x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Ricketts: the man the Premier League forgot

The one-time England striker talks about how he fell from grace as one of the promising footballers in the country.

Michael Ricketts, the one-time England cap, is currently without a club.
Michael Ricketts, the one-time England cap, is currently without a club.

Michael Ricketts, the one-time England striker, was celebrating his 32nd birthday with his long-term partner in a busy restaurant in the South Manchester suburb of Hale earlier this month.

The mood was good. The area is popular with footballers and the Manchester City team were also enjoying their Christmas night out. They were not hard to miss in their garish fancy dress.

How the night ended with Ricketts in a police cell facing a charge of common assault today at a nearby magistrates' court, the footballer is anxious to explain.

"I can imagine what people think reading the headlines," he said softly, "but I'm nothing like the person portrayed.

"I drink very rarely. I don't like confrontation; I don't fight and I've never been in trouble with the police in my life. But I had too much to drink and got into an argument.

"I tried to leave, my partner came after me. It escalated and we had a few words. As the police arrived, I grabbed her and that's when the police intervened.

"She does not want to press charges, the police do. We just want to get on with our lives."

The British newspapers carried a different, rather less favourable version of events.

"I just want it sorting out, to get back playing," he said. "I miss playing football. I miss playing on a Saturday, on a Tuesday or Wednesday night."

His last club was Tranmere Rovers, who he left a year ago.

"I signed for John Barnes [the manager and former Liverpool winger] there in summer of 2009," Ricketts said of joining his 11th professional club. "He was always an idol of mine. I got fit and it was going OK for me, if not the team."

A former opponent confirms this.

"We'd played against each other in the Premier League, so it was a bit weird to meet again in a lower league relegation scrap between Tranmere and Leyton Orient," James Scowcroft, the former Ipswich Town and Leicester City forward, said.

"Michael was still one of the best players on the pitch. He used his strength and awareness to dominate our centre halves.

"He still had it and I made a point of going up to him at the end of the game to congratulate him on his performance."

A few weeks later, Barnes was sacked and Ricketts had his contract cancelled "by mutual consent".

It was a familiarly depressing story for the 6ft 2ins (1.88 metre) striker, a long way from a decade ago when his form for Bolton Wanderers earned him an England call-up.

A supporter of his local team, Birmingham City, as a youngster, Ricketts joined their rivals Aston Villa as a youth player.

"When they released me as a 16-year-old, my world caved in," he said. "You're not prepared for such rejection at that age, you don't see it coming because you think that you are going to make it. It's heartbreaking when someone tells you they don't think you're good enough."

Ricketts moved to nearby Walsall, then in England's third tier, where he continued to learn and impressed sufficiently to be the only player in his group to win a professional contract at the end of his first year.

"I saw how gutted the other lads were and I'd been there," he said, "but football's a dog-eat-dog industry. I carried on working hard and made my Walsall debut when I was 17."

He remembers it vividly, as all footballers do.

"I came off the bench and scored, playing as a midfielder. Did I celebrate that night? No. I'd been so pumped up that I triggered a migraine. I went straight home to bed."

Ricketts soon converted to a deep-lying striker and earned a reputation as one of the best emerging front men outside the Premier League. Ambitious Bolton paid £400,000 (Dh2.28 million) for him in 2000.

"I didn't expect to go straight into the first team, but quickly became their main striker," he said. "I scored 24 goals as Bolton were promoted to the Premier League, including one in the play-off final against Preston."

The top flight awaited.

"I'd played against Michael when he made his Premier League debut for Bolton in 2001," Scowcroft said. "They beat Leicester 5-0 and he really troubled our captain Matt Elliot."

Ricketts continued to shine .

"I carried on scoring and got the winner against champions Manchester United," Ricketts said. "And then we beat United a year later at Old Trafford, with all their great players."

The forward's stock was at an all-time high.

"I was like Andy Carroll [the Newcastle United striker] is now, a big forward scoring a lot of goals in the Premier League."

His solitary England call-up came for a friendly against Holland in Amsterdam in 2002.

"I deserved to play for England," he said, "but I was excited and nervous and didn't start well.

"I'd settled by the end of the half and was gutted to be taken off at half time. I would have liked it to have worked out better, but I played for England and nobody can take that away from me."

Ricketts was realising many a boyhood dream.

"I had the fast car, the jewellery and the clothes," he said. "The Ferrari, the bling and the horrendous velour tracksuits. I spent money, but I wasn't hurting anybody."

Back at Bolton, the goals dried up and, after 37 goals in 98 appearances, the club cashed in.

"Things soured at Bolton and I was sold to Middlesbrough for £3 million in 2003," he said. "I went with a spring in my step, but picked up an injury which meant that I missed the next pre-season.

"I've not done a full pre-season since 2002 and it's always hard playing catch up when your season starts in November, but I liked Middlesbrough. They played good football with good players and we won the League Cup - against Bolton."

With a low scoring ratio, Ricketts moved to Leeds United.

"They'd just been relegated from the Premier League and expected me to help them go straight back up.

"They thought I was a big target man, but I'm not and I can't shake off that image. People think they are buying Emile Heskey but I don't play anything like him. I like to get the ball at my feet, to run at people. I like to create, to go wide."

The enthusiasm returns to his voice.

"I like to touch the ball as much as possible. I like to play with a foil who can complement me."

Ricketts admits that he has not always helped himself.

"I very rarely tried to interact with managers," he said. "That was a mistake. If I was a stronger character then maybe I would. I can see that it's important to speak with managers, but I don't want to bother them. They have enough to deal with and I don't like this idea of player power. The managers I've played under have also wanted things their way. It's that way or no way, so I said nothing."

He found himself on a downward spiral.

"I didn't always help myself," he said, "because I wasn't fit enough and out of form. Niggling injuries would knock me out of my stride. When I wasn't playing or I was injured I'd become disillusioned and retreat within my shell.

"I wouldn't tell people how I was feeling. I'm a quiet individual. Some view that as being arrogant or aloof, but I'm not. Other players expected me to be a character, the life and soul of the dressing room. They expected me to get everyone going but it's hard enough to get myself going. I'm a very shy person."

Perceptions can often be more powerful than reality in football.

"Clubs would buy me without knowing what type of person or player I was," he said. "They wanted me to be someone I wasn't. I'm not a leader and people were disappointed that I wasn't.

"Unless you are a top, top player who decides where he moves, there's more lows than highs in football.

"You don't know where you are going to be living in six months. I liked hotels at first, but tired of them quickly."

"But," Rickets added, "the highs are magnificent when they come."

There were few at this stage of his career.

Leeds sent him on loan to Stoke City, Cardiff City and Burnley. He signed for Southend United, then Preston North End and Oldham Athletic, a football nomad, willing to travel. In November 2007, he returned to Walsall. "That was the last time I enjoyed my football," he said. "I was scoring goals."

It did not last long as he was released in the summer of 2009. His voice trails off before he explains why. "The manager was sacked and I didn't figure in the new man's plans. Nor did the captain." His three red cards did not help.

"I've thought about quitting football at times, just as I'm sure everyone thinks about quitting their job.

"The difference with football is that it's high profile and you're in the public eye. Then again, I'm doing a job people would love to do and I don't take that for granted."

He is adamant he wants to "sort out" today's appearance in court and return to the game.

"I'm in all right shape at the moment," he said, "but match fitness is totally different. I can play Championship level or I'd love to play abroad. If I'm back to full fitness I'll score goals ... I want to prove people wrong."

Once again the verdict is out on Ricketts. His fate depends upon whether the court accepts his claim that he is a quiet man who momentarily stepped out of line but meant no harm.

PROFILE

¦ Born December 4, 1978 (Birmingham, England)
¦ Position striker

Clubs (league stats only)
¦ Walsall 76 games, 14 goals
¦ Bolton Wanderers  98 games, 37 goals
¦ Middlesbrough 32 games, 3 goals
¦ Leeds United 25 games
¦ Stoke City (loan) 11 games
¦ Cardiff City (loan) 15 games, 5 goals
¦ Burnley 13 games, 2 goals
¦ Southend United 2 games
¦ Preston North End 14 games, 1 goal
¦ Oldham Athletic 9 games, 2 goals
¦ Walsall (loan) 12 games, 3 goals
¦ Walsall 28 games, 9 goals
¦ Tranmere Rovers 12 games, 1 goal
¦ England 1 game.

THREE OTHER TOP FLIGHT CAST-OFFS

Francis Jeffers
The pacey striker made his debut for Everton 30 days shy of his 17th birthday at Old Trafford  and scored at a healthy rate, earning him an £8 million (Dh45.6m) transfer to Arsenal at just 20 years old. However, he turned out to be one of Arsene Wenger’s worst signings, scoring just four league goals in three seasons, though he was capped once by England and scored. Several clubs subsequently took a chance on Jeffers, but a return of 12 league goals in six seasons saw him struggle for a starting place. He now plays in Australia for the Newcastle Jets.

Michael Ball
The left-back burst on to the scene as an 18-year-old at Everton in 1997 and earned his only England cap in 2001 before a £6.5m move to Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers. After a fine for swearing at his manager, Dick Advocaat, on his debut, injuries restricted him to 55 games in four seasons. A botched move to Holland with PSV Eindhoven preceded a mediocre two-season spell at Manchester City, most notable for a ban for stamping on Cristiano Ronaldo. Now, aged 31, England’s once-hottest defensive prospect is without a club.

Seth Johnson
Coming through Crewe Alexandra’s famed youth system, the left-sided midfielder was signed for £3m by Premier League side Derby County in 1999. A sole England cap followed in 2000 before a £7m transfer to big-spending Leeds United in 2001. Johnson, one of many expensive signings that resulted in the club eventually going into administration, was reportedly earning £37,000 a week at the time, but injury problems meant he played only 54 games. He returned to Derby, but has been without a club since 2007. He is now 31.

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