Liam Ridgewell enjoyed a 17-year career as a professional footballer. After making his senior debut for Aston Villa, he went on to play over 300 games in English football before joining MLS side Portland Timbers, where he is now a coach. Below, Ridgewell reflects on his experiences in youth football, the challenges of making it to the Premier League, and the mentality required to compete at the highest level.

In This Article

Developing a Strong Mindset

Ridgewell first experienced academy football at West Ham United, during an era when the club’s youth teams helped to develop some of the best young players in England. Academy graduates like Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand symbolised the successes of the club’s youth programme, while also signalling a potential pathway for players like Ridgewell.

“You could see the progression all the way from schoolboy football to the first team,” Ridgewell recalls — though he believes that the opportunity to learn from those players was even more valuable. “You were connected with the first team. So, for example, I watched Frank Lampard stay and hit 30 balls after every single training session. I got to see the mentality that was instilled in the senior players, and absorb it as much as I could.”

According to Ridgewell, it was his dedication, above all else, that enabled him to become a professional footballer. Aged just 15, he moved to Aston Villa — a club several hours away from his parents and childhood home — in order to escape distractions and focus on football: “My mindset was always that I would be a professional footballer. I was determined that nothing would stop me.”

It is this mindset — a determination and willingness to work — to which Ridgewell attributes many of his strengths on the pitch. “I loved to tackle, loved the competitiveness,” he says. “And I talked a lot. If you communicate, and you can help people out, you’ll always get noticed. Initially, that’s what made me stand out from the rest.

“I think my ability to talk, my determination, and certainly my grittiness and willingness to win caught the eyes of scouts and coaches.”

Competing against Elite Opposition

At the age of 19, Ridgewell broke into the Villa first team before going on to make over 250 Premier League appearances and compete against some of the best footballers in the world. When asked about his toughest opponent, he doesn’t hesitate: “Ruud van Nistelrooy [then at Manchester United].

“He always played on your shoulder. I prided myself on keeping a defensive line where everyone was compact and together — but he asked so many questions of that line; if he stood behind your shoulder, did you drop and give up that space in-front? Or, if you kept a high line, did you trust yourself to be quick enough to get back and cover? He was a top player to play against. It was a great experience.”

So how did Ridgewell prepare himself for the individual battles he faced in elite-level football? Again, it was a matter of mental resilience: “Before the match, my focus was always on winning the first tackle, the first header. That didn’t only set a precedent for the opponent I was up against, but for my own mentality.

“Coaches talk about winning that first battle, but sometimes there isn’t enough emphasis on it. Some kids don’t understand why that’s important. But, to me, it was vital; I knew that I was approaching the game well and starting it right — and thereby giving myself the best possible platform to succeed.”

The Importance of Overcoming Adversity

An ability to accept and overcome setbacks is key to developing a strong mindset. Interestingly, when asked about moments of adversity in his career, Ridgewell reflects on a disappointment he faced as a child playing county-level football: one week before his county team was due to take a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime trip to play in America, he fractured his leg while playing for his Sunday League team.

“I missed the trip — which is something I’d been building up in my mind for a while,” he says. “It was the first real injury I’d ever had.” But Ridgewell recalls that, when he became upset, his father simply invited him to reflect upon the situation himself: “He just asked me if I wanted to continue playing football. It was the first time somebody had asked me if I really wanted to put myself through all of that to become a professional footballer.

“Of course, I said ‘yes’. So he told me to dry my tears and keep going — and that I would get to go to America to play football one day. And, funnily enough, I eventually ended up playing here for four-and-a-half years.”

Ridgwell’s story is a great example of experiencing adversity and ultimately overcoming it — particularly for kids, for whom there is often a tendency to overestimate the importance of single events or outcomes.

“We put these things up on pedestals,” he adds. “But we must remind ourselves, most of the time, the situation isn’t as bad as we believe.”

Advice for Aspiring Footballers

Does Ridgewell have any additional advice for young footballers when experiencing setbacks or success? “Sometimes, success is worse,” he says. “It can lead to agents, coaches, and peers telling you how good you are — and that can ruin a player.

“It’s crucial that you surround yourself with good people. And think about what type of player and person you want to be. The setbacks are difficult, but don’t take them to heart too much. The most important thing is to enjoy what you’re doing, and not let yourself get too high or too low.”

Ultimately, Ridgewell concludes, aspiring players must have the right character, and possess a desire to work hard: “It comes down to dedication — not just at training, but afterwards as well. Otherwise, there will always be another kid doing twice as much as you.

“If you’re sitting in a changing room, ask yourself who’s doing the most. Because that person has to be you. That’s the determination you need to have every single day of your career.”

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