Micah Richards staying on right path

Badly affected by a close friend taking his own life and with most of his City mates moved on, defender tells Ian Herbert how he has learnt to love Mancini's mix of freedom and fear

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The past is never far away for Micah Richards – not even now, at the richest football club in the world, where, as of yesterday, he was the last remnant of the fabled youth ranks assembled in the days before the money arrived.

The first time we talked, five years ago, it was Richards making the call, from a train, aware that I was investigating the death of his boyhood friend, Daniel Nelson – who at the age of 18 took his own life in a Young Offenders' Institution – and wanting to offer his own words. It was clear, this week, that time has dimmed neither the memory of that tragedy, nor entirely the sadness. The Manchester City defender recalls the song "Make it Alright" by the R&B singer Carl Thomas, which he will always associate with his friend.

"I liked the song and I was singing it and humming it but I didn't know the artist," he says. "Danny told me the artist." Richards carried it on his iPod for months and still keeps it. "He was such a close friend," he reflects. "You can either go down that path he took or do what I've done. There's no in-betweens where we came from."

The two boys' paths certainly diverged radically when their carefree days in the rough streets of Chapeltown, in Leeds, came to an end, though the gilded environment into which Richards was thrust has offered precious few "in-betweens" either.

The group of young men he joined after leaving an Oldham Athletic traineeship for City in 2001 certainly had an infinitely more promising outlook than Daniel. But, one by one, those boys, with their plans to set the world alight, have gone: Stephen Ireland (Aston Villa), Michael Johnson (Leicester City) and, now, Nedum Onuoha, whose departure to Queen's Park Rangers for £2.5m on Thursday left Richards as the only man deemed talented enough for the club's tilt at global domination.

"To stick together would have been a bit more special," he says. "It's a bit disappointing for me that we all grew up together and haven't stayed together. With managers coming in and injuries, not everyone is going to fancy you as a player but I think that's sometimes a bit hard to take, because those players have all got the quality to play at the top level. It's just that different managers like different players and I suppose the quicker you learn that, the better."

He has needed to learn more than most. Richards has admitted that City was "a hard place to be" when Roberto Mancini arrived in 2009, and he often seemed likely to drop off City's magic carpet ride as Sven Goran Eriksson, Mark Hughes and then Mancini assumed the role of converting money – funny money, in Eriksson's case – into success.

Eriksson was the exception, a manager perhaps not as effusive about Richards as Sir Bobby Robson, who spoke of him becoming "our best defender since Bobby Moore", but one who imbued him with a mountain of self-belief. "He just gave me some sort of confidence that I've never, ever seen before – it was ridiculous!" Richards remembers.

It wasn't as easy with Hughes, who questioned Richards' positioning and physique, though he did initially make him his captain. "I know it didn't always go so well under Mark Hughes but it wasn't as if he didn't give me a chance or anything. He really did," Richards says. Mancini's love of defensive rigour threatened to make things materially worse and yet here Richards is now, quite possibly City's captain for the visit of Tottenham tomorrow, and quite certainly a better defender than he was before the Italian arrived. "Yeah, definitely he's made me a better defender," he says.

Eriksson, who was Mancini's early managerial mentor, says a coach cannot rule through fear, though there is a suspicion that it is the device which Mancini has used. "Why is he so good for me?" Richards asks. "Well certain managers will see you make mistakes and they'll tell you about it and then they've told you once and if you do it again, then it's up to you. He makes sure that if you make a mistake and you make it again you are out of the team. D'you know what I mean? And that's the difference. There are players in our team who ... I wouldn't say they are scared to make mistakes, but they wouldn't make the silly mistakes they normally make because they know [the consequences]."

This certainly bears out all the anecdotal evidence about Mancini – that if you are "in" with him, then you are "in", but it you are "out" you are nothing. "You need to get under his wing," as Richards put it just before Christmas. There appear to be other strategies too, including late-night texts with the next day's training times to keep players on their toes.

"We normally get the text the night before," Richards confirms. "I don't know why. Maybe that's just to do with the weather." Yet Richards also provides evidence of Mancini malleability when required. "When he first arrived we [trained] in the afternoons and that was just bringing a culture from his old club," he says. "But when you're in such a physical league, training in the afternoons tires you out so that got knocked on the head. He appreciated that right away."

There is freedom, as well as fear. When you see Mancini in his technical zone, bellowing at the 23-year-old tomorrow, it's a fair bet that he will be ordering him "Go Micah, go". "That's what he tells me," Richards says. "He says 'Use your pace and power going forwards instead of just using it in defence', and I think that's why I've improved this season."

You sense he feels the rewards much more because he knew how it felt to be scraping around at 15th in the Premier League table five years ago. "I never thought it would have got to this stage because I think it's all happened so fast," he says. They'll tell you at City that there's no-one quite like Richards at public events, and the sight of him grinning through a session at the club's city-centre store in which he and Nigel de Jong sign their way through back tattoos, baby-grows and shirts, does bear out the sense that he knows there is another world out there, beyond the store's doors in the rain-drenched Manchester night.

This is perhaps why he is prepared to venture so willingly into a discussion of the boyhood friend he lost along the way. On Sundays, he explains, he, Daniel Nelson and his cousin Mark Harding – a friend since their early primary school days – would decamp from matches with the local Sao Paolo club to the house of Daniel's aunt, Bridget Harding, for dinner and evenings of music. By all accounts, the Hardings' swimming pool – a real novelty in Chapeltown – provided great entertainment.

"In a year he'd gone from playing football to being in prison," Richards says. "I couldn't understand it. He was a talent and if his head was 100 per cent right I'm sure he would be playing in the leagues somewhere. To see all that talent go to waste..." Daniel had self-harmed before taking his life and the tragedy has seen Richards quietly take on the role of patron of the ifucareshare charity, established by the parents of another child, Daniel O'Hare, who took his own life at the age of 19. Richards has never sought publicity for his involvement with the charity and this interview is not linked to it.

"If Danny had had someone to talk to, things would have turned out differently," he says of his own friend. "Every individual has to take consequence for themselves but if he had had someone to support him a bit more, that would not have happened." Another of Richards' charitable links is with the Black Health Initiative. "You can't forget where you come from," he says. "That's the most important thing to me."

It's not the only thing. No discussion with Richards is quite complete without discussion of Fabio Capello's robust disinclination to select him for the England team, though that is one topic where he is prepared to let his game talk him through. The message remains the same as last month. "I've said before I've been upset with England but it's not about that. It's about working hard and trying to keep this form."

The issue of how to avoid dismissal, following the red card for Vincent Kompany which has elicited such debate, animates him far more. Both of your feet might, quite reasonably, leave the ground if you leap into a challenge, he says, so dismissals like Kompany's red card has left players having to rethink the art of the tackle entirely. "Sometimes now I think [I have] to back out of a tackle so I don't get a red card," he says. "It's made me more cautious."

Of course, Richards must also factor the potential wrath of Mancini, should a defensive hesitation prove decisive tomorrow. "I've always said given a chance, with me being 100 per cent and none of the niggling injuries I always seem to pick up now and then, that I can compete with anyone in the league who is challenging in my position," he reasons. He will be up against Gareth Bale tomorrow, part of a Spurs team who arrive bristling with a motive to defeat City after August's 5-1 defeat. The past might be significant for Richards but the future is in a tearing hurry.

My other life

Space Invaders

It's the retro computer games for me. All the lads are playing Fifa 2012 on the Xbox but I think it's too easy to score so it just makes me throw the controls and I don't play it any more now! I've got one of the Space Invaders games. It's decent to be fair. One of those old-school ones. Now that's quality!