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Interview: Drink, drugs, depression and a wasted world-class talent, but Andy Ritchie has managed to get his life back on track

Solid silver: Andy Ritchie with his trophy for being voted most exciting player in Scotland in 1979 by the readers of Shoot magazine. Picture: SNS

Solid silver: Andy Ritchie with his trophy for being voted most exciting player in Scotland in 1979 by the readers of Shoot magazine. Picture: SNS

  • by PAUL FORSYTH
 

ANDY Ritchie could score goals from anywhere. The corner flag, the halfway line, you name it, he could do it. Take, for instance, his free kick against Partick Thistle at Cappielow.

Just a few yards from the byline, he saw Alan Rough anticipating the cross and somehow beat him at the near post with an outrageous, physics-defying flick. Even the Thistle substitutes stood up to applaud. Rough looked as if he was going to be sick.

Ritchie, who watched it on YouTube recently, with his granddaughter (“look at the big hair papa”), still cannot believe the angle at which it entered the net. “It ended up in the bottom corner, as if somebody had gone and placed it there. It seemed like an impossibility.”

According to Ritchie, that game was broadcast north and south of the Border, at a time when the English press had it in for Scottish goalkeepers. “I went into the Scotsport studio on Sunday and they showed it about 40 times. When I came out, the phone went in the hospitality room. It was Roughie. He said ‘Can you not tell they bastards to burn that goal? I’ve had English reporters on the phone all day’.”

If only all of Ritchie’s goals were preserved on film. Like his shot from just outside the centre circle in a pre-season friendly against Watford, which Graham Taylor, their manager, raved about in his book. Or the hat-trick at Recreation Park, Alloa. One bent in with the left, the other bent in with the right, the third a rare header. “Only three men and a dug saw those goals,” he says. “The three men will remember them, but the dug’ll be deid.”

That’s what makes Ritchie special. He never won a full cap for Scotland, never went to England or even to one of the bigger Scottish clubs but those who were lucky enough to see him play knew that he could and should have. For Scots of a certain age, and especially Morton fans of the same vintage, he wasn’t just a flawed genius, he was their flawed genius.

Had it not been for Ritchie’s attitude, he could have been a Celtic legend. Had he not more or less pissed his life away, he might have been one of the game’s greats. In a new autobiography, entitled Andy Ritchie – The Price of Vice, he details the lot in uncomfortable detail, including a hellish descent into depression, from which he has emerged only in the past few years.

However lazy and overweight he sometimes became, it seems ridiculous now that he gave his gifts to Morton. The Idle Idol, as he was known at Cappielow, was the country’s top scorer for three consecutive years, during which the part-time Greenock club miraculously challenged the Old Firm. In 1979, Ritchie won the Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year award.

He only joined Morton in a fit of pique, angry that, after a five-year apprenticeship with Celtic, he had slipped down the pecking order. Even on the day he left, Jock Stein offered him a four-year contract, but he turned it down. “I played in the Celtic first team at 17, which was unheard of, but mentally, I was a boy in a man’s world. I just assumed that, at 19, my career was drifting away from me. I was huffed because I was a better player than the guys in front of me.”

There were offers from other Premier Division clubs but Ritchie plumped for Morton, where he thought scoring a few goals in the tier below would enhance his prospects. “I thought, ‘I’ll score goals here and get a move. Morton never keep anybody. If their tea lady was scoring five goals, they’d sell her as well’.”

Ritchie scored goals all right but it had the opposite effect. The following season, Morton were promoted. In the one after that, he netted more than anyone else in the top flight. By the time they were leading the Premier League, Hal Stewart, their chairman, was scaring off a queue of interested clubs with an exorbitant asking price.

Ritchie had become restless after just six weeks at Cappielow and, had it been the Bosman era, he would have left in 1978. As it turned out, he wore the blue and white hoops for seven years. “It was a bloody long time to be restless,” he says. “I played when players were slaves to their club. If you didn’t march with that band, you didn’t march. It was a lifetime contract.”

However modest his stage, Ritchie captured the public imagination. He says Scotland needed someone like him after the humiliation of Argentina, which perhaps explains a string of ill-advised publicity stunts. He once showed up at the Kelvin Hall to kick off Billy Smart’s Circus by playing football with the elephants. There was a pro-celebrity darts tournament with Jocky Wilson, and most bizarrely of all, a night out with the lead singer of Showaddywaddy.

Ritchie knew it had gone too far when Billy Connolly came to see him in the dressing room after a match against Celtic. “I had a bottle of McEwan’s in one hand, a fag in the other, and my top off, the sweat dripping from me. I hated people coming into the dressing-room, hated it, but we had a blether, a laugh and a talk about the football. I think that’s when I started to develop another personality. I felt I had to become something different.”

Ritchie got a reputation. He was capable of the most sublime football, but he was also seen as a chancer, a guy who let people, and himself, down. He wouldn’t turn up for appointments. He didn’t try hard because he didn’t need to and team-mates nicknamed him Huggy Bear after the smooth-talking hustler in Starsky and Hutch.

The truth, as Ritchie tells it, was more complicated. He was, at heart, a quiet, even shy, bloke who was prone to panic attacks. “Things would be going all right, and then I would just go to pieces, blow my top. I needed to get out of there. Can you imagine what it was like at five to three, waiting to go out at Celtic Park, feeling one of those coming on? I’d go to the toilet for a smoke, and think ‘how do I get out of this? Do I tell them I’ve got diarrhoea?’”

His panic attacks were exacerbated by the after-effects of drink, which was the biggest of many problems. Ritchie often played with a hangover. Players said he reeked of it on the pitch. “I liked the feeling of being drunk but hated the next day. My heart was racing. I’d walk ten miles to get away from everybody. I couldn’t answer the phone. Some nights I wouldn’t go to training. I made a million excuses, told a million lies.”

Once, when Morton were due to play St Mirren on New Year’s Day, Ritchie allowed himself to get blootered on Hogmanay because he thought that the match would be postponed due to frost. “Somebody phoned at about eight in the morning to say that there had been a thaw, and the game was on. On the way down to Greenock, I stopped the car about four times to spew my guts up.”

Add to that the wacky baccy, the gambling – which forced him to sell a house three months after buying it – and a habit of ballooning to nearly 17 stone in the summer, and you can see why Stewart sent him to Stobo Castle for a three-week break that amounted to an early form of rehab. His fellow guests included Lulu and Joan Collins.

It was no good to Ritchie, though. He went on doing what he liked, when he liked, and all because he felt hard done by. He thought football owed him. Celtic had let him down, as had Morton with their life sentence. Not until 1983 was he allowed to move on. “I remember Hal saying, when he sold me to Motherwell, that he’d done it because I had lost the eye of the tiger.”

He never got it back. Motherwell didn’t work out. Neither did Albion Rovers, where he briefly coached, before retiring at the age of 28. A few months later, he felt even worse. “My major problems started after football finished,” he says. “If you take away the core of your life, what have you got? You’ve got your family, but that didn’t last for me either. It’s a massive void, maybe even bigger for me because I had nothing else.”

On the face of it, he seemed to be faring well enough, especially after his return to Celtic – where his scouting claims to fame included the capture of Jorge Cadete, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Paolo Di Canio – but the arrival of Kenny Dalglish as manager in 2000 signalled his departure. Thereafter, he was a European scout, most notably for Aston Villa, where the lifestyle he needed to avoid was his for the taking. Trips abroad, nights in luxury hotels with “extras”…“If you’re representing somebody that wants to spend a considerable sum of money, they call it ‘entertaining’. Exotic cigarettes, booze, ladies… whatever. It never, ever clouded my judgment on players but it was available, and I took advantage.”

What followed was a perfect storm of marital break-up, catastrophic financial decisions and a series of private family traumas that culminated in dark bouts of depression.

Around six years ago, former Morton team-mate Tony Higgins heard about the state Ritchie was in, and arranged for counselling.

Ritchie was reluctant but, at the first meeting, broke down in tears, setting in motion a 15-month period of care.

Ritchie recalls: “I felt lost. Alone. Totally and completely alone. The lady gave me a cup of tea and I started to get agitated. ‘Why was I there, what was going to happen?’ So they took me away, and I slept for 15 hours. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I needed help.”

Ritchie got that help and survived to tell the tale. These days, he is to be found living with his 83-year-old mother Bessie in Bellshill, where he has found contentment.

He still enjoys a beer and smokes like a chimney but the old excesses are gone, replaced by gratitude.

Ritchie, now 56, is working again, as a scout for Aberdeen but no longer gets himself into situations that he cannot deal with. He knows now that football owes him nothing, and that he was wrong to blame it for all that happened. And, with that epiphany, has come a kind of peace. “This is the way I felt when I was 14,” he says. “I’m a simple guy now, with simple needs. I’m back in the human race.”

Andy Ritchie, an ordinary Joe, with ordinary woes. Those who watched from the Cappielow slopes will take a bit of persuading.

• Andy Ritchie: The Price of Vice, by Andy Ritchie and Stephen McGowan, is published by DB Publishing, priced £14.99.

 

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