Try as he might, Matt Ritchie can’t quite shake off the impression that he put Scotland on the back burner in the last qualifying campaign. Or that doing so as the result of a troublesome hernia led to then national manager Gordon Strachan going cold on the 28-year-old.
The Newcastle United winger has been feeling the warm glow of international patronage again this week after his selection for Alex McLeish’s first game in charge, against Costa Rica on Friday. As the attacker playing at a higher level than any other that Scotland can call on, Ritchie has the potential to be a key player in the new era for the country. He had the potential to be a key player in the old era but that was never realised.
It was precisely three years ago today that the Hampshire-born and raised wide man made his international debut, doing so through his Scottish father. Then with Bournemouth, Ritchie made a good early impression, with lively displays and a couple of goals. Indeed, a stunning strike at Hampden against Poland in a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier six months later at one stage appeared as if it could unlock a play-off berth…only for a last-minute equaliser from Robert Lewandowski to dash those hopes.
Ritchie then started the next campaign as the World Cup finals in Russia became the target. However, his last cap of 15 across Strachan’s tenure came in the 3-0 defeat by England in November 2016. That was four months after he left the Premier League to join a Newcastle side attempting to claw their way back into the top flight. As the club pays his wages, it would have been understandable if his withdrawal from squads subsequently – right up until the Slovakia and Slovenia double-header in October that sealed Scotland and Strachan’s fate – was a case of him prioritising events at St James’ Park. The player maintains that was never the case.
“I started really well for Scotland,” he said. “I came in and scored a few goals and had an impact on the team. I wasn’t able to make a trip because of a groin injury and then went down the pecking order. I didn’t really make it back in for the remainder of the campaign and that was frustrating.
“Everybody wants to play but you have to respect the manager’s decision. It wasn’t to be and I didn’t play as much as I hoped to at the back end of the campaign. I knew there were lads coming for every meet-up and they had been involved and I hadn’t come through injury.
“Of course you want to be involved in big games [like England at Hampden]. It was tough and it’s one of those decisions that you have to take your heart out of it and think with your head a little bit. That’s what I had to do.
“I had been playing for probably around three or four months really struggling and I tailored my training. It was sore but I’m fully fit now, that’s in the past and hopefully the future can be more successful.
“I thank the manager for bringing me into the fold and it has given me some good experiences. Hopefully I can use them to be a part of this team.”
Ritchie was asked the other day if he had begun to feel like a “forgotten man” in the Scotland of Strachan, the country’s international revival coinciding with the winger’s absence. This entire perception he recognises as unfair on the deposed manager. Not least since he unsuccessfully sought his services for what proved to be his final games in charge.
“I didn’t feel completely forgotten as I had to pull out through injury,” he said. “I was playing week in, week out for my club and doing well. It was more down to the fact I was playing with injections for most of last season to get through the pain barrier.
“It was about managing my body. At the time it was about promotion to the Premier League and whether I risked coming away and getting injured. I made the decision to get treatment back at Newcastle and used the time to get ready for the next game. That wasn’t me choosing Newcastle over Scotland. It was about managing my body and not wanting to break down. As soon as the season finished I went straight in for the hernia operation. Now I feel all good.”
The fortunes of Rafa Benitez’s men have improved across a campaign that started poorly with 12 defeats across their first 20 matches. They now sit 13th after a recent revival in which Ritchie, who has featured in every league game, claimed the winner in a 1-0 defeat of Manchester United before bagging his second Premier League goal of this campaign in the recent 3-0 victory over Southampton. “It was a much needed result and great to beat Man United. It certainly lifted spirits at Newcastle,” the player said of his club’s form upturn.
The win over Jose Mourinho’s side allowed Ritchie to get up close to see the burgeoning talents of Scott McTominay, who he will hope to link up with for Scotland in the coming years. “I have seen a fair bit of him lately because of how well he has been doing for Man United,” he said. “It is fantastic to have him as part of the group and hopefully he can play a big part in the future.”
Ritchie feels he can grow his role at international level in no small part because of the tutelage he has received from coaching grandee Benitez – the Spaniard perhaps providing McLeish food for thought in playing Ritchie in the No.10 role in a friendly against Antwerp last weekend. “It has been a real learning curve for me personally. His record speaks for itself,” said Ritchie of the Champions League and Europa League winner. “The attention to detail we get given is incredible. He has certainly improved me as a player. I feel like I have developed under him.
“I really enjoyed playing the No.10 role for the first time when we played Antwerp. Most of the time I have been playing out wide and really enjoy it. I will play anywhere on the pitch but my position is a wide man, either left or right. The last few years I have played more on the right and enjoyed it.”
At 28, Ritchie feels at his “peak”, and playing for a team of an arresting scale. He gambled in leaving Bournemouth for a club one tier down, but he can now feel that has been justified. So too will Sports Direct. The firm claimed last year they were selling more jerseys with his name on the back than that of Neymar in the UK.
“Newcastle is a massive club and playing in front of 52,000 week in week out, it’s fantastic. The fans have been fantastic with us since day one. I started quite well and that always helps with a few goals. It’s been a real successful period in my career,” he said.
“Yes, it’s a risk to leave Bournemouth because together we had a fantastic group of players, staff – a real family club and a great feeling about the place. To leave Bournemouth where I only live half an hour down the road, it was a tough decision but I wanted to test myself and play in front of a big crowd and I have no regrets. I’m really enjoying it and hopefully we can get safe and build on that.”
Being part of a successful rebuilding job with Scotland would allow Ritchie to play in front of a few more big crowds.