Interview: Andy Ritchie on memories of Morton

Former Morton player Andy Ritchie at home in Bellshill. Picture: Robert Perry
Former Morton player Andy Ritchie at home in Bellshill. Picture: Robert Perry
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THE KING of Cappielow made Greenock glitter during his time with Morton. Now nearing his 60th birthday, Andy Ritchie recalls the good – and bad – of a career that ended when he was just 27, and admits the only time he was completely calm was on his ‘little patch of green’

Andy Ritchie will probably hate this. He was a modest genius with a football rather than an arrogant one who went back and beat the full-back a fifth time, just because he could. He gets embarrassed when people tell him what a great player he was because away from the pitch he’s painfully aware there were times when he wasn’t a great man. But it has to be said: he has a way with words. Indeed in North Lanarkshire today, he’s something of a poet.

Andy Ritchie in his Morton heyday in the late 1970s. Picture: SNS Group

Andy Ritchie in his Morton heyday in the late 1970s. Picture: SNS Group

Cappielow’s cult-hero (retired early) is the Bard of Bellshill, with a highly lyrical style for narrating the story of his wild life. He begins by narrating the story of his home town, with obvious pride: “Once you could’ve thrown a horse blanket up in the air in Bellshill and it would’ve covered five footballers.” Here he is on getting ahead of himself at Celtic: “Really, I’d achieved the centre of a doughnut.” And this is what he says about the sad demise of fellow Parkhead protege Brian McLaughlin: “Death didnae catch him, life just beat him.”

McLaughlin, whose body was fished out of a canal in Falkirk in 2009, was the most talented footballer Ritchie ever saw until he fell victim to an X-rated tackle by Motherwell’s Willie McVie, one of 1970s football’s thou-shalt-not-pass brigade. Even though McLaughlin went on to be Ayr United’s First Division Player of the Year – “basically on one leg,” says our man – he was never the same player.

Ritchie dropped down a division with Morton, came back up and for a while made Greenock glitter. He had a longer career but not by much, the so-called Idle idol chucking it at 27. His descent in life – via booze, soft drugs, a gambling addiction, bouts of depression, panic attacks, coming adrift from his family and flitting from sofa to sofa – almost resulted in him chucking that, too, although he reckons he would have been “too much of a coward” to have actually done the deed.

Nevertheless it’s a thrill to be meeting him and gratifying to be able to report that, as he homes in on his 60th birthday, he’s picked up the threads and found peace and contentment. Scarf at a jaunty angle, he greets me off the train like a long-lost friend, even though we haven’t met before. When a gorgeous actress did that in my 
previous life as a showbiz scribbler I didn’t like it – honest. Ritchie, though, gets the special dispensation a natural-born patter-merchant deserves.

I’m also part of my sons’ lives. Do you know I woke up one day and they’d turned from boys to men? It’s not nice having to admit you hadn’t noticed. But now Mark and Stephen know that Dad’s not a drunk anymore

Andy Ritchie

We start in a cafe and, when that gets too busy with wifies who lunch, move on to a pub where we’re the sole customers. Ritchie only tells me after I’ve bought him a couple of Bacardi and cokes that this is his first time in a Bellshill bar for about four years, which makes me feel bad, but he says it’s fine and that everything’s under control, so we chat some more about two towering figures in his life – Hal Stewart, ringmaster of Circus Morton, who treated him as his prize performing seal and wouldn’t let him go, and Jock Stein, left, who he frequently infuriated. “Actually, it’s my mum who’s always called me the world’s most exasperating man,” he says with a wry grin. This is Bessie, now 86, who calls him Andrew. “I’m back living with her and whereas the Andrew of old wouldn’t have cared about causing her inconvenience, now I report for my tea at six o’clock and take her to the shops. I love my mum – she’s brilliant.

“My wife Rena and I never got divorced and last week we were 40 years married. I haven’t lived in the same house as her for the last ten and possibly I’m also her idea of the world’s most exasperating man, but this is the best we’ve got along in that time. I’m also part of my sons’ lives. Do you know I woke up one day and they’d turned from boys to men? It’s not nice having to admit you hadn’t noticed. But now Mark and Stephen know that Dad’s not a drunk anymore. I’m not going to cause people havoc anymore. I have a drink now and again but I don’t get pissed. I’m done with smoking dope and maybe I’ve gambled money I shouldn’t two or three times. The panic attacks still happen, but thankfully much less frequently. It’s strange, but there was only ever one place where I felt completely calm and that was the little patch of green.”

Ritchie would make his name and his legend with cartoon-distance strikes, zany dribbles and existentialist sighs – but the first time Stein saw him play for Celtic Boys’ Club he was a centre-half. “It was three weeks after the 1970 European Cup final, Celtic were a top team and there was me, aged 14 and a big fat boy, trying to show the guy who’d just stepped out of the green Mercedes at Barrowfield that he maybe – maybe – had a chance of achieving something in the game. At half-time he asked me who I was. He said: ‘So you think that a boy from Bellshill is going to come in and replace the Celtic captain? Well that winnae happen. You cannae run, you cannae heider the ball, you cannae tackle and from what I’ve just seen you’re a f****n’ coward.’” Not an outright condemnation, though, because the Big Man ordered Ritchie up front for the second half and by the age of 17 he was ready for his full debut.

Ritchie had hoped he might end up at Motherwell, his team and that of his late father, Andrew, who worked at Rolls-Royce at Hillington, and he smiles as he remembers the latter’s first encounter with Stein. “Dad was a quiet, nervous sort but nevertheless, when Jock told him the club would be putting some money into Airdrie Savings Bank for me, he said: ‘Actually, Mr Stein, I’m a Motherwell man.’” Fir Park didn’t have a youth set-up, though, and, despite interest from a host of English clubs, Ritchie chose Celtic because, being the shy type, he felt most comfortable there, even if the boss was fearsome.

Was Ritchie starting to develop his idiosyncratic style? “No,” he says firmly. “There were a million flair players at Celtic, and lots of guys who were more talented than me would never make it at the club.” His intake along with McLaughlin included Bobby Prentice and one kid who did, Tommy Burns. But it sounds like Stein didn’t appreciate Ritchie’s outrageous gifts. He tells the story of a goal he scored for the reserves, which begins as a tale about his greatest-ever strike for Morton. The latter was a 40-yard free-kick at Cappielow in a pre-season friendly against Watford: “The ball scudded the crossbar, bounced down and up again, birling the net around the bar. It was a pretty good trick, helped by the fact nets in those days were saggy.” And, of course the thundercrack which emanated from his right boot.

“The exact same thing happened in the reserve game against Hibs but the goals got completely different reactions. Watford’s manager was Graham Taylor. Years later when he came to Aston Villa where I was scouting he said to me: ‘I remember you and I remember that goal.’ Even though it had come in a friendly, he mentioned it in his autobiography as one of the best he’d ever seen. The game at Parkhead, though, was a Tuesday afternoon, the place deserted apart from Willie Fernie who ran the reserves – or so I thought. The free-kick was so far out Hibs didn’t bother with a wall; they just had big Tony Higgins stand in front of me. Suddenly this voice boomed out: ‘Wullie! Dinnae f****n’ let him hit it!’ It was Jock high up in the stand. He didn’t applaud the goal – goodness me, no. I can still hear the clunk of his seat as he slumped back down.”

Ritchie isn’t the one nominating the goal against Watford his best; that’s everyone who was there and some who’ve almost wished themselves present. Presumably the strike where he put Willie Miller and Alex McLeish on their Aberdeen and Scotland backsides runs it close, along with the free-kick against Partick Thistle which made a sumph of Alan Rough. It’s funny, though, to hear him refer to a football pitch as his “patch of green”. The surface that day was more suited to sand-dancers Wilson, Keppel & Betty. Ritchie smiles again. He says it’s nice to be remembered by the Cappielow cognoscenti, though points out that devotion was never absolute. “Fifty per cent came along to see me score a goal; the other fifty to fall on my big arse.” He thinks he’s a better player in folk memory than in reality. “There’s been some embroidery. The Watford goal grows in distance every year. Currently I think I’m supposed to have hit it from somewhere in Bishopton, right down the Wee Dublin End.” A pause and a chuckle. “But it’s hard, letting the air out of somebody’s balloon.”

Before we leave Celtic for good Ritchie stresses it wasn’t a case of Stein failing to acknowledge his mystique; he contributed massively to his own downfall. “I developed a stinkin’ attitude and a horrible social life. I’d fallen down the pecking order and maybe subconsciously I was preparing to fail at Celtic and thought if it looked like lifestyle was to blame, no one would question my ability. But it would be wrong to assume I’d been premeditated about it. I was young and my head was turned. I fell in with some bad people but don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed myself as well. Jimmy Johnstone’s nightclub in Hamilton, Double J, was a fantastic place and it was great hanging out with Rod Stewart when he was in town. But I was a bit of a chancer. The Dalglishes and the Dixies were building substantial bodies of work – I wasn’t.”

He wanted the regular football that Celtic couldn’t offer. Nevertheless Stein came up with a new four-year contract. In Ritchie’s words: “He was trying to pull me back into the middle of the bed.” Rena pleaded with him not to go to Morton, to fight for his place. Ritchie says now: “If I had done I could’ve been in the team within a year, one of the top players.” But he headed for the tail o’ the bank – and the razzmatazz of Haldane Y. Stewart.

Right away – with Morton being thrashed 5-1 in the Renfrewshire derby – he thought he’d done the wrong thing. But this would turn into a beautiful mistake for the club and the fans, who renew hostilities with St Mirren next Friday night. Ritchie would take them to the top of the Premier Division. He’d be voted 1978-79’s Player of the Year by the sportswriters and top the scoring charts. All in all there would be 129 goals in 247 games in the blue and white hoops. Don’t burst any more balloons, I say. “Listen, don’t think I’m not proud of my achievements down there, or humbled when folk remember me. But I didn’t expect to be six years at Cappielow. I wanted to make a big bang and get a decent move someplace else. I wanted to achieve more in the game.”

When I ask him to describe his relationship with Stewart he groans. “Some found him to be a loveable grandad figure; I’d say more scoundrel and rogue. It’s true that you didn’t ever come away from a conversation with him feeling bad, but there might be a sucker punch. Allan McGraw [the Morton legend before Ritchie] was owed money. Eventually Hal, who was boss of the local Co-operative, ‘paid’ him with a three-piece suite, which he didn’t need. I was owed money – 800 quid. Rena got fed up waiting on it so she dragged me over to Hal’s house, an Addams Family-type place, and wouldn’t leave until we got it. Five hours we were there. Next game, Hal wanted a word. ‘I’m for it,’ I thought. But he said: ‘I like your wife. She’ll no’ be led by an arsehole like me. Try and keep a hud of her.’”

Outwardly, Stewart may have resembled a typical chairman of the time – “they all wore long coats and soft hats.” But underneath the felt brim, that brain was working overtime on PR jiggery-pokery to maximise the Ritchie brand. Morton’s superstar led Red Rum into a new Greenock betting shop to open it. He played darts with Jocky Wilson, went round schools with DJ Tiger Tim, met the lead singer of Showaddywaddy. When Stein dubbed the club an “elephant’s graveyard” he wouldn’t have known that Ritchie’s service would involve actual elephants. “Hal got me to open Billy Smart’s Circus at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall. I had to do some crazy things and some of them were good fun, but I didn’t really come into this to play keepy-uppy with elephants.”

Stewart promised Ritchie a driver’s job to supplement his part-time wages –those nutmegs, if they were worked on at all, arose out of Tuesday and Thursday night training-sessions – but it never materialised. So he flogged lemonade, lugged butcher’s meat and a few hours before collecting his Player of the Year gong he was laying tar on the roads as pals from Kilmarnock and Thistle sped past in their dinner-suits.

Stewart did protect his investment, once sending Ritchie to a health-farm. “I needed to lose some wood. Lulu and Joan Collins were there, along with some drying-out captains of industry. I came back with a perm, my moustache lightened and a pedicure.” But Stewart kept from him that Stein wanted him back at Celtic and put a £1 million price-tag – risky for such elusive, erratic talent – on his head. Team-mates like Joe McLaughlin and Neil Orr were sold but Ritchie was told there would be an outcry if he was allowed to leave. He eventually moved to boyhood heroes Motherwell – “but only after Hal had flogged all the season-tickets.” Early in the new season Ritchie scored the winner against his old club. “Afterwards Hal walked past me without saying anything.”

His team-mates were appreciative of that mad interlude when he put Morton on the map. “It’s a myth that I never had a bad game. At half-time once I was attracting considerable venom from [manager] Benny Rooney. Jim Holmes piped up: ‘Leave the guy alone. He’s the reason my kids can eat chocolate digestives rather than the plain ones.’”

The same Tony Higgins, left ear possibly still tingling from that howitzer free-kick, came to Ritchie’s aid at his lowest ebb. “There was a thunderstorm going on at my back,” he says in his vivid way. He thanks Higgy and he thanks the Morton faithful, doubtless adding yet more yardage to his goals as he knots his scarf, hugs your correspondent and wanders back to play with the grandkids.