Sylvan Richardson chuckles as he recounts an anecdote from his time as Liverpool’s masseur, working under his old boss, Brendan Rodgers.
“I’d be going about my business and Brendan would be with one of his manager friends and he’d be like: ‘Oh, come and meet Sylvan. He was in Simply Red!’.” Richardson laughs, recalling the mini-celebrity status that his unusual backstory afforded him as the common connection between two of Britain’s greatest cultural institutions.
But, as he stresses throughout a fascinating hour-long chat, this was never the plan. Richardson, whose voice is nothing if not utopian – toned with the soft wisdom one would expect both of the experienced musician and the calming physio – was brought up to be a performer. He was a Manchester boy, surrounded by musical royalty throughout his youth – The Hollies, Joy Division, The Smiths.
Aged 15, he took up music semi-professionally while still at school, becoming one of the most sought after multi-instrumentalists on the local circuit. He had worked with Fritz McIntyre, Simply Red’s long-time keyboard man, before David Fryman, the band’s guitarist, left the group in 1985. Two weeks later, aged just 20, Richardson became one sixth of Simply Red.
“The next thing we knew, we were flying down to London to record the Wogan Show,” he says as he explains the rapid rise that would transform the group’s fortunes.
“Things just escalated really quickly from there. It was June when I joined officially, a week before our first single and then it just soared. The week after that, we were in the charts with ‘Money’s Too Tight To Mention’. The rest is history.”
Two years later, however, Richardson would move on. Despite the thrills that accompanied life in one of the world’s fastest-growing groups, something was lacking. For a man who had always been most at ease with guitar in hand, popstar status would drag Richardson further from the sheer joy of his music.
“It just went from this interesting project to playing abroad in stadiums within six months,” he reminiscences. “It caught on later in England, but we took off in Europe first, particularly Italy. So really, none of our feet touched the ground because it just went so quickly. By the end of my tenure with them, we were just playing stadiums all over the world.
“But I was actually getting disenchanted with the whole thing. I’d never really wanted to become a popstar. I just wanted to play music. A project like that is not necessarily about music, it’s about business. It was about interviews, making videos, it was a lot of things.
“I was kind of growing more disenchanted with the whole experience, even though it was amazing, and I was seeing and meeting lots of celebrities and other musicians. We were Grammy-nominated, and we were out in LA doing all these wonderful things. But at the same time, I felt like it wasn’t really my path.”
It is this exposure to abrupt fame and its hidden pitfalls – an existence Richardson lived for two years – that allowed him to sympathise and understand the travails of elite athletes, as he left music’s top table for the sporting equivalent.
“It’s not that it was hard,” he clarifies. “It’s just that I was this musical geek, who wanted to practise and get really good, but I was getting dragged around and doing silly interviews and posing for pictures. I was just like: ‘What is this shit?’
“I just wanted to play. It was exciting but there is nothing that can prepare you for such an unprecedented change in your life.”
Having chosen to escape a world with which he was becoming progressively frustrated, a prior passion for martial arts and the human body would eventually lead Richardson to elite sport. It was a field in which, by his own admission, he had very little material interest, allowing him to remain indifferent to the superstar status of his clientele as he embarked on a second career as a physiotherapist and masseur.
“When I was with Liverpool, it was never a case of me saying: ‘Oh my God, I’m working with these amazing footballers,’” he tells me, almost chortling in disbelief at the iconic stardom in which many of his colleagues were held.
“My job was to keep those guys fit and healthy so that’s all I focused on – not who they were. I never went autograph-hunting. In fact, I kind of went the other way and didn’t pay any interest to what they were doing.
“I became a bit of a laughing stock at the club really because when I joined, I’d only heard of Steven Gerrard. Brendan Rodgers used to take the mick out of me all the time and say: ‘You do know we’ve got a game on Saturday?’
“And I’d play along with it and I’d ask who we were playing. I just became this running joke based on my ignorance of the game. But the players actually respected that because they knew that I gave them that autonomy and space that they needed. It didn’t go unappreciated.”
After spending two years in the bubble of celebrity life, he was well-versed in comprehending the struggles of fame and fortune.
“I have that simpatico with these guys,” he explains as he talks of the relationship between player and masseur. “I probably have it because I guess I’ve been there and done it in a different sphere – I knew when to back off and just let them be people – because that’s all they are, they’re just people; they’re just boys. They could be my sons, if you know what I mean. I wasn’t sycophantic at all when I worked in sport.”
Yet, for all Richardson’s nonplus towards the all-engulfing stardom of Premier League footballers, he acknowledges that his mystified reaction to the razzmatazz left him in something of a minority.
“The sporting world does surprise me,” he confesses. “It seems to continue to grow as well, to where it has almost become like a religion. You think about the Premier League and the status that these footballers have. Honestly, I’ve never been able to get my head round it.
“For instance, Chris Hoy – a multiple gold medallist. So, I say to someone: ‘yeah, I work with Chris Hoy’, and they’ll raise an eyebrow and tell me how nice it is. But then cut to: ‘I’m working at Liverpool with the first team’ and everybody loses it. And Hoy is at the very pinnacle of his sport. At Liverpool, you have a whole squad of players and maybe five or six of them are at the top of their game.
“On top of that again, you’ve got someone like Steven Gerrard who is a legend and simply an incredible player. You just mention Liverpool or even a squad player and everyone goes completely gaga! And I’m just left thinking: ‘hang on a minute’, this does not equate! It really doesn’t equate but that did really show me first-hand how football is revered and how it’s become a lot like a religion. I just don’t understand it.”
For Richardson, whose first career took him to the dizzying heights of the Grammy Awards and Los Angeles, sport has surpassed music in its avaricious glitz.
“Football has become the new rock-and-roll. Rock-and-roll stars are not the rock-and-roll musicians anymore – they’re actually footballers. Footballers are just out there, and every kid wants to be a footballer or has a shirt with their favourite player or their dad idolises a team as well. It just has this weird power to it, which I don’t really get.”
However, he did ‘get it’ once. Growing up in Manchester, he was a regular at Maine Road through the 1970s, idolising the likes of Rodney Marsh and Mike Summerbee. Quite what has changed, he confesses, he simply does not know. But he is certain that football is now a domain whose logic he cannot grasp.
“A daily reminder used to be when I’d drive into Melwood (Liverpool’s training ground) and there’d be people clambering at the gates, begging for autographs or for a glimpse of their favourite players. This was every day – coming in and going out. You had people who were just parked up there – they’re mad for it.
“They wanted my autograph because I was associated with these players. It would happen every single day and I just didn’t get it. I’d ask: ‘why do you want my autograph? Of what value is it to you?’ But they’d just stare through you and say: ‘yeah sign here please.’”
Despite his scepticism of the all-encompassing machine that sport has become, Richardson can only eulogise about those who he encountered both at Liverpool and with British Cycling, where he worked before being headhunted by the Merseyside club.
The standout athlete he worked with? Sir Chris Hoy. He answers without the slightest hesitation – not as an exuberant fanboy, but as a medical expert hooked by the charm and professionalism of one of Britain’s greatest ever sportsmen.
“He is a great guy, an amazing person,” he says, extolling praise on the Scot. “He is an exemplar, he led from the front, there was nobody who trained harder than Chris. A very approachable man, very honest, very humble. What can I say? A fantastic person. What you see on screen with him is the real deal. What you get with a lot of sportsmen is that they have the television face. With Chris, he is just the genuine article. A great man.”
Hoy and Richardson worked together through an era of unfathomable British success. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Britain won 14 cycling medals – more than double any other nation. On the track, Team GB won gold in seven of the ten events.
“It was just an amazing time,” Richardson tells me. Even as a man apathetic towards the sport itself, his emotions come to life as he discusses that historic fortnight.
“I lived every moment with those guys,” he gleams. “I felt involved because I had a personal relationship with most of them so you’re rooting for them more so than if I was just a generic fan. The Olympics was such an intense occasion – so much more than just a game or a cup final.”
The sheer joy of those dominant times, Richardson admits, make the recent accusations levelled at British Cycling all the harder to bear. Many cyclists have claimed that their closest ally within their own team was their masseur – the only person there through the toughest and most vulnerable moments. Richardson is no different. He prides himself on the relationships he built through his own professionalism.
“It’s hard,” he confesses to me. “Yes, I have my biases – but did I see anything going on? Absolutely not.
“Do the accusations change my perception of their commitment? Absolutely not. I saw what they went through every single day. The dedication, the hours, the preparation.
“Chris Hoy wouldn’t touch a drop of alcohol in the whole year leading up to the Beijing Olympic Games. He just said to me that if he were to fail, he needed to know that he had tried everything he possibly could. I just thought: ‘wow, that’s the height of professionalism right there’.”
This strength of bond, Richardson explains, is entirely natural – so much so that he remains in touch with many of those who he worked with, both at Liverpool – despite leaving three years ago, and at British Cycling. Indeed, Hoy even came to the official opening of Richardson’s wellness clinic in 2013.
He references the summer of 2011 as a prime example. Steven Gerrard had been ruled out for the rest of the season with what Richardson describes as a “horrendous a hip injury”, forcing the iconic captain to miss the club’s post-season tour of Asia.
“I had to stay behind to work with him,” he recalls. “When you’re working with someone day-in-day-out, you do develop an intimate relationship with that person. There’s a trust there, there’s a bond – some are stronger than others. It doesn’t mean you’re going to connect with everyone, but the dynamic does lend itself to intimacy.”
And Richardson is happy to admit that his own popstar status within the sporting ranks made him a favourite subject of interest – allowing the athletes to relax in the presence of someone who had, himself, felt the pressure of the public eye.
“I was a curiosity for them as well,” he explains, pensively. “I was coming from another world that they idolised. I guess the two great forces in the world are sport and music. Because I dabbled in one of them, I became that mini-celebrity with those guys in their world, which I found quite weird.”
And as our time comes towards a close, fittingly, conversation returns to Richardson’s first true love. I ask if he regrets leaving Simply Red – whether the group’s subsequent success outweighed his own misgivings. The question is met with a sigh – not of petulance, but of consideration and stark candour.
“In all honesty, yes,” he says. “That’s purely a financial thing, because I made a good living with them – with the tours, with royalties.
“But when I left, the next two albums went absolutely huge – ‘New Flame’ and then ‘Stars’. ‘Stars’ was one of the biggest-selling albums of all time and if I’d still been involved, I would now be a multi-millionaire.
“It’s one of those things, where it’s not like I was suicidal about the time that I’d left, but I did think to myself: ‘If only I’d stuck around for another year or eighteen months, things would be a lot different’.”
However, it is a tempered explanation – cushioned by an acknowledgement of the opportunities he has been afforded thanks to his decision.
“It’s a bit like sliding doors – yes, I do regret it in a way but at the same time, I left because I wasn’t happy at the time so, go figure. I didn’t make the wrong choice. It’s just one of those ‘if only’ things. If only I’d stayed around for a little bit longer, then my life would have been completely different. But in hindsight, I couldn’t have stayed around because I wasn’t happy.”
He highlights his relationship with Mick Hucknall as one of the defining factors. While Richardson maintains that the duo always got along, he admits that the frontman was difficult to work with.
The pair worked together on the group’s most successful single, ‘Holding Back The Years’. It would reach number one in the US charts, receiving a Grammy nomination in the process. 33 years on, the classic has more than stood the test of time.
“When we put that song together, it had an energy and a power to it that resonated with everybody,” Richardson says. Listening to him talk about his songs is fascinating – a man who, by his own admission, was most at ease when the focus was on the music.
“The last time I heard that song I was with my wife when we were abroad and I was just like: ‘oh my days, what an amazing song’. For me as well, because we recorded it and toured it all over the world, you stop hearing it and it becomes another song in the set.
“But years on, when I hear it on the radio or when it comes on somewhere and I’m able to hear it in isolation, you realise how powerful it is and why it became a classic.”
Although the song never won its Grammy, Richardson positions the ceremony as a personal career highlight.
“I got to speak with Joni Mitchell, who is my heroine, and I spoke to her for most of the night about her lyrics and that was just a fantastic moment for me.”
It seems a fitting zenith for Richardson, an impressive man of varied talents, whose passion – for music, and then for the health of his athletes – always outweighed stardom.
Simply Red colour photograph: Fabio Nosotti