Ricketts emerges from the wings to take the central role in Wolves passion play

The former Spurs and Arsenal player is enjoying the limelight in the Championship. Jason Burt meets a born showman

And so, after home games, he can be found outside the stadium, interacting. "I always go and see who's there," Ricketts explains. "To clap the fans when you go off is one thing but to meet a 10-year-old child, talk to him - that's a different feeling.

"That's really important. I feel I owe that to them. To have a conversation with them and find out about them. I'll ask questions. They don't expect that. But I'm human. If I wasn't playing football, I could be fixing their TVs. It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice."

At Wolverhampton Wanderers he can be both. Ricketts, 22, has been given the licence he craved at his former clubs, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, and he is not going to let the opportunity slip. "I'm in the team to cause problems for the opposition. To score goals, to create goals. Also I'm part of the cog of the midfield. To keep us ticking, to keep us organised." In other words, to be the "live wire" he has always been.

The Wolves manager Glenn Hoddle placed Ricketts in that attacking central midfield role. "It's perfect for me," Ricketts says. "The perfect chance. I'm working with him for the second time in my career."

It was only after Hoddle agreed a permanent deal at Molineux over the summer that Ricketts also signed up. "It was just a question of waiting for Glenn to decide his future and then I decided mine," Ricketts says. Both had been on temporary contracts: the manager until the season's end; the player on loan from Spurs.

It was Hoddle who also took Ricketts to White Hart Lane in the first place. After a bright start, it didn't work out, partly because Hoddle left. "I was a young player, just come from Arsenal - and not many people have done that trip across the Seven Sisters [Road]," Ricketts says. "He saw something in me and told me to work hard, stay hungry and then I would improve. If I was good enough, he said, I would get my chance. That happened, I did well - but then he got the sack."

Before that Ricketts had made his mark. It was August 2003 and Spurs had just beaten Leeds United in the Premiership. He stood outside the stadium after being named man of the match. He talked to the fans, he signed autographs, posed as the mobile phone cameras were pointed at him. It was more than two hours after the game had ended.

"Ronaldinho," Ricketts says. "He's the man. Hopefully, one day, I'd love to emulate him in some sort of way. It's just the way he plays football, you can see the love he has for the game. He looks like he's enjoying himself. He always has a smile on his face. I love the way he plays." Ricketts adds: "People forget. Some think it's a war. But it's the beautiful game. It's serious, but someone like him always has a smile on his face."

Ricketts had the broadest of smiles himself that day. But soon Hoddle was gone and David Pleat took over at the club. Ricketts, who can play off either foot, was shifted around the team. He craved to play in the centre, but was pushed out to the wings.

With Jacques Santini the uncertainty increased - "players are like horses for courses and I might be the best under one manager but tomorrow another comes in and you're not in his plans," the England Under-21 international says. He went out on loan to Coventry City before being recalled by Martin Jol.

Things improved under the Dutchman but "you see how many players they [Spurs] have brought in and I would have been in the midst of all that", Ricketts says. "More than likely I would have gone out on loan or not be playing as regularly as I would have liked. A young man like me wants to play. I'm a hungry lad."

Ricketts grew up in an estate in Clapham, south London. "You see things happening, the wrong things sometimes. But I had two good parents to keep me on the right track. I was doing well at school so I kept my head in my books and my football at my feet."

It was a good mix. Soon he was spotted, aged 10 and playing for his Sunday team in Kennington, by scouts from Arsenal who also, when the time came, encouraged him to continue with his studies. Ricketts showed a real aptitude for mathematics, starting his A-level before the football became all-consuming.

Acting was another love. Partly it was the showman in him. Indeed, next year he will appear in a film starring Robert De Niro, albeit in a "small cameo" part. "If I wasn't a footballer then I would get involved more in the acting," he says. There's a pause. "Maybe that or be an accountant!"

He has also been involved in music videos. "I don't sing. I wish I could. I think I can. I sing out loud - but I don't know you well enough to do that right now."

But football did come calling. "If you were my father you'd have said go there as well," Ricketts says of his decision to join Arsenal. "You would not have perceived that young English players would not be given their chance." Not that he necessarily agrees with that view himself. "I think Ashley Cole has proven that one wrong."

Cole was a great influence. "I remember Neil Banfield [the Arsenal youth team coach] telling me to watch Ashley Cole and how he applied himself, especially in training," Ricketts says. "I think Ashley gave me a wake-up call. He was lively, sharp, hungry and with a will to do well. I tried to take that on."

Ricketts was not alone. "Jerome Thomas, Jermaine Pennant, Steve Sidwell, John Halls, Moritz Volz, Graham Stack." He reels off the names of his contemporaries who all underwent the same "top-of-the-range" system. All have, like him, had to leave.

"I could have kept pushing and pushing and still not have had a chance of the first-team. But that's what I wanted. I played once at Arsenal, but it was 20 minutes. And one game isn't a season. It's a great club, but there's a bigger picture."

There are no regrets even if he admits that "maybe I did leave too early". Arsenal, Ricketts is sure, made him the footballer he is. "And if I had my time again I would have done the same thing again. I'm grateful as to how my career has gone."

Nevertheless, it was understandably "hard" to move on, especially as his departure was followed by allegations, completely untrue, which have also filtered around the internet, that he had been suspected of stealing mobile phones. That hurt even more because Ricketts prides himself on the "good morals" he acquired from his family and how he has scrupulously made sure he stayed on the rails. It has led to a reputation in the eyes of some within the game.

"People may look at me and think I'm an outstanding talent, a prospect," Ricketts says. "Some might think I'm just a young player. Others that I've never been stable - moving around."

What does he believe? "I just think I'm a good young player who can only get better and better. I have that desire." It is a desire that grips the club for which he now plays. "There is a burning desire," he says of Wolves. "This is a Premiership club in the Championship. And we have to get into the Premiership."

Today Wolves face Cardiff City hoping to put behind them the defeat last weekend against Leeds United and continue their otherwise promising start to the season. "This really is a big opportunity for me to help the team become champions this year," Ricketts says.

Wolves want to do it in style. "The formula is to play good, attractive football and get results," Ricketts says. But, above all, "we want results. It's all about the win. We have to have teams fearing us because of the way we play but we have to make sure we beat them as well."

Ricketts also knows that he has to deliver. "When I get the ball there is an air of expectancy. And that's nice. It gives you more confidence and urges you to do something. But all they want is for you to do what you can do - what you are meant to do." The belief is there. "Generally, I'm a confident kind of person. I love the game. I love life, especially when I'm playing in my favourite role. I'm more comfortable."

Comments