EX-CITY STAR LAUNCHES NEW VENTURE
HELPS INJURED PLAYERS: SPORT
FOOTBALL isn’t just about fast cars and big salaries – as Christian Ribeiro has found out after putting his heart and soul into the game, coupled with a lot of painkillers.
The Stroud-based defender was twice capped by Wales, alongside the Euro 2016 semi-finalists of the future – including Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey – but at the age of 27 he was quickly coming to terms with an early retirement and being told he might never be able to run again.
It all stems back to one fateful night in August 2008, which should have been one of the happiest of his life
However, it soon turned into a nightmare for the professional footballer, who has now turned his attentions to helping fellow sports people, using his own career as a “case study”.
“I came over from Wales to Gloucestershire at the age of eight and played for a local team, which was a catchment area for clubs like Bristol City and West Brom,” he recalled.
“I got invited to train with a lot of teams, including Swindon and Bristol Rovers, who said no to me, and then soon after Bristol City said yes!
“I signed a youth contract with a guaranteed professional deal, which was actually quite advanced.
“I progressed through the academy and, coming from playing in the countryside in Gloucestershire, it was a massive step up for me. I accelerated into the first team setup, playing regularly for the reserves. By then I was also playing for Wales under-17s up to under-21s.
“Gary Johnson was the manager at the time and he helped them win promotion, before reaching the Championship play-off final just 12 months later.
“They had a very good team and I was very excited to be part of it. I wasn’t getting many opportunities, getting called on to the bench a couple of times, but I knew I had come a long way in a few years.
“We started the 2008/09 season away at Blackpool and I travelled but wasn’t named on the bench. Just days later Gary pulled me to one side and told me I’d be starting against Peterborough in the League Cup on the Tuesday night.
“He wanted me to tell my family and get them tickets. Ironically my dad, who had followed me all around the world with Wales and throughout my time in the academy, was away in America working.
“It ended up that he wasn’t there for the biggest night of my career and a defining night too. My mum was there, along with other family members, but my dad missed out – in the end it probably wasn’t the worst thing to happen.”
Just 34 minutes into Ribeiro’s senior debut he tracked the run of Peterborough’s tricky attacker George Boyd and tried to shepherd him away from goal. Boyd twisted to go past the 18-year-old, who attempted to follow, only to pull up sharply as he damaged his anterior cruciate ligament.
“I was playing right-back and he made a very good run behind the centre-backs and I daftly followed,” he said.
“I remember turning and perhaps my studs got caught in the ground, maybe it was me trying too hard on my debut, I don’t know really.
“I’d had niggly injuries before but this was horrible; a crack and tearing sensation. In my head there was a pop, I leapt into the air and I was then lying on the ground in shock.
“I had an oxygen mask on and they were moving my leg – there was a clunking. I didn’t really feel any pain until around half an hour later.
“I worked hard on my rehabilitation but I wasn’t able to get my knee back to the standard it was before. I probably lost 30-40 per cent performance in that leg from one injury.
“I believe if I had the same injury today, with the new levels of physio and technology, I would have had a better career.
“When I came back to training eight months later I remember being in a one versus one situation – my biggest strength – and my teammates were running rings round me. That night when I got home I just started crying; I was devastated and thought ‘I’ll never be the same again’.”
Ribeiro had spells at Stockport and Colchester on loan to aid his recovery, eventually earning a first start for Bristol City in league football in 2010.
“Gary Johnson had just left the club and Keith Millen was in temporary charge,” Ribeiro added.
“We had Newcastle at home, live on Sky Sports, and Keith started me on the right-side of a back three with Lewin Nyatanga and Louis Carey.
“We should have won the game, we went 2-0 up and then a keeper error let them back in the game before it ended 2-2. It was a quality Newcastle side that would go on to win the league.
“That got me back into the mix and I played several more times before the season was over, earning a callup for the Wales squad for the first time.
“It was a great team and a great experience, alongside the likes of Bale, Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ched Evans, Simon Church, Sam Vokes and more. They were set for big things and I was excited to be involved.
“I came on in the friendly against Croatia and ended up marking (Luka) Modric, who has just won the FIFA Player of the Year award! But then I injured my back, a disc bulge. It was so bad I couldn’t bend down and I missed the whole of pre-season with Bristol City.
“By the time I had come back new manager Steve Coppell had gone and Keith Millen was now in permanent charge.
“I tore my hamstring and spent two months on the sidelines, then hurt the other hamstring.
“That summer I worked really hard, I even spent thousands of my own money with physios to ensure I was right. I was flying in pre-season and I finally felt I was on my way, but then I jarred my knee in a friendly at Plymouth, had to come off and I think that was the last straw for the manager (Millen).
“From then on I was frozen out, he washed his hands of me and I became removed from the first team. It was a really dark time for me.”
Ribeiro spent more time out on loan, first at Carlisle and then with Scunthorpe, where he would earn a permanent move after his City deal ended.
“Derek McInnes replaced Keith Millen and he told me I had a chance of playing, but I opted to go to Scunthorpe because I wanted a guarantee of football. That’s one of my biggest regrets,” admits Ribeiro looking back.
The hardships continued as he tasted relegation in his first year at
Scunthorpe, before part-helping them return to League One.
“I was involved in a 15-game unbeaten run but was then frozen out again, for no reason,” he said. “The manager (Russ Wilcox) just told me I wasn’t playing, along with a couple of other players, and that was that.”
Injuries followed at Exeter, where he sustained a groin injury on the eve of signing, and Oxford, fracturing his ankle innocuously blocking a shot, before Ribeiro’s body eventually gave up on him.
He said: “When I was at Bristol City I was known as an injury-prone player and there was pressure from coaches that I was too soft or mentally weak. It wasn’t my fault, it was scientific.
“Any time I had a knock or a niggle, I felt I couldn’t say, so I played through so many injuries in my career and made things worse. My body was imbalanced and there’s no doubt from that very first injury, I’ve been over-compensating to take the load off the knee and that’s caused the other problems.
“Aside from the knee, I’ve torn both my groins, injured both hamstrings – it’s all down to the knee.
“Since the age of 22, I played every game with painkillers, just to take a little edge off things. When I was younger it was ibuprofen, then ibuprofen with paracetamol, before stronger painkillers. Players would often use painkillers for matchdays, but I’d be doing it throughout the week as well, just for training.”
After pulling out of two games with Oxford, Ribeiro was sent for tests, where he was quickly advised to retire, aged just 27.
“My knee wasn’t right and the physio told me ‘you have to retire’,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I immediately said, ‘yes I know I’m finished’. I knew it was coming.
“I had a really tough period initially. I was told I might never run again. Within two months I split up with my partner of ten years, so my life collapsed. I’d lost my job, my health and my relationship.
”Ironically though, all the nega-
I was told I might never run again. I’d lost my job, my health and my relationship. Ironically though, all the negatives I’d experienced throughout my football career had toughened me up to get through it
tives I’d experienced throughout my football career had toughened me up to get through it. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Ribeiro has now set up Performance Property Group with entrepreneurial friend Jay Puddy to “help people go through similar issues like me”.
“My career is almost like a case study for the business,” he said.
“It’s designed to help sports people deal with retirement and ensure they are looked after financially.
“During my career I’d secured some property, so it was always in my mind, but as my own retirement came so early I’ve had to accelerate my plans.
“We offer a bespoke service, we hold their hand through everything, helping sports people through the process of either purchase to let, or renovations, or purchase for longterm investment, to ensure they are set up for the future.
“As I’ve experienced, you never know when your career is going to end.”
Christian Ribeiro battles Kris Commons of Derby County during his spell at Bristol City in 2010
Christian Ribeiro leaves the pitch in agony during Bristol City’s meeting with Sheffield Wednesday in 2011
Christian Ribeiro wins a header in Exeter City colours at Oxford United in 2015