Matt Ritchie: The Big Interview

Matt Ritchie makes his debut for Pompey in the Premier League at Wigan in April 2010
Matt Ritchie makes his debut for Pompey in the Premier League at Wigan in April 2010
Kenny Jackett. Picture: Joe Pepler

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The pain of rejection at your hometown club is a dagger in the heart for any young footballer.

For so many, it can mark the beginning of the end when it comes to their careers. A heart-rending blow they never recover from.

Matt Ritchie felt that agony alright, as he was cast aside at the club he still loves.

But for the lad from Gosport that hurt simply marked the end of the beginning.

And now the 25-year-old can join the list of those who have gone on to make it away from the PO4 postcode.

Steve Cotterill was the man who decided the attacking talent’s busy play, dribbling skills and crossing quality wasn’t for him.

That led to time being called on his Pompey career before it got started in 2011, after just 10 appearances.

The angst of walking away from Fratton Park lives on with man who now plies his trade in the Championship at high-flying Bournemouth.

But he knows it’s been the making of him.

‘I felt like I turned from a boy to a man in that season,’ said Ritchie, as he looked back on the 2010-11 campaign when he departed.

‘It was tough for me at times. I started the first five or six games that season but the gaffer brought in reinforcements from places like Stoke.

‘It was bitter-sweet really. It was great to be involved but I felt it was the beginning of the end in many ways.

‘I started in the team and did well but the gaffer wanted more experience and took me out.

‘When that happened I knew the writing was on the wall and I had to get out to play football.’

It was Swindon who offered a route to regular first-team action for Ritchie, after impressive loan stints at Dagenham & Redbridge as well at Notts County.

The move to County Ground, for a fee in the region of £200,000, proved an adventure under Paolo di Canio.

Di Canio joked of Ritchie being worth £15m as he flourished with the Robins, picking up a League Two title and Wembley visit in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

The plaudits arrived for the former Gosport Borough youth talent in multiple player-of-the-year honours and being named League Two’s star man.

‘I was 20 and had played well the previous two seasons in the Football League after being sent on loan from Pompey,’ said Ritchie of his football education.

‘I ended up going to Swindon, and, with hindsight, it was probably the best thing I’ve ever done.

‘For me, Paolo was brilliant. He got the best out of me.

‘We trained hard every day and it was brilliant. His mentality to succeed was non-stop. He’d keep going until you won.

‘When I left I was at an age when I’d been out on loan. If I’d been in the youth team and not playing, maybe it would have been different.

‘You don’t see the football industry for what it is there.

‘I’d been out at Notts County, Dagenham and Swindon. I’d learnt not just about men’s football but the industry.

‘It is opinions. You can be in a winning team and playing every minute, the next you are out of it and wondering what’s going on.

‘That happened to me and stood me in good stead early on.’

Ritchie’s Pompey career may have been aborted prematurely – but not before he became a Premier League player.

It was Avram Grant who gave him his debut at the highest level in 2010, along with fellow youngsters Joel Ward and Lenny Sowah.

The trio shone in a 0-0 draw at Wigan on a night Ritchie will forever savour.

‘That was amazing,’ said Ritchie on walking out at the JJB Stadium.

‘I look back on that now with pride. I played in the Premier League. It was a chance for me I felt I took with both hands.

‘There was Wardy, Lenny and myself and the young lads shone.

‘That probably got the fans thinking well of us. I didn’t play many games after for them to change their mind, though!

‘I can’t thank Avram Grant enough for trusting us and giving that opportunity. That was a great experience. I was proud.

‘We were chucked in the deep end. Well, that’s how it felt.

‘There was nothing expected of us but we drew the game 0-0 and were the better side.

‘We didn’t look out of place and held our own.

‘It gave me belief there was light at the end of the tunnel and, one day, we can play in the Premier League – like Wardy has shown at Crystal Palace.’

Ritchie’s passion for Pompey remains, despite his exit.

He still lives in Whiteley, is still in touch with Andy Awford and follows his old team’s progress.

But his only return to Fratton Park has been in the colours of Swindon in 2012 – a game they won 2-1.

Inevitably the unassuming talent found himself on the scoresheet, in a moment he refused to celebrate out of respect for his former club.

Ritchie said: ‘It was special to come back.

‘My family and friends were there and there was a bit of banter flying around.

‘To score at Fratton in front of the Fratton end was great. I’d never scored there before.

‘I’d like to have done it for Pompey but it wasn’t to be.

‘It felt strange, though, from the minute turning up and seeing people like Big Kev and Colin (Clement) the masseur.

‘There were people who I’d grown up around. I saw Big Kev more than my mum and dad growing up! It was a great evening but it did feel weird.’

Now Ritchie finds himself plying his trade along the coast at Bournemouth under former Pompey defender Eddie Howe in Championship.

The Cherries have exceeded all expectations to find themselves second in the table going into today’s games.

A free-flowing footballing philosophy has been at the heart of the side’s success, with Ritchie a key cog.

‘We’re flying,’ he said.

‘This season we’ve stepped up to the mark. Hopefully we can continue that form.

‘We’re in good form but that’s not come from luck.

‘The manager works us and his mentality shows in our displays, the way we press and show energy on and off the ball.

‘We’re a good side with good players who work hard together.

‘Anyone now who thinks of a Bournemouth team thinks of a side who work hard with quality.

‘The gaffer’s mentality goes through the club. He’s organised and his attention to detail is the best I’ve seen.

‘If we don’t get promoted in the next couple of years, I’m sure there will be Premier League clubs sniffing around him.

‘But I’m sure he wants to achieve his ambitions at Bournemouth.’

The fact Ritchie is now making it at a level where he wasn’t deemed good enough a few years back isn’t lost on him.

At 5ft 8in, he didn’t offer the physical stature or presence Cotterill was looking for.

But Ritchie holds no malice to his former boss. He’s not that type of character.

He never questioned his ability to make the kind of impact he’s now delivering, though.

‘I never doubted myself or thought I was not good enough,’ said the Gosport lad.

‘I believed I was. It was just I wasn’t the gaffer’s sort of player.

‘The club was in a bit of a tricky place and he wanted to go with a bit of experience.

‘It might not have been the time to chuck in youngsters.

‘So I do understand. It was disappointing but I do understand.

‘It hurt at the time but with hindsight, it was the making of me.’