It is a privilege to say that I saw Ricardo Fuller at his prime. That’s not to take away any of his achievements after leaving Preston in 2004, including appearances in the Premier League for the likes of Portsmouth and Southampton, and inspiring Stoke City to the FA Cup final and ultimately European football.
But when he burst onto the scene, signing from Jamaican side Tivoli Gardens in the summer of 2002 and becoming Craig Brown’s first signing, every Preston fan got to witness a genius at work. Lightening quick, incredible skills and a typically Jamaican relaxed but ruthless style, Ricardo made it look so easy. He would glide past players like they weren’t even there. He’d terrorise defenders with step-overs and skills that hadn’t been seen at Deepdale for years.
A remarkable talent, he dazzled and dazed the opposition with electric pace and he could finish, with ten goals in his first eighteen appearances before he scored “the” goal I will always remember him for.
It’s a goal he scored against Leicester City, one Tuesday night in 2002. He picked the ball up in his own half, and he just kept running. He toyed with Gerry Taggert, before outpacing two oncoming defenders and smashing the ball home passed a helpless Ian Walker.
You’ve got to admire that this was a Leicester City side that had only just been relegated from the Premier League, and littered with Premier League talents. It is still up there with the best goals I’ve seen live.
Brutally ruthless, Ricardo scored eleven goals in his first nineteen games for Preston before tragedy struck unexpectedly in the next game of Ricardo’s tenure at the club. After being stretchered off with a knock to his knee away at Coventry, an exploratory surgery found he had suffered a 75% rupture of his Anterior Cruciate Ligament, an injury that would ultimately hold Ricardo back from achieving greatness.
Out of the game for nine months, Ricardo returned at the start of the 2003/04 season, scoring fourteen times before the New Year. Everyone was watching him, his head became more and more turned and ultimately he’d only score another three goals that season.
Hampered by the knee injury, his form and goals dried up and so did Preston’s challenge, with only four more wins that season after the New Year which contributed to the dismissal of Craig Brown after a poor start at the beginning of the following season.
Aside from a goal on the final day of the season at home to Sheffield United, Ricardo’s last goals at Deepdale was a hat-trick in a Christmas derby game with Burnley.
Ricardo had a decent record against Burnley from his first encounter with the Clarets, a 3-1 win live on Sky on Bonfire Night where he smashed home the first goal less than three minutes into the game. After assisting Paul McKenna to make it 2-1 to the Whites, he scored a typical individual effort with pace and stepovers before blasting past Marlon Beresford. 3-1, game over.
Ricardo’s next encounter with Burnley was the game where the net got Fuller, and Fuller and Fuller. In a topsy-turvy pre-Christmas encounter, Ricardo opened the scoring outpacing the entire Burnley defence in an individual effort to make it 1-0, before sliding in a David Healy cross to put Preston back 3-2 in front after Ian Moore and Arthur Gnohere had both equalised for Burnley to make it 1-1 and 2-2.
Then with the scores level at 3-3, Glen Little missed a sitter for Burnley and now goalkeeping coach, Jonathan Gould, launched the ball upfield where the ball eventually fell to the feet of Pawel Abbott. He held it up and threaded through Ricardo who beat Brian Jensen with a left-footed strike and just like that, the Jamaican genius had a hat-trick in the derby.
You can watch the full game here.
In his final game against Burnley, away at Turf Moor, Ricardo won a penalty, obviously dispatched by Graham Alexander, before being sent off in the final minutes for violent conduct.
He always had that in him, an aggressive streak which would see him see red three times in his Preston spell, and nine times in his playing career including slapping his own captain at Stoke in a 2-1 defeat to West Ham. Five goals in just three appearances against the Clarets would be just one of the many memorable moments of Ricardo’s spell at Preston.
In the summer of 2004, after being linked with numerous Premier League moves, Ricardo submitted a transfer request. After million-pound plus bids were accepted from two clubs, it became apparent that the knee injury suffered in 2002 would come back to haunt Ricardo again.
Failing medicals at Leeds United and Portsmouth, before Harry Redknapp’s persistence, saw a pay-as-you-play deal negotiated with Portsmouth and after scoring in his final Preston appearance away to Gillingham in August 2004, Ricardo left with a return of 31 goals in just 63 appearances, and a mark made on every single Preston fan who saw him play, bound for the Premier League.
Legend is probably too strong, but alongside the likes of Saville and Gregan, Ricardo is without a doubt one of my first idols.