Rohan Ricketts discusses his unique career path that has taken him to Ecuador via Moldova and Hungary.
Rohan Ricketts came through the youth system at Arsenal before moving to north London rivals Tottenham where he made 30 Premier League appearances. Further spells at Wolves and Barnsley followed before the midfielder made a surprise move to Major League Soccer side FC Toronto. It began a journey that has taken Ricketts to Diosgyori VTK in Hungary, Dacia Chisinau in Moldova, SV Wilhelmshaven in Germany, Dempo in India and now Deportivo Quevedo in Ecuador. Still following? Adam Bate caught up with the man himself to shed some light on a unique footballing adventure...
The adventure started for you when you were 25 and moved to FC Toronto in MLS. How was that experience?
It was a great experience. A lot of people said that I was too young to be going abroad but it's just in my nature to explore new opportunities. I fell in love with life in Toronto. I just loved the city from the first day there. It was cold but I loved it as it was something different. There were 20,000 at every game and it felt like the place to be. It really was a joy to be there. John Carver, who is now the assistant manager at Newcastle, was a good coach too - I loved him and he loved me.
I'm not one of those people who never wants to experience new things. So much has happened to me because I allowed myself to go there to Toronto. I met my other half while I was out there; I've been involved in charities and done plenty of media work for ESPN. I'm certain none of that would have happened if I'd stayed in England.
Were you planning to come back to England when you left Toronto?
That was the plan. I left Toronto six to eight months before my contract ran out with a view to getting a good club in England. I was in great shape so was quite optimistic but the system has its own rules. Agents play their part and going to MLS had actually had a negative effect on my CV. They hadn't even been watching me.
You have to remember that MLS was pretty new then. It was not as respected as it is now. There's an island mentality in England and with the time-zone difference maybe I'd be the same. David Beckham has been there for years now so it's a bit different.
Was it a case of out of sight, out of mind?
I was affected by that. I came back expecting to get a Championship club or even a Premier League opportunity. But they were not sure about me. They'd rather take someone from League One or League Two than take me from Toronto.
I didn't want to go to League One or League Two either. It didn't suit me. If you put the likes of Cesc Fabregas or Jack Wilshere at a club like Tranmere then even they wouldn't be the same players. That's the reality. I'm not saying I'm in that bracket but it's a style thing.
It's tough for touch players. The only reason I existed as a footballer was because I had come through the system at Arsenal. It was a gift but also a curse. Young players are built for the Premier League but what happens when you leave? If you're not either massive or rapid then it's difficult.
Even so, going to play in Hungary and then Moldova seems a bit out of the blue. How did that come about?
I'd played with a Hungarian goalkeeper called Martin Fulop at Tottenham and his father remembered me. He made me an offer to go out there but they messed me around really. The experience was disastrous. In fact, both Hungary and Moldova were catastrophic.
The organisation was basic. In Moldova I played for three months with no salary. I turned up on time, I trained on my days off and I helped the young players. But still I wasn't paid. The case is still with FIFA but I'm hoping it'll be resolved soon.
In Hungary I had three different coaches in three months. And they never even started me. I was supposed to be the big signing from abroad and they still didn't give me a go even though we'd lost something like nine games in a row. It was a nightmare.
It didn't put you off though because you went to play for German side SV Wilhelmshaven after that?
It didn't put me off. The German thing came about because some agents would ask me what the hell I was doing in Moldova. Eh? It wasn't that I'd wanted to go! But I'd had problems...
I'd been at Aberdeen for seven days, played against a Premier League team in a friendly and ripped them apart. The lads thought it was a done deal and the fans were chanting for the club to sign me up. All of a sudden, the manager Mark McGhee said they needed to get rid of three or four players first.
He had no defenders and no money. So he needed to get people off the wage bill before we could do anything. I understood that but why have me on trial if there was nothing I could do? It wasted my time.
I was training at Spurs for two months to help me get a club. Guys like Clive Allen, Tim Sherwood, Kevin Bond and Harry Redknapp - they were saying, 'Wow, you can still play at a good level'. They could see I could still play. But the perception had been that I was not as valuable as I once was.
It's sad that it's an issue nobody wants to talk about. The media can be quick to brand certain players as a flop but they don't realise the circumstances. Players can get treated differently. If I was a South American guy coming to England then I'd be given time and I'd get through the door at clubs. But instead it's Rohan Ricketts, that guy who went to Hungary...
So the whole experience of going back to England was a strange one?
It was strange going back. Stevenage was berserk! I had two days of training there and it was the hardest I've known. But I knew what was expected. That's life down the leagues in England. In Germany, even in the lower leagues there is more emphasis on wanting to play.
In England no [lower league] clubs want to play football. They always say they want to play but then in training you spend more time without the ball. By the time we got round to playing a game, they'd knackered me!
Then I went to Exeter under Paul Teasdale. They signed me but never used me. We were in the bottom three so nobody understood it. I was on an appearance-based contract though...
You then gave it a go in India. What are your memories of your time out there?
Mixed emotions, really. I met some great people and the players were genuine. But the coaching was a problem and the football was disheartening. It was very poor. The club was a good one - the champions - and had they had a great chairman. But the general level wasn't good and while some could have just gone there and taken the money it wasn't for me.
Is there potential for the game to grow there?
India is a sleeping giant. At the moment they are ignorant as to how things should be done. Money is not prioritised correctly. The standard needs addressing. They should invest in sending young players to Europe or South America so that the future is bright. They need to be educated. And I can always go back there when I'm older.
So after everything you've been through you'd still recommend playing overseas?
Definitely. It brings its own challenges. You get guaranteed money every month in England. In Europe it's a bit different. Sometimes you get paid twice a month, sometimes not at all. Not everybody can deal with that.
There is more pressure and more involvement from the directors. You don't see Daniel Levy coming into the Spurs dressing room or into training to tell you that you must win today and offering extra money if you do so.
Are British players missing out on good opportunities by not going abroad?
When I first moved I had the fact that I had big clubs on my CV. In England they waste this by going to the Conference. If you go down the leagues just to stay in England, then from there you can't get the moves to Thailand or wherever.
But some players have an island mentality. I'd played with a guy called Alton Thelwell at Tottenham who has gone down through the leagues in England because he doesn't want to leave home. But he could earn a lot more money abroad.
You're in Ecuador at the moment. How long do you think this latest adventure will last?
Two weeks! No, I'm joking. I've signed for the year and I want to play the whole season because it's been too long since I did that. The standard is decent. At the top level it's really good, below that it's average. All the players are very physical but the technical and intellectual level drops off below that level.
I'd love to keep playing in South America. But as long as I'm at a respectable level in South America, Europe or Asia then I'll be happy. There will be a lot of good players coming out of contract in the summer so I'm just glad to be in work and enjoying it!