Ricketts goes off beaten track on road to the top
Bolton ace rejected a life in showjumping to achieve his Premier goal, writes Tim Rich
Everything in Sam Ricketts' life suggested it would be filled with horses and that his career would be measured out around Badminton, Burghley and Hickstead rather than the Reebok Stadium, Bolton, where this afternoon he will attempt to keep Manchester United at bay.
His father, Derek, was the world show jumping champion in 1978, at a time when Harvey Smith and David Broome ensured the sport was box office. His uncle is John Francome, who between 1981 and 1985 never surrendered the title of champion jockey. In Sam's own words, "I had been on a horse since I was a baby" and there were always between 20 and 30 on his father's yard. When he was 13 he had jumped beautifully on a pony called Diamond Lock to finish second in a qualifier for the Horse of the Year Show. On his way home he turned to his father and announced he never wanted to ride again. Football was calling.
"He just came out and told me that he didn't want to do it any more," says Derek. "I was disappointed at the time. Maybe we should have guessed because Sam would insist on putting up goalposts in one of the paddocks. Making a career from show jumping is hard but if he had wanted I could have placed him in a yard to learn the sport with some of the top riders in Europe."
Those kinds of contacts were not available to Ricketts in football -- he began at Oxford United and was soon loaned out to Nuneaton Borough. The lowest ebb came at Telford United, a club which collapsed along with the businesses of the man who owned it. All contracts were cancelled and Telford were relegated three divisions. "I suppose we might have wondered then if he'd chosen the wrong sport," says his father. "But we shouldn't have done because he got plenty of offers." One of which took him to Swansea City, where he established a firm foothold in the professional game.
There was football as well as horses in the blood. His grandfather, Norman, had played for Swindon Town and John Francome was hooked on the sport; Sam's earliest games were in his uncle's indoor school. "He didn't have the short-cuts he would have done in show jumping," says Derek. "We're not avid football fans, although his grandfather was a fair player."
Sam has admitted that his grandfather's encouragement was crucial to his development as well as enabling him to qualify to play for Wales: "When you get support from someone close to you, it really helps," he says. Although his father used to take him to Wembley Arena for the Horse of the Year Show, what really appealed was the chance to take a tour of the old stadium that ended with a walk up the 39 steps and an opportunity to lift a replica trophy near the Royal Box. It beat watching his dad do the puissance.
Horses are no longer a central part of his life, although when Ricketts got married there were four of them to pull the bridal carriage and the ceremony was at Lambourn, one of the centres of the British racing world. All his family, including his grandfather and uncle were at the remodelled Wembley for what remains Sam Ricketts' finest hour and a half as a footballer -- Hull City's victory over Bristol City in the 2008 play-off final that brought top-flight football to Humberside for the first time.
His father had to dash to make kick-off. "I was managing the British showjumping team in Rome, so I flew to London to watch the play-off final on the Saturday and then flew back to Italy on the Sunday," says Derek.
"I don't manage the British team any more but when I did, Sam and I would talk about his managers because I was interested to hear how they worked and how they motivated their players. Sam was always of the view that if you jogged off the field laughing you hadn't put the full effort in and that's how I felt about showjumping. You had to drive yourself and it was the same with his uncle. John Francome didn't drink which was rare for a jockey of his era. I suppose we are that kind of family."