Birmingham City legend Ricky Otto reveals how he went from armed robber to church preacher
The scar on Ricky Otto’s face, a livid trench that runs from bottom lip to jawline, betrays the former Birmingham City football star’s dark, violent past.
It is one of many, sealed by a total of 76 stitches, that adorn the 51-year-old’s powerful, bearlike body.
A product of Hackney, East London’s notorious John Dunning Estate, Ricky, known on the unforgiving streets as Rugga Ryder, ruled his “manor” – and he ruled through fear.
He was, in his own compelling words, a thug, a bully and a villain.
The winger whose screaming 1995 FA Cup wonder goal against Liverpool has slipped into Bluenose folklore, has history. Violent history. Before being saved by football, Ricky, who now lives in Walsall, served five jail terms, the last a four-year sentenced imposed in 1986 for armed robbery.
In a nutshell, the tired tabloid tales of footballers’ falls from grace are very small beer compared to Ricky’s misdemeanours.
Those who loudly denounce today’s preening, overpaid football stars should look into Ricky’s eyes. His broad frame stil oozes street menace. He still possesses a street swagger, his sentences are still laced with street slang.
Yet his salvation has been spectacular.
The father-of-three has climbed from street punk to Birmingham City FC’s record signing, to committed Christian, to full-time pastor.
Next week, his flock at ARC – A Radical Church – relocate to the larger St Silas Church in the Second City’s tough Lozells district.
When not spreading God’s word, Ricky works with the probation service to deliver anti-knife crime sermons to the vulnerable.
Those privy to that vital message include inmates at Brinsford Young Offenders’ Institute in South Staffordshire. Sitting in one of the hospitality suites at St Andrew’s, Ricky speaks with openness and honesty about a young life near destroyed by gang affiliation.
“In the three years I was inside for armed robbery, 12 of my closest friends died, only two of them because of ill-health,” he reveals.
“I have 76 stitches from knife crime and the life I was living. I was very boisterous. I would’ve killed someone, or I would’ve picked on the wrong person.
“I would’ve either been dead or serving a life sentence.”
Ricky leans forward and, opening his hands as if preparing for a Biblical address, admits: “When I look back at that lifestyle, there’s not a lot of regret because you are playing a game and, nine times out of 10, that game is being played with other criminals.
“There are a few people I wish I could see again – a couple of people I bullied at school, people I bullied after school. Four or five people who, when I look back, I don’t feel good about myself for troubling them because they were not living the lifestyle I was.
“For that, I troubled them. I wish I could see them to apologise.
“I’m very reluctant to use the phrase ‘gang culture’ because that’s sensationalising it. It was a group of people who grew up on the same estate, that’s all it was.
“The guys I hung round with were the people I grew up with. It was not a gang, it was not organised. We all knew who the real criminals were.”
He added: “To be fair, in Hackney there were nine, 10 estates where we hung out on a daily basis.
“Now, you can’t hang around ‘that’ estate because you live in ‘this’ estate. It’s all about postcodes.
“But when I grew up it was never in our mind to kill anyone. I was slashed and cut, but never stabbed.
“I’ve had fights and, four or five hours later, smoked weed with those I was fighting.
“Now, they are stabbing you. Back in my day, they were sliced. Now, they are stabbing you in vital organs.”
The moral difference between a slice and stab may seem twisted, but, at its lowest level, Ricky’s sink estate logic may partly explain the rise in fatal knife attacks.
Ricky, who made 45 appearances for Blues, including a Wembley outing in the Auto Windscreens Shield final, from 1994 to 1998, was so nearly a lost talent.
“I was well-known for football from the age of eight or nine,” he recalls.
“When I started playing football again and became a professional, the people of Hackney were bamboozled.
“It was like me being a Prodigal Son. People were surprised, but glad I sorted it out. It would’ve been no shock to them if I’d been shot or stabbed.”
Their surprise was understandable. Ricky was a very well-known face in the concrete jungle of Hackney’s estates and tower blocks, a hoodlum standing in the shadows of a substantial prison stretch. Its arrival was inevitable.
“There was a new crime sweeping through London called ‘steaming’,” he explains.
“That’s where you go in numbers into venues where there are items you can take or sell later.”
“One guy had a baseball bat,” Ricky shrugs. “I don’t know where he got it from, but that’s where the armed robbery charge came from.”
On that occasion, Ricky was not tooled up, he insists.
But the sentence – or rather an encounter between two lags at Wandsworth Prison who praised his football prowess – set him on the road to redemption. Those prisoners urged him to make the most of his soccer skills.
Ricky, a young man who grew up without a father figure, listened intently. “In prison, I was a cheeky chappie,” he grins.
“I wasn’t one of those offenders trying to fight the system, I would still have a laugh with officers.
“Wandsworth changed my outlook. Two people came to my cell and said they wanted to talk to me – one was doing 27 years, the other 17.
“I was getting ready to fight, I was 21 years old in an adult prison and they gave me a kick up the backside.
“They said, ‘Don’t serve the time, let the time serve you. Don’t sit down, do nothing – think about what you want to do after you’ve been released’.
“It was the first time in my life any man had said anything positive about me. It was the first time any man had sat me down. It was the first time someone had said something affirming me.
Ricky was certainly ready.
On release, he signed for Leyton Orient, moved to Southend United, where larger-than-life manager Barry Fry was at the helm, and when Fry took over the Blues’ hot seat, moved to Birmingham for a club record £800,000.
Fans have widely differing opinions over Ricky’s input at City. There were highs, there were lows.
There was also a significant “Saul on the road to Damascus” moment during a game at St Andrew’s that supporters are blissfully unaware of.
Gazing at the turf, he recalls: “I had only been out of prison four years, I was living in a nice house. Life was good. In fact, it was perfect, I was living the dream.”
Pointing to a corner of the pitch, Ricky says excitedly: “I was standing there – exactly there – and thinking ‘What am I going to do when this finishes?’ I remember looking round and thinking, ‘What am I going to do after this because it isn’t going to get better than this?’
“After football, I didn’t want to be a football coach. I realised my life was bananas, but what was I going to do when it finished because I’d no qualifications and had never done a day’s work in my life.
“At that moment, God said, ‘You are going to serve me’.”
Ricky firmly grasps my hand and, by way of a parting shot, announces: “Football saved my life.”
- Additional reporting by Alan Barry.
God called Ricky Otto on a number of occasions, he says.
But he simply wasn’t ready to listen. He wasn’t ready to understand. “I had always believed in God,” he explains.
“When we sat outside the flats smoking weed, we would talk about the elements that far superseded man’s power.
“When I went from Wandsworth to Camp Hill, Isle of Wight, I felt this presence I could not explain.
“I felt it was spiritual, but because of what I was, Christianity was not something you spoke about – it wasn’t cool.
“I kept the thoughts to myself, but always felt the presence. Even when I went to church in the prison, I never disrespected the service.
“I kept it to myself for many, many years because I was wrapped up in pride. “
He added: “What really triggered the step forward was the death, in 2002, of a good friend of mine.
“He was like me, he was from a well-known family and had a reputation, as I had.
“I learned he had become a Christian. He was someone I respected – he wasn’t crazy, he wasn’t an idiot.
“All of a sudden I realised that was what I’d been feeling. It took someone I respected to take that leap.
“I opened up the Bible and it all started to make sense.”
In 2006, Ricky began a degree in theology and, three years ago, became a full-time pastor.
“The last four years I’ve been delivering empowerment projects with the probation service,” he adds.
Those projects graphically outline the heavy price of knife crime. It’s a topic Pastor Ricky knows all about. It’s a price he came perilously close to paying in full.