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
“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.
“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.”
FIRST STEP WITH THE O’S
“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.”
“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.”
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.