‘Talent alone doesn’t get you to the top’

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October 28, 2021
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    Micah Richards column graphic

    I still remember the thrill of making my first-team debut for Manchester City aged 17 – at the time it was the best day of my life – so I always love to see other kids getting their big chance.

    That hasn't happened much at City in recent years, until now.

    Pep Guardiola has already given debuts to eight graduates from the academy in the Community Shield and Carabao Cup this season, and hopefully we will see a bit more of them in the fourth round at West Ham United on Wednesday.

    There's so much talent in this crop of youngsters, who are a lot more technical than the players City were producing 15 years or so ago when I came through. I'm not surprised there is so much excitement about them, especially because so many of them are English.

    The best of the bunch might be Cole Palmer – some of the touches I've seen from him are unreal, and he is an exceptional talent.

    He could go all the way and follow Phil Foden in becoming a first-team regular at City, but the statistics show just how difficult that is going to be for any of them, no matter how good they are.

    I found that out myself when I was growing up, and below I tell some of the stories of the players who I was friends and housemates with as a teenager, when we were all dreaming of making it big.

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    Man City trio Ashley Williams, Karl Moore and Micah Richards, pictured in the summer of 2006Ashley Williams (left) and Karl Moore (centre) were housemates with Micah (right) when they played together in the City youth team. What was he like to live with then? Find out below

    'The difference is, I got a proper chance'

    It was easier when I was coming through at City, at a time when the club did not have much money to spend on players. There was a reason they were renowned for bringing youngsters through the ranks and into the first team – they needed us, basically.

    From 1998, when the City academy opened, until the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008, 26 players went from the youth team to the first team, and 20 of us started at least one competitive match.

    If you look at the number of academy players who made their senior debut for City between 2008 and the start of this season there are 44, which seems pretty good on paper, with 32 of them starting a game.

    But dig a little deeper and only 16 made more than one start, and so far only four players have made more than 20, including Foden, who leads by a long way with 74.

    Compare that to my day, when only three of the 20 players were given just one start. Eight of us made more than 20 and, between us, we made a total of 998 starts for City alone, compared to only 212 from those that have followed.

    Having a small squad meant we got a proper chance and having a bad game was not the end for us, but it is a different story now.

    Micah Richards made 228 starts for Manchester City, the most of any of the 78 players to have gone from the club's academy to the first team since the academy opened in 1998Micah Richards made 228 starts for Manchester City, the most of any of the 78 players to have gone from the club's academy to the first team since the academy opened in 1998. Phil Foden is sixth on the list, with 74 starts so far

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    'It is easy to fall by the wayside'

    The real challenge for the kids who have broken through this season is to change that – by not just getting in the team, but staying there like only Foden really has done at the club in the past 13 years.

    Ability on its own is not enough, though. I know only too well just how hard it is going to be for them to establish themselves at City or even make it in the professional game because I have been there and seen it myself.

    There will be times when they might feel like they have fallen behind or been forgotten about, but my advice to them would be to stay focused on their personal journey, because that's what they are on now.

    Plenty of my old team-mates and friends fell by the wayside when they were teenagers for various reasons, and it didn't matter how good they were.

    This is what happened to just three of them, and so much of it was out of their control.

    Danny Allen – 'it was heartbreaking to see it happening to my friend'

    Danny Allen joined City from Oldham on the same day as Micah in the summer of 2002, when they were both 14, but he injured his knee on his very first day of pre-season training with the club.

    Micah: I know no-one believes me when I say I used to play up front but Danny was my strike partner at Oldham. More than that, he was my friend.

    I still lived in Leeds when I was with Oldham and also when I first joined City, so I used to stay over at Danny's house a lot. His dad used to take us training when my dad couldn't, and he had such a lovely family who were so good to me.

    That all made it harder when he didn't progress. Danny was blessed with more technical ability than me but while I went to City and got better and better, his injuries stopped him from improving.

    It was horrible to see it happen because we had been together for so long. You realise it is part of football as you get older but, as a young lad, it was a difficult situation to be in.

    When I found out he wasn't getting kept on by City it was heartbreaking. I couldn't really go around his house anymore because it felt awkward – I wanted to talk football like we'd always done, and discuss the games we'd played in, but I knew he was hardly playing because of his injuries, while I was on an upward curve.

    Danny Allen, inset: during his time playing for FC United of Manchester in 2007 and now training at his gymDanny Allen, inset: during his time playing for FC United of Manchester in 2007 and now training at his gym

    Danny: Micah and I always played together. I was the one with the touch – he had the muscle! Playing football was all I wanted to do, and City were talking about sending me for England trials so I was dreaming big.

    My injuries were purely growth issues. My left leg is an inch longer than my right so every time I was running, the right leg was straightening out and sort of reaching for the floor, which over time just wore away the cartilage.

    The first time it went from under me was on my first day at City, and it was never right again. I've had three keyhole surgeries over the years to try to fix it but sadly it wasn't to be.

    My whole time at City was plagued with injuries, until I left at 16. Then I had a trial with Bolton – I scored a hat-trick but they told me afterwards they didn't have the budget to sign me, so that was the end of that, and I went into non-league.

    I was always into my fitness when I was playing and that drew me into doing that as a career. I stopped playing football at 21 because it was affecting my work as a personal trainer.

    I still miss it, of course, but I love what I do now – I've got my own CrossFit gym in Saddleworth and we've been open for six years now. With the community we've got here, it reminds me very much of my football days.

    Ashley Williams – 'he was our version of Nicky Butt'

    Manchester City's squad photo ahead of the 2006-07 season"I didn't make it into a matchday squad for City's first team but I got a squad number – 35 – in 2006-07 and I was on the pre-season photo," says Ashley Williams. "I am the little skinhead fifth in from the left on the front row."

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    Williams joined City aged 14 and along with Micah was part of their team that reached the FA Youth Cup final in 2006. He was also Micah's first house-mate when he left home and they stayed in digs with a family in Stockport.

    Micah: I just had a great laugh living with Ash – he was always winding me up. As a player, he loved a challenge – I played with him in midfield and we were like two ratters together – but he was really good on the ball as well.

    He would smash people, but then ping a 40-yard pass. He didn't dictate in midfield, but he had great close control and he would hoover up – he was like a Nicky Butt sort of player, who was good on the ball but without any fuss, and someone I really enjoyed playing alongside.

    Ashley: The only grievance I had with City was the way it ended. In March 2007, the manager Stuart Pearce told me I was being released and I could go and find myself a new club, but I didn't have an agent and I had no idea how to do that. I hope there is more support now.

    I kind of expected a Football League club to come in for me but no-one did. I was training with City's first team at the time and I very quickly went from that to playing in the West Cheshire League for my dad's mate's team because I didn't have a club.

    After a year I got back to a better standard with Vauxhall Motors, in what was the Conference North, and had the chance to go full-time with TNS in the Welsh Premier a bit later on, but I was just starting my apprenticeship as an electrician so the timing was wrong.

    I was playing part-time for Airbus UK at the start of the 2018 season when I was on the end of a bad tackle – I broke my leg in two places and it was an open fracture, so pretty gruesome. I haven't played since – I missed a lot of time off work with it, so with my age and everything I thought it best to call it a day.

    It's weird seeing Micah on Match of the Day now. As well as living together, we were both taken out of school for a day and a half each week in our final year, because we were seen as having a bright future in football. I'm really pleased he did all right but it didn't quite happen for me.

    Karl Moore – 'I used to nick his aftershave'

    Karl Moore in action for ShelbourneMoore wins a header for Shelbourne in 2019. He played for six different clubs during 11 years playing in the League of Ireland, including two spells with the team he supports, Bohemians

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    Moore, who was from Dublin and joined City aged 16, was another member of their 2006 FA Youth Cup final team. He moved in with Micah when Ashley moved out, and they lived together for two years.

    Micah: Karl was always very intelligent, always thinking about his education – a lot more than I was. I used to nick his aftershave – he caught me once and he was pretty upset.

    He was a very skilful winger, and I always remember an amazing goal he scored for the youth team against Nottingham Forest, where he beat about five men, but the timing just wasn't right for him to get a chance with City.

    Karl: It wasn't just aftershave, Micah used to nick everything – even my boxer shorts!

    I retired last summer and look at my time at City as the right club at the wrong time. I never played for the first team but I probably would have had a greater chance of making a breakthrough if it wasn't for the two takeovers, firstly by Thaksin Shinawatra in 2007, and then again in 2008.

    Before then there was a route for youth-team players into the City first team, but the door was kind of closed for a while.

    I was lucky enough to have a bit of an education behind me when I came to City and had done some studies – I'd already done the equivalent of my GCSEs back home so I did A Levels in maths, accountancy and economics in Manchester.

    At the time it was a bit of a drag, but it worked out well for me. I did some accountancy exams too at Manchester University, and stayed with City until 2010 – but by then I was ready to go home.

    I went back to college in Dublin while I was playing in the League of Ireland and then carried on playing while working as well, and just worked my way up – I am a commercial finance analyst now.

    I don't have any regrets about the way it went for me in England – I didn't make it big, but I never fell out of love with the game – I enjoy my job too so I've had the best of both worlds. I know not everyone is so lucky.

    Micah Richards, Danny Allen, Ashley Williams and Karl Moore were speaking to BBC Sport's Chris Bevan.

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