Mark Bright found fame at Crystal Palace, forming a deadly strike partnership with Ian Wright and netting more than 100 goals for the Eagles. He later moved to Sheffield Wednesday and remains the club’s leading goalscorer in the Premier League era.
But in January 1997, Bright embarked on a new challenge in Switzerland with FC Sion. His four-month stay saw him enjoy the charms of the Swiss lifestyle and endure the machinations of a dubious club president. There was even the sight of his team-mates left starstruck by Michelle Gayle.
What there wasn’t was a single competitive appearance as registration problems scuppered the transfer. Speaking to Sky Sports as part of his commitment to the charity Prostate Cancer UK and their Men United campaign, here’s Bright’s story...
How did the move to FC Sion come about?
Things weren’t going well for me at Sheffield Wednesday. David Pleat had moved in and I was kind of out of the team. It was coming round to January and my agent said to me that a French agent had spoken to him saying that a Swiss club he knew were looking for an English-style centre-forward.
They were literally looking through the Rothmans (now known as the Sky Sports Football Yearbook) and going through clubs and players. My name had been thrown into the mix and this agent wanted to know if I’d be interested in going out to Switzerland.
Was it a big decision to move abroad?
I’d just got married in the November but I’d always fancied the idea of moving abroad. Always. When I was at Crystal Palace, I’d actually gone to night-school to try and learn Spanish. I felt that if the opportunity ever came up and someone was interested, if they knew I was fluent in Spanish it might convince them to take a chance on me. So it was in my mind.
But I was 34 when the chance came so I just felt it was only going to be for a year or so and it was worth giving it a go. I flew out with my agent, met there agent at Basel and then drove down. It was just really strange how it all happened so quickly. I bought a big trunk and I was off to Switzerland.
What were your first impressions?
If you’ve ever been to Switzerland you’ll know that it’s a really beautiful place. I just couldn’t understand that you went over there in January and they started the pre-season in February when the pitches are frozen. But it was like clockwork there and they knew it would stop snowing soon and all be OK.
I got an apartment with some electric shutters. You’d press the button and it would reveal the mountains and the ski-run and all that. They gave me a car. I was excited by it, I suppose. I’d googled the team and seen that Liverpool had just played them. I’d done a bit of research and it all looked good. I even went to college three times a week to try and learn French.
How was life in the dressing room?
Well, my (now) ex-wife (Michelle Gayle), who was a singer at the time, said to me: ‘Oh my god, I’m coming to Switzerland to do a promotion for my new single.’ It was on Bravo or something like that, one of the channels out there.
So I said to the players that my wife was coming over and she’s going to be on the TV. So they all switched on the channel that night and they were really excited. I brought her down to training for some lunch the next day and they were really excited to meet her. It was all very strange!
How did you find the training?
I was doing well in the training, although it was very difficult. The coach was a very respected coach called Alberto Bigon. He had been in charge of Napoli when Diego Maradona and Careca and all those players had won the title (in 1990). He was an Italian coach and he was very good tactically.
And you were enjoying the lifestyle?
Paul Ince was playing at Inter at the time. Where I was, if you go up the mountain and down the other side, you’re in Milan. So I spoke to Incey and he said ‘come over, we’re playing’ so Incey’s wife met me the other side of the mountain, we drove to the stadium to watch the game and then I went back. I did that a couple of times just to watch him play. It was all going well.
So when did you first realise there might be a problem?
I’d joined them during the mid-season break. All the boys had been on holiday and we then went to Rome. I checked with my bank, I had a Credit Suisse account, and noticed that only a small amount of my wages had gone in.
That was kind of the first worry. I spoke to the director of sport and told him that I hadn’t been paid properly. He just said it was fine and there had been some mailing problems or something.
My agent spoke to the president. The president was a very… colourful character. I think that’s the word! In fact, he later went to jail. He just didn’t honour contracts, really. When I went to see him, he just said everything was OK and was going to be sorted.
Then later he said to me that I needed to speak to my old president (at Sheffield Wednesday) because they wanted a fee. He hadn’t thought there was going to be a fee for me. David Pleat (the Sheffield Wednesday manager) wanted £60,000.
I tried to say to Sheffield Wednesday to waive the fee and just cut me loose, but they wouldn’t send my registration until they had this £60,000. The Sion president was saying, ‘Why should I have to pay £60,000 for you at your age?’ But David Pleat insisted on the money.
It was a real stumbling block because he just didn’t want to pay this 60 grand. What happened is he got in this Portuguese striker called Ahmed Ouattara, who was available for nothing. He decided he’d give Ouattara my salary and everything and stop paying for me.
He got me in the office one day and said, through his secretary who spoke good English, that I needed to go back to England.
I’d even played a couple of pre-season friendlies and things had gone well. The players liked me, I could tell they liked me. The staff and the coach too. But the coach told me that while he’d have liked me to stay it was out of his hands.
That’s when I spoke to my agent and said: ‘There’s something going on here and I’ve got to get back.’
Do you look back with frustrations at the whole experience?
Listen, I really enjoyed it. I’ve got to say to you, the players, the physio, the doctor, everyone in the area was so nice and so good to me. When I retired from football I even went on holiday near there in the summer to Montreux and caught up with the physio and one of the players.
Despite your problems, do you wish you’d given it a go abroad earlier?
Definitely. I think some British players look at it as an end-of-career move like David Beckham. If I’d had the chance to go to a French club like Chris Waddle, Glenn Hoddle or Joey Barton then I’d have done it. I’d definitely have gone, experienced a new lifestyle and learnt a language.
After football it opens you up to different people. Look at Tony Dorigo doing media work in Italy with the TV work and things. This is what happens as you become a bit of an expert on that country.
So no regrets?
It was a great experience and I would never say that it was a mistake. It didn’t work out for me but it wasn’t my fault as I worked hard in training. They actually won the league that year too. I was just gutted I had to leave.