Anyone who has heard the new Saturday morning show with Ian Wright and Mark Bright on Radio 5, Wright and Bright, knows that the former footballing colleagues at Crystal Palace usually fall over each other to get a word in edgeways. But on the occasion of the recent death of the former Arsenal midfielder David Rocastle, from cancer at the age of 33, there was a discernible difference.
"Er . . . Ian Wright just has a little announcement," Bright said after the end of the news. Wright takes his cue. "Yes, something that's been . . . erm . . . absolutely killing me, Brighty. News that will sadden football fans throughout the country. My best mate and former team man, Arsenal winger, England winger, David Rocastle, lost his battle last night with non-Hodgkin's disease." At that point, the man who cheerily refers to himself as "too mouthy" can't manage another word. There's the sound of the script being pushed away and several audible sobs. Bright, the stoic professional, does his best to cover. He repeats the news and adds that Rocastle "leaves behind his wife and three ki . . . children. Our heart goes out to his wife and family."
You knew from the beginning of the programme that something was wrong. Whereas Wright typically complements the more serious Bright with falsetto whoops and yells, on that morning he sounded unusually restrained. It seems he had heard the sad news before transmission, but had decided that they couldn't announce it immediately and then revert to their normal, boisterous jollity. They'd save it for the midway break and then struggle on as best they could for the remaining half-hour. At the end of the show, Wright apologised. "I've not been myself today." Bright wrapped it up: "It's been a very emotional day for us in here."
What made the episode particularly poignant was not merely the listener's knowledge that here were two footballers marking the death of a former colleague and friend; there was also the recognition that all concerned were united by their race. Black footballers in this country have good reason to feel part of a special community. In the past, they have had to endure racist taunts from the terraces and suggestions from managers and journalists that they lacked "bottle". And even now that overt racism has diminished, when an incident occurs involving a black player for the opposing side, you need only stand in the overwhelmingly white crowd to realise that they are still regarded by many fans as an alien species: not the same, somehow, as the other players on the field.
Nothing could be better calculated to explode that remaining prejudice than Wright and Bright. As soon as you hear them chatting to other footballers, you know you are listening to conversation between complete equals. These are not the stilted post-match encounters between articulate interviewers and breathless footballers who are compelled to resort to cliches in order to accommodate the formal demands of their interrogator. These are funny, irreverent, free-and-easy raps between people who have played alongside each other on the pitch, and who know that what they do out there has a rude reality that isn't captured in the studied phrases of journalists and commentators.
A few weeks ago, their main man was Robbie Fowler of Liverpool. "You know, Robbie," says Wright, "I've got nothing but love for you." "The feeling's mutual," retorts Robbie. "Listen, Robbie. In the Roma game, what was in your mind when the referee pointed to the spot?" (A reference to an incident when the ball struck a Liverpool player on the elbow.) "Yes. I thought at first he'd given a pen. I was pleased to see him rush over to the corner flag and book about twenty of their players. I think he booked half the first row of the Kop as well." Roars of laughter in the studio. The chat moves on to other sporting accomplishments. "I've had an 80 break in snooker," Fowler boasts. "I've had a 49," counters Wright. Fowler knows exactly how to play this game. "Wrighty," he says with ironic precision, "is that better than 80?"
A BBC administrator told me that it was the first show on BBC Radio that sounded colloquially black. That's partly true. Wright refers to David Beckham as "niceness pure", describes Graham Taylor's fall from grace as "God blanking him on the mountain top", and prefaces a serious question with the phrase "I'm now going straight into deepness". But there's something even more important about this hour. Wright and Bright seem to have drawn upon their own sense of cultural marginality to create a space where all footballers can (at last) be themselves. It might not be a club you want to join, but if you'd like to hear the unmistakable sound of a culture talking to itself, there's no better place to go on a Saturday morning.