Ten years on, there’s still only one Dean Richards
“I said to Dean’s lads Rio and Jaden: ‘Your Dad played out there, that was the song the crowd sung for him.’
“They were so young and vulnerable, but I was just hoping that, stood out in the middle of that big pitch, they would feel that surreal emotion and outpouring of love through the noise and remember, in that moment, how respected and special their Dad was.
“Especially with both sets of fans, from all four sides of the ground, chanting, ‘There’s only one Deano’.”
It was the most painful, but also poignant, of tributes. A thunderous rendition of what had been such a well-heard terrace anthem. So desperately sad, and yet equally, so inspiring.
It was in March of 2011 that almost 29,000 fans packed inside Molineux, and many more watching on television across the country, joined together to remember Dean Richards.
By chance, Wolves and Tottenham were paired together on the calendar for the fixture to mark the sad passing of Richards, taken far too early at the age of just 36.
A chilly Sunday afternoon tinged with so much sadness, and yet so much incredible courage, as Richards’ widow Samantha and their young sons Rio and Jaden took to the pitch pre-match for a minute’s applause.
And, as one of Richards’ close friends Paul West pointed out to the two lads with those opening words of encouragement, it was a minute’s applause which practically lifted the stadium off its hinges such was its feeling and intensity.
It is ten years on Friday since Richards passed away after suffering with a brain tumour, surrounded by family and friends at St Gemma’s Hospice in Leeds.
A cruel and untimely end to a life which still had so much to offer, Richards having come to terms with the end of his impressive playing career by combining working in property with setting off on a coaching journey with the young players at Bradford City.
That had been a case of back to the future at Bradford where it had all begun for Richards with a spell at his hometown club which included scoring on his debut, at just 17, in a 3-1 win against Bournemouth.
West was a few years older than Richards when he arrived at Valley Parade after moving from Port Vale, but, as he sought out a friendly face to help him settle in, the two defenders quickly forged a strong friendship.
“When you join a new club you always need to know who’s the local lad who knows where is where and one name kept popping up – Deano’s your man!
“We had come from the same type of backgrounds in life, and shared the same taste in music, fashion, wine bars and restaurants - and sometimes with a nightclub to finish!
“Although my first impression would have been that he had a ‘daft’ Yorkshire accent and I’m sure he thought the same about my ‘daft’ Brummie one!
“Football dressing rooms are quite unique as you quickly form close relationships and we hit it off straightaway.
“Even though niggling injuries curtailed my time at Bradford and I moved on to Wigan, I didn’t throw my Yorkshire cap in and relocated to Leeds.
“So when Dean returned to see his family and friends we would meet up in Leeds, and the same when I would pop back to see my family in the Midlands and he was at Wolves. Our friendship remained close.”
There is a theme of a friendly, laid back and affable nature to Richards which made him so easy to get on with, but also a quiet and unbreakable confidence in his ability that saw him settle in quickly when leaving Bradford for Wolves, initially on loan but then for a club record fee which ultimately nudged close to £2million.
Accompanied by, as with so many footballers, a quick wit and natural desire to get involved in the dressing room ‘banter’!
“The first thing I would say about Deano, is that he was a Bradford lad, and that was where I started out,” says Don Goodman, who had been at Wolves for a year prior to Richards’ arrival.
“The cheeky so-and-so would tell me that he used to watch me play when he was a little boy!
“As I became more experienced, I would always try and embrace anyone new that came to a football club, and I spent a lot of time with Dean.
“He would come round for dinner with me and my family, but even though he was young and fairly laid back, he could get involved in the banter, no problem!”
If Goodman was one of the more experienced players who took Richards under his wing, as time went on it was the younger Wolves element who very much looked up to a defender whose style off the pitch matched his elegance on it.
Isn’t that right, Matt Murray?
“Deano was cool, a cool cat as they say,” recalls the former Wolves keeper who was in the youth team during Richards’ time at Wolves.
“We always felt safe when we were around him and he looked after us young boys.
“Myself and the Clarke twins (Matt and Chris) were the same sort of size as Deano, and that became to our benefit.
“It was a time when the first team lads would change in the home dressing room at Molineux before going off to training, and we would be in the away.
“Deano would come in with the Nicholas Deakins gear he had bought from Le Monde which he didn’t want anymore, or a nice package from Nike, and he would make us young lads do things for banter to try and win the gear!
“He was such a nice and genuine guy, and when it got to the time we could maybe get on a night out, you would see Deano in the Light Bar in town, and he would invite you over to his corner and have a little drink with him.
“As a young player, it just made you feel wicked, he was an absolute diamond as a person.”
For all this talk about the personality and the character, what then of Richards as a player in those formative years?
“Different class,” says West.
“As soon as I first saw Dean close up in training or games you could see he had something about him.
“He was strong, quick and agile and prided himself on nobody getting the better of him especially in one-on-one situations.
“Even in five-a-sides you couldn’t take any liberties with him – he trained like he played.
“He wasn’t just a fantastic defender in stopping players playing, he was also very comfortable in possession of the football and would always look to transfer defence into attack.
“And he had that focused mentality which you could see would equip him to play higher.
“I remember a long run on one of my first training sessions at Bradford and I was puffing a bit towards the end and this young gangly kid runs past me with words of encouragement: ‘Keep going mate’.
“’You cheeky b*****d’, I thought, but even then he showed a mature nature and leadership qualities at such a young age.”
Murray meanwhile, had the pleasure of lining up with Richards on the training ground or in reserve games if he was recovering from injury.
“He was so good, and would always reassure you – I might be playing in the reserves at 16 but he always gave me so much confidence and he was such a top player.”
Even now, Goodman remains surprised that Richards didn’t pick up full international honours.
“I remember being absolutely blown away by how good he was as a player,” he recalls.
“After working alongside him for six weeks, I would have put my mortgage on him playing for England – that’s how highly I rated him.
“That never quite happened but he went on to enjoy such an impressive career.
“Deano was like a Rolls Royce wasn’t he? So good. One of those centre halves who would not only win the ball but then dribble it out of defence.
“Once he won a tackle or made an interception, his first thought was how he could hurt the opposition, whether that was with a pass or running out with the ball.
“He was big, strong, quick, good on the ball, he ticked every box.
“If I was going to pick an 11 of team-mates from my career, without hesitation Dean Richards would be in there as one of my two centre halves.”
There were one or two difficult moments, particularly as it became clear he was moving on, but for the large majority of his four years at Molineux, Richards was simply imperious.
So many performances of note, and some great moments including a stunning late winner at Barnsley, a brace against Derby at the Baseball Ground and thumping early header in a Black Country derby.
There were more.
Playing a key role in the run to the FA Cup Semi Finals in 1998, and a majestic performance in the same competition at Spurs a couple of years earlier which was sadly followed by a car crash due to black ice bringing Richards one of his many unfortunate injuries.
Richard Skirrow had just started out on what would eventually prove to be 20 years as Wolves Club Secretary, as Richards was hitting his Wolves prime.
“My Dad was a Bradford City fan, and our family roots are from Bingley, so I knew all about Dean having followed the club’s progress,” Skirrow recalls.
“The main football memory I have of Dean is what was my first ever Black Country derby, maybe six or seven weeks after I had started at Wolves.
“One of the unusual features was that the day before the game, manager Mark McGhee had the squad train at Molineux and was working through the set pieces on the pitch.
“It makes a lot of sense to do it at the stadium but it wasn’t something I have seen too often.
“Then, sure enough, in the first few minutes of the game, Dean scores with a towering header from a corner, and Wolves go on and win 2-0 – a very happy memory!”
Richards’ stock would rise sufficiently with Wolves that, as the club missed out on promotion, his contract ran out and he departed on a Bosman free transfer in 1999, having spent just over four years at Molineux.
For a time it looked like he might be heading to Liverpool under Gerard Houllier, but that move fell through, leaving Richards in limbo.
The hand of footballing fate then stepped in, as well as a manager who would later mastermind one of the greatest days in Wolves’ recent history at the play-off final in 2003.
“I was sitting having a coffee in the lounge at Manchester Airport, waiting to fly to Southampton,” recalls Dave Jones, who was then occupying the Saints’ hotseat.
“All of a sudden Deano was sat next to me, we started chatting and I asked him what he was up to.
“He said he was on his way to Middlesbrough for talks about a move, and I said ‘never mind that’ and went and bought him a ticket on my flight for Southampton instead!
“I told the chairman I had found a centre half and that we needed to sign him straightaway.
“Deano agreed to get on the flight, we got talking, he had a look around when we got there, and very soon he had signed.
“Southampton at the time was a bit of rebuilding job with new players coming in, and it was an easy fit.
“Deano came in, hit the ground running and went on to become a really good player for Southampton – he was fantastic.
“I really think he should have played for England.”
Richards’ upwardly mobile career continued to such an extent that after Jones left Southampton – later to Wolves’ gain – Glenn Hoddle took over, and when he subsequently moved on to Tottenham, made the defender one of his key targets.
The £8.1million fee was the highest ever paid for a player uncapped by England at senior level.
Hoddle would also go on to manage Wolves, while the switch to Spurs also saw Richards reunited with another close pal from his Molineux days – another Wolves hero by the name of Robbie Keane.
“Deano was a few years older than me but when I moved up to the first team at Wolves, he was the first one who helped me to settle in,” Keane recalled this week.
“Even when I was in the youth team he was the one who would come and speak to the young lads, and from there I feel really fortunate we were able to go on and become really good friends.
“My first TV was one I actually bought off Deano!
“When I moved into my first house at 18 he helped me settle in and I bought my first TV off him.
“I was a young kid then, and because my family were back in Ireland, and if we were playing on Boxing Day, I wouldn’t have anywhere to go for Christmas and so a couple of times I was invited to spend it with Deano and Sam at their house.
“We just clicked, he was just a really nice guy, very laid back but with some unbelievable one liners.
“He would drop a one-liner in just when I wasn’t expecting it, infact sometimes he wouldn’t even have to say anything.
“He just pulled this facial expression, this smile with his tongue out to one side, and it got me every single time.
“Then of course I late moved on to Tottenham, and the first person who picked me up after I was unveiled at White Hart Lane was Deano.
“I was a big signing at Spurs and was unveiled in front of all the fans and after that I just jumped in the car with Deano and he drove me to the hotel which was near his house.
“Those are the memories I really remember and treasure, not so much all the football ones and things in the dressing room, but what happened behind the scenes.
“Buying my first ever telly off him, then getting a lift after this big signing event at Spurs and just having a regular conversation, that one-on-one time just chatting normal stuff.”
Sadly though, Spurs would be Richards’ last destination as he retired in 2005 without realising his ambition to play for England, although his four Under-21 appearances included captaining a squad at the 1995 Toulon tournament which included David Beckham and Phil Neville.
The tragedy however, was that the retirement followed medical advice received due to suffering headaches and dizzy spells, and would prove the worrying prelude for more serious illness ahead.
I was fortunate enough to interview Richards for the Wolves’ programme for the League Cup tie with Bradford back in 2007, and found him every bit as helpful and affable as so many have outlined.
At that stage, he was philosophical when it came to retirement.
“Of course it came as a shock and a disappointment but when you compare it to things that sometimes happen to other people, I’d had a great career,” he explained.
“When I look back I was happy with everything that I did and I think I got to the right sort of level of where I should have played.”
At that time he had just moved into the coaching arena, starting with the young players at Bradford, but soon Richards health started to deteriorate and he was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
As his condition was understandably kept hidden away from the footballing world, it was his family and friends who were there to provide all the care and attention that he needed.
At the heart of all that was Danny Kennedy and wife Joanne, who had become close friends with the Richards’ after living over the road when he brought his first house in Bradford.
It was while Kennedy was on holiday in Spain with Richards, whilst in remission, that the headaches and illness returned, and visit to a neurologist in London after flying home brought the devastating news that the tumour had returned, and this time it was bigger.
Kennedy then took Richards to try some revolutionary proton therapy in Munich in Germany, but by this time there was no way back, and the only option was a course of brutal treatment just to delay the inevitable.
“We flew back and I dropped him home on December 23rdand he was able to feel o-k over that last Christmas before sadly he started to deteriorate in the New Year,” says Kennedy.
“It was such a sad time.
“But the one thing I will never ever forget through the entire period was just how courageous Deano was through it all.
“I have never met anyone as brave and as tough in all of my life.
“Myself and Westy would take it in turns to take him for a coffee to try and keep his spirits up but, after his diagnosis, never once did he shed a tear or have a moan or a whinge.
“It was remarkable really, during what was such an awful situation, especially for his family.”
And, even towards the end, the sense of humour never failed.
Kennedy describes Richards as a ‘fashionista’, who would ‘annihilate’ anyone whose dress sense didn’t live up to his extremely high sartorial standards.
“If he came for you about your gear then you made sure you never wore it again,” says Danny with a laugh.
“And he was always so competitive.
“Not long after he retired Dean, a friend of ours called Mark Tasker and myself played a lot of tennis, and we were all of a similar standard.
“We were all competitive, but Deano being Deano, he showed how competitive he really was when we found out that he had been having professional coaching at a David Lloyd gym just to keep one step ahead of the game.
“He hated losing at all costs!”
And Westy? Well, he was very much in Richards’ sights when it came to his fashion sense.
“I remember the first time I went to see him in the hospice,” West recalls.
“Dan had been fantastic with Dean and in keeping a few of us in touch as to how he was doing.
“On entering the room quietly I saw Sam was holding his hand, and I went around to Deano’s side of the bed to let him know who it was.
“He was very frail by this point and was struggling to talk, but he lifted his head, looked up at me, and muttered: ‘your jacket is shocking, mate.’
“I couldn’t believe it, I had to check with Sam what he had actually said, but we laughed through the tears because that was Deano, taking the piss, right to the very end.
“I remember sitting with him that afternoon holding his hand thinking how much he had achieved in his short life.
“A career we could only dream of in playing at the highest level for those fantastic clubs and supporters in those great stadiums against the best players in the world.
“Building a beautiful home, having a beautiful wife and fantastic kids, and just when he was ready to really sit back and enjoy everything his hard work had earned, he was dealt this card.
“I still find that hard to digest even to this day, and I just knew by looking into his eyes that he would have given it all up just to have spent another week with his boys.
“It was totally heartbreaking.”
Kennedy and West were among a group of friends – also including former Wolves, Villa and Southampton winger Hassan Kachloul, and ex-Bradford team-mates Graeme Tomlinson and Neil Grayston - providing support to Sam and the family as Richards passed away in the early hours of February 26th.
Later that day Wolves welcomed Blackpool to Molineux, and as fans digested such sad and shocking news, the songs rang out in tribute to the former defender as his successors in the gold and black stormed to a 4-0 victory.
Richards’ funeral took place at Bradford Cathedral and guests provided a ‘Who’s Who’ of football from his career, with another former team-mate and now popular pundit Chris Kamara among those speaking, as well as West.
“When I was asked to speak it was the most honoured I have ever been in my life, and also the most scared,” says West.
“How I got through it I will never know, but anyone who knew Dean and his wicked sense of humour and banter would know exactly what I mean when I thought how funny he would have found it for me to be standing up there absolutely bricking myself in front of everyone.
“But I did it, I had to do it, to tell everyone how proud we were of him, and the one consolation is that the lads said my jacket was o-k - although the Big Man would probably have thought differently.”
And pride was also the overriding emotion amid the sadness at a packed Molineux just 48 hours later, as supporters from the team where he made his most appearances – Wolves – and those from the team he represented with the highest profile – Spurs – came together as one.
Skirrow, as club secretary, was involved in the team of people putting together the tribute in front of an international audience thanks to the Sky Sports cameras, which ultimately involved all four of Richards’ former clubs.
Murray, representing Wolves, joined Ledley King (Tottenham) Claus Lundekvam (Southampton) and then Bradford City joint-chairman Mark Lawn in carrying shirts to the centre circle with Jones, Goodman, Richards’ former manager at Wolves Graham Taylor and Saints’ team mate and friend James Beattie also on the pitch for the applause.
Those shirts were later auctioned off to raise funds for St Gemma’s Hospice.
Another of Richards’ former team-mates, Wolves legend Steve Bull, paid his respects pitchside while the loudest and most powerful ovation was undoubtedly reserved for the Richards family – wife Sam, Rio, then 11, and Jaden, then seven.
“One of the real positives about football in my experience was that when organising a tribute such as the one we planned for Dean, the opposition are always willing to go along with any reasonable request,” says Skirrow.
“That might be in relation to an applause, teams coming out slightly earlier, or a captain or player laying a wreath.
“Of course on this occasion we were playing one of Dean’s former teams and then we also made sure that Bradford and Southampton were involved as well.
“Everything also has to be organised with the referee, and I remember Mark Halsey being particularly helpful when chatting through the logistics.
“It is all about getting the feel of it right, it can’t be too raw especially when family members are there, but I always felt our PA announcer Jason (Forrest) struck the right tone.
“There is always a lot of organisation that went into just a few minutes, but hopefully the tribute to Dean was one which gave everyone the chance to pay their respects and celebrate both his life and career.”
The words of the tributes paid now, ten years on, carry very much the same sentiments and respect for Richards as they did a decade ago, whilst again acknowledging the cruelty and grief that he was taken all too soon.
“Sadly I have lost a few of my former team-mates now and it is always so sad and such a reality check,” says Goodman.
“It is always shocking to lose someone so young who really should have been in the prime of their life.
“The main thing for me was just feeling for his family – his wife and their young boys at the time – and all those who were so close to him.
“It makes me understand that there is a bigger picture than football, and all I could do was remember the good times, of which there were so many with Deano, on and off the pitch.”
For Keane, the funeral a decade ago was “one of the hardest funerals I have been to in my life.”
“Obviously all funerals are tough, but I really struggled for a while after Deano passed away,” says Keane.
“Just seeing Sam and the boys – it was so young for Dean to go and after dedicating himself to football he was moving into a stage of life where he could spend more time with his family.
“He was one of my best friends, and was such a big loss to everyone.
“He will never be forgotten, and I still have plenty of conversations with Matty (Murray) when we remember back to stories about Deano.
“It is really important that his legacy lives on.
“I know he is remembered in Wolverhampton, at Spurs and all the clubs he played at, but I think he should be remembered more across football in general.
“He was such a top, top player but more importantly was one of the real good guys.”
“Deano was a pleasure to manage,” adds Jones.
“Such a nice guy and a good pro and never an ounce of trouble – what we refer to in the game as ‘low maintenance’.
“He was always going to be there for you, always reliable, always on time, and always giving his best.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him either as a person or as a player, but for me it is the person who comes first and the player second.”
For West, it was such a “classy tribute” from Wolves and Spurs fans to honour one of their own, but now, ten years later, the sadness lingers on.
“One of Dean’s qualities outside football was that he was great at bringing people together, and it was only after he passed that I truly realised that,” he explains.
“There was nothing more comfortable and special for me and my family than a summer being with Dean, Sam, and all the kids playing in and around the pool and having a barbecue - those days remain some of the most cherished memories of my life.
“Like all of us Dean would love the nicer things in life but was never a flash type and was just as happy having a beer with his mates in the local with one of his trademark caps to presumably hide his ten foot discreet frame!
“You could count on him having a sympathetic and loving side – I remember the once having a few issues with my then girlfriend of which Dean’s simple advice was to change my trainers.
“Funnily enough, it seemed to work – only Dean!
“I feel so humbled to have shared part of my life with Dean and his family and I will cherish that for the rest of my life.
“His spirit grows on now with his boys Rio and Jaden and I know he would have been so proud of them both.
“Dean’s life was far too short but in that time he most certainly touched the lives of a hell of a lot of people whom I know would see him just as I did – a lovely, kind-hearted, top, top fella.”
The memories of his great friend also remain poignant for Kennedy,
“Deano was the most caring and generous guy you could ever come across,” he says.
“And football never changed him, not one bit.
“I will never forget watching him play, he was such a top talent everywhere he went and a fans’ favourite.
“And I will never forget his debut for Spurs when he scored against Manchester United.
“It was such a proud moment and the end result (5-3 to United) was just a minor detail because the day was all about the kid from Bradford who had risen through the ranks to fire in a powerful header against the elite of football.
“Deano was always so laid back he was horizontal and I remember when we would go to Spain in the summer, all of a sudden he would disappear of an afternoon.
“We’d go off looking for him and he’d be fast asleep in his room – it was siesta time!
“It is when we go to Spain now that I really miss him the most.
“We used to go with Deano every summer in between the seasons – myself, Westy, Graham and a few others.
“We would have a brilliant time, just relaxing, playing some tunes, and it is when we go out there now that we all remember those incredible days and really miss Deano being around.”
Ten years on, it will be a poignant time of remembering and reflection, thinking back to a player who must surely remain one of the best never to play for England, and a person who never got carried away with his fame and remained true to his roots.
During his time at Wolves, living in Compton, he would be equally at home enjoying the dance culture of some of the city's popular nightspots, alongside attending the weekly pub quiz at the Oddfellows Hall, often with friend and team-mate Jermaine Wright.
Richards' boys, so brave on the day of that tribute, are now grown up, and the anniversary will no doubt bring a mixture of emotions, and that will include, for Kennedy, one very important ritual.
“Deano was a Bacardi and Coke man, and so, when we get to the 26th, I’ll be making sure I pour myself one of those and think back to all the good times that we shared,” he says.
‘There’s only one Deano’. That’s for sure. And, a decade on and longer, he will never be forgotten.