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The big read: Tommy's tears on his glory day

By Graham Luney

When life's journey leads you down a heartbreaking path, even moments of pure elation can be accompanied by immense sadness.

Thomas James Wright savoured a remarkable new highlight of his footballing career last weekend when his St Johnstone side conquered Dundee United 2-0 at Celtic Park to lift the Scottish Cup for the first time in the club's 130-year history.

They were dancing on the streets of Perth but the Ballyclare man and his wife Anne took time way from the celebrations to reflect on the precious few years they shared with their son Andrew who passed away 20 years ago.

Andrew was born five weeks premature in 1994 with severe disabilities and died five years later from cerebral palsy.

Although the little boy was unable to talk, he could communicate with his eyes and smile – images that every so often still flicker in the minds of his loving parents.

"The love and warmth we got from him was so special," said Tommy, amidst the cup celebrations.

"He couldn't speak, but he could communicate with his eyes. He was an exceptional child. It will never go away. There isn't a day goes by when I don't think about him. Anne, too.

"Every parent who has gone through the same as us will say the same."

There are two families in Tommy's life – St Johnstone as well as his own – and as he boarded the boat to bring him home this week he knew wave after wave of affection would greet him in his hometown, Ballyclare. Tommy's parents couldn't be at Celtic Park to cheer on their boy but his 73-year-old dad Jackie is looking forward to a special reunion this weekend.

Naturally, he was bursting with pride at the fact that his 50-year-old son, who had represented Northern Ireland 31 times, had just got his hands on the Scottish Cup – defying the critics who questioned whether a former goalkeeping coach could be a supreme leader of men.

"It's wonderful to be back home to see family and friends, many of whom couldn't go to the final," said Tommy.

"Anne doesn't normally go to the games but she was at the semi-final as well as the final and really enjoyed it. It was great to have her with me to celebrate what was a special moment.

"The support we have had from the club and the fans has been unbelievable and the reception we were given the day after the final was also special.

"The supporters came out in huge numbers and we were all touched. Jackie would have been following the game back home but we will have a proper celebration over a few beers this weekend.

"As any father would be when their son has something to smile about he's delighted for me but I would like to thank everyone who sent me messages. I've been very moved by everyone's support.

"The photographs are special too and it's wonderful to see the joy on people's faces because then you really realise what it means to them. That's what football and sport is all about for me. It's about the memories, something to look back on with great pride.

"I just want quality time with family and friends now and I'm going to hit a golf ball as badly as I have done for many years."

The Ballyclare man has taken his fair share of knocks, both as a goalkeeper and now manager. His shot-stopping prowess was evident at big clubs such as Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest and Manchester City but Tommy's playing career was badly disrupted by spells in the treatment room. His right knee was introduced to a surgeon's knife on 10 occasions.

But for club and country he was a number one managers could rely on.

"I've been fortunate to play for some big clubs," said Wright. "I can remember being at Newcastle United when we won our first 11 games which was an outstanding achievement. Every time I played for one of those big clubs I felt honoured and every time I played for Northern Ireland it was also a very special feeling."

People have written off Tommy at various stages of his career but he's listened to the jibes and stuck to his philosophy.

"When I first went to Newcastle United as a player, I was 25 and was written off as the Belfast Barman," he recalled.

Just over 10 years ago, he became Youth Development Officer at Ballyclare Comrades, but now Tommy has bigger ambitions.

Who could have imagined the drinks would be on this 'Belfast barman' last Saturday night? How could Wright, in his first season in charge of the Saints, guide the club to sixth in the Scottish Premiership and Scottish Cup glory?

Limavady United, Ballymena United and Lisburn Distillery – where Tommy had managerial spells – may not have been the bigger beasts of the Irish League jungle but they did give him an appetite for the slaying of giants.

When his Whites side overcame big guns Portadown in the Co-operative Cup final in 2011 it gave Wright renewed belief in his managerial skills.

Tommy reflects on his Irish League adventures fondly but he maintains that making critics sample a slice of humble pie has never been his motivation. "Managers have no option but to work within their budgets but the Irish League provides a great grounding and learning experience for managers," added Tommy who was Michael O'Neill's goalkeeping coach at Shamrock Rovers.

"That's because you are not just a manager. At Ballymena I worked on the community side as well as looking after team affairs while at Lisburn Distillery I was commercial manager on top of the other duties and it gives you a great insight into how clubs operate.

"A big part of management is dealing with people and while the clubs may differ the importance of those human relations is the same. My time in the Irish League helped shape me as a man as well as a manager.

"But proving people wrong is not part of my make-up. I just want to do the best job that I can every day. I'm just like a lot of managers in that I work extremely hard and like to surround myself with good people. They help make the job easier.

"My motivation is to be a success and win every game, not to prove people wrong. I can't stop people or so called experts having opinions. If I didn't win the Scottish Cup they would be saying I was the manager who blew a golden chance to make history so I'm not too worried about negative opinions."

Wright became St Johnstone assistant manager in 2011 and was promoted when former Northern Ireland team-mate Steve Lomas headed for Millwall in June last year.

Tommy didn't want to head south and his desire to prove himself in Scotland's top flight has been handsomely rewarded. And he's no plans to leave Perth, saying: "They (St Johnstone) want me to stay and I want to so I can't see any problems there."

Election fever has swept the province this week but while Northern Ireland's political leaders offer little inspiration, our sportsmen and women continue to make us proud to be from this small dot on the world map.

While Tommy is sprinkling his magic dust at McDiarmid Park, Lurgan's Neil Lennon was still winning the big domestic prizes at Celtic before electing to step down this week, while Carnlough's Brendan Rodgers came agonisingly close to ending Liverpool's title famine.

"I was surprised by Lenny's decision and I'm not aware of the reasons behind it but he has achieved so much with Celtic, including in the Champions League, and I hope we see him back in the game soon," added Tommy.

"He will decide what he wants to do and maybe that's a fresh challenge in England.

"For me to be mentioned in the same sentence as Neil Lennon and Brendan Rodgers is really very humbling.

"What I know is that what we have achieved this season has exceeded so many people's expectations. Not many sides made the progress that we did in Europe, get to a League Cup semi-final, finish in the top six and then lift the Scottish Cup.

"To be part of the first group of St Johnstone players and staff to win the trophy is a special feeling."

Thomas James Wright doesn't consider himself a hero.

The rest of us are entitled to our opinion.

Belfast Telegraph


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