Matt Ritchie: Scotland cap would be cherry on top

It took Matt Ritchie several years of plying his trade in the often dreary surroundings of English football’s lower leagues before he realised his twin ambitions of becoming a Premier League and international player.

Scotlands Matt Ritchie scored in the friendly against Qatar but has yet to complete a full 90 minutes of competitive action. Picture: SNS Group
Scotlands Matt Ritchie scored in the friendly against Qatar but has yet to complete a full 90 minutes of competitive action. Picture: SNS Group
Scotlands Matt Ritchie scored in the friendly against Qatar but has yet to complete a full 90 minutes of competitive action. Picture: SNS Group

Now that he’s got there, however, the Bournemouth winger insists he has no time to stop and admire the scenery.

Having made his mark on England’s top flight in spectacular fashion with his goal of the season contender in his club’s 2-0 win over Sunderland last month, Ritchie is determined to make a similar impact in a Scotland jersey.

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Since receiving his first call-up from Gordon Strachan in March, the 26-year-old has yet to complete a full 90 minutes of competitive action.

Ritchie was replaced at half-time when he started the Euro 2016 qualifiers against Gibraltar at Hampden and Republic of Ireland in Dublin, before making a late substitute appearance in last month’s 3-2 defeat at home to Germany.

“Hopefully I’m more ready now,” he says ahead of tomorrow night’s crucial Group D showdown with Poland at Hampden.

“If I’m involved, then I will be looking to perform well, bring something to the game, and have an effect. Playing against the best players week in week out in the Premier League is only going to improve individuals and I feel like I have improved. Hopefully now that can show in my performances in Scotland.

“You have to take it in your stride because you can quite easily get overwhelmed by it all. You’d then look back and regret not being focused on the game or what you are doing.

“It’s good to go to top stadiums and play top players as I’m now doing with Bournemouth but you need to make sure you are focused and not overwhelmed by the occasion.

“It’s the same mindset with Scotland. It’s massive games but you take experience from the big games, like you do at club level. I wasn’t really too disappointed when I was subbed at half-time against Ireland. The manager made the decision and I respect it. It was a scrappy game, didn’t pan out how we thought it would.

“Ikechi Anya came on for me, had a great effect on the game and we got a point. I have no qualms about it. I’d like to have had more of an impact on the games I’ve played for Scotland. But it’s early days and hopefully I’ve got a long international career ahead of me and I can be involved in a lot of games.

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“The best is still to come. Absolutely. I broke into the squad a little while ago now so I’ve put that behind me. I am focusing on the future. It’s all about Thursday. It’s been a successful year for me personally but I want to have more of an impact. The most important thing is three points against Poland.”

Ritchie has already scored for Scotland, netting the only goal of the friendly win over Qatar at Easter Road in June. The quality of his strike from distance on that occasion was well and truly eclipsed by his stunning chest control and left-foot volley for Bournemouth which had the Match of the Day pundits purring last month.

“Obviously things like that don’t happen every week, so yeah, I Sky-plussed that one,” he smiled. “But in football it’s the old cliche of not being too high or too low. Things can change so quickly so you have to have focus each week. The Premier League is obviously a step up from the Championship and the quality is better in both penalty areas. I am really enjoying it and relishing the challenge.

“I was pleased to score in such a good fashion. It was one of my better strikes and it was great to get off the mark. Hopefully it’s the first of many. You are playing against quality players week in, week out. Not that the Championship doesn’t have good players but in the Premier League you are really tested.

“You have to be on top of your game, which will only improve me as an individual. There are quicker and stronger players but the positive thing is you only play Saturday-Saturday while it’s tough going in the Championship with Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday most weeks.

“I always believed I could play in the Premier League when I started out as a kid with Portsmouth. I got a brief taste for it there and I was hungry for more. I worked hard to get back to where I am now with Bournemouth. As I say, I’m just trying to take it in my stride.”

His route to the top has been circuitious. His time at Portsmouth saw him loaned out to Dagenham & Redbridge, Notts County and Swindon Town, and he eventually signed for the latter. He joined Bournemouth in 2013 and was a key player in their remarkable Championship triumph last season.

In common with many of his colleagues in the Scotland squad, Ritchie has team-mates at club level who are poised to go to the Euro 2016 finals next summer with the other home nations. He admits it would be a sickening blow if Strachan’s men missed out and saw England, Wales and Northern Ireland all taking part in the big event in France.

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“That would be a bit of a sucker punch for us,” said Ritchie. “But we are training hard this week and we are positive we can get three points against Poland to keep us in contention for the play-offs. Of course it would be disappointing if we didn’t make it to France but there is no point in looking that far forward because we still have a chance of qualifying.”