Matt Ritchie programme interview - in full
Written by Tom Easterby
No Newcastle United player made more starts than Matt Ritchie over the course of the 2017/18 season. It was a campaign of memorable highs and testing lows but through it all, the Scotland international was an almost ever-present on the wing. Before starring in the 3-0 final day win over Chelsea, he sat down with UNITED for his final major interview before the summer – and now you can read it in its entirety here…
Matt Ritchie has been picking up matchday programmes from games he’s played in for the best part of a decade now. He flicks through them and keeps them for a later date, tucking away the memories they contain. “I’ve been a little bit sloppy this season actually, but more often than not I do try to keep a programme, just to remind myself,” he says. “I love the game and I always think, when I’m finished, I’ll look back and smile. You’ll look at a programme and remember that game, and remember things that happened in that game – feelings, things like that. It’ll be nice to be able to reflect in many years to come.”
It is apt, then, that it is Ritchie who is sitting down to share his thoughts in this final issue of a campaign that has proved as eventful as expected. Throughout it, the Scotland winger has been a near-constant and an embodiment of the qualities demanded by those who pay to watch this industrious Newcastle United team. In conversation, the 28-year-old is thoughtful with his answers, but pauses for a moment as he considers how his teammates would describe him.
“Busy. Annoying,” he laughs. “No, I get on with everyone. I’ve got good relationships with a lot of lads. A lot of them are love-hate relationships, especially when we’re on the training pitches. I’m always bickering with someone. It’s not often I go a day without a little niggle with someone, but that’s me. I enjoy it – I enjoy that little bit of, not confrontation, but the sort of aggression, that will to win out on the training pitch. I think that that probably shows in the games as well.
“Jamaal (Lascelles) is another one who likes to have a bicker and Dwighty (Gayle) is the same, so between the three of us we can create a winning vibe. Because it’s about winning – we want to win. When we play small games and things like that in training, it’s about winning and getting the best out of each other. It’s a good thing to have at times, I think.”
Ritchie points out that there is a limit to that tenacity. He is at the end of his tenth season as a professional and is yet to receive a red card. “It’s something that’s part of my game, in the way I like to press and the intensity. It’s a balance between that and stepping over the line and maybe putting yourself in danger of a red card, but I’ve managed to stay out of the referee’s book quite a few times this year. It’s something I think you have to be aware of, and certainly in control of.”
On the pitch, Ritchie is a one-man ball of energy; rarely walking, always sprinting, often shouting. It is rare for spectators to hear a player’s voice during a game but Ritchie’s can, at times, cut through the noise. Corner flags are seldom safe. He has always been like this, “from the day dot, really.”
Part of that drive emanates from his time at Portsmouth. He started off there, a talented youngster at a club sliding down the hill they’d spent much of the 2000s climbing. “I didn’t really get a foothold in the team there, and that sort of gave me the determination,” he explains. “I knew technically I was good enough, but physically and mentally, it was a challenge I was unproven in. I think that spurred me on when Steve Cotterill said, ‘you’re free to go’ and sold me to Swindon. But I felt like I learned a lot within that, and it’s probably taken me on to have the career I’ve had now.”
He recalls a League Cup tie during his Pompey days, at home to Leicester City in September 2010. “I came off the pitch thinking I did everything so simply. I didn’t express myself the way I could have done and I knew I could have done. I regret that game to this day,” says Ritchie. He was 21 at the time. “I remember going into that game feeling a bit nervous and not too sure of myself. I feel like that was a big turning point. I got sold to Swindon, and that was me. I made a decision and wanted to go there, to go and play and to go and prove myself. I did that, continued to do that, went to Bournemouth and proved myself there, and had a fantastic time. Now I’ve come here, and hopefully I’m doing the same.
“I am driven. I like making the fans and people happy but most importantly, I wanted to prove to myself that I could have a good career.”
It is surprising to learn there were once doubts where conviction later thrived. Ritchie seems outwardly assured now but inside, when he was coming through at Fratton Park, it was different. “You get chucked in, and you do – you ask yourself the question, ‘am I good enough to play with these players?’. People like (Jermain) Defoe, Sulley Muntari, (Lassana) Diarra – top, top, top players who have played for the best clubs in the world, and you’re training with them. You do, you ask yourself, ‘am I good enough?’, and basically you have to prove to yourself that you are to believe you are.
“I played in that cup game with a bad feeling, as if ‘maybe this is my chance, but I can’t make a mistake’. I was worried about making mistakes, and you can’t play like that. If you play like that you’ll be too tense and your quality won’t show. That’s what happened.
“From that day, I felt like I wanted to prove to myself. I’ve gone away, I’ve done that, and I’ve come up the leagues. I’m proud of myself for that. But I want to keep pushing on – I’m by no means done yet. I’ve got many more hopes and dreams I want to fulfil.”
Something must have clicked inside Ritchie to spark his ascent, and he is in no doubt there is a difference in the mentality of the teenager – whose league introduction came on loan at Dagenham and Redbridge, then of League Two – and the man of 2018. He is more seasoned now, a full international, and can look back with greater clarity. “I got another feeling at Portsmouth, when I made my debut against Wigan and did really well,” he says. “I got man of the match. It was my Premier League debut. I remember coming away from that, at 18 years old, thinking ‘I’ve made it’, that sort of thing. You’re young, you’re naive and you don’t really know that you’re not even half a step on the ladder yet.
“It’s the ups and downs of football. One week you could score and be flying, and the next week you might have an absolute Regi Blinker. You sit at home and you wonder what might happen next, why you had such a bad game, and that’s football. It’s an emotional rollercoaster.”
This season has been no different. Almost the full gamut of emotions have been felt in these parts during the past nine months. Going on history, you would expect nothing less. Ritchie classes this term as a successful one (“we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve”) and has personally come to the fore in recent months after a trying run leading into the winter.
“I started really well with a fair few assists, and then in the middle of the season I was unhappy with my form. It was a bit of a blip,” he offers. “But I always kept going, kept plugging away. My work ethic never changed – I always worked hard and gave everything I had for the team. Maybe my quality wasn’t quite showing, it wasn’t quite coming off, but towards the back end of the season I felt like I found my feet again.”
It is no coincidence that, when his team needed it, it was Ritchie who delivered against Manchester United, Southampton and Arsenal. He shrugs slightly when asked if there is a specific trait a player needs in order to make a decisive impact in big games. “Just being focused, I think. You get out what you put in – you get your rewards in the end if you put the work in. That’s what I had to keep doing. There were games where I felt I didn’t play very well and came away frustrated. You have to keep plugging away and keep going, then in the end you get your rewards, and that’s what’s happened.
“I think pressure’s what drives everyone on and gets the best out of people. I like playing under pressure. You have to back yourself – if you don’t back yourself, who’s going to back you? You have to believe in yourself, keep going and soon enough, you’ll get out what you put in.”
It is a sentiment which will resonate with Magpies supporters, who recognise they are now watching a team of which manager Rafa Benitez has said, “it is a guarantee – they are a team who will not give up.” That attribute is a prerequisite for many and Ritchie says the dressing room is aware of it. “Everyone I speak to talks about the work ethic and the desire of the team, and I’d say that I certainly do give that every week as a minimum,” he says. “Everyone gives that, all the lads give that. The gaffer demands it. It’s nice to be appreciated by the fans and know that the work you put in is getting not plaudits, but recognised.
“I was never blessed with an athletic physique, if you like – I’m not six foot two and long-limbed. But work ethic was always massive for me growing up as a kid, whether that’s in football or in school. My parents drilled that into me, and I think it stood me in good stead.”
How, then, does Ritchie, with his level of zeal, handle defeat? “I think a defeat hits you so hard because you’ve probably got regrets,” he begins. “I often watch the game back and see things, and think I should have done that or I should have done this – as I say, regrets. They’re horrible things to have. You’re desperate to get back in on the Monday and put them right.
“But the feeling of winning we’ve had since Christmas – that feeling that we’re on a charge, we’re winning, confidence is good, you watch the game and you watch clips and you see positive things, and you think positively, then you go out and you do positively again – that’s massive. There’s obviously a good feeling that comes with that, and with a defeat, it’s the opposite. To get beaten is horrible.
“I can get quite down about defeats, but I’ve got a little boy now. When I didn’t have a little boy I’d be down all the time but now, when you’ve got a family, you’ve got to pick yourself, do the dad thing, enjoy the Sunday afternoons or whatever – you have to try not to let it affect your life too much. But at the same time, I live and breathe football, so yes – it does affect me.”
Ritchie feels Benítez’s demeanour – never too high, never too low – helps keep heads level, and is a big factor in the team’s progress over the past two years. It has been suggested by some that Ritchie is the player who best epitomises the spirit of Newcastle’s resurgence. How does that make him feel? “Proud. It’s a good feeling. I’m proud of the work I put in and it’s nice to get recognition. But the squad has done everything – it’s not down to one individual. The squad’s been fantastic, everyone’s played their part, and it’s a good feeling to be part of that. It’s always nice to be part of a successful group.”
How successful the Magpies can be next term remains to be seen. “I think that the best thing to do is to try and raise the bar each year,” Ritchie adds. “As a team, we have to keep building, stick together with the same mentality or if we can improve that, improve it. Just improve in small areas – all the small, little, tiny one per cent or two per cent improvements will push this club in the right direction. Hopefully I can be a part of that.”
Ritchie has been generous with his time and as the interview reaches its end there is some encouragement to be taken, in these challenging times for in-house club publications, in his assertion that he will seek out a copy of this issue this afternoon. “I’ll grab a programme, if there’s any left,” he smiles, with an optimism editors nationwide must share. “I suspect they’ll sell out…”
"One week you could score and be flying, and the next week you might have an absolute Regi Blinker. You sit at home and you wonder what might happen next, why you had such a bad game... It’s an emotional rollercoaster."