In September 1993 I went with my friend and his dad to Fratton Park to watch Portsmouth taken on Southend United in Division 1. I was in my formative football years and would take in everything, absorbing it all like a sponge. On that day Portsmouth won a fairly close game 2-1 but it was a Southend player that really caught my eye. Running up and down the wing and causing the Pompey backline all sorts of problems was a dreadlocked, rather wiry winger named Ricky Otto.
From then on every time my friend and I played football in the garden we would replicate matches and I would make sure Ricky Otto was the Southend man of danger. Years later, while thinking back to that game at Fratton Park I looked him up and found one of the most compelling stories I had read yet.
Born in Hackney, London in a single parent family, living with his mother and two brothers, Ricky was clearly a very bright young man. Academically he was obviously talented but his mouthy character got him into trouble and he was clearly not suited for the life of quiet study that would have seen him achieve more than acceptable grades. Instead he was always in trouble and would be outside the headmaster’s office on an almost daily basis. He put this down to his naturally mischievous character but also reflected that not having a male role model around certainly played a part in his wayward youth.
By the age of 14 he was out of the education system and by the age of 15 he was hanging out on the street. His role models became his peers and the men who, using crime, would earn a handsome living. His criminal activity would soon catch up with him and by 17 he was serving his first custodial sentence. By the time he met his father for the first, at age 19, he had already been sentenced to 4 custodial sentences and then when serving yet another one, this time in Wandsworth Prison, he had an epiphany moment. Playing football with the inmates in the gym his talent with the ball was so apparent that two inmates paid him a visit in his cell. They explained in no uncertain terms that a man with his talent should not be in prison! Whatever they said clearly got through to Ricky in a way that no one had been able to do so before. The expression “serve your time” is one often associated with those serving long terms in prison and Ricky was currently serving a 4 year sentence but these two inmates told him to “let the time serve you” so he knuckled down and used his time to get in excellent physical condition and improve his footballing skills.
When he finally got out in 1989 he put all his focus on becoming footballer. In August of that year he joined Haringey Borough FC and it was not long before he was attracting attention from a number of professional sides. Ricky remembers standing at the kitchen door of his mother’s house in Hackney telling her and his brother that he was going to be a professional and they would soon be watching him on T.V. Needless to say the response was more than sceptical and this drove Ricky on to try harder and then one day he got that call or more precisely his mother did.
Coming home from a day of training he was told by his mother than his manager at Haringey had called telling him that Leyton Orient wanted him to attend a trial the next week. He jumped at the chances and after a successful trial he signed a professional contract worth £100 per week. The first thing he did was walk home like a man on a mission, contract in hand, to show his doubting mum. He described it as a moment of pure joy for the pair of them, his mum being so happy that he had achieved dream but this is where the hard work really started.
Training everyday was a shock at first but he soon bedded in and it wasn’t too long before he was again attracting attention from clubs in higher divisions. His big move finally came in the summer of 1993 when he joined Southend United, then managed by Barry Fry, for £100,000. Otto recalled that Barry Fry had a reputation of taking a risk on players that other clubs deemed too disruptive and he was seen as one of those players. Fry, however, was able to get the best out of the group at his disposal and, despite having a much smaller budget than some of their rivals, Southend flourished and Otto in particular.
He became an ever present force and as a winger was able to be creative whilst also being the Essex club’s top goal scorer! After a shock 3-1 away victory at the end of November 1993 Southend sat in third place in Division 1 (now the Championship) to the amazement of the football world!
But as always things in football change quickly and Barry Fry was poached to manage Birmingham City and without their vociferous leader the Shrimpers formed fell away badly and they ended the season in 15th.
Otto remained with Southend until December 1994 and even approached the chairman for an improved contract but when this wasn’t forth coming he took the opportunity afforded to him by his former manager Barry Fry. Fry was looking for more fire power at his new club Birmingham and broke the club record fee to bring Otto to St. Andrews.
The £800,000 fee in December 1994 was supposed to bring in an out an out goal scorer, or that was how Fry was selling it but in actual fact Otto was a winger. He recalled how the crowd expectations for goals made it hard for him to settle and also his new found money and fame also led him to losing the focus that he had had at Southend.
Despite not hitting the form that he did at Southend, his time in Birmingham was not without its moments including a memorable goal in the FA Cup against Liverpool! Much like Barry Fry, Otto could not replicate his former success at Birmingham and he was loaned out to Charlton, Peterborough and the finally Notts County. It was while at County in October 1997 that Otto suffered a horrendous knee injury that all but ended his football career but he has turned his retirement into an endeavour to help those similar to himself by training as a probation officer. He admits that without football he would almost certainly have been killed like a number of his friends but his talent allowed him to escape and he wants to help those who have become stuck in a life of crime, those that remind him of the young hot head he once was. He has also become a Christian and studied Theology but to me he will always be that stand out winger on the field at Fratton Park all those years ago!
words James Richards
Photo © Getty Images Mark Thompson