Matt Ritchie: I was on borrowed time at Portsmouth under Steve Cotterill - Premier League star finally tells his Fratton story
A decade ago his Pompey dreams came true, a Premier League player with the star and crescent proudly on his chest.
Yet, just six months later, Matt Ritchie’s Fratton dream was effectively over after being farmed out on loan to League One Swindon by boss Steve Cotterill - a move which was to be made permanent three months later.
After 16 years with the club he loves from the age of five, the Gosport lad’s senior Blues career had totalled just six first-team starts and a total 10 appearances.
They are statistics which still hurt Ritchie to this day.
They are also numbers which rankle with many fans, with the winger’s departure for a knockdown £250,000 viewed as a significant blot on Cotterill’s managerial tenure.
Ritchie, of course, went on to fulfil his potential away from PO4 and complete a meteoric rise to the top which currently resides with Newcastle United in the Premier League.
There’s no personal malice towards Cotterill from the 30-year-old at his treatment, but a feeling he was never given a fair chance does live on with the likeable academy graduate.
‘I feel I like I played for Portsmouth as a youngster at a time when the manager didn’t want youngsters.’ said Ritchie as he reflected on what he feels he missed out on Fratton Park.
‘When I was playing, I was being played out of position at left-back and I actually felt like I did really well.
‘But I felt when I was playing, and this isn’t me having a go for one minute, but he was trying to sign someone like Carl Dickinson at the time.
‘There was players like Dave Kitson and he wanted to sign experience.
‘He was the manager and that was what he wanted and felt he needed at the time - and I fully respect that.
‘But I do honestly feel to this day that when I was playing, I was playing on borrowed time.
‘Even if I was the best player in the team I was always going to be the first one to come out of it. Lo and behold that’s what happened.’
His Pompey journey may not have panned out how Ritchie spent a lifetime picturing it as he came through the ranks, but the man spotted by youth development officer Dave Hurst still has everything to thank a club he regards as his own for.
His game matured at a time when the first-team squad was awash with some of the best talent in the business - and that proved a fertile feeding ground for a driven young player with a hunger to learn and appetite to succeed.
‘I remember training with the first team when I was very young - 14 maybe,’ added Ritchie, his voice still telling the awe he felt at the experience.
‘I remember going along and there was Lassana Diarra, Pedro Mendes, Younes Kaboul, Gary O(‘Neil), Sol Campbell, Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe.
‘I was doing a box (training drill) with Defoe and it was like “what! This guy is too sharp”.
‘I remember it to this day, (fitness coach) Chris Neville was doing a warm-up, it was jump through the ladder and explosive sprints.
‘I was watching Defoe and I was thinking this guy is too quick. He was so quick and so sharp.
‘I was playing and around these top, top players - and it showed me a level.
‘It was probably a good thing for me. I haven’t got to the level Defoe has played at for many, many years but you continue to push. You continue to push because you know if you want to play at the top you need to be this sharp, you need to be this good and you need to be this dedicated.
‘For me, it was priceless to be involved and I thank people like (Harry) Redknapp, Paul Hart and people like Ian Woan for that. They all played big parts in my career in my later teens.
‘To be a local lad training with those players, phwoar it was fantastic.
‘I’ve tried to take a little bit of all these people who I’ve been really lucky to grow up with into my own career.
‘I’ve met some real good personalities and real good people. The thing about people is you meet so many different people from different backgrounds and cultures, you have to embrace it because it really is a learning curve.
‘It’s given me a better perspective on life, that’s for sure.’
It’s almost criminal that as Ritchie reflects on his senior experience at PO4 today, it’s not a competitive success but charity match which forms his favourite Fratton memory.
Being called upon to bolster the Pompey ranks as a teenager in a charity match to raise funds for the Kanu Heart Foundation, gave the local boy a chance to measure his game up alongside the likes of Fratton heroes Lomana Lualua, Benjani and Premier League stars like Carlton Cole.
Ritchie said: ‘To be honest, I think my best appearance came in that charity match - I scored two worldies!
‘I’ve got to be honest, that’s my best memory.
‘I remember playing in that match, I was very young and I did honestly feel
‘He asked me, Wardy (Joel Ward) and a few others if we wanted to play in the charity match.
‘There were some top players playing in it so I definitely wanted to!
‘Although it was a friendly to me it was like, hold on a minute this is a chance for me to show I can play with top players.
‘I ended up scoring two worldies - and it’s probably my best game at Fratton Park so far!’
Another of Ritchie’s happiest Pompey memories came in farcical circumstances a few months before his exit, as he joined Cotterill’s sparse first-team ranks for what turned into a shambolic pre-season tour of North America in 2010.
The warning signs were there when connecting and cancelled flights made it a 42-hour effort to reach San Diego at the start of the trip.
Eight flights, six hotels and airports, four different time zones and two delayed and cancelled flights followed amid warm-up games against Mexican side Club America, MLS outfit DC United, Canadian side Edmonton and part-timers Ventura County Fusion.
That may have added up to the pre-season from hell in terms of ideal preparation for the season, but it was an experience Ritchie savoured.
‘I remember speaking to the press at the airport (amid a delay) and saying “what is going on here?”,’ Ritchie recalled, of a tour which ended with lost kit and a game played in 115-degree heat and 90 per cent humidity in Washington.
‘I remember that trip really well. Yes, it was carnage, but as a kid I was just buzzing to be there - and I embraced every minute of it.
‘I played left-back on that trip against DC United and thinking I played really well.
‘It was so hot and I remember Kev (McCormack) was up to old tricks when he lost the kit, so we played in a borrowed a white kit of theirs.
‘That trip was really good for me. We got to know the first team and I remember Richard Hughes really looked after me - a top, top man.
‘There were people like that 10 years ago for me. I was picking the brains of players I looked up to. I realised they were good people - and that takes you a long way, too.’
To hear Ritchie reflect on his Pompey life today is to listen to a man who retains genuine and heartfelt passion for the football club, the people within it and those who gave him the opportunities and education which made him the talented and unrelentingly hungry player he is.
While others could reflect with bitterness at how it ended, there’s only reverence in his voice for an institution and its principles which has been such a guiding force in his life.
‘I owe everything to the club and I owe everything to the people who nurtured me to where I was when I left,’ Ritchie admitted with appreciation permeating his tone.
‘(Academy head of coaching) Shaun North had the biggest impact on my career. I speak to Northy regularly now - what a great coach.
‘For many, many players he’s had a big impact. I know he had a big impact on Gary O’Neil’s career and that is someone who was an idol of mine.
‘Dave Hurst was the one who spotted me, these are people who’ve been around the football club for years and years who I owe everything to.
‘Yes, I had the ability and determination - and I made so many sacrifices.
‘But they certainly guided me in the right direction and gave me the tools to do it. I’m really thankful to them.’