Mark Hughes has conceded that Micah Richards has plateaued as a player and currently has little chance of forcing his way into Fabio Capello's plans for South Africa next summer.
Richards' bulldozing runs in the No 2 shirt of England in the Euro 2008 qualifier against Israel at Wembley a little over two years ago seemed to have carved him out as Gary Neville's permanent successor but Richards has played only five times since for the national team, has not featured in Fabio Capello's plans and after Michael Owen tormented him in last month's Manchester derby he lost out to Pablo Zabaleta in the City right-back role.
Richards has another chance to demonstrate to Hughes against Fulham at Eastlands tomorrow that the question marks over his attitude in training and his struggle with positioning are behind him. Zabaleta is suspended after last Sunday's dismissal at Wigan Athletic but Hughes accepts that Richards is a distance short of fulfilling that early rich potential.
The manager suggested the 21-year-old has perhaps suffered from bursting onto the scene too soon and struggling to deal with the attendant acclaim. "I think at times people forget how young he is and he's still learning his trade," Hughes said. "He had a lot of success very early on in his career and sometimes for young players they feel that's how it's going to be all the time. There is always going to be a time when that judgment of you as a player plateaus out and people start looking at you with a more critical eye. That's what has happened to Micah at the moment, and obviously the profile of the club is higher as well so any perceived criticism of Micah gets highlighted a bit more. He is nowhere near where we know he can be in terms of realising that potential. It's a case of working with him and making sure he gets better."
It is a point that Sven Goran Eriksson also made about Richards though Hughes, with his more pronounced demand for a work ethic, has felt more frustrations with Richards who, for a time last season at least, seemed too concerned with spending time in the Carrington weights room.
Hughes acknowledged that Richards sometimes needs a word in his ear when his training lacks intensity. "If he's not running around on a daily basis then he gets reminded of that, but he's no different from anybody else in that respect." Though Glen Johnson, the current occupant of the England right-back berth, is by no means the complete defender either, Hughes believes the position is his for the World Cup. "It's difficult [for Micah] because it seems that the England squad, barring a few surprises at the end, looks pretty much set in stone," he said.
Hughes hopes to have his captain Kolo Touré back for tomorrow. Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy all returned to full training yesterday after knocks and Hughes hopes to have them all available.