There were raised eyebrows on both sides of the world when the inclusion of Bailey Wright in Australia’s World Cup squad was confirmed last week, but he has what it takes to be a surprise package for the Socceroos.
It is almost exactly a year since I spent much of the evening of the first Lions Test in an Irish pub in Melbourne telling a couple of Australian football fans that Wright should play for the Socceroos in the World Cup.
They were unconvinced, as were my English friends. A Preston North End player in the World Cup? No chance.
But as of Tuesday my beloved Preston North End are represented on football’s greatest stage for the first time since the late, great Sir Tom Finney played for England in 1958.
Wright’s is a remarkable World Cup story. Born in Melbourne, he played youth football with Langwarrin, Mornington and Dandenong Thunder before travelling to Britain for unsuccessful trials with Celtic and Crewe Alexandra.
He returned to trial with Blackburn Rovers and finally Preston North End, where he was offered a two-year youth contract on the basis of a two-hour training session in July 2009.
Wright is not the first Australian international to play for Preston. Joe Marston is a club legend having turned out 185 times, and became the first Australian to play in an FA Cup final when he captained the Lilywhites at Wembley in 1954.
Wright joined Preston at the most tumultuous time in our recent history and his emergence remains one of the only bright spots of a depressing few years blighted by unpopular managers, relegation, a yearly turnover of the entire squad and general chaos.
That changed with the arrival of current manager Simon Grayson in February 2013. Wright is the only player still at the club from the squad that was involved in his debut against Stockport in August 2010.
Since then he has turned professional and become the key man at the heart of our defence, a model of consistency with 51 appearances last season in league and cup and four goals from centre back, including a beautiful dipping volley away at Coventry.
So what can Australia fans expect from young Bailey if he does get a chance in Brazil?
Oddly, given his relatively short height, his greatest attribute is his ability to win the aerial battle (crucial in League One) and his willingness to put his body on the line. Wright is strong in the tackle, defends positively and courageously and is a reliable presence in defence.
Being ultra critical his distribution could improve, and he isn’t the quickest defender in the world. But if you want somebody who simply does defending well, Bailey is perfect for the job. He is a defender in the Lucas Neill mould.
Whatever happens it is exciting to see a Northender at the World Cup. Wright has come a long way since I sat behind him among the away fans on a rainy Tuesday at Nottingham Forest a couple of seasons back and it certainly feels he is one of our own.
Given the chance he won’t let his country down, and rest assured supporters of Bailey’s adopted home club in a small but proud corner of England are following Australia’s progress with interest.