It’s that laugh. It’s infectious. When Micah Richards roars and shrieks with laughter, you can’t help but laugh with him. Even Roy Keane has been known to chuckle along, or at least smirk.
For the second time in his 33 years, Richards has burst onto the scene. That is the phrase he used — to Keane’s unconstrained amusement — to describe his breakthrough as a teenager for Manchester City and England in the mid-2000s. The same phrase can be applied now to his post-football career as a pundit for the BBC, Sky Sports and CBS.
Football365 called him a “glorious, howling antidote to modern life”, a fun-loving alternative to “all those pundits who take football so seriously, as though they’re talking about the politics of the Weimar Republic and not some upcoming almost-certainly dreadful match between Fulham and Burnley that hardly anyone will be watching”.
Richards recognises and welcomes that characterisation. He also knows it is not universally held. “A lot of people love my attitude towards life, but a lot of other people think, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’,” he tells The Athletic.
He used to wonder whether Keane was among that second group. Richards’ Premier League debut for City, as a 17-year-old, came in late 2005, five weeks after Keane, at age 34, made his 471st and final appearance for Manchester United.
“Did you burst onto the scene?” the former United captain asked him, mischievously, in one of their early appearances together in the Sky Sports studio two years ago. “Not many defenders burst onto the scene, you know…”
🗣️ Micah Richards: "I burst onto the scene"
🗣️ Roy Keane: "Did you burst onto the scene?"
🗣️ Micah Richards: "I played for England at 18, youngest ever defender to play for England. I would say that's bursting onto the scene!"
Fair play Micah Richards! 👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/pDP7A5kfvJ
— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) March 8, 2020
Richards did, though. He was a first-team regular at City at 17 and an England international at 18, leading Sir Bobby Robson to say the youngster “could go on to become our best defender since Bobby Moore”. He was an FA Cup winner at 22, a Premier League champion at 23.
He makes a gesture to suggest something plummeting from a great height. “It was a nosedive,” he says.
We talk about all that: the breakthrough, the feeling of invincibility it gave him and the excesses he enjoyed — and he really did enjoy them — after seeing his wages increased to £50,000 a week at the age of 18. He recalls splashing out on Ferraris (plural), a night out with friends in Los Angeles that cost him $150,000 (most of it on Champagne) and being hit with the sudden realisation that he was fast becoming the kind of flash footballer he’d been warned about — and Keane had raged against.
It is 10 years today since arguably the high point of his career.
“Arguably” because, when City won the 2011-12 Premier League in such dramatic circumstances thanks to Sergio Aguero’s stoppage-time goal against Queens Park Rangers, Richards was watching it happen from the substitutes’ bench.
He recalls his emotions that day — anger, frustration, disbelief and eventually euphoria — with an endearing candour.
At that stage of his career, he felt he could still achieve anything. Little did he know that the good times were about to end or that he would end up as a subject of ridicule and derision at his next permanent club Aston Villa, wondering what on earth life after football might have in store.
As it transpires, he need not have worried.
We start at the beginning: in Chapeltown, a district of Leeds that was synonymous with riots, crime and racial tensions in the 1970s and 1980s.
Richards “absolutely loved” growing up in Chapeltown, he says. But looking back as an adult, he recalls seeing things that were not right: drugs and guns changing hands, witnessing someone being beaten with a hammer, a cousin being bundled into the back of a police van for no apparent reason. “There was drugs going on around that area, there were guns — everything you expect in some of those areas at the time,” he says. “There was also racism. I can remember police officers being blatantly racist to me.”
His father Lincoln, an electrician, got it worse, and was racially abused on the touchline when the young Micah was playing football. He remembers his dad’s quiet dignity in refusing to rise to the provocation.
Richards recalls spending afternoons with his mother in the social-services office where she worked and how much more peaceful it was there. He was streetwise, but his parents ensured he knew the difference between right and wrong. “And I loved the fact that, while everything else was happening around me, I was just focused on what I wanted to do,” he says.
He wanted to play football and he had the talent, athleticism and determination to follow it. He was rejected by Leeds United but moved on first to Oldham Athletic and then to City. And at 17, he was ready to burst onto the scene.
It was an FA Cup fifth-round tie at Villa Park in February 2006 and Richards was making only his fourth first-team appearance (second start). Villa led 1-0, in the fourth minute of stoppage time, when City forced a corner. From Joey Barton’s set piece, Richards rose highest to head home a dramatic equaliser.
“That was my magic moment,” he says. “I knew if Joey got the delivery right, I could jump higher than anyone. I’d just had a chance before that and someone cleared it off the line. So I was thinking, ‘Come on. You’ve got to do this. And then (City’s goalkeeper) David James is up in the box and I’m, like, ‘David, what are you doing?’. Because keepers just get in the way, don’t they? He’s six-foot-whatever, arms everywhere, running into my space.
“But I see the ball coming over and I’m thinking, ‘This is mine’. You’re young and fearless and I managed to get above everyone and… honestly, what an amazing, amazing feeling. I jumped into the crowd, and then I swore live on TV. And that just sums me up.”
It was the start of a whirlwind that saw Richards nail down a first-team place at City — then a mediocre, mid-table Premier League team, two years away from the takeover that would transform them beyond recognition — and, that November, a call-up to the England squad for a friendly against the Netherlands in Amsterdam. Like everything at that time, he took it in his stride.
This was a time when young homegrown players were struggling to establish themselves in the Premier League, never mind an England squad still built around a core of players who were now in their late 20s and early 30s. “Nobody else my age was getting in,” Richards says. “I got into that squad after playing 20, 30 times for Man City. I was getting man of the match for England, getting nominated with Steven Gerrard for England player of the year.
“Nobody remembers that, but no other young player was doing what I was doing at that time. I was thinking, ‘As long as I stay fit, I can achieve whatever I want’.”
It was injuries, ultimately, that did for Richards. But that doesn’t tell the whole story because he blames himself too.
“I was working hard in training,” he says. “No one worked harder in training. But was I living the best lifestyle? If I’m honest, I wasn’t. I was out at least once a week. If we had no midweek game, I was definitely out.
“We would meet up with England on the Sunday or the Monday before a Saturday game, but we wouldn’t really train that day. It would just be a walk-through. And I would be out on the (previous) Saturday night, 18 or 19, giving it the big ‘I am’. Meeting up with England on the Monday and I’m out on the Saturday night! Looking back now — what an idiot.”
Too much too young? Richards thinks so — and he isn’t just talking about fame and adulation.
“Imagine going from £500 a week to five grand a week,” he says. “And then going from five grand a week to fifty grand a week. Then you’d get bonuses, appearance money, a signing-on fee that was spread over the length of the contract. I remember one pay packet was like 250 grand for a month. I was at the training ground, just looking at my payslip, thinking, ‘Wow. How?’.”
It is worth saying that Richards isn’t being blasé here. Candid — remarkably candid — but not blasé. His voice drops to a hush because he knows the sums involved are obscene. But he wants to share this because it might help people understand how and why it is so difficult to stay focused, feet on the ground, when a football club are paying you such mind-boggling, life-changing sums of money as a teenager.
“What can you do?” he says. “What can you do? I know what I did.”
“I went straight out and bought myself a Ferrari,” he says. “I already had a Range Rover and an Aston Martin, but I thought, ‘It’s time’. Bought myself a Ferrari, an F430. Then a 458 Speciale.
“And I started to look at houses in Hale. I bought this £3 million, seven-bedroom house and I was living with two brothers, two cousins, my best mate. Where I was living was already more than enough, but this is what happens when you’re a footballer. It’s always, ‘Who has the best house? Who has the best car?’. You can never just be content. You’ve always got to want more.
“It actually worked really well. Buying that house was a really good investment. Everyone had a role in the house. My older brother would maintain it and do the cooking and cleaning. My cousin looked after the security. Then it would come to the weekend and we would all go out in Manchester or London and do 20, 30 grand in a night.”
On one trip to Los Angeles, he went a lot further.
“That was over $150,000 in a night,” he says. “It was so over the top and we would be throwing in tips and we just wanted the biggest bottle (of Champagne). It was just short of $100,000. And it was at that moment my mindset changed. I’d booked to go for a month, but I came home after three weeks, saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. I’m going to end up with no money’.
“I know I had injuries, but a certain part of me thinks, ‘Did I do everything I could have done? Did I eat well?’. No, I was having Chinese every week; Man Zen, in Hale, I was their best customer — every single week, a big box to take away between a group of us. Then you start getting bigger. I’m growing, but am I getting too heavy?
“You compare that to James Milner. I call him ‘Boring Milner’ but he’s not boring. He’s one of the greatest lads. But he took care of his body, always did the right thing. And look at him now, still going strong at Liverpool at 36 (Richards made his last senior appearance at age 28). He always recognised that you could do certain things that would give you the best possible chance.
“I didn’t do that. I was doing so well at such a young age that I thought I had everything. I didn’t take what I had seriously enough because I thought I would be good enough anyway.”
Pablo Zabaleta has rightly gone down in history as a legend of the modern Manchester City: an icon in the blue half of town, like Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Aguero, and part of the team that changed the club’s history.
For the best part of four seasons, though, Richards — when injury-free — held off the challenge of the warrior-like Argentina international, who was three years his senior. While contemporaries such as Nedum Onuoha, Daniel Sturridge and Kelvin Etuhu concluded the pathway at City was too congested after so many big-money signings, and the hugely talented Michael Johnson was afflicted by personal problems, Richards remained a standard-bearer for the club’s youth academy.
The 2011 FA Cup final, which yielded City’s first major trophy in 35 years? Richards started that day against Stoke City, with Zabaleta on the bench. The famous 6-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford? Richards had a blinder, combining with Milner and Silva on the right-hand side to overwhelm Patrice Evra on the United left. Despite injury problems, he started more games than Zabaleta in that title-winning campaign. But that “93:20” game against QPR remains a sore point.
“I’d been flying the first half of the season, getting all the plaudits,” he says. “Then I got injured, and Zabaleta took over. But I came on at Newcastle (in the penultimate match) and I made a great tackle. I remember (Tottenham midfielder) Tom Huddlestone tweeted that tackle had won City the title. We go into the QPR game and I’m feeling fit, happy, strong; feeling good. (Manager Roberto) Mancini was my guy and I thought, ‘I’m definitely starting. They’ve got a lot of pace down their left-hand side, so 100 per cent I’m playing’.
Richards block at 0-1 won man city the title
— Tom Huddlestone (@Huddz8) May 6, 2012
“And then the team goes up on the board and Zabaleta’s starting and I’m like… it was a sinking feeling. A sinking, sinking feeling. And I made it personal. It shouldn’t have been about me, but I’m honest. I’m thinking, ‘How are we about to win the league and I’m not playing?’. I’ve had an unbelievable season and I’m not playing. I took it personally. And then who goes and scores the first goal? Zabaleta. Who shanked it, by the way. He did!”
It wasn’t just Richards’ own mood that felt off. “That’s the only time I’d ever seen our dressing-room nervous,” he says. “We’d been saying things to the media about, ‘One game at a time’, but it was like the players didn’t know how to act. And then QPR scored and that’s when all my feelings changed. We’re about to win the Premier League — or maybe we miss out on the Premier League — and I’m thinking about myself? Don’t worry about yourself. Worry about the team.”
Those worries multiplied when QPR, down to 10 men after Barton was sent off, went 2-1 up.
City, having been on the verge of glory, seemed to be about to gift the Premier League to Manchester United, who were winning away to Sunderland. “People were making mistakes left, right and centre,” Richards says. “The crowd was silent, absolutely silent. On the bench, all you could hear was Mancini effing and jeffing, telling everyone to eff off, shouting at Joleon Lescott, Samir Nasri, Carlos Tevez. ‘Gaffer, calm down, please!’. But we needed it.”
And then, in stoppage time, goals from Edin Dzeko and Aguero turned the funereal atmosphere into one of unbridled ecstasy.
“Everyone talks about the Aguero goal, rightly, but Dzeko too, what a guy,” Richards says. “And the Aguero goal. It still doesn’t seem real when I watch it. What a legend he is. He’s a living legend and he’s just so humble with it. And the celebrations…”
“I can’t remember it,” Richards says. “I can remember we all went out into town and we had our medals on, but I was out the whole week celebrating. What a week.
“Ten years has gone so quickly. But that kind of moment will never happen again ever. It’s something we will still be looking back on in 30 years.”
At 23, with a Premier League winner’s medal around his neck to go with his FA Cup one, Richards was convinced the good times would keep coming.
They didn’t. From that point on, it was one injury after another.
He missed the start of the next season with an ankle injury sustained while playing for Great Britain at the London 2012 Olympics. He had barely returned to action when he tore the meniscus in his right knee.
He made just seven Premier League appearances that season and only two in the next, which wasn’t enough to qualify for a winner’s medal as City were crowned champions again. The club offered to have one made for him, but it was a time of personal anguish.
Wanting first-team football and a clean slate, he went on a season’s loan to Fiorentina in 2014, and then joined Aston Villa a year later.
The move to Italy was positive — “Loved the people, different lifestyle, it made me a better person and I’m so glad I did it” — despite making just 10 Serie A appearances but the Villa one was a disaster for all concerned.
With hindsight, Richards feels he should have stayed at City, where the medical team were familiar with his persistent knee problem, and tried to ensure he reached the ideal physical condition to be a squad player rather than chase a fitness level that was increasingly beyond him.
By the summer of 2012, Richards had made 226 first-team appearances for City as well as 13 at senior level for England and five for Great Britain.
Over the next seven years, before he officially retired in 2019, he made just 69 first-team appearances, fewer than half of them in the Premier League.
This is what he means when he talks about a “nosedive” — from one of English football’s brightest young prospects to a maligned figure at Villa, where he played 28 times in his first season as they finished bottom of the Premier League, three times in his second, the last of them — and his final one as a pro — in the October, and didn’t appear at all in his third or fourth.
Richards was on BBC duty for an FA Cup tie at Kidderminster Harriers in February when a fan of West Midlands neighbours Villa berated him for “all the money you stole” during his time on the club’s payroll. “It brought back rage which I thought had left me,” he says. “At that moment, I was like Micah from Chapeltown, (age) 15/16, thinking, ‘I want to destroy this guy’. But you’ve got to remain professional.”
Why did the comment hurt so much? “Because it brought back all those memories of being borderline depressed,” he says. “People don’t know the full story. I was doing all these fitness regimes where my knee just started giving way. There was a point where I felt I could have been playing, but (Villa’s then-manager) Steve Bruce said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t trust your body’, which I respected for his honesty. He was honest with me from the get-go.
“So I was training, but not playing, and it was hard. Really hard. People talk about the money, but I was going into training, knowing I’m not going to play, trying to keep everyone else’s spirits up, like I’m a cheerleader or something, but really, I’m struggling.
“It was the first time in my life where I’ve thought, ‘I can’t deal with this’. Normally I’ve got all the answers. I didn’t have the answers for this one.
“I was struggling. Because you’ve got money, you’ve got a house, you’ve got cars, you think you’re OK and you try to brush things to the side. ‘What have I got to worry about?’. But I was struggling. Struggling mentally. Really properly, though. I was embarrassed to go out of my house, scared of what Villa fans might say.”
For someone so gregarious, it sounds worse than “borderline” depressed.
“When I say ‘borderline’, there are people in my family who have struggled with mental health,” Richards says. “I’ve seen people really struggling — like they’re there, but not fully there. People might have different levels of what they see as depressed. I was struggling, demoralised, trying to put on a brave face in front of the boys at training. But I’ve seen people close to me really struggling mental health-wise, so I probably tried to tell myself I wasn’t that bad.
“I spoke to a friend who asked me how bad my problems were on a scale of one to 10. I said, ‘Football-wise, it’s really bad because it’s all I’ve ever known, the game I love, and it’s been taken away from me. I started off up here (holds his hand high) and now I’m down here (hand next to the floor) and I don’t think I can get back there’.
“But he persuaded me to look at it differently. Is it a life-or-death situation? No. Am I healthy? Yes. Financially stable? Yes. Could I see a way out? I could, to be honest. And that’s why I say ‘borderline’. I was struggling, definitely, but I could see a way out.”
Richards announced his retirement in the summer of 2019, shortly after his 31st birthday. Almost three years had passed since his final appearance for Villa. He had refused to let go of his career — “in denial” about his prospects, he says, rather than simply seeing out his contract — but when he did, it was a relief.
The question then was a simple one: What on earth was he going to do with the rest of his life?
He never wanted to be a pundit.
That might be a surprising admission now, having become such a familiar face and voice on television and radio over the past two years, but he “didn’t want to be anywhere near football after the way my career went”, Richards says. “When the BBC first asked me to come and do something, I was like, ‘No, I’m sorry. I don’t want to do it’.”
Eventually, he was persuaded to give it a try. He recalls being frozen, lost for words, during the audio checks for his first Football Focus appearance and, as the opening credits rolled, “shitting myself, thinking, ‘Oh my god. This is definitely not for me’.”
It is, though. It is definitely for him.
If he appeared a natural when he burst onto the scene as a footballer, the same was true as a broadcaster — not because he was slick or telegenic in the traditional sense, but because he was light-hearted, engaging and irreverent, whether that meant winding up Keane or roaring with laughter when, having named Yaya Toure and Patrick Vieira as the two best midfielders he had played with, he heard Alan Shearer reel off the names off Tim Sherwood and Rob Lee. (Shearer: “That’s terrible! That’s disgraceful behaviour!”)
“I honestly couldn’t think of a better job in the world after playing,” Richards says. “I really couldn’t. I love football, I’m passionate about it. I love the banter. I love working with different people.
“Roberto Martinez (the Belgium manager and a colleague for US broadcaster CBS) is one of the best for dissecting a game. He’s incredible. He shows you things you would never have thought of. Ian Wright and Shearer are brilliant on BBC. And when you’ve got a Super Sunday on Sky and you’ve got Roy Keane, Graeme Souness, Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville, Jamie Redknapp… that’s some line-up.”
His unlikely “bromance” with Keane has caused much mirth. At times, as Richards has gone near the knuckle about the Irishman’s age or Manchester United’s present fortunes, it has been tempting to wonder whether it might have been overstated and whether the affection might be one-way.
But no, he mentions Keane calling him last week to meet up when he was visiting Harrogate — “and it’s almost awkward because Roy Keane has asked me to go for a coffee, you know what I mean?”
“I don’t really get starstruck,” he says. “I did with Vieira when he came to Man City and working with Thierry Henry on CBS, but Roy… he’s a Manchester United captain, a legend, and with the greatest respect to me, I shouldn’t even be allowed to sit next to him.
“But Roy is everything I didn’t expect him to be. It’s hard to explain without going over the top, but there’s this perception that he’s an angry, old… but he’s the nicest, most considerate guy. And on the other hand, I think I’ve helped bring out a side of him that a lot of people wouldn’t see. And I take great pride in that.
“I know I sometimes go a bit over the top in terms of getting reactions, but I love working with him.”
In many ways, Richards is the anti-Keane, the anti-Souness, the anti-Neville, the anti-Carragher.
By his own admission, he didn’t make the most of his ability. His was the type of unfulfilled career — the world at his feet at the age of 18, in steep decline from 24 — that has often had Keane and Souness raging in indignation.
Yes, he was a Premier League champion and an England international — and there can be no doubt that he offers a significant City presence in a media landscape that is (as has been noted lately) dominated by Liverpool and Manchester United old boys — but he can also speak for a different generation of footballers.
The traditional pundit line-up is very “proper football man”. Richards knows he doesn’t fit that particular archetype.
That seemed central to his appeal when he first appeared on our screens. But when Sky Sports backed the Black Lives Matter so visibly in 2020, Richards found himself accused of being a “token” presence, “ticking a box”, and the initial goodwill gave way to a sinister backlash on social media.
“A couple of people on Sky got moved on around that time and suddenly me and (former England Women striker) Alex Scott were trending on Twitter,” he says. “People were saying, ‘Oh they’ll give it to a woman’, ‘Oh they’ll give it to a black guy’. I’m like… ‘Is this what it has come to?’ All that hard work that people have done for so many years, and people were so positive when I started — ‘Brilliant, someone new’ — and then people are saying, ‘He’s only got it because he’s black’. I found it really sad that people had to stoop to that level to make themselves better.”
In certain respects, he is ticking a box. Colour? It was certainly getting a bit embarrassing for Sky Sports when City were winning one Premier League title after another and there was no sky-blue presence in the commentary box or the studio of the competition’s main UK broadcaster.
Age was another factor. The football discourse was dominated by men (yes, white ones) in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Richards, more recently retired, was far more in tune with the realities and challenges — off the pitch as well as on it — facing the modern-day footballer.
“That was needed,” he says. “If Paul Pogba is getting labelled ‘blingy’ or whatever, he might be, I don’t know. But who cares? We were talking on the BBC the other week about whether Jordan Pickford should control his emotions. What people don’t understand is you might want him to be a certain way for what you want to see, but the way he is has got him to be England’s No 1. So why should he change that just to suit your narrative?
“When people talk about Pogba doing this or Jesse Lingard doing his dancing, so what? If they’re doing a job on the pitch, who cares?”
The counter-argument would be that the latter two haven’t performed for Manchester United this season. “But when Lingard went on loan to West Ham, he was amazing,” Richards says. “Pogba goes away with France and he’s amazing.
“We know Pogba has not been at the level we all thought he was going to reach for Man United, but there are so many different factors: the team’s not good enough, change of manager, one minute he’s (playing on the) left, the next he’s in the middle, on the right. What do you want him to do?!
“When you come for that money, you have to accept the stick because that’s what comes with football, but it should never become personal. Judge him on his football, but what has dying your hair got to do with not playing well on the field?”
So if Souness or Keane criticise Pogba’s hairstyle… “I argue with them!” he says. “I’ve argued with them many times. There was a situation where Harry Kane wasn’t available for a few games at the start of the season and I was saying if this was Pogba… in fact, no, I won’t say a black player. I want to name a white player, someone who’s seen as a bit ‘edgy’. If that was, say, Granit Xhaka missing matches, people would react differently to the way they reacted when it was Harry Kane.
“And this isn’t a race issue. I love Graeme to the max. With Pogba, it’s just a frustration that he’s such a talented player and we don’t see it regularly. But I just say we should judge everyone to the same standard. And just in general, we shouldn’t tell people how to live their life, saying they shouldn’t have nice cars or wear what they like or do magazine shoots. It’s such an old-school mentality to have.”
The modern footballer is a different beast. Less professional? In some ways, arguably. In other ways, certainly not.
“They can’t do anything now,” Richards says. “Some of the stories Roy and Graeme tell about their playing days… wow, you can’t get away with anything like that now. Even when I first came into the team at City, Richard Dunne, how he used to drink what he did and then be our best player on a Saturday, I’ll never know. He was a machine. But you couldn’t even think of doing that now.
“The problem with people’s perceptions is a) social media and b) timing. People work hard all week so they can go to the games and then they see one of their players not performing, and it feels like they’re not giving everything for the club, I can understand people getting frustrated when they see that player doing something else on social media.
“But if you look at the modern-day footballer and the standard they have to be at physically, in terms of body weight, body fat, everything, you cannot say players don’t take it seriously. They’re machines.”
Richards wasn’t. He thought he was, so invincible did he feel during those early years with City and England, but that was, in some ways, his downfall.
Again he uses the example of Milner, a man two and a half years older than him who isn’t just still playing but doing so at a level that could yet see him help Liverpool win an unprecedented quadruple over the next two weeks.
If Richards had shown the same dedication — not just in every training session but while off-duty too — perhaps he would still be playing today. “And that’s what grates on me every single day,” he says.
He describes the final years of his playing career as “a slow death”, but television has brought him back to life.
He feels young, fresh and energetic, having burst onto the scene once more, bringing a different voice, a different perspective and the rare ability to turn Keane’s death stare into a chuckle.
(Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)