Micah Richards: ‘I’m just having fun, watching football with friends. People relate to that’ | Soccer

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Soon after Micah Richards bursts into the room, with booming laughter, the former England footballer shows a different side to his character. His sadness after his soaring career faded and then ended, when he was just 31, is accompanied by acceptance. “I can hardly walk now because of my knee but I wouldn’t change it,” Richards says of the injury that ruined his life as a footballer. It began with giddy promise when he made his international debut as England’s youngest-ever defender at 18 but, as Richards insists now, “I would sacrifice everything for football. I know that sounds ridiculous, and I should have a knee replacement, but I wouldn’t change a thing. That shows my devotion to football.”

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Richards, who is 34, smiles and spreads his hands as if embracing his second life as a successful pundit. “Everyone knows that without football I wouldn’t be anything,” he says.

From Chapeltown in Leeds, he was the boy whose talent meant that, at 17, he was taken to expensive restaurants and strip clubs by agents desperate to seize control of his career. Richards was a youthful sensation at Manchester City before, as money transformed the club, the dressing room became a soap opera, with combustible characters including Robinho, Craig Bellamy, Mario Balotelli, Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Yaya Touré and Samir Nasri.

Richards had an excellent season when City won their first Premier League title in 2012. But, by the time of the dramatic last game, when Sergio Agüero’s 94th-minute goal made them champions, he was on the bench with his best days behind him. Richards’s dying days as a footballer were at Aston Villa where forlorn attempts to restore his damaged knee left him seriously depressed.

He has since discovered a new life as a media star, who is so entertaining that even Roy Keane can’t help cracking a smile as their surreal bromance continues. “I get nothing but love on social media these days,” he says, “and it’s because I don’t play the victim. I’m just having fun like a normal guy, down the pub, watching football with friends. People relate to that.”

Richards is also an author as, with the help of Rory Smith, he is about to release an immensely readable book which takes us deep inside the strange and often unhinged hidden life of a Premier League footballer. His fame is so obvious that, outside the London hotel where we meet, Richards is greeted by beaming people who seem to regard him as a close friend. “Don’t forget I do Match of the Day, which is seen by three million [viewers] a week, and Super Sunday on Sky, which is a million-and-a-half to two million,” he says. “I do CBS in America, a podcast, radio and the adverts on Sky.”

Yet the privileges of fame cannot soften the reality of being black in Britain. He reveals calmly that he is often pulled over by the police when he goes home to Chapeltown. “I still get stopped now. When they see me they’re like: ‘Oh …!’ They’re obviously embarrassed and say: ‘I like seeing you on TV.’ I’m like: ‘No, why are you pulling me over?’ They can’t really answer so they’ll say something like: ‘Your car’s coming up uninsured.’ I’m like: ‘That’s funny because I’ve got the documents here and it’s clearly my car.’ I don’t like it when they lie. Just be honest.’”

Micah Richards with Roy Keane
Micah Richards says of his fellow Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane: ‘Roy’s an absolute diamond. At first he seems standoffish but he’s the sweetest, humblest person you’ll ever meet.’ Photograph: Tom Jenkins/NMC Pool/The Guardian

It’s disconcerting to imagine how Richards would be treated without the buffer of celebrity. “Exactly. As soon as I wind down the window, the look in their eyes shows all this sinking in.” Does he give them a hard time about racial harassment? “It depends what the officer is like. If they’re new and they’ve been given a narrative about Chapeltown you allow them a break. If it’s an old one trying to be nasty, I make sure they feel bad. But I want people to see me in a positive light so they can say: ‘Actually, this narrative of aggressive black people is wrong. Micah’s from a tough area and he’s always happy.’ Yeah, I can go deep. I did a documentary on racism that’s got awards. But when you go too much that side, it can work against you. I want to show people you can be happy and be from Chapeltown.”

Richards’s prodigious rise as a teenager meant he was “thrown into this world where it’s absolute madness and everyone’s treating you like some superstar”. He grimaces when I say it must have been bizarre, at such a young age, to be taken to a strip club by a middle-aged agent. “It’s seedy, isn’t it? If you did that now you could go to jail. We didn’t have money but I was fine. Then someone turns up in a Ferrari one week, a Porsche the next, and he’s buying you boots and taking you for a fancy meal. You just go along with it.”

He was fortunate his father was strong and stopped him from being snared by the most unscrupulous agents. But for Richards, “the word ‘agent’ triggers me. There are good agents but my experiences were traumatising.”

Richards lost perspective, “going from £500 to 50 grand a week in 18 months. You’re just a kid and suddenly you’ve got a cleaner, you’re buying a house with a pool for £3m. I was driving an Aston Martin at 19, but I’m only human and anyone in my position probably would have done the same. Me and James Milner both bought Ferraris on the same day. We parked behind each other but only mine was in the paper. It felt ridiculous.”

His book shows how difficult it is for young players breaking into Premier League squads. “Honestly,” he says of some senior pros, “they’re horrible. It’s like borderline bullying – that’s how bad it is. I had great old pros like Richard Dunne, who walked me through every game, but I was the only one from City in the England squad and some didn’t like it.”

Micah Richards heads England’s third goal in a 3-0 Euro 2008 qualification game against Israel at Wembley
Micah Richards (centre) heads in to score England’s third in a 3-0 Euro 2008 qualification game against Israel at Wembley. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Richards thrived under Roberto Mancini at City, but “it became really hard when I went from this superstar teenager to being not good enough for England. The self-doubt came in.” As his England manager, Fabio Capello was “the strictest man in the world”, “horrible” and, “honest to God, an idiot”.

Richards tells riotous anecdotes about Mancini’s tumultuous interaction with Balotelli, Tevez and Nasri. But, in remembering the 2011 Champions League game against Bayern Munich, when Tevez refused Mancini’s instruction to come on as a substitute, Richards is more interesting on his own painful insecurity. Richards wished he didn’t have to play a game in which, eventually, he was run ragged by Franck Ribéry.

“This was a different level,” he says of Bayern. “Ribery and [Arjen] Robben on the wings, with [David] Alaba and Philipp Lahm. I touched the ball 10 times all game, and eight were tackles. When I was 18 I’d played against Robben [for England] and had got the better of him. But under Mancini I was a bit heavier and not as sharp. I was thinking about the game a lot more but I felt out of my depth. My brain was there but my body wasn’t allowing me to do it. Bayern didn’t give you a second. The pace was too quick and it was one of my worst ever games in a City shirt.”

Micah Richards takes flight after a challenge with Bayern Munich’s Jérôme Boateng during a 2011 Champions League match
Micah Richards takes flight after a challenge with Bayern Munich’s Jérôme Boateng during a 2011 Champions League match. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Richards smiles when recalling that Manuel Pellegrini left him out against Barcelona at the Camp Nou a few years later. “I was absolutely buzzing. Thank God. It’s like when Bale played against Maicon at Inter[nazionale]. One of the best right backs you’ve ever seen and Bale ruins him. [Maicon] became a laughing stock and it ended his career. I didn’t want to play against [Lionel] Messi and have him nutmegging me and scoring four.”

Did Richards ever face Messi? “No, thank God for that [he laughs]. Seriously. I did all right against [Cristiano] Ronaldo but Messi was a different animal. So when Pellegrini told me I wasn’t playing I was genuinely happy. International football is slower and you can adapt. But the Champions League has better technique, it’s quicker and everybody is more tactically aware. The crowds are jumping and it was new to us as Man City then. It was like a rabbit in the headlights.”

City now look like the best team in Europe – even if they are yet to win the Champions League. How much would Richards have benefited if he could have played for Pep Guardiola, rather than Kevin Keegan or Stuart Pearce, at the start of his career? “At 18 I was doing interviews saying: ‘I don’t believe anyone’s better than me.’ That’s how confident I was. If I was playing under Pep I’d have been up there. But don’t forget I had five knee operations from 17 to 24.”

Aston Villa’s Micah Richards faces up to Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany in 2015
Aston Villa’s Micah Richards faces up to Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany in 2015 – he only featured in 31 games across four years for Villa. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

From 2015-2019, Richards played 31 games for Aston Villa in his last four years as a footballer. They were “horrible, brutal times. I put the doctor in a bad position because he advised against draining all that fluid from my knee so often. But I wanted to play so bad. One day he took 60ml in my knee but he still had to come back the week after. I was definitely depressed. You think: ‘How can I be earning such good money and be depressed?’ But even footballers can struggle. There was only one friend I could talk to and he said: ‘You can overcome this. It will make you stronger.’ Since then I’ve looked at life differently. I work hard and my intentions are pure.”

Richards was initially reluctant to do media work and, even when television opportunities rolled in, he was often dismissed as a beneficiary of positive discrimination. “That was hard because loads of people were messaging: ‘We know why you’ve got this gig.’ But I was doing BBC radio before any of this happened. Imagine going on social media and sending someone a private message just to be horrid. Some of them same people now say: ‘Oh, you’re the best pundit out there.’ What?

“I just need time to grow. Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville, Jamie Redknapp, Roy Keane have been doing it for 10 to 15 years. I remember Gary’s first interview with Mancini and his suit’s horrendous, his hair’s all over the place, he’s nervous as hell. Gary is now one of the best pundits in the country. We all need time. I wouldn’t still be on Sky or the BBC if I wasn’t doing my job well. People now understand that but back then they couldn’t.”

Keane’s intimidating aura disappeared when, during lockdown, Richards saw the hard man apply his own blusher. “It was brilliant,” Richards laughs. “Roy’s an absolute diamond. At first he seems standoffish but he’s the sweetest, humblest person you’ll ever meet. Just don’t take the piss. He’s so passionate and loves the game. He can’t let the game go.”

Richards also remains in thrall to football. “I love everything I’m doing. But my schedule is too hectic and I’ve got a son who’s five and I’m starting to miss key parts of his life. That’s the only thing I’m worried about. But football will always be my passion.”

The Game by Micah Richards in published by Harper Collins

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