Micah Richards: I'm devastated not to be in England squad

Still only 21 and coming of age with his club, the City defender has withstood racism and avoided a life of crime and drugs. Now he just needs to win over Capello. Steve Tongue speaks to Micah Richards

Go on, have a guess, how old is Micah Richards? A sort of clue: he first played for England in 2006. A different sort of clue: the week before last he captained the Under-21 side. The answer to this conundrum is that on 24 June this year, contrary to appearances normally characterised as those of a cruiserweight boxer, and experience encompassing well over 150 senior matches and four Manchester City managers, he will be just 22.

The question of where and how he would most like to celebrate that birthday is easily answered, for it falls the day after England play their final World Cup group match in Port Elizabeth. Yet despite having once achieved 11 senior caps in a single year, and being able to cover the injury-prone central defensive and full-back positions, he is more likely to be blowing out the candles anywhere than South Africa.

When Fabio Capello was left short in both areas for the recent game against Egypt, he chose to do without a reserve right-back rather than pick Richards. He played instead for the Under-21s, where Capello's assistant, Stuart Pearce, regularly makes him captain, as he once did for City. Now the suggestion is that Manchester United's Gary Neville, at 35 and without a cap since Richards first took his place three years ago, is next in line. It is a situation that causes some distress to an otherwise amiable and easy-going big man.

"It's definitely frustrating and every time the full squad's named and I'm not in there I'm devastated, because I know with my ability that I think I should be," he said at City's training ground. "If you look at my England career, I've played 11 times and in all those games I think I've done reasonably well. I could watch them over and over again, and it was just the disappointment of not going to the [2008] Euros."

The winning goal that Croatia's Mladen Petric scored on that miserably wet Wembley night in November 2007 effectively proved the end for not just Steve McClaren but Richards too. Had that shot gone wide or been saved, McClaren would have taken the team to the European Championship finals and kept faith with the player he had made England's youngest-ever defender a year earlier, awarding him a first cap at the age of 17 against Holland and announcing after he had subdued Arjen Robben: "It's as if he's been with us for years". Most critics predicted Richards would be, but the one person who now matters disagreed; Capello named him in his first squad of 30 but left him "furious" on the substitutes' bench and has alternated between Glen Johnson and Wes Brown ever since.

As to the reasons – occasional lack of concentration or positional discipline? – Richards can only say: "I don't know, I can't comment on that. He is the boss and he makes the final decisions. In the last squad he only took one right-back, and now Glen Johnson is fit again. When the time is right I will be in there. I've dropped down to the Under-21s to learn my trade a bit more before I'm thrown back in. It is my dream. I'll keep working hard and see what happens."

Whereas Brown, his rival from across the city, has made a virtue of being able to operate at full-back or in the centre, Richards has probably suffered from regularly switching between the two at a younger age. "I think centre-half is my best position, but while I am young and fit I like playing right-back and getting forward," he says. There was a glorious illustration of that ambition in City's televised Premier League game against Blackburn Rovers two months ago. Charging forward down the right, Richards went past five opponents and scored after passing to Benjani, whose shot rebounded to him off a post.

To be fair, playing in defence for City has not always been the most obvious place to impress. After Pearce, Sven Goran Eriksson and Mark Hughes, he gives the latest incumbent as manager, Roberto Mancini, credit for tightening up what has tended to be a spectacularly loose entity. "It's a lot different. People say we've gone a bit boring now but we're conceding fewer goals and winning vital games. We look a bit more organised all over the park. We're getting a lot more help from the midfielders and we look sharp at the back."

After a successful start against some gentle opposition, Mancini had to endure poor results against Hull and Stoke as well as City's second defeat of the season at Old Trafford and a tedious goalless draw at home to Liverpool. Yet the 4-2 win at Chelsea in their last outing was as stunning as the Liverpool performance had been numbing. "Going into the game, a draw was the best result we could hope for as Chelsea at home are unbelievable, but we worked hard and Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy were the difference. We all worked hard as a team but [they] were outstanding.

"When you have these sort of players in your team, anything can happen. People were umming and aahing over Bellamy but he has come in and it is out of those two for the [City] player of the season. When Carlos was at United people did not label him as a goal- scorer but he has come here as the main man and the fans love him. This season he has shown he can do anything any striker in the League can do."

Mention of Bellamy's effect in the dressing room has him giggling – and suddenly looking his deceptively young age: "Bellers is a great character to have in the team. He gets a lot of stick for his character but on the field he is spot-on. He gives 110 per cent to the team and that shows every week. He drives the team on. He is better as a left-winger than as a striker, he is so quick and his finishing is so good. He has been brilliant this season."

Richards' assessment of his own contribution is more sober: "I've done reasonably well. My form has picked up from last season and I'm still getting picked. With all the names that have been mentioned and with the quality we've got here, for me to still be in the side is a good achievement for myself. It's not just me, we all wonder who is going to come in [during transfer windows].

"Obviously [when] new players come in during the summer, I will try and see off the competition. But when I am fit and firing, I feel I am as good as anyone. It is only experience I need and that will come. I don't see why I would want to leave."

He has been at the club since his early teens, having been released by Leeds United before his ninth (!) birthday and moving on to Oldham Athletic. The family home was in Chapeltown, Leeds, a testing environment where he learnt to withstand racism and managed to avoid the life of crime and drugs that afflicted many of his contemporaries. His father, Lincoln, a Rastafarian from St Kitts, was a strong influence who also acted as Micah's agent until recently.

Richards Jnr was still living in digs in south Manchester when McClaren called to offer that first cap; assuming a prank by team-mates, he put the phone down on the England manager, who fortunately rang back.

Despite having moved into the unreal world of the Premier League footballer, he claims still to enjoy the company of his Chapeltown buddies and resents accusations that having too much too young in a footballing and financial sense is what has resulted in unfulfilled potential. "I don't think that's fair at all. Going off the rails is going out drinking and partying, out in a club getting drunk.

"No one will see me doing anything wrong, I'm just doing what a normal 21-year-old does, just enjoying life. I don't think I've played the big-time Charlie. I've had fun and will continue to keep having fun. The main thing is focusing on football but you've got to enjoy it at the same time. I've got a great chance not only to be the best I can be football-wise but to enjoy life and look after the people around me. I'll continue to do that."

In the present climate, he believes, any drop in form by high-profile young players can easily, but wrongly, be attributed to a bad attitude. "When I wasn't having such a good time, people were picking up on little things and turning them into massive things. I don't think I've ever had a stinker but when I wasn't playing as well as people know I should be then that's when I get a bit of stick. But I don't mind getting stick because it helps me. If people are always telling you how good you are all the time, you're never going to improve or learn. You've just got to take the rough with the smooth."

And there speaks one wise beyond his years.

today's games

Manchester United v Fulham (1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)

Fulham may have shocked United twice down by the riverside in the past two seasons but their record at Old Trafford is a shocker: 16 defeats in the past 17 visits. At least Danny Murphy, having missed the previous two games through a combination of injury and suspension, should be available for a venue where he regularly used to score a winning goal for Liverpool.

Sunderland v Manchester City (4pm, Sky Sports 1)

There is breathing space, if not a new lease of life, for Sunderland after 14 League games without a victory were followed by a 4-0 demolition of Bolton. City will be refreshed and confident after a two-week break since the remarkable 4-2 win at Chelsea. Could be lively.

Steve Tongue

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