Newcastle United’s Matt Ritchie: The night I made my Portsmouth dreams come true
It was a Pompey first-team career which was cut criminally short.
But, for Matt Ritchie, it was a curtailed period which still gave him memories he will forever cherish.
None more so than a foggy and seemingly uneventful evening in the north west exactly a decade ago today.
After the euphoria of the FA Cup victory over Spurs at Wembley just three days previously, the Blues faced a long and unappealing mid-week trip to Wigan’s JJB Stadium – one which looked likely to be little more than a footnote in their doomed seven-year Premier League stay.
With the club in administration and condemned to relegation the previous weekend, just 150 Blues fans joined a crowd of 14,323 who were given a surprise when they saw the away team sent out to fulfil the fixture against a Latics side desperate for the points in their own fight for survival.
Contained in the Pompey starting XI that night were two 20-year-olds, at a time when the average age for a player making a top-flight debut was 25.
Joel Ward, who’d made one previous Carling Cup appearance, and Ritchie were to be joined by 17-year-old Lenny Sowah as Grant’s side scrapped their way to a very creditable 0-0 draw.
After a bright and fearless 79-minute showing, the man-of-the-match plaudits were to go to a young man from Gosport who was making his lifelong ambitions a reality.
And in a 481-game professional career which now resides in the Premier League with Newcastle, the memories for a man who still has Pompey in his heart are crystal clear.
‘To play for Portsmouth was a dream come true and the moments from that night stay with me,’ said Richie 10 years on from his debut. ‘They always will stay with me.
‘Avram pulled me on the afternoon of the game and said I was going to start.
‘It was me, Wardy and Lenny Sowah who were involved. Marc Wilson played as well.
‘I remember I came off for Frederic Piquionne just after missing with a free-kick.
‘Me and Wils were stood over it and I remember to this day (Chris) Kirkland was in goal.
‘I remember saying to Wils “please, this is my debut. Can I take it?”
‘He said “go on, son”. So it took it, I hit it really well and it went just over the bar
‘I was thinking “Christ, that’s a chance” and I’d already had a header at the back post as well.
‘Big (Mario) Melchiot was there and I snuck inside of him.
‘It’s crazy. All those games I’ve played in between that night and now – and I remember that game and the events in it vividly.’
The maturity Ritchie showed on his Pompey bow was evident in a performance which showed the kind of intelligence, composure and eye for a pass which has gone on to be a hallmark of his career, along, of course, with the most deft of left feet.
But the nerves were being felt before the whistle for the academy graduate, who had one wise head to thank for settling him into proceedings.
It was the kind of generous behaviour and leadership Ritchie hasn’t forgotten a decade on.
He added: ‘I was nervous, but I remember I did something early on and Michael Brown screaming “excellent Matt, excellent!”
‘Things like that you remember, and, since that day, I’ve got to be honest, I’ve taken that on board and tried to do the same.
‘I remember going into the gym with Browny over the years for many sessions with me, Wardy and (fitness coach) Chris Neville.
‘They are vivid memories and I have appreciated them through my whole career.
‘I think about things like that daily when I’m in the gym with young players.
‘I try to have the same influence Browny had on me, because it’s players like that who set the example.
‘I think he was usually only in there because he was waiting for his flight back to Manchester! Really, though, I appreciate those moments.
‘I look back now and they are the small things which helped and created a work ethic in me to take me to the Premier League.’
Sadly, Ritchie’s Pompey career was to span 10 senior appearances and just six starts before he was jettisoned by Steve Cotterill, in a move to Swindon which angers many supporters to this day.
The winger can only look back on his Pompey career with warmth, however, and a feeling of being fortunate at doing so through a halcyon period in the club’s 122-year existence.
Ritchie has no doubt he was afforded a grounding which has everything to do with him now operating at the highest level.
‘I feel very lucky to have worked with some unbelievable players,’ Ritchie admitted of his time at PO4.
‘I’ve seen older pros not give younger lads the time of day. I was lucky.
‘There was Hermann (Hreidarsson). You can’t even like Hermann, you’ve got to love him. A really great guy.
‘There was Jamie Ashdown, David James, Richard Hughes and Matty Taylor.
‘Matty Taylor was my absolute idol. I’ve got his (sponsors) Ty shirt with “thanks for doing my boots written on it”.
‘I’ve still got that today and cherish it. He was my idol, left -ooted and I loved him.
‘People like him gave me the time of day. That was special and played a part in who I am today. I try to help the younger lads in the same way I was guided by good people.’