Blue-eyed boys - Ricky Otto

Ricky Otto in action for Blues
Ricky Otto in action for Blues.

A couple of days after playing in the gym, two guys came knocking on my cell door. When that happens, you start to think the worst.

Ricky Otto

Next up in our series of 'blue-eyed boys' interviews, Sean Cole caught up with former St. Andrew’s winger Ricky Otto to look back on his rocky road to success and post-football career… 

“I tried to absorb as much of the experience and occasion as I could. I remember saying to myself, by hook or by crook, I will have some kind of impact on this game. Somewhere on this day, on this historic occasion for Birmingham City, you’re going to see my face. I was so proud that four years after being released from prison I was walking out at Wembley doing what I love and do best.”

Ricky Otto believes that football may well have saved his life. The 1995 Auto Windscreens Shield Final against Carlisle United, where in front of 76,000 fans he provided the cross for Paul Tait’s golden goal winner, was the pinnacle. The watershed moment in a remarkable career, it symbolised just how far he’d come and how hard he’d worked to turn things around.

Many footballers come from broken families and troubled backgrounds. The focus and commitment needed to make the grade can be genuinely transformative. While plenty have used football as a way out of poverty or difficult circumstances, very few will have done so at the age of 22 and having already been to prison five times.

Otto had a tough upbringing. Growing up on a council estate in Hackney, with an absent father and a mother doing all she could to provide for her children, he devoted himself to football. He trained with Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United at various points but preferred the intensity and competitive edge of playing for his school and district teams. 

Academically capable yet prone to speaking out and rebelling, Otto started to lose his way. Entering his teenage years, he was often getting into scrapes. Hanging around like-minded friends and fellow troublemakers he pushed things too far and ended up being suspended. With little to do during the day except hanging around on the streets, one thing led to another. 

“By the time I was 14 I was out of mainstream school and just getting up to no good,” he says. “I think the crime really started with the realisation that you’re too young to work and you’re too young to claim any benefits. At that age, when you’re becoming self-aware – you want to look nice and you want to impress the girls – all that peer pressure hits you. You realise that you haven’t got any money, but you want nice clothes. You start doing things to make money.

“When you get away with it, it boosts your ego and your confidence. Before you know it, you’re committing crime on an everyday basis. As your appetite for more stuff increases, so does the kind of crime you commit. You go from petty shoplifting to burglaries and robberies because you want more money to fund the sort of lifestyle you want to have.”

At 17 Otto was first sentenced to a spell in a Young Offenders Institution. When he finally met his father two years later, he’d already been through the criminal justice system several times. He feels the lack of a positive male role model was part of the problem. Without any guidance on how to change his life, he carried on. In 1988, Otto was given four years for robbery.

In prison, football provided a release. His performances earned him status and respect amongst fellow inmates and even the officers, who would often take him out on a Saturday to play for their team. Otto was wasting his talent and letting opportunities pass him by. The epiphany came unexpectedly in Wandsworth Prison.

“A couple of days after playing in the gym, two guys came knocking on my cell door. When that happens, you start to think the worst. I started to prepare for battle because I was wondering what they wanted me for. But in actual fact they wanted to talk to me and, in a sense, give me a good kick up the backside. They said that I was taking the mick out of them. They explained that what they’d seen me do in the gym, I shouldn’t be in prison with that kind of talent.”

Both in for long stretches and envious of his ability, they wanted to help. Otto heeded their advice about preparing for life on the outside. He needed that affirmation to kick on to the next level. He started eating well and training seriously, becoming a gym orderly so that he could play football or work out several times a day. 

Granted early release in January 1990, Otto took those words of encouragement and ran with them. He joined a club called Haringey Borough, who’d merged with a side he used to play for, after some of his former team-mates got back in touch. Just a few games in and he was receiving serious interest from professional clubs. Leyton Orient took the plunge.

“Growing up I was playing football against the likes of Tony Adams, Paul Merson, David Rocastle, Paul Ince so when I got into professional football it just seemed like second nature. In terms of how I felt, to be able to achieve my boyhood dreams, it was immense. It was amazing,” says Otto. 

“I was still very much focused on trying to make a living out of football because you can be a one-season wonder and that’s it. I didn’t want that to happen. For me, getting into professional football was amazing but it was only the first step in making sure that I would never have to live a life of crime again.”

Otto took to playing in the Third Division with ease. He stood out with his thick dreadlocks, explosive pace and tricky dribbling skills, becoming a fans’ favourite. People on the estate he grew up in, and terrorised during his teenage years, couldn’t believe he was now in the newspapers and on TV, scoring goals and performing somersaults. 

In the summer of 1991, at the end of Otto’s first full season as a professional, Coventry City had a bid of £150,000 accepted for him. A move to the Premier League was on the cards and he met their manager, Bobby Gould, to discuss terms. The deal offered wasn’t good enough to justify relocating from London, so Otto turned it down. He stayed at Orient for another year before First Division Southend United made an approach.

Under Barry Fry he got the chance to showcase his talent on a bigger stage and played some of the best football of his career during 18 months at Roots Hall. The club’s star man, he shredded defences apart on a regular basis and scored 17 goals. Otto was keen to extend his stay and sign a new contract, which he felt his performances merited. When Southend proved reluctant to do so, Fry sensed his chance. 

Now Birmingham City manager, he convinced the owners to part with £800,000 for Otto, claiming that he was a striker who would take the goalscoring burden off Steve Claridge. It was a cute move, and one which worked, but also raised expectation even further. The new Club record signing, a winger by trade, he was keen to have an immediate impact and show that it was money well spent.

“I just tried to get my head down as quick as possible and make a good impression. I made that impression on my debut by scoring an own goal. Welcome to Birmingham,” he laughs. “It was against Cambridge. I started off scoring a goal, which was good, playing in front of a packed house at St. Andrew’s on Boxing Day. It was brilliant, but then scoring the equaliser was crazy. It wasn’t something that I’d experienced before.”

Otto redeemed himself two days later, notching the only goal of the game away to Cardiff. He found the net just four more times that season, one of them a memorable strike from outside the box against Liverpool in an FA Cup replay at Anfield but played his part in the Auto Windscreens Shield victory. His assist for Tait’s winner topped off an exceptional day.

“It was a peach of a cross, if I must say so myself, and it hit the head of Paul Tait who guided it into the net. That moment – wow! That will live with me forever. I still sometimes get goose pimples thinking of it even now. The roof just went off. I remember 55,000 Bluenoses going absolutely crazy. It felt like everything went into slow motion.”

The celebrations had to be reined in as Blues faced promotion rivals Brentford at St. Andrew’s three days later. A 2-0 win over the Bees set them on their way and the title was secured at Huddersfield. Upon returning to Division One (now the Championship), Otto scored an excellent goal with the outside of his foot on the opening day against Ipswich but struggled to play regularly. Fry had so many options available to him that the team changed every week. After starting consistently at his previous clubs, it was difficult for Otto to build any momentum, contributing to a sometimes complicated relationship with Blues fans, who felt he was capable of more. They saw glimpses but not often enough.

When Trevor Francis took over in the 1996/97 season, he set about streamlining things and Otto was one of the players who didn’t fit into his plans. He ended up going on loan three times – to Peterborough, Charlton and Notts County – eventually suffering a knee injury in October 1997 that all but ended his career. He played in non-league for a while but was unsure what to do next.

“The reality was that I was uneducated, I’d never really done a day’s work in my life, and having had the dizzy highs of playing football, what was I going to do with the rest of my life? It’s a difficult and daunting prospect for most footballers coming to the end of their careers, particularly if you haven’t made a lot of money,” says Otto. “I wanted to go and function in an environment that I was very familiar with. That was the criminal justice environment. Having been a criminal myself, I realised that this may be my opportunity to give something back.”

Whilst in prison Otto had met many talented people who’d made poor life choices but felt that they shouldn’t be condemned because of that. Having been on the same journey, he wanted to play a part in helping them to rehabilitate and successfully return to society. He joined the probation service in 2004 and started working with offenders on specific programmes depending on what crimes they’d committed. 

He felt he was having a positive impact and could engage with them on a different level given his experiences and understanding of the system. After six years Otto set up his own business, writing and delivering bespoke programmes, helping prisoners to make the transition from a criminal life to a law-abiding one. This gave him more freedom and he’s now being commissioned by the probation service in West Mercia.

Otto, who is now 50, has come a long way from the defiant young man who was so often in trouble with the police. He’s supporting others to fulfil their potential and overcome the issues they face. Despite having left school early, with no formal qualifications, he’s gained a degree in Theology and become a Christian. Living in Walsall, he’s also working as the pastor of ARC Birmingham, a church based in Perry Barr.

GALLERY: Images of Ricky Otto in action.