For the past 18 months, Micah Richards was feted as being the best English right-back in the Premier League. Yet former England coach Fabio Capello disagreed, preferring Glen Johnson of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur’s Kyle Walker ahead of the Manchester City man.
Following Capello’s resignation, Richards’ former club manager Stuart Pearce gave him an instant recall to the squad and to the Three Lions’ starting XI. Speaking to FIFA.com following the 3-2 defeat by the Netherlands at Wembley, the 23-year-old spoke of his international exile and his subsequent redemption.
“It’s felt like another debut, I really enjoyed it,” said the player who coincidentally made his international debut against the same side in 2006. “Obviously the result was disappointing and it wasn't great to be part of a defence which conceded three goals, but I gave my all. Obviously the Netherlands are a top team, they were World Cup finalists in 2010, but I don’t think we’re too far away from them.”
Richards’ show of confidence was a marked difference to the player who was overlooked for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. An England regular under Steve McClaren, he was limited to a single substitute appearance under Capello’s reign, with last Wednesday’s match marking his first England start in almost four and a half years.
"This has given me hope,” he said, smiling. “I've been playing more for Manchester City in the last 18 months and a lot of people have been asking me why I'm not in the squad. When you're an England regular at such a young age and then get knocked down to the U-21s, it's as low as you can go. Fighting my way back is the hardest thing I've ever done.
"[Capello] didn't really give me any idea why he didn't pick me. He never said anything to me. He never said anything at all about it. That's just the puzzling thing about it. If he'd said, 'I don't think you're good going forward' or 'I don't think you're good defensively' [it would have been easier]. I just wanted an answer, but I didn't get one. I didn't try to ask him.
"When you come here you just get on with your job. You're not going to ask the boss why you're not playing, especially when you've got massive names in the dressing room. You just have to get on with it."
When you're an England regular at such a young age and then get knocked down to the U-21s, it's as low as you can go.
Praise for Pearce, EURO target
The Birmingham-born defender credits Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini for helping him to "keep his chin up" during his dark days of international exile, highlighting how the Italian urged him to adopt a patient approach. He also was quick to praise Stuart Pearce, his former City and England U-21 boss and the acting England senior manager.
“Stuart has been great for me throughout my career,” said Richards. “He gave me my debut for Manchester City and for him to give me a place in the starting XI against the Netherlands was unbelievable.
“Having him around the place for the last three days has been really inspirational given his experience at major tournaments as a player for England. Despite people saying that he’s an inexperienced manager, he knows what it takes to play at international level and can relate to the players in that respect.
"His passion plays a big part. He's been a player. He's been there and done it, so he knows what it feels like. I think he's good at giving players confidence. When he speaks to the players he says, 'You're the best, that's why you're here with England. Get out there and show everyone why you're with the squad'.
Richards now hopes he can show everyone why he deserves to be in England’s UEFA EURO 2012 squad between now and the end of the season. Before that, there is the small matter of a Premier League title which is up for grabs, with the Citizens currently two points clear of Manchester United at the top of the table.
“All I can do is keep working hard, perform well for Manchester City and hopefully I’ll be picked,” he said. “Whether we win the league or not, hopefully my form will be good enough for the manager to put me in. I’m willing to play anywhere for the team – at right-back or centre half. Hopefully the fact that I’m versatile may stand me in good stead.”