Football: Kevin Richardson - Aston Villa

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The Independent Online
THINK of the great Everton midfield of the Eighties and the names Bracewell, Reid, Sheedy and Steven spring to mind. Arsenal supporters linger affectionately over the likes of Rocastle, Davis, Thomas and Marwood when recalling the championship- winning core of 1989.

Yet Kevin Richardson was an integral part of both. The Aston Villa captain has quietly acquired a grand share of the game's main honours - two League titles and winners' medals in the FA and European Cup-Winners' cups - while barely ever catching the eye. Until he sparked interest as a potential winner of the championship with three different clubs the Newcastle-born 30-year-old was the overlooked man of English football.

In 1988-89 he played a part in all but five of Arsenal's 48 matches, while he was a stand-in on 14 occasions when injury struck Everton's first-choice quartet four years before. A hard tackler and prodigious worker, Richardson has left his mark on colleagues and opponents more indelibly than he has on neutral observers. International recognition, needless to say, has not come his way.

'He does what very few footballers do, the simple things well,' says Andy Gray, the satellite television football presenter who was Villa's assistant manager last season. 'There is a tendency to over-complicate the game that he has resisted. As a result he doesn't take the eye, he doesn't beat four players on a 50-yard run, but ask Ron Atkinson or the Villa fans which player they would least like to leave out of the side and nine out of ten would say Kevin Richardson.

'The one quality that stands out about Kevin is that he's a winner. It's no coincidence he is playing for a third team going for the championship. Off the field he's very pleasant but on it he's a competitor.'

Gray, who played with Richardson at Everton, was a strong advocate in his favour when Villa were looking to fill the gap in their midfield caused by the transfer of David Platt to Italy in 1991. Richardson, acquired from Real Sociedad, provided the strength, Garry Parker, from Nottingham Forest, the pin-point passing. The two were bought for a fifth of the pounds 5.5m Villa received from Bari.

Atkinson's brief was simple. 'I want him to make it difficult for the opposition in midfield,' the manager said and Richardson has been a consistent irritant since. A fiery player whose temper always appeared likely to boil over in his Highbury days, he has mellowed with acquiring the captaincy and comparisons have been made with Dennis Mortimer, a high accolade at Villa Park.

Last season, inevitably a transitional one given the comings and goings of players, was finished with five wins in the last eight matches and this year Villa have been the enduring surprise package in an unpredictable campaign.

Attention has been drawn by spectacular goals from the strikers Dean Saunders and Dalian Atkinson but Richardson himself attributes Villa's success to less flamboyant virtues. 'When we won the title at Arsenal, George Graham drummed into us the importance of resilience and consistency and that's the way we approach it here. We stick together, keep our shape and are capable of protecting a one-goal lead if necessary.'

Richardson has been the bolt holding that shape together, sweeping in front of his back four. 'He's a players' player,' Des Bremner, a member of Villa's last championship-winning side in 1981, says. 'The crowd may not notice what he has done but you can be sure his team-mates are aware of him. He works very hard, runs all over the pitch and his passing is excellent.'

Bremner was another unsung contributor, his profile summed up by an article in the European Cup final programme which qualified the praise by printing a picture of Mortimer above the words. Richardson could empathise with him.

(Photograph omitted)

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