“We weren’t even fighting for each other, and if you don’t have that fight in the Premier League, there’s only one way you’re going.”
He spoke with passion; the sort of passion that ignites fan excitement and makes fellow players raise their games as the understanding of what’s at stake takes hold. Unfortunately it failed to ignite Aston Villa as they fell to a 3-2 home defeat to Watford, but the message from captain Micah Richards remains, follow my lead.
It’s that passion that endeared him to Manchester City fans. They all remember his wild celebration upon scoring his first senior goal away at, of all places, Aston Villa. Richards emerged as a makeshift defensive midfielder, but soon found his place at the heart of the defence. His partnership with Richard Dunne at provided an insight into the player he could become.
Many observers thought that he would become one of England’s finest. Pablo Zabaleta has become one of the League’s best full backs, but the Argentinian only displaced Richards due to injuries. Had it not been for a knee problem during the 2011/12 season, he may well still first choice at the Etihad.
When he signed for Villa the club still had Fabien Delph, Ron Vlaar and Christian Benteke, later that week they had all departed. The players signed in their place are talented, but lack Premier League experience. Christmas is a make or break time for many clubs and experience of the tough winter schedule is invaluable.
Perhaps with their summer additions Villa didn’t expect to be near the bottom, but that tactic is indicative of a club with no foresight, and apparently no recollection of the struggles over the past few seasons. The club Richards signed for no longer exists. The uncertainty is something that many new signings will face at all clubs, the chance you take at a club going through change.
Change has happened in a managerial capacity as well, with Remi Garde taking over from Tim Sherwood. Results have not improved however, and despite an excellent rear-guard performance against Man City, during which Richards was man of the match against his former club, Villa have not won under the new regime.
Sherwood has his faults and although Villa survived the drop last season, his tenure at Villa Park was turbulent to say the least. However it could be argued the best decision he made was to make Richards captain. He has been the standout leader in a team of youngsters, players with little or no Premier League experience as well as those lacking the necessary leadership qualities.
During last season with Fiorentina he found playing time hard to come by, appearing just 19 times whilst on loan with La Viola, but his year in Florence has clearly benefitted him in more ways than one. He is more mature, willing to accept the responsibility of being the leader of a potentially sinking ship.
The 27 year old has never shunned the limelight, as evident during City’s pre-season video blog in South Africa, but others stepped forward to be the calm head, the public voice of reason, or to provide a much-needed honest assessment. The training field antics with Joleon Lescott are probably still there, but Richards is showing the maturity to understand the clubs position and what is required of him. Left back Jordan Amavi has been ruled out for the rest of the season, and Richards was quick to offer his support. Those are the actions of a leader, providing sympathy and awareness of how he can support a teammate in need.
Its not just a personality that has been evident this season, he has changed physically. At times he was criticised for being far too muscle bound, which many felt contributed to his injury problems over the past three or four years. However he is now lean, but has kept that physical presence.
His style of defending has altered slightly as well. Again, maybe it can be attributed to his year with Fiorentina, Italy is traditionally considered the home of defending, or perhaps it’s being made captain, either way Richards has shown a positional maturity that was not always apparent at City. He often relied on pace and brawn rather than the awareness that separates the best from the average. Supporters love the last ditch tackle, managers do not.
Richards might be the victim of a haphazard recruitment policy, an ownership misunderstanding club direction and a failure to heed the warnings of previous seasons but if Villa are to have any chance of surviving this season, Richards will have to be at his very best.
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