ivan Little

Amid the euphoria of a stunning Scottish Cup win, the thoughts of St Johnstone's Northern Irish manager were with a tragic five-year-old boy.

That's because every day at the club they call the Saints is Andrew's day for Tommy Wright, who never forgets his little son who died from cerebral palsy 20 years ago.

Andrew was born five weeks premature and had severe disabilities. He was unable to talk, but Tommy and his wife Anne said their "little fighter" could communicate with his eyes. Both were at the child's bedside when he lost his fight for life in 1994.

"When Andrew died it broke our hearts," Tommy said shortly after his son's death. "You can't take away all those memories and pain overnight, and it has been really hard."

The couple never had any other children. Tommy added back then: "Like any father, I took Andrew's death badly, but I sometimes think it was worse for Anne because she was with him 24 hours a day for six years."

Two decades later, and while Tommy was obviously overjoyed at the Saints' first major trophy win in their 130-year history, he also talked of how images of his son popped into his head at the final whistle. Tommy also showed the importance of family in his life by ending his live TV interview at Celtic Park on Saturday after victory over Dundee Utd by looking into the camera and saying hello to his parents, who were unable to travel to Glasgow for the big game.

And he also playfully said he hoped his mother was keeping an eye on the number of beers his dad was having.

Friends said the quip was typical of the big man from Ballyclare, who's known to enjoy the craic.

In a mirror image of what normally happens after a cup final, it was Wright who was seen spraying his players with Champagne in the Parkhead dressing room.

However, those who know him said his laugh-a-minute patter hides a darker side – his serious passion for winning.

He has even led Irish League minnows Lisburn Distillery to League Cup glory – no mean achievement for a club with limited resources and support.

The same, of course, could be said for what some fans have called his "miracle work" at St Johnstone. The club normally attract crowds of just over 2,000 to their McDiarmid Park ground – but had six times that number following them to Glasgow on Saturday.

Tommy was a goalkeeper with Linfield before moving in 1988 to Newcastle United. He also played for Nottingham Forest and Manchester City, but returned to Northern Ireland to earn his wings as a coach.

"He was happy to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in," said a friend. "He didn't expect anything to be handed to him on a plate. He wanted to learn but he also wanted to win."

His goalkeeper on Saturday was another former Linfield player, Alan Mannus, who knows his manager and his coaching style inside out. Tommy was Alan's goalkeeping coach at Windsor Park and Shamrock Rovers in Dublin.

They were reunited when Tommy became assistant manager at St Johnstone under another Northern Ireland star, Steve Lomas, who then left for a short spell with Millwall last summer.

Tommy declined to join his fellow countryman at The New Den because he didn't think it was the right move. "And my wife also enjoys the area," he said at the time.

A number of commentators doubted if Tommy was the Wright man for the top job. But he'd impressed club officials with his tactical know-how.

"Some people were questioning whether an ex-goalkeeper could be a manager. He's answered those questions now," said Mannus, who cited Tommy's advice and influence for encouraging him to go into Scottish football.

Yesterday it was clear that Wright was the Saints' new favourite as thousands of flag-waving supporters lined the streets of Perth to welcome him and his cup winners back home. Now the pressure will be on St Johnstone chairman Steve Brown to make sure that Wright stays at the club.

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