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Richie Partridge made three senior appearances for Liverpool in the League Cup during the early 2000s.
Richie Partridge made three senior appearances for Liverpool in the League Cup during the early 2000s.
Image: EMPICS Sport

The one-time Irish wonderkid now back at Liverpool

Once considered Ireland’s next big thing, Richie Partridge on how his failure to make it as a top-level footballer opened up a new path.
Jan 19th 2019, 10:01 AM 65,697 27

THERE HASN’T BEEN much to cheer about with regards to the Irish national team in recent months, but that hasn’t stopped people from getting excited about the future.

Now, perhaps more than ever, there is a great deal of hype and optimism about a number of young players coming through the ranks.

It is certainly no coincidence that it has coincided with one of the senior team’s lowest ebbs of late, but there is considerable hope that players such as Caoimhin Kelleher, Gavin Bazunu, Lee O’Connor, Nathan Collins, Troy Parrott, Adam Idah, Michael Obafemi and Aaron Connolly among others can contribute to a brighter future for the Irish side.

But paths to stardom are rarely straightforward. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, Richie Partridge was talked about in similarly glowing terms to those mentioned above.

For a substantial portion of his life, the skilful winger yearned to be part of Liverpool’s first team, and two and a half years ago, he finally realised that dream, although not in the way he would have originally conceived.

Growing up in Blanchardstown, Dublin, he was a typical soccer-obsessed kid in a country that was more infatuated with the beautiful game than ever thanks to the incredible exploits of the Jack Charlton-managed Ireland teams from the late 1980s onwards.

Initially, it was the pure joy of kicking a ball around the estate with a group of like-minded aspiring young footballers that grabbed his interest. And once he caught the bug, it stayed with him perennially.

“My ma had to drag me in for my dinner every night,” he tells The42.

You start realising you’re half-decent at playing. Everybody wants you on your team as a kid and you tend to win a lot of games, score a lot of goals and that was the case with me. I didn’t take anything too seriously until you start getting into the age groups where scouts will come and watch you. All of a sudden, you’re thinking: ‘Oh, so they want us to go on a plane for the weekend and play for the U14s or whatever.’ You’re like: ‘Yeah, it’s another game of football. Brilliant. I’ll do that.’

“My dad was a massive influence. He played semi-professional back in Ireland. Unfortunately, he died at a young age [after suffering a heart attack at 41].

“My ma took over the mantle of bringing me to the matches, making sure my boots were clean — as much of a disgrace that is, I should have been cleaning them myself, because she used to do them for me.”

Partridge played briefly for Home Farm at U9 level, before switching to local rivals Stella Maris.

Even in the highly competitive Dublin and District Schoolboys League, Partridge and his team-mates “tended to win most trophies most years”. As a result of this success, by his mid-teens, English clubs were circling and the young Irish winger moved to Liverpool aged 15.

In total, “eight or nine” of that Stella Maris team went across the water, which was an extraordinary number, even in the days when English clubs’ scouting systems were not quite as far-reaching as they are now, and Irish footballers had a greater chance of being picked up by the top Premier League sides.

Keith Andrews Ex-Ireland international Keith Andrews was in the same Stella Maris youth side as Richie Partridge. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Of that group of footballers, however, aside from Partridge, just two players — Keith Andrews and Joe Murphy — would enjoy lengthy careers in England, and while both would go on to become Ireland internationals, there were plenty of rocky moments along the way, illustrating how tough it can be to succeed at the highest level irrespective of exceptional schoolboy achievements.

“Initially what happened was myself, Paul O’Meara and another lad from Ballymun, Matt McManus, were due to go over the year after, which coincides with the start of their U17 season, which is when they put all their full-time lads on.

“What they soon copped was that we’d done our Junior Cert and you could leave school after that. There were a couple of lads, Stephen McPhail, the year before, had gone to Leeds — they got him a year early. I think Richie Dunne was the same at Everton and there were a couple of lads starting to filter through doing it that way.”

It was April 1996 — the same month Liverpool put a big dent in Newcastle’s title hopes amid an unforgettable 4-3 thriller at Anfield — that club legend and former Ireland international Steve Heighway arrived at Partridge’s house and offered him the chance to link up with the Reds. There was little hesitation on the youngster’s part and he signed the following June.

“He said: ‘Listen, I can get you over a year early. How do you feel about that?’ I was never going to say ‘no’ and they wanted to get you over there to develop you as quickly as they could. And that was fair enough.”

Partridge, however, soon discovered that life as an aspiring Premier League footballer was not exactly idyllic.

Looking back on it, I was dreadfully homesick for six months. I was on the verge of coming back and staying in Ireland for a year or so, before coming back over. Liverpool were unbelievable with me because they let me home every weekend initially, and when they saw I was coping with that, it was every other weekend, and then once a month, and once every couple of months, until eventually, it was six months into the season, and I was grand.

“If it wasn’t for them facilitating me and how I was feeling, I’d have probably just come home and tried to come back the year after, which may have hindered my development.”

SOCCER Former Ireland international Steve Heighway was a big influence on a young Partridge. Source: EMPICS Sport

Partridge believes it is altogether different for young Irish players nowadays, with less pressure to make the move to England at an early age. A recent conversation with Niall Quinn at the Star Sixes tournament in Glasgow consolidated this belief.

“For the players of my era, there were no academies at the League of Ireland clubs, the coaching was literally whoever was available — whoever’s dad could get off work at a certain time would take the session.

“Now, it’s all changed — the opportunities, the coaching and the facilities are a lot better than when I was growing up. But I still think giving lads the opportunity to come away to a massive club — Liverpool or wherever it may be — at 16, is probably still the best way for them to develop as footballers. As a person, who knows? It’s sink or swim time.

“For a lot of lads, they go back to Ireland, unfortunately not finishing their education and not having a career, but if you want to get into the game and have a good crack at it, my opinion would probably be that the best clubs, coaches and opportunities to develop you into the best player would be at these top clubs in England.”

Under the guidance of coach Hugh McAuley and Heighway, the academy director who himself was Dublin-born and a tricky winger in his playing days, Partridge gradually adapted to his new life in England.

[Heighway] would nurture every single player and give them equal opportunities, equal time and any issues at all with my homesickness, he would stick his arm around you and treat you as his own son. That’s not changed. He’s still doing bits at the academy now — he’s gone back [after an eight-and-a-half-year absence]. His enthusiasm for football and dedication for the game after all these years hasn’t changed.”

As he made waves at youth level, the excitement surrounding Partridge in Ireland grew. In 1998, he was part of the Brian Kerr-managed Irish team that memorably triumphed at the U18 European Championships in Cyprus, with Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne among his team-mates. He was also eligible for the side that finished third in the same competition a year later.

An Irish Independent article entitled ‘Partridge well on way to senior stardom’ summed up the level of optimism regarding the youngster.

“Richie’s on fire,” then-Liverpool player Steve Staunton was quoted as saying. “In a reserve game the other week, he absolutely destroyed the Bradford left-back. He’s as quick as lightning, can cross, shoot and has a trick or two that catches out defenders.

“He’s not far off the first team the way he’s progressing. His size may hold him back a bit but his pace makes up for that. Michael Owen isn’t particularly big either but his speed puts fear into defenders and it’s the same with Richie. His feet are firmly on the ground and I don’t think anything’s going to stop him.”

Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Chelsea v Liverpool Partridge played with his future brother-in-law, Michael Owen, at underage level at Liverpool. Source: EMPICS Sport

Partridge seemed destined to become a senior Ireland international. He was even called into the Irish squad for a November 2002 friendly in between the Mick McCarthy and Brian Kerr eras, but was kept on the bench during the 0-0 draw in Greece by caretaker boss Don Givens.

An impressive loan spell in the First Division (now The Championship) with Coventry, under the guidance of Sky Blues manager and former Liverpool player Gary McAllister, enhanced Partidge’s growing reputation. After four goals in 27 appearances, he was ultimately voted the club’s Player of the Season by Sky Blues fans.

“He is a class act both on and off the pitch,” McAllister told reporters, after a brilliant individual goal by the player, as well as an assist, inspired a 2-0 win over Reading.

“The goal was terrific. He had so much to do when he picked the ball up and it is hard to support him because you cannot catch him up. In training at Liverpool, he can match Michael Owen over little bursts.” 

However, while acknowledging that it can potentially be more difficult for modern young players on account of the increased football coverage and the substantial impact of social media, Partridge insists he never got too affected by all the praise he was receiving in the media and elsewhere.

100% you could ignore it, because you didn’t even know it was going on,” he says. “You had lads like Michael Owen and Stevie Gerrard in the same team as you who were unbelievable players.

“If I stayed at Stella Maris and the rest of the lads went over to England — you’d probably see the hype a little bit more then.

“But when you’re thrust into Liverpool Football Club amongst another 16 players who are all trying to play in Liverpool’s first team, some of them unbelievably talented, you don’t tend to notice it and I certainly didn’t let anything affect me in that sense.”

A Google search of Partridge’s name now will result in numerous articles containing phrases such as “unfulfilled potential,” but often these sweeping judgements are lacking context.

Don Givens Caretaker boss Don Givens called Partridge up to the Irish senior squad in 2002. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Granted, the Irishman never made it at Liverpool as a footballer, but his pathway was complicated by two debilitating cruciate injuries suffered at the vital development ages of 18 and 22.

“In terms of the first one, I was back in six months. I was 18 at the time, didn’t really understand injuries and my body,” he explains. “I thought: ‘Yeah, I’m grand, I’ll get over it.’

“The second one probably hindered me. I was at a crucial point in my career, I’d played a game for Liverpool. I’d had a couple of good loan spells at Bristol Rovers and Coventry, and it was time for me to either kick on and have a pop at trying to get into Liverpool’s first team, or move on and try to forge a career [elsewhere] in the Premier League or the Championship.

“Then this injury came along and that, time-wise, wasn’t ideal. Physically, when I came back from that, I did feel like I lost a yard and probably wasn’t as sharp, although back then I never would have admitted it.

“By no means am I turning around and saying to you that if it wasn’t for those injuries, I would have made [it at Liverpool], because ultimately, I don’t think I’d be good enough to actually get to that level on a consistent basis. But certainly, I was proven at Championship level and could have had more of a career at the higher end of the Championship.

“But no excuses, there were probably other factors in there as well. Luck probably is a big part. Commitment plays a big part as well and focus. You look back now and you always question yourself in terms of the choices you make, the clubs you go to for the right or wrong reasons.

But it’s all part of growing up, learning your trade and picking your profession, and doing the best you possibly can at that profession and choosing what you feel is the right path for you at that time.” 

On recovering from the long-term injury, he adds: “For me, the psychological side of things was fine. I was always confident I could get back and play again. It was more the physical side. I’m not the biggest lad in the world. Although I was quick, I was never big and strong. So I relied on my quickness and losing half a yard after that second injury certainly played a part [in the loss of form].”

Having made just three League Cup appearances at the club, all of which were victories, it was at the end of the 2004-05 season, Rafa Benitez’s first campaign in charge after replacing Gerard Houllier, that Partridge was released by the club he had joined as a youngster nine years previously. By that stage, despite not establishing himself as a household name, he was one of Liverpool’s longest-serving players.

It was at this point that the gradual slide down the British footballing ladder began. Relatively short stints followed at Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham, Chester City, MK Dons, Kettering Town (loan), Stockport County and finally in Wales at The New Saints, with Partridge seldom staying in one destination for longer than a year.

Soccer - Coca-Cola Football League One - Charlton Athletic v Stockport County - The Valley Richie Partridge pictured during his time at Stockport in 2010. Source: EMPICS Sport

In 2012, at the age of 30, Partridge announced his retirement from the game, with persistent knee injuries making the decision easier. The following November, he briefly returned to sign for Airbus UK Broughton, but was largely restricted to substitute appearances with the Welsh Premier League club.

Aside from the injury problems, however, there was another reason why Partridge increasingly struggled for consistency after leaving Liverpool. Beginning with Sheffield Wednesday, he began to prepare for life outside of the game.

The precariousness of a career in football had been all too apparent in his later years with the Reds and so Partridge began studying Physiotherapy at the University of Salford after his Anfield exit, graduating with first-class honours in 2009. A two-year part-time master’s degree in Football Rehabilitation at Edge Hill University followed, as he made the wise decision to focus on his education when it looked as if professional football would not work out entirely as hoped.

“I started training as a physio when I left Liverpool, so although I was 24 at the time and still had a lot of years left in me, I understood that there was a very good chance that I would never make the money in the game that would make me able to train in something that would allow me to take four or five years out of my life, or like the lads who do well now, they can literally just retire when they finish. There was a very good chance that wasn’t going to happen, so I had a look at what I was interested in and what could still keep me in football, and physiotherapy sprung out at me.

The PFA [Professional Footballers' Association] facilitated a course through Salford University — it was primarily for lads who were older than me coming to the end or already finished their career to jump on and re-train and have a profession in four years from whenever you start. That was probably the driving factor for me. 

“If I was advising lads now, I would advise them probably to wait a few more years until they’re at the backend [of their career], unless they’re totally sure they don’t want a career in football or haven’t been good enough to go on and play at any level. I would probably say to them wait until they’re knocking on 30, see where they’re at then, because for me, training to be a physio, the travelling involved, the man hours involved, the placement involved certainly had an impact on my football at the time.

“I wouldn’t change it for the world, because the opportunities I’ve got from it have landed me in the situation I’m in. But at that time, it wasn’t the ideal scenario for me.

“It minimised the sort of training I could do. I was constantly rushing from training. I had to go to uni. In the summer, where I should have had a nice, relaxing time off and been building my fitness, I was in placement full-time 9-5 for six weeks at a local hospital. If you’re looking at an ideal scenario for a professional footballer to gain exactly what he needs from training or the off-season, that wasn’t ideal. So it probably hindered me ever so slightly.”

Presentation Republic of Ireland v Greece 25/7/1999 (L-R)Richie Baker, Jason Gavin, Colin Healy, Liam Miller, John Frost, Richie Partridge celebrate finishing 3rd in Europe after the 1999 European Championships. Source: Lorraine O 'Sullivan/INPHO

Partridge is not the only footballer who had to retire early due to injury that went on to become a successful physio. Paul Ferris, once a hot prospect at Newcastle in the 1980s, suffered similar bad luck, but returned to the Magpies a few years later in this new role. Does Partridge therefore believe there is a significant link between his serious injury problems and the desire to gain a greater understanding of physiotherapy. 

“100%,” he says. “I was interested in it, because of my own injuries and I was always looking things up myself and trying to understand things, especially with my second big ACL. And also, the physios I worked with at the time, Dave Galley, who is over in Qatar at the minute looking after the national team and Mark Browes were two lads I got on great with. I almost looked up to them and thought, if I ended up being in the position they’re in, I’m sure lads would emulate that and look up to me.”

It was in 2009, after he had just qualified as a physio and was playing with MK Dons, that his old colleague Galley offered Partridge the chance to put his education to good use and return to Liverpool on a part-time basis. Initially, he would help out on work with the academy kids whenever his busy schedule allowed him to. While he was at TNS in 2012, an opportunity of a more permanent job arose with the club’s U21s. 

The League of Wales, for what it was, was decent enough money, full-time and I could do it for another two or three years, or I could start thinking about life after football now, jump in and have a little look, and if I get this job, then great,” he recalls.

Partridge was accepted into the position and after a couple of years with the underage set-up, he was promoted to first-team physio in the summer of 2016, finally achieving his dream of a permanent senior role at the club after all these years, albeit in different circumstances to what he once might have imagined.

“It’s really interesting being on the other side of the fence when it comes to working with the lads. You can totally understand what it’s like from their point of view and likewise, you’ve got the understanding and the expertise of your trade.

I think the lads will understand and always take pleasure in chatting to me about what it was like when I started playing and some of the lads that I played with. The likes of James Milner, I would have played against him in his early years, so you can have great craic that way.

“But ultimately, you’re there as a physio and you’re there to give your professional opinion from a medical point of view. Regardless of what I’ve done in my career as a player, that will always be trumped by the trust they have in you as a physio and as part of the medical team.”

Source: Sam Warrenger/YouTube

Despite never making it as a Premier League footballer, what Partridge has achieved in his career is certainly admirable. Many in his position, who come so close to outright stardom, struggle to recover from this demoralising setback. The former Irish underage international’s story should serve as an example to footballers everywhere of the potential to adapt to whatever obstacles the game throws in an individual’s path.

Now 38, the former player says others should not be put off by his own footballing misfortune, and subsequent inability to reach the top level of the game.

If you make a decision that you’re going to England, just put your heart and soul into it,” he concludes. “It’s going to be tough for the first six months or a year, but ultimately, you’ll get your rewards if you stick with it and dig in.”

In a way, Partridge is living proof of such sentiments — it may have been a long time coming, but his persistence is finally paying off.

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