He was the teacher who changed Ian Wright ’s life, the man who taught him the secret of a perfect goal.
The former footballer paid a tearful tribute to Sydney Pigden in the I’m a Celebrity jungle, saying: “If it wasn’t for him… I know I wouldn’t be where I am, I think about him every day.”
And the star was just as important to his mentor as Sydney was to him.
Sydney helped the England and Arsenal striker overcome his rage and break free from his bullying stepfather, in a friendship that lasted until Sydney’s death two years ago.
Sydney also had overcome struggles in his life – he had tragically lost a baby son – and perhaps saw in his pupil a boy he could help.
It was a surrogate father/son relationship that led to former Hurricane and Spitfire pilot Sydney declaring Ian’s debut for England was the “proudest moment” of his life –beating his part in 1945’s Victory flypast over Buckingham Palace.
“He was like a father figure” dad-of-eight Ian, 56, said in a tribute in a teaching journal.
“If I wasn’t good in class he would tell me that I wouldn’t be allowed to play football on a Saturday.
“He believed in me and never gave up. It was a chain reaction, others started to believe in me too.”
Ian paid tribute to Sydney around the campfire before breaking down.
Their connection touched many – with people sharing stories of their inspiring teachers on social media.
The pair met at London’s Turnham Juniors, in Brockley’s tough Honor Oak Estate, when Ian was an unruly eight-year-old sent out of the classroom to stand in the corridor.
While many saw him as disruptive and loud, PE teacher Sydney just saw a boy that needed help and took him under his wing, teaching him to read and write – and to play football.
It was a huge change for Ian whose dad was absent, whose mother Nesta struggled with alcohol and whose stepfather was a “rough-voiced, real bully” who made him stand facing the corner, instead of watching his beloved Match of The Day.
“While my mum drank my stepdad did nothing but smoke weed and gamble,” Ian recalled in his autobiography A Life in Football.
“He was rough with my mum and rough with all of us kids. And I don’t know why, but he didn’t like me in particular.
“At one stage, I got hit or I cried every single day.”
He added: “I loved football but he wouldn’t let us watch Match of the Day. We slept in the same room as the television, so we’d be in bed and he’d make us turn towards the wall so we could hear it but not see it.”
Then came the teacher who changed everything.
In an emotional blog, Ian distinctly recalled the day Sydney first saw him being punished.
“He walked past, he stopped and came back to look at me,” he wrote. “You know when someone sees you? They’re looking at you like they can see something more? He went into my classroom to talk to my teacher. Then he changed my life.
“From that moment on I stayed with him. He taught me everything: how to read and how to write, how to have patience, and why sometimes I’d get angry. He was the first man who showed me any kind of love.”
Ian later learned Sydney was driven by his own trauma. He and his wife had lost their only son as an infant – and had he lived he would have been just a few years older than Ian.
The pair never had another child – as his Scottish wife Aileen died in 1968, leaving the Sydenham-born local a widower aged just 46.
Sydney threw himself into work – and, a passionate cyclist and footballer, he believed in the “power of sports” to help people.
It was a keep calm and carry on attitude of a man who came of age in the Second World War. His father was a milkman and, with money tight, Sydney was forced to leave school aged 14. His parents died the following year.
But just as he saw something in Ian, his former headmaster saw something in him – and funded him to take evening classes to get his school certificate.
As soon as he was allowed, Sydney joined the Royal Air Force and during the war he would fly more than 100 sorties, including a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain, aged 18. It was then he was struck another blow. He and his best friend had a coin toss to decide who would get to test pilot a new aircraft. He lost, only to watch the plane malfunction in mid-air – killing his friend.
After the war, Sydney trained as a teacher, working for 30 years at Turnham Juniors, now Turnham Academy.
In 2005, Sydney surprised a retired Ian as he sat in the stands at Arsenal’s Highbury stadium for the TV documentary Nothing to Something.
The video of the emotional meeting – 20 years after they last spoke – got more than 3.5 million views on YouTube, as Ian buried his head in his mentor’s chest and sobbed: “You’re alive!”
Sydney responded: “I’m so glad you’ve done so well for yourself.”
The pair became inseparable, with Ian visiting him regularly in his South London care home, before he died aged 95.
Ian dedicated his 2016 autobiography to him and unveiled a plaque at Turnham’s in his honour this year. He now realises, that while Sydney changed his life, he changed Sydney’s too.
Ian said in a blog: “He said he was prouder of the fact I played for Arsenal and for England than he was flying over Buckingham Palace. You can’t top that. That’s what teaching meant to him.
“He knew if you could make one person better, then you’ve done something with your life. He did that with me.”
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