At the bottom of a flight of stairs leading to the media lounge at Etihad Stadium, there is an area dedicated to Micah Richards, Manchester City’s academy graduate right-back who has been at the club since he was 14.
A series of giant pictures celebrate his progression—from his FA Youth Cup final appearance and City debut, through his first England cap and FA Cup and Premier League triumphs. It’s all there in proud recognition of a player who remains the heart and soul of the club; liked by everyone and an important symbol of City’s past.
City’s academy has produced a raft of decent players who have gone on to have careers in the game, but it’s only Richards who has been good enough to continue his involvement after the takeover by Sheikh Mansour in 2008.
Joey Barton, Nedum Onuoha and Stephen Ireland had excellent runs in the first team, but they were eventually sold as the club invested in players capable of winning honours. Good players though they were, ultimately, they weren’t good enough to take City to the next level.
Shaun Wright-Phillips had two spells at the club, and signed for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea for £21 million in between, but by the time he returned their squad had vastly improved and he struggled to have the same impact he’d had the first time around when City were still perennial underachievers.
Richards, though, didn’t struggle with the jump in class that followed the takeover.
Cast your mind back to City’s title-winning season of 2011-12 where he was in the form of his life. Having struggled under Mark Hughes, the arrival of Roberto Mancini saw a remarkable improvement in his game.
Suddenly, the defensive lapses that were threatening his place at City were largely eradicated, and going forward there were few better full-backs in the league. It’s no exaggeration to say he was one of City’s top five players during their biggest triumph of the modern era.
Unfortunately for Richards, the last 18 months have been horrendous for him, with a series of injuries completely disrupting his form. He’s played just 17 games in the last two seasons and looks rusty every time he’s selected.
It’s been difficult to watch a player struggle so badly, especially when everyone knows the quality he possesses. After his showing at Sunderland, where he looked lost and out of tune with his teammates, doubts about his future were first raised, and since then he’s barely improved, suffering the ignominy of being substituted at half-time in the recent FA Cup match with Watford with City trailing 2-0.
What he needs is a run of games, but with Pablo Zabaleta so clearly City’s No. 1 right-back he just isn’t getting them, and he must surely now be thinking about a move away from the club he loves in order to get his career back on track.
It’s a strange situation. Staff at the club don’t want to lose him given his status as a top-quality academy graduate who understands the fabric of the club better than anyone else on the playing staff, and at 25 he could still have so much to offer.
However, his performances are, understandably, nowhere near the level they should be, which is making it difficult for Manuel Pellegrini to play him regularly. Only a consistent run of matches can solve the issue of his poor form and only by leaving will he get them.
The man who will ultimately make the call on Richards’ future is Pellegrini, and he is likely to take a pragmatic, rather than emotional, view of the situation. Richards will enter the final year of his contract in the summer and is yet to sign a new deal.
Don’t be surprised if he is allowed to leave. For his own career, it may well be the best thing for him.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @TypicalCity.