From humble beginnings……
So it came to pass that we interviewed Mamady Sidibé and Ricardo Fuller on 4th May earlier this year. Eight years to the day since we sealed promotion to the Premier League; a day when a drunken man in a rabbit outfit led that premature but legendary pitch invasion, and things changed just a little bit in ST4.
The two-and-a-bit-hour interview is more of a casual conversation on their part and a shameless love-in on ours. They are both relaxed in each others’ company, comfortable in their Trentham surroundings and more than happy to open up. We, on the other hand, are like giggly schoolgirls given an audience with 1D.
Things do get personal, and both men have remarkable, individual stories to tell – but it’s that sense of collective, so important under TP that shines brightest. Both were at their career peaks when they played their parts in Stoke City folklore, and it is clear that the club/ area mean as much to them as they do to us.
Typing that last sentence feels great.
Mama’s eyes widen when talk reaches the drama of the promotion season, whilst Ricardo’s expert recollections of the specific details are as surprising as they are impressive.
Obviously giddy, we arrive early and our predictions are justified: Mama does of course arrive on time. The grin is wide and the welcome is warm: he almost seems embarrassed to be the object of our affections. Equally as impressive, is Ricardo’s fashionably late arrival – anything else would have been a disappointment, to be honest. Maverick he might be, but with the strut comes the apology and his high spirits are infectious. Unlike defenders with the challenge of taming his talismanic talents, off the pitch he puts those around him at ease. He also brings his own drink with him to the café – and we guffaw and titter as the waitress brings him an empty glass!
Opposites attract and the pair get on really well. Complimentary on the pitch; compliments off it. Mama is polite, deferential and beyond humble; he isn’t comfortable with self-indulgence but he does know he played his part in a memorable era. Ricardo is animated and driven, oozing self-belief. In the ring, Mama would smile you into a sweet submission and there’s no doubt whatsoever about Fuller’s inner steel – he’d fight you to the death, and he says as much.
Their histories are similar: tough upbringings, where proving yourself was as necessary as it was difficult. Temptations had to be avoided. However, exactly how their pasts have inspired their careers is strikingly different. Out of Africa, Mama’s version of Mali and me is slightly more edgy. He feels blessed to have had the career and the life he’s had – his former strike partner later sums it up perfectly: ‘Mama Sidibe has won just by being here.’ The title of Mama’s autobiography says it all: ‘The Luckiest Man In Football.’
At the other end of the scale, Fuller is an absolute force of nature. Presented with obstacles boy and man, he’s swaggered and smashed his way straight through them. There’s an ego there, but it’s charming and given what he reveals later, is clearly a survival tool.
The signature Mama moment was of course the winner in that game against Villa at the Brit – history made and belief achieved. Less iconic, but just as crucial though, was that winner at Norwich in the promotion season: we were on the back on three awful results, the midweek trek attracted just a few hundred Stokies, we played poorly and it was the only win in eight games between late February and early April. That goal was a necessity. But another, less memorable night captured the Sidibe selflessness best: Pride Park, Derby, 2006. The promotion-bound hosts faced a Stoke side with him as the only fit striker and defying all expectations, we battled our way to a two-nil win. Higginbotham and Matteo were on the scoresheet that night but their towering team-mate was the difference: he occupied two or three defenders throughout, led the line alone, with confidence and new-found energy levels emerged, as he thrived on the increased responsibility on his shoulders. He was two men that night. Maybe three.
From Fuller’s fifty goals in a Stoke shirt, you would feel confident in submitting at least twenty of them for any worthy compilation. Again, that Villa game provides the most famous: for sheer skill, imagination and originality, it takes some beating. Our Jamaican genius often selected teams from the West Midlands for severe punishment, usually in spectacular fashion – if you were at Molineux for the solo effort in that tumultuous 4-2 victory, you’ll do well to ever forget it. But the lasting image of our number 10’s portfolio is surely that irrepressible trademark move: receive the ball wide right, back to goal, 50 yards from glory before bewitching and out-muscling his many markers and delivering where and when it matters. Imagine that Fuller in the current Stoke team!
We put it to hundreds of Stoke fans – what questions should we ask? Most responses were of a similar theme… don’t ask them anything, just say thank you for the good times. We did.
So, here goes…….
Tell us about the early days… your childhood and early interest in football…
MS: I was born in Mali, but we didn’t have much money so Dad left us with Mum very early on to go to France, where he could find work. Soon after, we joined him – I was just two years old. Dad was working and we became more comfortable, living in an apartment in a town on the outskirts of Paris. Dad wasn’t into football – he was interested in Martial Arts, which I tried for six months but it wasn’t for me.
The only way to fall in love with football was out there on the streets – hundreds of us would play every night and there were many kids with real talent. I was never part of an academy. I learned so much on the streets about both life and football. I’m not sure lads at academies these days have those experiences – my lad is a good example (he’s at Stoke City). If he’s not at training, he’s on the settee playing on his phone or computer games. That way, you don’t learn to have unique skills and play your own way as much.
I was outside as much as possible. There would be lads aged from 14 to 20 battling for the ball and you did well to get a touch. I knew some tough boys and I suppose I could have got in with the wrong crowd but Dad was a huge influence on me – if it wasn’t for his discipline, I’d have never had a career in football. I think living in a really tough place with little money makes you hungry to do well – if you are struggling it can give you the strong mentality to do well. There is a strong desire to prove yourself and escape.
RF: I was Jamaican born and bred, in a place called Tivoli Gardens in Kingston. It was a tough place, man! It’s well known for violence and poverty – it’s been in the news for the wrong reasons a few times. During one incident, when the government tried to arrest a druglord, and the army went in to get him, my Grandmother’s house was burnt down during the chaos. Lots of people died.
Like Mama, I was always out playing on the streets. Many of us kids didn’t even have proper shoes and we couldn’t play football on grass – it was this asphalt stuff. For a ball, we’d often have to squash a box and stuff it with paper. Seriously. We’d use two huge rocks for goal posts! On the side of a 5-a-side pitch, there would be 20 or 30 players steaming in. If you ever got hold of the ball, you had to do everything in your power to keep it or you might not see it again for a while!
My dad played for the Tivoli Gardens team in the country’s top league and he even represented Jamaica once. I played for the Tivoli men’s team when I was just 14. He was a defender but I was always a striker, and my game was always about goals. In school leagues, I scored 18 three seasons running. Although I was always late for school, despite living just 5 minutes away from the front gates!
Of course, track and field is big back home and most people think my scholarship was in football, but it was actually in athletics! I was coached by a guy who worked with Usain Bolt and I specialised in 100m and 200m but for evening training sessions, I often couldn’t be bothered to turn up. When he got to my name on the register there would be a silence! I didn’t fancy all that running at football training either. I would often hide when it was time to run up the steps! They wanted us to do every single step in the stadium – no way! Austria pre-season under Tony Pulis at Stoke was tough then, obviously, ha ha! But that was different and what had to be done, had to be done – I am a professional.
MS: Well, it started in Wales for me actually, at Swansea City. I’d spent time at Red Star 93, the second biggest club in Paris behind PSG. We won the reserve league when I was 18 and they were good times, even though I was playing at the back. I couldn’t play for the first team though because of my status without the correct passport. It’s not like London for football, where there are lots of big teams. PSG dominate far too much these days and that’s not great. I went there from a non league club in Paris.
It was at that time that I changed position. I’d always played full-back or centre-back, with no real hopes of making it as a professional, so one day I just asked to play as a striker, just for fun. It was my best season, scoring 14 goals in 20 games and things were going really well. Little did I know, one of my team mates, our left back was an agent.
At the end of the season, I was supposed to go on trial in Italy. Most of the top players were going to Serie A then, not always to England. But this agent knew people over in the UK and I couldn’t move to Italy anyway because of passport issues. So I went to Swansea…..I felt very homesick, living on my own in an apartment there. It was a lovely place but I missed my friends and family – I come from a large extended family. I couldn’t even enjoy the television because of the language barrier.
I scored 7 goals in 31 games at the Vetch Field but I injured my ankle and needed surgery so the club were making me wait for a new contract, giving me a letter which told me to go away on holiday and think about things. I thought I’d end up back in Paris but Ian Holloway invited me to training at QPR. That move never came off – he said they didn’t have enough money to sign me. Then out of nowhere, an agent contacted me about Gillingham. I was put up in a hotel nearby and it was organised for me to meet manager Andy Hessenthaler for a chat at the ground. There was a game on and he asked where my kit was – I didn’t even have a bag with me!
In the changing room, a striker warned me off, telling me there were too many strikers at the club already (RF interrupts – “he was threatened by you Mama, scared for his place, ha ha!”). I came on in the second half and played well. I was asked to spend the following week there. In the next game, at Dover, I scored a hat-trick and soon I was offered a 3 year contract.
RF: When I moved to the UK, I felt a little homesick but it was easier for me, with English as my own language and there are plenty of Jamaican communities already over here. I’d also done a fair bit of travelling playing for the national youth teams – I’d been to Scandinavia and Brazil for weeks on end. I played well for the Jamaica under 20 World Cup squad in 1998 – I scored 14 goals in 14 games at that level. Then, I joined the under 23 team for the 1999 Commonwealth Games in Canada; we finished 4th and me and another player were interesting teams from England.
My manager knew an agent in the UK and a trial at Charlton Athletic was soon arranged. I stayed in the Marriott Hotel in Bexley Heath throughout the two week trial. I have fond memories of the place and still stay there whenever I visit London. The first trial match was against Southampton with Matt Le Tissier playing – he was chubby, but what a player – a legend. I scored the winner, playing alongside the likes of Scott Parker and Kevin Lisbie. It was old-school reserve team football with some solid professionals and a good standard. Jonathan Fortune was also playing. Years later, he would join me at Stoke and I was the middle man in that move. Jonathan was asking me about Pulis and the gaffer was asking me about him. I said that both guys were cool, let’s get the move on!
Anyway, the next trial game was against Leicester and I score again in a 2-1 win. That left one final game against Watford but on the day, it was absolutely freezing. The weather was awful and the pitch was rock hard so it was postponed. I was going mad in that hotel room that time, just doing sit-ups and press-ups to keep myself fit. My agent advised me not to go into the city and meet up with friends, so I could stay focused. The only time I left the building was to watch movies – there was a cinema across the road and I went there every single night! Oh, and there was a lovely Chinese takeaway across the road – that helped!
So within a few days, I was back home in Jamaica out driving one day and we had a road accident. My friend got bad whiplash and it turned out later I must have had some delayed back problems, too. A couple weeks after, I’m back in London for the Watford match – with a slipped disc, I scored a hat-trick in our 5-2 win! Apparently Spurs, Liverpool and Hearts were interested in me by this point but Charlton had first option and they agreed a £1.25 million fee with Tivoli. Then came the medical – it was crazy, lasting 6 hours. I wasn’t expecting that, not appreciating the seriousness of the professional game.
I signed my forms but it was delayed because the chairman wouldn’t sign until he saw the medical report. It eventually came back and the MRI machine showed up the back problem. The move was officially off but they offered to look after me for a year whilst I had the operation. It was in Wellington Hospital, opposite the Lords cricket ground, with a surgeon called Dr Tucker. He put a titanium cage in my back and I owed him everything. I should still buy him flowers! I gave him my jersey from my professional debut.
Ric – you spent time at a number of clubs in those early days… how did your career take off in the end?
I was saying up in the old infirmary in Shooter’s Hill in South East London. My rehab took 13 months. I had to wear a corset for 3 months! When I finally got back on the pitch, I was struggling big time. I was at Crystal Palace by this point. I’d played 8 games and I knew the manager Allan Smith liked me but if I played a 9th, it would cost them money.
On the pitch, I just couldn’t twist and swerve like I used to. I’d never felt so tired – I’d be blowing out of my backside. I couldn’t find my feet and was worried about the future but I never give up if I really want something. Show no fear, that’s me! If I have to keep smashing into a wall until it falls, I will.
I went back to Jamaica and played for the national team which helped me to build my fitness back up a bit. Soon, I was in Scotland on loan at Hearts but I couldn’t get fit enough to find my best form. After 3 games, the fans were unimpressed and it wasn’t looking good but then in one moment, everything changed. In the 4th game, I beat two players and let loose with a screamer – it flew into the net and from that moment I never looked back. I ended up scoring 9 goals in 12 games and once got the player of the month award. There were some good players up there at the time – Henrik Larsson at Celtic and Barry Ferguson at Rangers, so it was a good achievement.
Then Craig Brown came in for me and took me to Preston a 3 year contract – I had a great time at Deepdale. My first chance in the Premier League came at Portsmouth under Harry Redknapp. Although I didn’t score loads, I played well and created 9 penalties in 1 season, which Yakubu put away. Harry went to Southampton, the local rivals and he took me and Nigel Quashie with him – imagine that with the fans!
Southampton had been relegated and were struggling, then unbelievably, Harry made up with the Portsmouth chairman and returned to Fratton Park! He left us two there, taking stick off the fans who were not happy, ha ha! We got called ‘Skates,’ (a traditional insult for local sailors) as ex-Portsmouth players in the same way Southampton fans got called ‘Scummers.’
My knee was always giving me grief so the goals were not flying in and things were tough down there. I was sent out on loan to Ipswich and had just 5 games there – it was lovely though – I managed to score 3 goals and get sent-off twice! One of the bookings was for a naughty gesture towards Preston fans – they’d given me loads of stick – all that Judas stuff for leaving. Fans love you, then they hate you! George Burley didn’t take to me so that was the end of that.
How did your moves to Stoke came about?
MS: It’s true that Tony Pulis signed me just before he was sacked. I felt good about the move but two weeks later the manager who wanted me was gone! I was worried about my future so I asked John Rudge where I was stood. Johan Boskamp came in and I expected him to get rid of me but he said he’s give me a chance. He was a crazy man but we played some really good football, keeping it on the floor, especially away from home and finished mid-table.
Sammy Bangoura was there then and everything was great at first but he arrived late for pre-season once Tony Pulis had returned and that’s where his trouble started. Sammy was laid back and he didn’t meet the gaffer’s standards. I hit it off with Ric when he arrived – it was easy and we knew each other from games against each other in the past.
RF: I remember playing for Preston at the Britannia in a night game and how cold it was, ha ha! I felt really ill before the game but the manager Billy Davies persuaded me to give it a go.
When we arrived, I couldn’t believe it – I never seen wind like it! Just what I needed! I was shaking on the pitch, honestly. We drew I think and I scored. Some of the Preston lads, Marlon Broomes and Richard Creswell later joined me to play at the coldest ground on earth!
So it was back to Southampton after the Ipswich loan and things went much better – a run of games and goals at last for me down there. Danny Higginbotham was in the team at the time but he soon left for Stoke and when he arrived, Tony Pulis asked him about me. Apparently, he said “you have to sign Ric!”, so the gaffer rang me and said he wanted to do a deal.
I admitted that I was unlikely to pass the medical – I never passed any medical ever! It got to the stage where I was embarrassed by it – I’d be at one club, then off to another for a medical and then back having betrayed them in the eyes of the fans. That affected the contract as Stoke – I took a huge pay cut and the club was different then – there were portacabins for changing rooms, man!
(Mama interrupts: “Ric, I remember when we didn’t even have them to change in. When Salif Diao arrived on loan, I gave him a lift from the Brit down to the training ground – he got in my car and made the seats filthy with his muddy training gear – I told him never get in my car again!”)
But I signed, the move to Stoke felt right and as they say, the rest is history…….