Richards had already captained the England Under-23 team when he gave an outstanding performance for Wolves in the FA Cup at Tottenham. A few hours after that match Richards was hurt when his car skidded on an icy road. Out of the team for a spell, his career was further threatened by a cruciate ligament injury.
Richards came back last Boxing Day but the sum of it is two lost seasons and the emergence of Rio Ferdinand at West Ham as the defender most coveted by Premier League managers. "Dean isn't quite back to his best," the Wolves manager Mark McGhee said following the 1-1 draw his team gained in the FA Cup at Wimbledon on Saturday, "but I think he's getting there."
If the recovery is completed and Wolves fail to gain promotion this season, keeping Richards, who has 18 months left on his contract, may loom as a problem for them. Arsenal, their vaunted defence approaching superannuation, are among the clubs said to be again showing interest.
No wonder. It isn't often that a defender with Richards' technical ability comes along and he appears to be benefiting from playing alongside the experienced Keith Curle, who is lost in admiration for the younger man's ability. "Dean is a different class," Curle goes around saying.
Probably, Curle's example is behind an advance in Richards' aerial defending, persuading him, too, that there is a fine line between the cool and the casual.
Saturday was a good test in rehabilitation for Richards because it brought him into confrontation with a method that continues to cause Premier League defences plenty of anxiety.
At a loss to explain Wimbledon's 14th minute goal - "we gave them a start" - McGhee may nevertheless ask a question of Richards in inquest. Should Richards have dealt better with a centre from Peter Fear that Jason Euell headed gently inside the near post? That apart there was not much for which Richards could be held to account although his manager would not have been pleased with the casualness that brought pressure from an unnecessary corner in the final minute.
Bearing in mind the paucity of England's passing out of defence against Chile last week there is much to admire in Richards' use of the ball and his composure under pressure. If the rehabilitation proves complete he could still have a big future.
Like his manager, Richards may feel that Wolves passed up a big opportunity. "Wimbledon will have players back for the replay and there's bound to be a much better atmosphere," McGhee said.
It is amazing what Wimbledon achieve with such poor support and limited resources. This a tribute to the spirit instilled by Joe Kinnear, who was abroad on a scouting mission. Whether or not this leads to additions to his staff, he should be a lot better off for players come the replay at Molineux on Wednesday week.
"I should have Kenny Cunningham, Marcus Gayle, maybe Robbie Earle, as well as Michael Hughes back from suspension," he said.
Wolves know it, but they deserve to have a second chance of reaching the quarter-finals. This was achieved after the introduction of Dougie Freedman for Steve Sedgley in the 63rd minute. Freedman, who did not feel up to a full game, recovered the initiative for Wolves, who equalised when Mixu Paatelainen got to Carl Robinson's low cross in a jumble of feet with Dean Blackwell.
Goals: Euell (14) 1-0; Paatelainen (67) 1-1.
Wimbledon (4-2-4): Sullivan; Jupp, Perry, Blackwell, Thatcher; Ardley, Jones, Castledine, Fear; Euell, Cort (Clarke, 78). Substitutes not used: Kimble, Reeves, Francis, Heald (gk).
Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-2-4): Stowell; Atkins, Richards, Curle, Naylor; Goodman, Robinson, Osborn, Sedgley (Freedman, 63); Paatelainen (Williams, 90), Simpson. Substitutes not used: Murrey, Daley, Crowe.
Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).
Man of the match: Richards.
Attendance: 15,608.Reuse content