Alan Pattullo: Matt Ritchie’s encouraging debut

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AND this, Matt, is Hampden Park. Feel free to have a look around your new home. It’s normally a bit fuller. And that cross-thing you can see picked out in white at the ends with all the empty seats is called a Saltire.

So it’s a warm welcome to Matt Ritchie, Scotland’s newest recruit from south of the Border. Someone who, with impeccable manners, had clearly spent the night prior to yesterday evening’s game learning the words to O Flower of Scotland. Not every Anglo-Scot goes to such effort. Not every Scot does, to be fair.

Matt Ritchie jumps with Jonny Evans during his Scotland debut. Picture: Getty

Matt Ritchie jumps with Jonny Evans during his Scotland debut. Picture: Getty

Born in Portsmouth, his current station at Bournemouth means he could barely live further away from the country for whom he came up with a crucial assist for last night’s winning goal against Northern Ireland. Ritchie, whose corner was headed in by Christophe Berra with five minutes left, had already done enough to warrant acceptance, but this contribution was the icing on the cake. He joins the list of players who while they might not have supported Scotland at France 98 is desperate to get them back there next year for the European Championship.

Ritchie’s football-playing credentials certainly looked promising enough. He has been pulling up trees in the Championship with Bournemouth, the surprise package of the season. Eleven goals from wide in midfield is pretty good going and Scotland fans were eager to see what to make of this blond-haired new recruit last night, meaning his inclusion in the side was greeted with enthusiasm.

It was tricky for Ritchie to shine at first because Ikechi Anya wasn’t giving anyone else a kick of the ball. The Watford winger was on a one-man mission to hand Scotland a boost before Sunday’s qualifier with Gibraltar. “Oi mate, over here,” Ritchie must have felt like yelling as play developed down the left once more, as Craig Forsyth, making his second Scotland appearance at full-back, linked well with Anya.

Anya had two good efforts on goal and should have scored with another. It offered Ritchie the chance to do some sight-seeing, as he continued the settling-in process. The player was admirably honest after being called up for the Scotland squad for the first time earlier this month. It was a surprise, he admitted, since he had never actually been to Scotland before. His grandparents are from Edinburgh and his Scottish father travelled south to work for the Royal Navy.

Ritchie hasn’t ventured to the auld country, suggesting his father’s wanderlust gene has not been passed on. Instead, he has occupied himself with building a career in the lower leagues in England. Now, aged 25, he is coming good. In the absence of too much else to get excited about last night, there was a genuine interest in how he might fare, and ripples of appreciation greeted his early touches, few though they were at first. There was, though, a hint of what attracted Gordon Strachan to him early on. Ritchie sent a wonderful ball high to the back post, though Shaun Maloney was possibly not who you wanted to be on the end of it.

Ritchie survived the half-time cull of three players, and then, when Strachan made another two substitutions on the hour mark, Ritchie again escaped the hook. Indeed, he ended up being one of only five players who lasted the entire 90 minutes. He seemed to enjoy himself more in the second half, when he saw slightly more of the ball in a game that, let’s face it, was beyond moribund. Ritchie came closest to doing what so many Scottish debutants have done in the past against Northern Ireland when letting fly from 20 yards after a lay-off from Steven Naismith. Going back to Billy Houliston in 1948, Scottish players seem to make a habit of scoring v the Northern Irish on their first Scotland appearance, with several others, including East Fife duo Henry Morris and Charlie ‘Legs’ Fleming, managing to also turn their debuts into an extra special occasion.

But this is made more difficult when there are barely any openings worthy of the name. And when they are created, they fall to the winger on the other side of the pitch. Still, Ritchie appeared eager enough and proved it by swinging in a late corner from which Scotland earned victory.

Strachan clearly wanted to see what he could do, and from this showing, it is obvious he has another tidy midfielder/striker to call upon. Strange to think that a country still wrongly reckoned by some to rely on unsophisticated kick and rush tactics is one that produces so many tidy, artful footballers.

Although not a product of the Scottish development system, Ritchie looks to be another of this breed. A Good Footballer, in short. And you can’t have too many of those.


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