Micah Richards turns 27 next week, another example of football’s innate ability to play tricks on the mind. Where did that fresh-faced defender go? How is he possibly less than five years younger than James Collins? What have we all been doing with our lives?
Richards is still England’s youngest ever defender, beating Rio Ferdinand to that honour when called up by Steve McClaren in 2006. Quick, strong and skilful, he started six competitive international matches before turning 20. This was Gary Neville for a new generation, England’s answer at right-back. A gem had been unearthed in Manchester, via Oldham.
How quickly exciting potential becomes wasted opportunity. Richards has transformed from tomorrow’s answer to yesterday’s man. Following his release by Manchester City, the defender has joined Aston Villa on a four-year deal. While his old side compete for the title, Richards seeks regular football at the club who have finished 16th, 15th, 15th and 17th in the last four Premier League seasons.
An England international defender in the prime of his career joining one English club from another should be big news, as the aforementioned Ferdinand can testify. Richards, however, will slip out of a side door at the Etihad, his departure met with neither anguish nor celebration. There is nothing as demeaning as being ignored.
Richards’ decline is symbolised by the inevitability of his departure from City. This is a club whose only homegrown options for next season are a first-choice goalkeeper, a 29-year-old French left-back and a 37-year-old goalkeeper whose last Premier League start was in 2007. City were keen to let Richards leave on loan last season, yet Dedryck Boyata made two Premier League appearances.
There was talk of interest from Juventus and Internazionale in Richards last summer, but a move to Fiorentina only served to continue the alarming decline. He started only seven Serie A Matches, criticised by coach Vicenzo Montella in January for his lack of fitness.
“His fitness levels weren’t up to scratch,” Montella said. “He is more of a full-back in a four-man defence and when he arrived, in my view, his fitness levels weren’t up to scratch to sustain that role.” Very few in Florence will have mourned his retreat back to the Premier League.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Richards attempted to improve his PR by claiming disbelief at his lack of minutes in Italy. “I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve been on loan and I haven’t made a commitment to stay,” he said. “No disrespect to the players here, I feel I should have been playing.” The article described Richards as a ‘football obsessive’ and ‘renaissance man’. One doth protest too much?
Once renowned for his pace and endeavour to surge forward, disagreements with the views of various managers has become the new hallmark of Richards’ career. When Roberto Mancini was City boss, he famously reminded his defender to “remember to pick up his brain”.
“He has good quality but sometimes Micah thinks he can play at only 50%,” Mancini said. “If Micah plays to 100%, he can become one of the top full-backs in Europe. But he needs to improve. His body is on the pitch, but his mind is left at home sometimes.” And that’s coming from one of his fans.
Manuel Pellegrini took a harder line, starving Richards of first-team football. Again Richards claims to have been harshly treated, but the council for the defence can simply exclaim ‘Pablo Zabaleta’ in a loud voice before resting its case. Richards must now hope to pip Alan Hutton for Villa’s right-back spot. It’s an easier gig.
With 16 league starts since April 2012, the time has surely come for Richards to embark on a period of introspection. Being castigated and ignored by one coach could be considered an anomaly, but three or four suggests that the problem lies at Richards’ feet (or should that be mind?). There have been consistent insinuations about his attitude.
A young, English defender. An academy graduate with multiple Premier League winner’s medals. An Englishman who was prepared to go abroad. These are characteristics which generate a great deal of goodwill for Richards. A car doesn’t start with only goodwill in the tank.
Football is littered with the wretched dimmed light of bright young things, but few Englishmen shone brighter than Micah Richards at the age of 19. Villa Park might not be the end of the line, but it could represent the last chance saloon for a player in dramatic decline when still in his prime.