“I’m very proud.”
At the age of 33, Mark Wright can finally call himself a professional footballer.
Wright made his debut for League Two team Crawley Town in the closing minutes of their stunning FA Cup victory over Leeds United on Sunday.
Becoming a footballer was Wright’s childhood dream – and he had always regretted giving up too soon.
So he tried again.
A new series on the BBC – Mark Wright: The Last Chance – follows his journey as he returns to Crawley, where he played briefly as a youngster.
Wright – before his days on TV programme The Only Way Is Essex – played at youth level for Arsenal, West Ham and Tottenham.
“I was captain of the youth team with Tottenham, playing for the reserves with Jamie Redknapp and Stephane Dalmat, Helder Postiga,” he says in episode one. “I had it all.”
But he then reflects on the moment his first love went off course.
“I went away for a month one summer, drank alcohol for the first time, ate whatever I wanted and put on a stone and a half,” he says.
Wright was subsequently released by Spurs, and signed for League One side Southend.
“The day I got released from Tottenham was one of the worst days of my life,” he says.
“I cried my eyes out – didn’t want to face my family, didn’t want to face my friends – I was embarrassed.”
Wright says he lost interest once he had to drop down the leagues, which is something he regrets.
“The hardest-working players make it, and that’s what I didn’t do,” he says.
While Wright didn’t make it as a footballer, his younger brother Josh did – and they are now Crawley team-mates.
“Josh has gone on to have a fantastic career and every time I watch him, I sit in the stands thinking, ‘I wonder if I could have done this’,” he says in episode one.
Wright’s dad Mark Sr says confidence was an issue for his son growing up, and his grandad Eddie – a former professional boxer – confesses to suffering stage fright when he fought former world champion Randolph Turpin.
But those who have seen Wright at Soccer Aid know he has talent, not least a decent left foot.
And in December 2020, he was given a second chance, re-signing for Crawley on a non-contract basis having spent two months training with the club.
He has no doubt about where it ranks among his life’s achievements.
“This is the number one thing I’ve done in the last 10 and a half, 11 years,” he said.
But Wright admits he felt some trepidation when he announced he was signing for Crawley. He was very aware some would see it as a publicity stunt, but received encouragement from former footballers.
“To see comments come in off the likes of John Terry, Paul Konchesky, saying how I deserve it – it was a great confidence boost,” he says.
In episode two, we see Wright getting to know the Crawley staff, and training with his fellow players. They certainly don’t tiptoe around his celebrity status – and manager John Yems is one of the quiet stars of the series.
“Who wouldn’t fancy running around a jungle, getting loads of money for it – opening parties?” says Yems as he reflects on Wright’s career to date.
“He’s come back now, he’s settling down, he’s lucky that he’s been looking after himself and has a chance to do it.”
Yems reminds Wright they used to call him ‘Beach Boy’ as a nod to his tan during his first spell at the club, and talks about doing his own show with him, on condition he can “do it with my clothes on”.
But, for all the light-hearted moments, it is clear this is serious.
“We wouldn’t be putting ourselves on the line by bringing him in if we didn’t think he was good enough to affect the squad,” assistant coach Lee Bradbury says.
The series will follow Wright as he tries to do that. Can he build on his cameo appearance against Leeds and successfully juggle an evening radio career with life as a professional footballer?
He certainly thinks he can.
“I’m just going to do both and make both work,” he says.