Micah Richards has admitted that Manchester City’s takeover more than a decade ago split the dressing room and also reveals the moment Mario Balotelli insisted: “Don’t worry, we’re going to win this” ahead of the stunning title-clinching victory over QPR in 2012.
Speaking exclusively to The Sportsman for Sutton’s Big Games, the defender laid bare the details of what went on behind the scenes when investment was pumped into the club in 2008.
New chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak sat down with the squad and told them of a 10-year plan that would see City reach the top of the English game. However, not all of the players were convinced.
“They said ‘In 10 years, we will win the Premier League, in 10 years we will win the FA Cup, we will get the players that we want, we will get the fanbase, we will have sponsors that we could have never dreamt of,’” explained Richards, who made 245 appearances for City and is now excelling as a pundit.
“Because we had [Thaksin] Shinawatra beforehand, everybody was a bit sceptical about how real it was.
“Khaldoon said: ‘This is our plan and if you believe in the plan, then we will get there’ and the only thing in the plan was that he said that the Champions League will take longer. And I’m not just saying that, as he did say that because it’s a harder competition to win.
“It didn’t go down well with some of the players but at that time I was playing for England, so in my head I’m thinking ‘If I’m good enough for England then surely I’m good enough to stay in the squad.’
“A lot of players backed their ability and a lot of players knew that they had to leave, so it sort of split the dressing room a little bit,” he added.
“Ultimately, we knew it was going to be best for the football club and I speak to some Manchester City fans now and they say: ‘Oh sometimes we like the old days because of the unpredictability of what the result was going to be.’ But to win Premier Leagues and cups, then you can’t ask for much more than that.”
For Richards, the turning point from dreamers to believers came when City landed the stellar marquee signing of Brazil international Robinho, which really made the football world and the City dressing room alike stand up and take notice.
“When we signed Robinho, that was the real turning point, because to come from Real Madrid it was like: ‘Wow, we actually mean business now,’” he said.
“That was the turning point for me because people started to take us seriously.”
Three years later, belief turned to reality as City lifted the FA Cup. Manager Roberto Mancini had financial backing but was the brains behind a monumental achievement for the club.
“It was massive because it had been 40 years without a trophy. To be the first team to do that, massive credit has got to go to [Roberto] Mancini because he came in and shook things up.
“There were a few egos creeping in, people on big wages creeping in, but he wasn’t having it. He was like: ‘You play for us, you give all you can give or you’ll leave,’ simple as that.
“When he brought the FA Cup to us for the first time I couldn’t thank him enough, because he made me and the rest of the team better players.”
It was just the start of a decade of dominance.
A season later, City made even the fans’ wildest dreams come true. So long in the shadow of rivals Manchester United, down in the third tier as recently as the late 1990s, City snatched the title from their old foe at the death.
The simple but unforgettable scream of ‘Aguerrrrrrooooooo’ from commentator Martin Tyler as the Argentine struck the winner in injury time against QPR is etched in Premier League folklore.
Though the day was filled with joy and ecstasy, Richards, on a personal level, was devastated having lost his starting place to Pablo Zabaleta only weeks before the deciding fixture.
While he was delighted to be part of such a mind-blowing event as City pulled off their stunning comeback having trailed entering stoppage time, Micah still found the experience of missing out tough to take.
“It was bittersweet for me, and this just sums up my career,” he admitted. “I was starting right-back and I had started about 29 games in the season that we won the league.
“A couple of games earlier, against Newcastle, I pulled my hamstring and we had started winning all the games. Mancini didn’t change his team if the team was doing well.
“Zabaleta played the last four or five games of the season and I came on, which was cool because at that stage you just want to win it. It’s not about personal accolades, you just want to win it.
“In that last game, I just wanted to play so much. If it had been a routine 1-0 or 2-0 win, then I would have come on because we usually would have gone to five at the back.
“It would have been me, [Joleon] Lescott and Kompany in a back three, Zabaleta, [Gael] Clichy or [Aleksandar] Kolarov as the wing-backs.
“So during the game, we go 1-0 up, then 1-1, then they go 2-1 up, so at this stage Mancini is only looking at attacking players from the bench, so I wasn’t even getting on and I was just devastated.”
But Richards was confident in the team and any personal sorrow was swept aside.
He gained real faith when fellow sub and soon-to-be hero Balotelli had a word in his ear.
“When Edin Dzeko scored, that’s when all your personal feelings just go out the window and you think ‘Let’s get behind the team no matter what, forget about not playing,’” he insisted.
“Then we started believing, we started believing because we were always amazing at home and if there was any man who could score that goal then it was Aguero.
“Him and [Carlos] Tevez, even Balotelli, that season were just incredible.
“I only expected it to happen when it was 2-2. I didn’t expect us to lose the game, but I only expected us to win when it went 2-2.
“I was warming up on the side of the bench with Balotelli and he said to me ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to win this, I’m going to come on and do something and we’re going to win this.’
“I was down, I was upset because for those big players, they were always going to win something. But for a player coming through the academy it was rare, so it felt like it meant so much more to me than them, but Balotelli said ‘Don’t worry’ and that was the only assist he got at Man City.
“These players were just special and I realised how lucky I was to be playing with these sorts of players. Balotelli, Aguero, David Silva, Kompany, Yaya Toure, these players don’t come about all the time.”
It was a massive moment for the club and an unforgettable day for everyone associated with Manchester City. They’d done it.
“For us to win the Premier League whilst Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign was still happening, and it was only goal difference, that’s what made it so much harder," recalls Richards.
“We never expected to win the league that year, we expected to challenge but we never expected to win it, so it just came as a little bit of a surprise. All the emotions came out, tears, joy, everything.
“All you had worked for had just come out. You don’t want to rest on your laurels, but at least you can say ‘I’ve done it now, whatever happens now, it’s happened.’
“Along with my England debut, that was the best feeling ever. The whole rollercoaster, going down and coming back, it was just an incredible moment.”