October 2015 will mark 10 years since Micah Richards made his Manchester City debut, coming on as a late substitute in a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal at Highbury—the infamous match in which Robert Pires and Thierry Henry bizarrely combined to miss a penalty.
The French duo might have made the headlines that day, but little were they and others to know just what would happen to City over the next decade. The money, the players, the glory and two more Premier League trophies than the Gunners, in short.
Yet Richards has never really escaped that tag of the 17-year-old substitute who came on that day.
Four months after his Highbury bow, he scored a last-gasp equaliser in an FA Cup fifth-round tie against Aston Villa at Villa Park, becoming unable to hide his emotions at the final whistle and swearing live on national television. A fan favourite had been born.
At a time when the likes of Stephen Ireland and, a little later, Michael Johnson and Daniel Sturridge were emerging, Richards had the look of a dependable, reliable figure and one who could play at the heart of the City defence for much of the next decade. He has done that, of course, but only sporadically.
Now, in 2014 and with an apparent transfer to Newcastle to replace the Arsenal-bound Mathieu Debuchy on the horizon—at least according to Paul Hetherington in the Daily Star—Richards finds himself as a City player in name only.
Gone are the days that the nation would debate over whether or not he was more suited to right-back or centre-back for both club and country, for whom he became the youngest-ever defender when he won his first England cap in November 2006 at age 18, scoring his first and only international goal a year later against Israel at Wembley.
The last of Richards’ international caps came against France in November 2010, his one and only appearance under Fabio Capello. He has been stuck on 13 international appearances ever since. Unlucky for him.
Established as a right-back, he did play key roles in City’s FA Cup win in 2011 and the subsequent and historic Premier League success a year later, but he has been an almost ghostly figure ever since. He played just twice in the league as City won the trophy again last season.
A parting of the ways now has to happen if this once-promising career isn’t to completely stagnate to the point of no repair.
The Richards story is a sad but arguably necessary bi-product of the wealth which has passed through City in the past few years. Better players have come into the squad, and either through injury or reputation, Richards has been unable to surpass them.
Manuel Pellegrini would doubtless like to keep him around. He seems to be a popular figure in the dressing room and fills up one of those all-important homegrown player slots that City have found it desperately tough to fill. Even the Chilean will know that he can’t stand in the way of a move, though.
A switch to a club like Newcastle would appear to be a perfect one for Richards, too. The Geordies demand a lot of their footballers, and he would certainly thrive off that.
Following the stagnation under Alan Pardew in the latter half of last season, Newcastle supporters would surely take the signing of Richards as an example of progress. He would act as a steady replacement for Debuchy at right-back and would have the goodwill of most in football in his bid to get his career back on track.
He can do just that at St James’ Park, and while it might be tough for him to leave the Etihad Stadium behind, the passage of time is now demanding that he does just that.
After all, he isn’t that 17-year-old substitute any more.