Thursday, 18 April 2013

Hamilton Ricard: An Appreciation

Si's Insights tells the story of a most untypical Boro hero... a prolific goalscorer who never quite knew what he was!

Simon Bird of The Mirror recently suggested that foreign partnerships might help Boro return to the Premiership. Well, once upon a time, foreigners always seemed the answer to Boro's problems - except the most prolific of these was less costly and troublesome than most of his higher-profile brethren. I'm talking about Hamilton Ricard, Boro's Toto Schillaci, who started his first full season at Boro as a marginal figure and bowed out of the club three years later as a record holder. A cult hero.

Some might still think that the word "cult" is an overstatement for a player that no one was quite able to figure out at the time, and still can't today. Despite holding a record that has yet to be beaten - more on that later - he never really seems to rank among the Boro striking greats, and the mere mention of his name seems to elicit shrugs and grudging admiration rather than hero worship. He's the outsider, the How Green Was My Valley to the Citizen Kane, the Ordinary People to the Raging Bull, the Rocky to the Taxi Driver, the King's Speech to the Social Network (okay, that one's debatable).

That, of course, may be down to the fact that he was unlucky enough to join the squad and play during an embarrassingly wealthy era of striking riches for the Boro. True, he hadn't the footwork of Mark Viduka. He didn't quite have the power of Yakubu. He didn't possess the killer instinct of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the artistry of Alen Boksic, the all round excellence of Fabrizio Ravanelli or the iconic status of Juninho.

And yet, when you look at these players' goalscoring stats over the years...

Ravanelli - 32 goals (17 league)
Boksic - 22 goals (22 league)
Hasselbaink - 34 goals (23 league)
Yakubu - 35 goals (25 league)
Viduka - 42 goals (26 league)
Juninho - 33 goals (29 league)
Ricard - 43 goals (33 league)

That's right. "Ham The Man", as he was affectionately called, outscored all of them, both in the league and overall. No player has scored more goals for the Boro in the Riverside era.

Not that anyone could have predicted that would happen during his earliest days at the club. When 1998 began, both our promotion charge and Mikkel Beck's surprisingly impressive form began to falter. Realising that up front was becoming a problem area, Bryan Robson dipped into Steve Gibson's money chest - in the days when we pretty much took it for granted - and signed three strikers: Ricard, Alun Armstrong and Marco Branca. While Armstrong and Branca's goal-scoring feats were well-known, we had little to go on regarding Ricard apart from an admittedly good strike rate for Deportivo Cali (77 goals in 160 games) and Robbo's words: "Hamilton is strong, powerful and quick... (and) really keen to play in this country."

If that's not enough to make one optimistic, I don't know what is.

Yet snags with work-permits delayed his debut for more than a month, allowing Branca and Armstrong to join Paul Merson as Boro's goalden boys. By the time Ricard had debuted, against Norwich, Branca and Armstrong already had nine goals between them. A lacklustre League Cup final showing alongside Merson and Branca didn't help either, though worse was to come for Ricard; he stumbled around and missed at least three sitters in a 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United that threw Boro's automatic promotion campaign into real danger. The moniker "Hamilton Retard" was born, fans clamoured for Craig Hignett and Branca, and that seemed that.

It got so bad for Ricard at one point that despite a striker shortage, following injuries to Branca and Armstrong, Robbo refused to start Ham The Man in either of Boro's first two league games in 1998-99, preferring Merson up front on his own. Robbo seemed to have forgotten that Ricard had already sort of redeemed himself even before 1998-99 kicked off, by twice re-booting our faltering promotion charge. First, there was the opening goal in a much needed 4-0 rout of Bury that guaranteed a play-off spot. Then, more importantly, there was the equaliser against Wolves which placed automatic promotion firmly in our own hands on that final day. A flick to set up a goal for Beck against Villa and an equalising header against Derby were a sign of things to come, although fans and critics preferred to credit Merson's contributions at the time.

Proper redemption for Ham The Man would come sooner rather than later. Merson's acrimonious departure opened the door for Beck and Ricard to form a consistent partnership up front, and it was left for Ricard to hammer home two powerful finishes in an impressive 3-0 away win at White Hart Lane. Backed by a solid defence, and free of the pressure of being in the shadow of Merson et al, Ricard played with both freedom and verve, netting eight more goals by the time October 1998 drew to a close.

Not coincidentally perhaps, the arrival of Brian Deane for £3 million (seriously?) slowed things down a bit, straight-jacketing Ham The Man into a Route One style "partnership" that hardly ever seemed to pay off, except, remarkably, at Old Trafford against the future treble winners. His form suffered, so did Boro's, and he needed to be gifted a goal against Southampton later that season before he looked the part again. Still, a highly impressive eighteen goals for the season was not to be sniffed at, nor was an equally impressive fourteen the following season. Although again, his best form came in spurts - if there were times when he looked like a Colombian Alan Shearer, there were other times when it felt like he'd been repossessed by Francis Jeffers.

It's impossible to deny that Ham The Man has given us enough memories worthy of a Boro legend. As well as those already mentioned, one cannot forget, amongst other things, the artistic chip and lob against Wimbledon at home in 1998-99, his drought-ending cracker against Sunderland in 1999-00 that could and should have given us a derby victory, his thunderbolt against Coventry that revitalised a flagging Boro that same season, and another double against Spurs. Even in 2000-01, when the arrival of Boksic had pushed him closer to the exit, he still had some magic left in the tank, like his one and only Boro hat-trick against Macclesfield in the cup, his delightful pass to set up an equaliser for Boksic against Coventry, his unforgettable Goal Of The Season contender at Bradford, and that goal, from Boksic's backheel, in the highly unlikely 3-0 win at Highbury. These are the sort of moments we clamour about when Boksic, Ravanelli and even Yakubu pull them off, yet Ricard was every bit as capable. If he was in form, he would thrive on the service of whoever played alongside him, be it Beck, Deane, Juninho or Boksic.

But he was every bit as - if not more - frustrating. If his goals showed that he could be all about the four P's, Placement, Power, Persistence and Presence, there was also room for a fifth P, Puzzlement. Mood swings are common amongst strikers, but Ricard's seemed even worse than Yakubu's - on his day, he could win any game; off his day, he would just disappear. Clinical one moment; clumsy the next. (There was even a time where Robbo had to give him a rest to help him rediscover his shooting boots.) What really made him tick? And if he was capable of such majestic feats on his best days, imagine what more consistency could have given both him - and us.

Perhaps such obvious inconsistency caused Steve McClaren to release Ricard not long after our most successful manager arrived.

And perhaps Daniel of the now defunct Boro Mania website got it right when he said that even Ricard seemed surprised by his own genius; and maybe that's what held him back. It's probable that when no one, least of all himself, expected him to do anything special, he would - once the pressure was off, he would perform to the best of his ability. Like Boro themselves.

Which ultimately makes him the enigma that everyone says he is, but also no less enigmatic and frustrating than the one and only English club he joined.

Hamilton Ricard may have been an untypical Boro hero, but he was very much a typical Boro player.

1 comment:

Peter Singh said...

What we would give for a Ricaard now or even a uwe fuchs!