Mark Bright: ‘You have to be lucky – bad things happen to people in care’ | Football

‘I found myself a little bit,” says Mark Bright. “It was no secret.” We are sitting in a cafe around the corner from BBC Broadcasting House in central London after Bright has completed what he estimates is his 30th interview in five days to promote his autobiography My Story: From Foster Care to Footballer.

Having spent most of the week remembering what it was like growing up in a white family in Stoke-on-Trent after being placed into care at the age of seven with his brother, Bright seems slightly relieved to discuss his memories of joining Crystal Palace in 1986 and meeting strike partner Ian Wright.

A particular favourite is the morning they and their Palace teammates Tony Finnigan and Andy Gray were heading back from a club when, after heading over Westminster Bridge and to much amusement from his friends, Bright insisted they stop the car so he could look at Big Ben for the first time. “They’d grown up in London and seeing all the capital’s sights meant nothing to them but for me it was special,” he writes in My Story.

Having spent the majority of his youth feeling like an outsider as the son of a Gambian father and white mother, Bright believes his move to London from Leicester was the moment everything started to make sense. “My ex-wife’s mum taught me a lot about black history but it was mixing with Wrighty, Tony and Andy that really opened my eyes,” he says.

Like so many of the stories in his book, Bright’s account of meeting his father for the first time in more than 20 years is told with brutal honesty. He was at his peak at Palace when he and his younger sister Marie decided to visit their father in Lancashire during the summer of 1991.

“On our way up there my sister said: ‘I’m not sure about this – just going to knock on his door,’” he says. “But I said: ‘We’ve come so far – I want to see what he looks like …’”

Less than an hour later, Bright and his sister were heading back in silence. Excited to see the son who had just helped Palace finish third in the old First Division and reached the FA Cup final the previous season, Edwin Bright, who moved to Britain in the 1950s, had ignored Marie for the best part of 15 minutes before asking: “Mark, who is this beautiful girl you have with you? Is she your wife?”

“You might not believe this, Eddie,” came the response. “I’m your oldest daughter, Marie.”

Bright, almost 30 years on, says: “I can’t sit here and tell you I was devastated. I was just disappointed.”

That was the last time he saw his father before Edwin’s death in 1997, although by then Bright had made his peace. The previous year he visited his father’s homeland to track down some of the family he never got the chance to meet and stayed with his uncle. He was taken to Kunta Kinteh Island – previously known as James Island – the last piece of African soil seen by thousands of slaves it is estimated were transported to the Americas between 1500 and 1800.

Mark Bright with Ian Wright after the 1990 FA Cup final between Crystal Palace and Manchester United ended 3-3 after extra time.

Mark Bright with Ian Wright after the 1990 FA Cup final between Crystal Palace and Manchester United ended 3-3 after extra time. Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

“The guy who took me round explained the triangular slave trade to me: taking people from west Africa to America before dropping them off and then picking up goods before heading to England and then back to Africa,” Bright says. “I found out that my family were originally from Sierra Leone but they had moved to the Gambia for safety reasons. It turns out my auntie married into the oldest slave trade family in the country, so I went to visit where she used to live.”

Bright, who had successful spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton, had the idea of writing a book during his final season as a player and put down 15,000 words before linking up with a ghost writer, Kevin Brennan.

“I’ve got a 19-year-old son and I wanted him to know about his dad’s journey. You can’t force someone to listen to you, can you? So I thought I’d do a book for him but it’s also to have something that lasts forever. Cyrille Regis, Ugo Ehiogu, Jlloyd Samuel, Dalian Atkinson, Ray Wilkins: they’re all ex-players who died too early. This was my chance to tell my story how I wanted it to be told.”

Bright hopes it can provide inspiration for anyone growing up in similar circumstances to those he experienced. “You have to be lucky because a lot of bad things happen to people in care. We feel lucky, my brother and me. If you’re sitting in care now and you are wondering what the future holds … the book says to you: ‘You can achieve, make the unbelievable believable.’”

Bright is reluctant to see himself as a pioneer, despite his starring role alongside Wright in Palace’s multicultural side under Steve Coppell. “I didn’t start off thinking: ‘I want to represent a load of people.’ I started off saying: ‘I want to play football.’ That was it. But you play a part. All you can do is try to inspire other people, whether that’s a black kid or a white kid.”

His close friendship with the Palace owner, Steve Parish, and role as the club’s director of under-23 development have given Bright unparalleled insight into what it takes to run a Premier League club, and he acknowledges there is plenty of need for progress.

“I go into boardrooms with Steve and hardly ever see anyone black. It’s not meant to be a slur on Spurs or anything like that but we were there on the opening of that stadium and of about 70 people, there was the mayor [Sadiq Khan], me and another Asian guy and that was it. But I remember looking around our boardroom a few weeks later and I was the only black person.”

Although Bright’s book is full of racist incidents he suffered, he says there were several he did not include to protect the perpetrators. Similarly, when a Twitter user sent him an abusive message during the early days of the social media site, he contacted the person before being bombarded with apologies when he asked what he should do with the evidence saved on his computer. “It was staggering really,” Bright says. “If I’d been a vindicative person I could have ruined his life.”

After a number of high-profile incidents culminated in Raheem Sterling’s accusation that some sections of the media were “fuelling racism”, Bright rewrote a section of his book which claimed today’s players do not have to deal with the vitriol aimed at his generation.

“They came back to say: ‘Can Mark have another look at this because it looks a little bit outdated.’ In football, we had come a long way but I feel like we have now gone backwards. The game getting called off in the FA Cup at Haringey – a few days before that we were all commenting about Bulgaria saying how disgusting it was. We’ve still got a problem in this country.

“Raheem Sterling is the modern‑day gamechanger. He got the baton. People like Garth Crooks did it in his day and people like Ian, Les Ferdinand and myself did it for the next generation. You all had to do our bit to try to stop racism. It’s a long process of education. In my day we used to get it all the time but the thought of complaining never crossed your mind. If I had come out after a match and said to the papers: ‘I thought it was disgraceful what happened to me, they were monkey chanting at me,’ some people would have seen it and said: ‘Look, we play Palace next week, let’s fucking give it to him. Look at how soft he is.’”

Bright feels any hopes of progress must come from the top. “When a club or country persistently abuse black players, take them out of the Euros or the World Cup and stop sending them the funding: then they would do something about it.”

My Story: From Foster Care to Footballer by Mark Bright, is published by Constable in hardback, £20.

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