Micah Richards: ‘There was such a buzz around the Euros. I loved every minute’

Birmingham-born, Leeds-raised Micah Richards, 33, signed for Manchester City aged 14, made his first-team debut at 17 and captained the side at 19. He won the Premier League, the FA Cup, the League Cup and was the youngest defender ever called up to the England squad, going on to earn 13 international caps. He also played for Aston Villa and Fiorentina. After early retirement at the age of 31 due to knee injuries, he became a football pundit. He covered this summer’s Euros for the BBC, where his warm exuberance in the studio and on social media made Richards the standout pundit.

Did the Euros make 2021 a vintage year for you?
Definitely. It was my first international tournament as a pundit. You get sent this big booklet to swot up on all the teams. I thought: “Right, I’ve been with the BBC a while, I’m on Match of the Day, I’m one of the big boys now.” But for my first few matches, I got teams such as Russia and Slovakia. It’s a privilege to work on the Euros but I don’t watch Russian football. I don’t know these players. There’s a Swiss striker called Breel Embolo and I must’ve said his name wrong every single time! But I don’t go on TV thinking I know it all. I represent the fans on screen. You can’t laugh and joke all the time, but football is supposed to be fun. I loved every minute.

Did it recapture the spirit of Euro 96?
Exactly that. There was such a buzz around and it always helps when England do well. By the time we got to the knockout stages, everyone was like: “Hang on, it actually could be coming home.” It was great how it united the country. To lose on penalties was devastating, but look how far they’d come.

How tense were you during the penalty shootout?
I couldn’t even watch. On my way into Wembley, a fan asked for my prediction. I said: “1-1 and it’ll go to penalties.” He said: “Who’ll win?” I just looked at him and raised my eyebrows. Because I know Roberto Mancini so well [Italy’s boss managed Richards at Man City], I knew he’d shut up shop after they equalised. And when it comes to penalties, I just fancied Italy. It was so cruel. I never dared take a penalty In my playing career. I did once in a pre-season friendly and that was nerve-racking enough. Imagine taking one in a Euros final.

Did you score it?
Mate, I think it’s still coming down from space.

What was your favourite match of the tournament?
England v Germany by far. It had the best atmosphere of any international game I’ve ever been to. I’ve never heard Wembley so loud.

What do you think of the England manager, Gareth Southgate?
Brilliant. He understands exactly what we need. Society today is very divided and OK, Gareth might not be a master tactician like Mancini yet, but he’s fostered such a sense of cohesion and togetherness.

Which players particularly impressed you?
Jordan Pickford gets a lot of stick, but he was superb. Kyle Walker was outstanding in a couple of different positions. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips in midfield were absolute engines. And up front, Raheem Sterling stepped up in the big moments and answered his critics. They were the spine of the team. And honourable mention goes to Luke Shaw for scoring in a Euros final, just a few years after badly breaking his leg.

What did you make of fans’ behaviour on the day of the final?
I had to get to Wembley three hours before kick-off and trying to get into the stadium was a nightmare. I had to fight my way through about 30,000 people. I actually caught Covid that day. When I saw the footage later, I was like: “This is supposed to be a celebration. Why are you spoiling it?” Women and kids were getting pushed to the ground. Some of the scenes were disgusting.

How about the fallout with the racism that followed England’s exit?
I don’t know if it’s because I’m black, but I could see it coming. When the guys missed those penalties, I was scared to look at Twitter. The team are from different backgrounds, they gave absolutely everything and got us to the final, but when they missed one penalty, they were no longer English? It was so disheartening. I just felt low. We’re not talking about a few, we’re talking thousands of abusive messages. That was tough to take. But it will make them stronger and when they do win something, it’ll be even sweeter.

What’s the answer to racism in sport?
Education – not just in sport but throughout society. Accept what you said is wrong, apologise, learn and move forward. It takes 30 seconds to Google why certain terms are offensive. Some of these people are intelligent, they just use it selectively. Honest, difficult conversations are the key.

You busted out a bit of Nice & Slow by Usher in the BBC studio at half-time during Sweden v Slovakia. Why?
Joleon Lescott [former City teammate] texted me saying: “Why the hell are you on the Euros singing Usher?” I replied: “It just felt the right time to do it.” I’m still waiting for gig offers to flood in. I love to bring positive energy to the party. Even if I’m criticising someone, I do it with a smile.

Who are the best- and worst-dressed pundits?
Gary Neville’s the worst by far. He looks awful in everything. Jamie Redknapp is best dressed by a country mile. Ian Wright’s got a bit of style too.

You have a hilarious relationship with Roy Keane. How did that develop?
People are often scared of Roy because he’s an absolute legend and takes no prisoners. So I decided just to disagree with whatever he said. I prodded him, poked him and didn’t back down. I think he liked the way I held my own. Ever since then, it’s been brilliant. We’re lucky to have him at a time when Manchester United aren’t doing so well, because he’s so passionate about the club. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve met in broadcasting.

So he’s a pussycat underneath?
I’m not being quoted calling him a pussycat. But he’s a diamond, he really is.

Your BBC Sport colleague Dan Walker is doing Strictly Come Dancing. Would you fancy that?
Dan’s doing a decent job. I couldn’t do Latin and ballroom. I’m more R&B. Popping and locking. A bit more street.

What kept you sane during the lockdowns?
Working out and watching box sets. I binged every season of Suits and Prison Break, both for the second time. I liked the mental challenge of it. My friend who’s Muslim said in April that he didn’t think I could handle fasting for Ramadan, so I did it for a whole month, just to prove him wrong. And look at the size of me. I’m single-minded like that.

Will you make any new year’s resolutions?
I want to give something back and try to make a difference. Use my profile to help people who are struggling. I donate money to charity, but I want to devote more time to it too.

What are your hopes for the 2022 World Cup?
In the past three years, England have reached the World Cup semis and the Euros final, so we’ve got to back ourselves. With a decent draw and a little luck, who knows? We’ve got a good chance. I can say that with my heart now, rather than just in hope.