Micah Richards laughs and shakes his head as he recalls the only time he challenged Adama Traore to a foot race. “What was I thinking?” he exclaims.
It was 2015 and the pair were team-mates at Aston Villa. Both signed that summer, Richards the experienced and internationally-capped team captain, Traore a largely unknown 19-year-old rookie from Barcelona.
Richards knew his teenage opponent was fast. He’d seen as much already. But he was no slouch himself, having built a career on the back of his pace and power. And besides, how badly could it go?
“Honestly, he beat me by about 20 yards,” he explains with another shake of the head.
“We were warming up before training and I was really warm so I thought ‘yeah, I’m gonna see how quick this guy really is’.
“I always fancied myself to be fast. No-one I had faced had really out-paced me. The only people I had struggled with on a totally different level were Theo Walcott, Gabby Agbonlahor and Aaron Lennon.
“But Adama was way quicker than even them in their prime. I was just like ‘wow’. My confidence was shot after that. I never wanted to race him again.”
Richards needn’t be too self-critical, though. He is not alone.
Traore is a physical marvel of a footballer; built like a middleweight boxer (although incredibly he says he doesn’t lift weights) yet with the lightning speed of an Olympic sprinter.
He’d look just at home weaving effortlessly through NFL defences as well as terrorising Premier League ones, which he has done throughout 2019-20 – his statement season in English football for Wolves.
Unplayable at times, he has scored five goals, assisted 10 more and played a vital role in numerous others by drawing fearful defenders into his orbit.
He has destroyed reigning champions Manchester City twice and is one of the few individuals this season to have given Jurgen Klopp’s runaway champions elect Liverpool an almighty scare.
City boss Pep Guardiola has likened him to a motorcycle such is the difficulty opponents have in stopping him and, following Liverpool’s 2-1 win at Molineux in January, Klopp simply described him as “unplayable”.
High praise indeed, but it wasn’t always the case. There was a time when Traore was likened to a motor vehicle in much more disparaging terms.
It might sound incredible considering his current hulk-like physique, but the young Traore was extremely skinny, and while the pace and dribbling skills were in place from a young age, they would more often than not lead him down blind alleys.
Born in L’Hospitalet, a suburb of Barcelona in the shadows of the Nou Camp, to Malian parents who moved to Spain in the 1980s, Traore joined Barca’s La Masia academy aged eight and rose rapidly through their ranks.
He regularly played above his age level and skipped three groups altogether in 2013 when fast-tracked into the club’s B team, which competed in Spain’s second tier.
He also gained international recognition with the Spain Under-16 team, and there was no surprise when he started to attract interest from elsewhere – Andre-Villas Boas, then in charge of Spurs, was among the crowd as Traore appeared in a B team match against Deportivo La Coruna in October 2013.
Stepping up to the first team was only a matter of time. He became Barca’s ninth-youngest player when he came off the bench as a substitute for Neymar in a home victory over Granada on 23 November 2013 and netted his first goal the following season – a solo effort in a Copa del Rey rout of Huesca. Marca described it as “the kind that Messi scores”.
Then his lightning-fast progression hit a brick wall. Newly appointed first-team manager Luis Enrique declined to call him up more regularly, and the frustrating inconsistency of his end product started to draw criticism.
Barca’s B team manager at the time was Jordi Vinyals, who later described the youthful Traore’s struggles to effectively express his talent by telling El Mundo he was “like a Formula 1 car driven by a child. The machine dominated him.”
More pointedly, in February 2015 Vinyals publicly questioned Traore by noting: “Sometimes he tries to win the war all by himself. Little by little, he will learn when he has to make the individual plays that only he can do, and when he has to play for the team.”
That 2014-15 campaign ended badly, with Barca’s B team suffering an ignominious relegation amid suspicions that some of the team’s rising stars could have done more to prevent their fate.
By the summer of 2015, Traore had reached a crossroads. Enrique had made it clear he was not part of the first team’s immediate future, so he had to decide. Remain patient and head back to Barca’s B team, now playing in the third tier, or leave his boyhood club in search of regular first-team football elsewhere?
The decision soon came. It was time to head to England.
“I’d seen clips of him before he joined Villa,” says Richards, who was already boss Tim Sherwood’s new team captain. “The manager pulled me aside and said to me ‘look at this kid here’.
“He showed me some highlights of him playing for Barcelona’s B team and he was running past players in a way I had never seen before, ever.
“Tim said, ‘we’ve got a chance to get him, what do you think?’ and I was like, ‘if you can get him, do everything you can’.”
Get him they did. Villa paid a reported £7m to make him one of 12 signings that summer designed to hugely improve a side that had avoided relegation by just three points the season before.
Richards and his team-mates soon discovered what everyone at Barca already knew – here was a potential world-beater undermined by notable flaws.
“He was only 19 when he joined, so of course he was raw,” continues Richards.
“In training, I knew he was faster than me so I would just show him wide because the quality of his crossing wasn’t great. He wouldn’t just kick the ball straight out of play, but he didn’t have a pinpoint cross on him.
“But we realised that, day by day, he was getting better and better, so we couldn’t just let him go wide anymore, because he was just embarrassing everyone.”
Ultimately, Traore’s first season in England was a failure; hampered by injuries, adjusting to a new country and culture, the language barrier and a change of manager, which saw Sherwood make way for Remi Garde.
He made only 10 Premier League appearances as Villa were relegated with a measly 17 points and three wins all campaign.
He would play just 16 minutes for the club in the Championship the following season before leaving for then Premier League Middlesbrough in a swap deal for Albert Adomah. Boro’s boss Aitor Karanka knew of Traore from the Spanish youth system and felt he could harness his ability.
While recognising his clear talents, the battered and bruised Villa supporters offered little protest to his departure.
“The season he was at Villa, he was actually quite good, it’s just he got an ankle injury that kept him out for a couple of months,” adds Richards.
“I remember speaking to Villa fans about him who’d say they’d rather have Traore on the pitch, getting them off their seats, than watching us play in a more negative way.
“The Villa fans knew what they had, I just don’t think anyone thought then that he would be doing this well now.”
Things would get worse before they got better for Traore.
He provided just a solitary assist in 27 games in 2016-17 as Boro were relegated at the end of a season in which Karanka lost his job. He then rarely got a look in under the Spaniard’s successor, Garry Monk, before he too was sacked, 23 games into the following Championship season.
However, Monk’s departure, and the appointment of Tony Pulis to replace him, would be the spark that ignited Traore’s career in England.
Pulis had seen Traore during the winger’s Villa days when he was manager of West Brom and identified in him the qualities around