To play the role of captain, you need to have confidence, determination and a natural ability to lead. Liam Ridgewell has all three. He may have started his career back in England with Aston Villa, Birmingham and West Brom., but it’s in Portland, USA where he now leads by example. As captain of the Portland Timbers, Ridgewell has established himself as one of the most reliable defenders in the MLS and has fast become a vital cog in Portland’s machine, leading them to the MLS Cup. We caught up with him recently to find out how things are going in the Pacific North West, and how it all began.
BackOfTheNet: Liam, thank you for sitting down with us today.
BackOfTheNet: Not many people will know that you actually started your career at West Ham in their youth academy before leaving to join Aston Villa. As a Londoner, what was the reason behind that switch?
Liam Ridgewell: At the time their youth system was flooded with a lot of talent coming through already, e.g. Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole. So, my path to the first team would’ve been very tough and felt I needed to change as I had been there since the age of 8. Being a London boy, it was a very tough decision to leave. That’s when I went up to Aston Villa at the age of 15.
BOTN: How would you sum up your time at Aston Villa?
LR: I couldn’t have asked for much more, coming through the ranks at Aston Villa. It’s a place that is obviously very special to me, giving me the chance to fulfil my dream and I’ll always be thankful. My time spent their playing, I loved every minute of it, but by the end of it, not playing regularly as I had been under previous managers, I couldn’t sit back and watch, so felt I needed the move to keep my football career progressing. That’s when my move to Birmingham materialized.
BOTN: How do you feel now when you read about the financial difficulties they are having?
LR: Tough to read about their financial difficulties, obviously the relegations have been a big hit on the club, something you never want to see, especially for a club that gave you your chance. I hope they can figure out a way to get themselves right and back in the big time where they deserve to be.
BOTN: You are one of a few players to have moved from Villa to Birmingham. Did you have any hesitation in joining them due to the rivalry?
LR: Yes, I did have hesitation due to the big rivalry and I had to think about it very strongly, more for family reasons. But in needing to carry on with my progression in my career, Steve Bruce was a tough manager to turn down, given how good of a player he was in his playing career, and to spend time with him and learn, it helped me a lot. Once I had made the decision I was fully committed and loved my time there. My decision was not based on the rivalry but based on the progression of my career and being able to play week in and week out. I feel that helped with the fans and the rivalry because I think they understood why I made the switch.
BOTN: You had an interesting time at Birmingham with various ups (League Cup win, being named captain) and some downs (leg break, relegation). What are your underlining memories of those years? How did you cope with the highs and lows?
LR: Some unbelievable career highs with Birmingham was none other than winning the league cup against Arsenal. It’s a memory that will always stay with me as it was such a big achievement for us as players and us as a club. Being named captain at the age of 22 was a hugely proud moment for me as I never expected it at such a young age as we had some great senior players there. Coping with the pressure of that is something that I loved and took in my stride, and that is just the type of person that I am. Being the captain of a club is a big honour and responsibility.
Relegation was the biggest low in my career as we were such a good team and building a brilliant squad. I know everybody says it, but we were too good to go down and to this day I still think what kind of team we may have been if we had stayed up and managed to keep all the boys there. Breaking my leg was very tough but sometimes that’s what football brings and you have to stay mentally strong to make sure you come back from it stronger and better.
BOTN: Portland made you an offer when you became a free agent in the summer of 2014, but I’ve read you had a couple of other options on the table. What made you move to the US?
LR: Yes, I had other options to stay in the UK but after my time at West Brom. I felt I needed a change to revive my love for the game and found it when I came to the Timbers.
BOTN: Are you disappointed that the MLS still has a somewhat negative, if naive, perception back home?
LR: I think a lot of people have not watched enough of the MLS to be able to give an opinion, so the more it’s televised the bigger it will become. There is definitely still a way to go for the MLS to capture some of the audience back home.
BOTN: I saw an interview you did recently where you talked about your life in Portland with the house on the lake, etc. Does Portland now feel like home, or do you still harbour desires to go back to England?
LR: Portland life is fantastic and I’ve really enjoyed living here. It’s made the move all the easier for me and my family, but I still have desires to come back home to play before I decide to hang up my boots.
BOTN: At several of the clubs you have played for, you have been named as captain. What qualities do you think you have that makes you a natural choice for leader? Do you think that a player’s position (i.e., centre half vs striker) should come into consideration when choosing a captain?
LR: No, if you have the qualities to be a captain it doesn’t matter where you play in the pitch. Personally, for me, a captain leads by example, helps people even if that person isn’t having a good game, and enjoys being the captain. And being heard 24/7 may have helped my case [laughing].
BOTN: Is centre half your most comfortable position? We have seen you play there, but also at left back, and as a holding midfielder throughout your career.
LR: Yes, that’s where I have played most throughout my career and feel comfortable, but my time spent at left back at the back end of my time at Birmingham and at West Brom. I really did enjoy as it allowed me to be more involved in the attacking side of the game, roaming forward from left back and getting myself a goal every now and again at the back stick.
BOTN: How important is it for a player to be adaptable?
LR: Adaptability is good, but for myself I prefer to be set at one position at a club as then I know my role and can perform to my best.
BOTN: Thinking back on your entire career, what do you think is your stand out moment – being capped for England at under 21 level? Winning the league cup for Birmingham? Or the MLS Cup as captain for Portland?
LR: My most stand out moment was being capped at under 21 level and captain for my country.
BOTN: Let’s talk swimwear and in particular your company Thomas Royall that you started with Sam Saunders and John Terry. How did that come about?
LR: Myself and Sam had been talking about ideas for after football to keep us busy and came up with many, but one day Sam came up with an idea, after visiting many pool parties one summer, of starting a swimwear range. I loved the idea and so we started brainstorming on looks and designs. We then brought in a team and with our head designer, Laura Moore, we haven’t looked back and formed what you now know as Thomas Royall. John became part of the Thomas Royall team after shopping for swim shorts online for his holiday and simply loving the brand and wanting to be a part of it. This year we released the new women’s and girl’s line and still have many more ideas pending for SS19.
BOTN: Finally, some quick-fire questions: Most complete player you played with?
LR: Gareth Barry, my time spent with him at Aston Villa.
BOTN: Hidden gem in the MLS?
LR: Darlington Nagbe who plays for Atlanta now.
BOTN: What will you do after retiring?
LR: After retiring I’m looking to go into management, but obviously with Thomas Royall going from strength to strength each year, that is something we set up for life after football.
Thanks again Liam! Good luck with the rest of the season and congratulations on the arrival of your baby girl!
For great swimwear options for this summer, check out Thomas Royall