The BBC football pundit Alan Hansen knows a thing or two about centre-halves, having been one of the finest the British game has ever seen during his playing days with Liverpool, so it was worth listening in 1996 when he described Dean Richards as the most promising young central defender in England. The tall, commanding Yorkshireman, who combined brawn and elegance to an unusual degree, became the costliest player in the land without a full international cap when he switched from Southampton to Tottenham Hotspur for £8.1m in 2001.
Arguably Richards never quite scaled the lofty peaks predicted for him during his earlier days with his home-town club Bradford City, then Wolverhampton Wanderers, though his record of more than 400 senior appearances spread over a dozen years is highly creditable. Poignantly, any shortfall in achievement might be ascribed to the injuries that plagued him for much of his career, followed by the onset of a cruel illness which caused dizzy spells and severe headaches, forcing his premature retirement at the age of 31 in 2005 and probably led to his death five years later.
After rising through the youth ranks at Valley Parade, Richards made his League debut for Bradford City as a 17-year-old in the autumn of 1991, developing rapidly to become a regular member of the third-tier Bantams' rearguard. So impressive was his form that he represented the Football League against the Italian League, and in 1994-95 he was selected by his peers in the Professional Footballers' Association for his division's team of the season.
That spring he joined Wolves on loan, the deal being made permanent at the end of the campaign for a fee of £1.85m. With the Black Countrymen in the second flight, Richards began to truly blossom. Muscular and broad-shouldered, he was aggressive in the tackle and formidable in the air, but there was far more to his game than sheer power. He was cooler and more composed than most rookies and he was comfortable in possession of the ball, which he delighted in carrying out of defence in much the same cultured style as Hansen in his Anfield heyday.
Admittedly there were occasional lapses of concentration, but there was every reason to believe that any flaws would be eradicated through experience. But, sadly, at this point Richards – who had earned four England Under-21 caps and had captained the side – began to fall prey to injuries.
First, his burgeoning impetus was checked by a fractured cheekbone and then, while driving home to Bradford following a majestic performance for Wolves in a drawn FA Cup tie with Spurs in January 1996, his car hit black ice on the M62 and he damaged a knee in the resultant smash.
He bounced back but further fitness problems accrued, and shortly after cementing his status as a Molineux hero by returning from one absence to score with a thunderous header in a 2-0 victory over local rivals West Bromwich Albion, he then exacerbated the knee condition caused by the road accident and was sidelined for virtually the whole of 1997.
Still, he was honoured twice more by the PFA in its team selections for 1995-96 and 1996-97, and star continued to ascend. He was prominent in Wolves' invigorating FA Cup run of 1998, which was ended only by Arsenal at the semi-final stage.
During the subsequent season his indication that he might have to leave Wolves if they didn't gain promotion upset some fans, but it was evident that he deserved top-flight football, and in July 1999 he attained it by joining Southampton on a free transfer.
Proving an effective replacement for the redoubtable Ken Monkou, he soon formed a fine central defensive partnership with Claus Lundekvam, and in 2000-01 the Saints achieved their best League finish – 10th in the Premier League – for almost two decades, with only two goals being conceded in the first three months of the new year.
That spring, amid media talk of a move to a bigger club, Richards signed a contract extension and the supporters relaxed, but come the following September many of them were outraged by his big-money switch toTottenham. The mood was all the more resentful because the centre-half was following manager Glenn Hoddle from St Mary's to White Hart Lane.
Richards was very much Hoddle's type of player – stylish, constructive and seen as an ideal replacement for Sol Campbell, recently departed to Arsenal. Duly the newcomer made a stunning initial impact, scoring with a stooping near-post header only 15 minutes into his debut at home against Manchester United.
By half-time Spurs were three up and, with their latest acquisition looking unflappably excellent, the Lane faithful were enraptured. Alas for them, United hit back with five second-half goals, the first three of them through headers, and Richards' entrance was thus tarnished.
Still, in subsequent games he meshed encouragingly with the less experienced Ledley King and soon his all-round abilities prompted comparisons with Gary Mabbutt, one of the most popular Tottenham players of recent times. At this point he might have been expected to kick on to an even more exalted level, but there were niggling injuries, and then he began experiencing unnatural tiredness, loss of balance and pain. In 2004 Richards underwent a brain scan, which suggested that the likelihood of a brain tumour was extremely low, but in March 2005 he was advised that to continue playing could harm his health, so he retired. He returned to Bradford City to coach young players in 2007, but tragedy was lying in wait.
Dean Ivor Richards, footballer: born Bradford 9 June 1974; played for Bradford City 1992-95, Wolverhampton Wanderers 1995-99, Southampton 1999-2001, Tottenham Hotspur 2001-05, played four times for England Under-21s; married (two children); died Leeds 26 February 2011