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Farewell, Shaun Wright-Phillips

Remembering one of the less-celebrated celebrity soccer signings of RBNY’s recent history.

MLS: Orlando City SC at New York Red Bulls
Farewell SWP, Farewell
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Shaun Wright-Phillips was arguably the best-known and most accomplished player in the locker room during his two-season stint at RBNY. He played for Manchester City, Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers before arriving at the New York Red Bulls; he won the Premier League title and the FA Cup in England, and played for his country 36 times. He brought with him to RBNY a faded reputation, but one that was still bigger and further-reaching than any other player in the squad.

But for the year-and-a-half he was with RBNY, he was most often a cheerleader for the club from the bench or in the sky boxes at Red Bull Arena. He delivered a few highlights on the pitch, including his first and only goal in MLS, at BMO Field against Toronto FC:

And one of the more memorable assists in RBNY history: Shaun feeding brother Bradley in a road victory at Talon Energy Stadium at the Philadelphia Union.

If his goal against Club America had been in a competitive game instead of a friendly, he’d have become an instant RBNY legend.

But SWP distinguished himself in an unexpected way at RBNY: he settled into a role as a training-ground veteran, a mentor of sorts to younger players who could see up close the habits and methods of a pro who had played for some of the world’s biggest clubs.

And he was down-to-earth, open and approachable even before he was on the team and contractually obliged to make himself available for media and fan events. He arrived at RBNY as a wedding guest: brother Bradley was getting married and he came to visit for the ceremony and celebrations. I spotted him outside Red Bull Arena before a home game, and had a pleasant conversation with a former England international who just happened to be in town for a wedding.

A few days later, he was at the training ground, jogging and participating in the team’s preparations for its next opponent.

He became a regular at training and you saw the cleverness and the cunning of Shaun whenever he had the ball. He was amazing to see and it’s rare in training when you watch players that were involved within the Premier League like Thierry Henry and Juan Pablo Angel was before him.

It was head coach Jesse Marsch who planned RBNY’s gentle seduction of SWP, allowing him to train with the boys and get in shape to see if he could catch the eye of another Premier League side after his contract had expired at Queens Park Rangers.

He signed with the Red Bulls instead, settling into a role as the luxury RBNY could afford: a lightly-used veteran, who made his greatest contributions to the team in its work between matches. It has been a while since he was regarded as a significant force at the top level in England, but if he came to America in search of a return to the limelight, he never showed it.

He was always the same man who chatted amiably to stranger before one of his brother’s games in MLS. He gave generously of his time and attention to media, in the same way he gave his time and attention to training sessions for a team that never really treated him as a first-choice player.

In conversation, SWP was very positive about MLS in general, and he had a genuine enthusiasm for RBNY regardless of his level of involvement with the first team’s games. After last year’s October comeback against Philadelphia Union - a 3-2 victory capped by Dax McCarty’s match-winner - SWP was energized in the locker room. “That was a proper Derby,” he said, with passion in his eyes and voice. He was still wrapped up in the result, fully committed to RBNY’s cause - which was to build momentum and maximize playoff seeding over the last few games of the regular season. The fact this was a game he didn’t play in at all was immaterial: he was part of the team.

But SWP’s time at Red Bull Arena is at an end. His RBNY contract expired at the end of 2016, and he has moved on to USL’s Phoenix Rising FC.

We’ll have to wait and see what sort of role he plays in Phoenix, but the USL club has got itself a good man.

Shaun’s brother Bradley, meanwhile, will need to find himself a new babysitter. Maybe SWP’s favorite job during his time at RBNY - judging by the way he talked about it - was playing Uncle Shaun to his brother’s kids. The BWP family can look forward to plenty of gifts from Arizona, no doubt.