Interview: Paul Ritchie says his Rangers move was just ‘propaganda’

Paul Ritchie cuts a dejected figure during training at Rangers, where he never played a competitive fixture. Picture: SNS
Paul Ritchie cuts a dejected figure during training at Rangers, where he never played a competitive fixture. Picture: SNS
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As he gazes upon the gentle surf of the Pacific Ocean as it laps the shore of the Carlsbad beachfront, Paul Ritchie is entitled to indulge in a zen-like contentment at where his career in football has taken him.

Life is unquestionably good for the former Hearts and Scotland defender, now firmly
settled in the Golden State of California where he is an academy coach for one of LA Galaxy’s affiliate clubs.

If everything does indeed happen for a reason, then Ritchie has cause to reflect that some of the more disappointing 
twists and turns his journey took through the professional game have ultimately been for the best.

Yet there will always be moments when there are reminders of those times when it didn’t quite work out as Ritchie hoped.

The 43-year-old, who still keeps as keen an eye as he can on Scottish football from 5,000 miles away, has a rueful grin when he sees a weekend fixture list which includes tomorrow’s friendly between Rangers and Derby County at Ibrox.

Ritchie played seven times for both clubs but in very different circumstances. His appearances for Rangers were all in pre-season friendlies in the summer of 2000 before he was bizarrely sold to Manchester City for £500,000 without ever tasting competitive action under Dick Advocaat.

His spell at Derby three years later was more fulfilling, his seven games while on loan from Manchester City contributing to a successful battle against relegation. But it still ended on a sour note when his poor relationship with Derby boss George Burley ended any prospect of a permanent move to Pride Park.

Any regrets Ritchie has can all be traced back to his then controversial move to Rangers when his contract at Hearts ran down, much to the irritation of the Tynecastle club who managed to bank some money on the player by first loaning him to Bolton Wanderers at the end of the 1999-2000 season.

“Would I change it if I could?” muses
Ritchie. “I’m not sure. After all, I had the opportunity to play for Manchester City as a result of what happened. To be part of that club, even before the money came along and they became what they are now, was a phenomenal experience.

“But, if I’m being truthful, once I knew my time at Hearts was up, I should have stayed at Bolton. That time under Sam Allardyce and Phil Brown was probably one of the happiest times of my career outwith playing for Hearts. During that six months I was there, Bolton were flying. We reached the semi-finals of both major cups and just lost out on promotion in the play-offs.

“But there were things already in the pipeline with Rangers and the decision was made. At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do.

“Looking back, it was far from the right thing to do. That’s life. Everybody makes decisions and you have to live by them.

“It was the weirdest thing, what happened at Rangers. I knew right away, within a couple of weeks of pre-season starting, that the manager didn’t really want me. I just thought ‘this isn’t for me – I’m not supposed to be here’. Tony Vidmar and Sergio Porrini – both good players, by the way – had been told they could leave that summer and would never play for the club again. But they still played before me – I was thinking ‘hold on a minute’.

“So it was just never meant to be for me at Rangers. It was one of the strangest things ever. Of course players fall out of favour at clubs, but it’s usually after you’ve played at least a few games.

“When you know you are not wanted, the way that they treat you, it’s hard. I was still relatively young, so it was a tough time.

“I don’t think Dick Advocaat even knew who I was, to be honest. Rangers had been bringing in a lot of top-class players from all over the world but I think they wanted to make a statement that they could still sign Scottish talent.

“They had been getting a bit of stick for not signing Scottish players at the time. Myself, Neil McCann, Kenny Miller and Allan Johnston all came over that period and I feel it was more propaganda than anything else.

“It’s going to live with me for the rest of my life. Would my career have been different if I hadn’t gone to Rangers? Possibly. But I still have a lot of positives to take from what happened afterwards. At the very least, I’ll always be a pub quiz question about the international player who signed for Rangers and never played a competitive game.”

Despite the unpleasant memories of his 77-day stint at Rangers, Ritchie bears no grudges towards the manager who so abruptly deemed him surplus to requirements. “I’ve actually bumped into Dick and his assistant Bert van Lingen two or three times down the years,” he adds. “I remember I was on holiday in Portugal one year and he was with the Dutch national team who were staying at the same facility.

“I spoke to him for five minutes and it was fine. It wasn’t as if he disliked me as a person. He just didn’t like me as a player.”

Ritchie faced a similar scenario when he joined Derby County in March 2003. He arrived at a club in turmoil, manager John Gregory having been suspended and the team flirting dangerously with dropping into the third tier of English football.

Ritchie’s loan move was sanctioned by the club’s Scottish coach, Billy McEwan, shortly before George Burley arrived as Gregory’s replacement.

“Funnily enough, I could have been a Derby player back in 2000,” recalls Ritchie. “Before I signed for Rangers after leaving Hearts, I went to Derby where Jim Smith was the manager and wanted to sign me.

“The set-up was brilliant and I was interested but, with the circumstances being what they were, I went to Rangers.

“So I knew a bit about Derby before I eventually went there for that loan spell. I really enjoyed it and was happy to play my part in keeping Derby up that season. They had some really top players like Fabrizio Ravanelli and Georgi Kinkladze. As they say over here in the US, it was a star-studded roster. Craig Burley, who I knew from Scotland duty, was also there.

“But George and I didn’t see eye to eye, so it was a case of wrapping it up and moving on at the end of that season. He inherited me when he came in, his hand was forced because they were struggling for players in defensive positions at that time. They were desperate to stay up. I did a job for them but once I’d finished my seven games, there was no chance of me staying on.”

Ritchie is intrigued by the current status of both Rangers and Derby and feels both have their work cut out to achieve their respective ambitions in the coming season.

“Derby is a fantastic club, a big club who look to be kicking on big time now. They played some fantastic stuff under Frank Lampard last season and have replaced him with another big name in Phillip Cocu. With their history and tradition, you’d love to see Derby back in the top flight. But there are probably a dozen clubs in the English Championship you could say the same thing about. It’s just so tough to get into the Premier League now and they might have to wait a bit longer.

“When I look at Rangers, they still have a long way to go to catch Celtic who have had several years now to do the right things while Rangers have been recovering from what happened in 2012.

“Celtic, especially after what Brendan Rodgers did there, are going to take some catching. They have kicked on and widened that gap while Rangers were away. I watched their Champions League qualifier over here the other day and they have some fantastic players. For them to win as consistently as they have over the past few years takes a special type of athlete and mentality.

“But Rangers are definitely progressing under Steven Gerrard who I think is going to become a top, top manager. He’s got the passion, hunger and desire which Rangers fans want to see from their manager. He’s going to be really judged over the next two seasons. It will be closer this season but I think it will just be about Rangers closing the gap a bit more.”

Having first gone to the USA to finish his playing career with Carolina Railhawks, Ritchie enjoyed frontline coaching experience as assistant manager at the same club before taking a similar role with Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS.

But since leaving Vancouver five years ago, Ritchie has focused on youth coaching. The Uefa Pro Licence holder admits to occasionally yearning for a return to the demands of a high-profile technical area but accepts opportunities would be hard to find in the UK.

“I still miss some things from back home, I miss the senior professional side of the game, the day-to-day banter with professional players,” he says. “I do miss the grind and intensity of professional football. But I’m realistic enough to know that when you are out of sight in this game, you are out of mind. I’m really enjoying what I’m doing here. It’s good fun and it’s full-time work. It’s a little bit different than back home but it gives me job stability.

“I think I will probably stay out here now. I always keep an eye on things back home but I’ve been away from the UK now for just under ten years. I’m fairly settled over here and my wife now has a good college job.

“I’m working with kids who don’t finish school until 3:30pm, so I’m usually on a training pitch from then until around 9pm. The programme is growing and there is a lot of administration involved as well.

“But it’s sunshine all the time and I’ve got a bit of flexibility around my working pattern. It’s a great way of life.

“It’s a pay as you play model at our club, very much an amateur academy. It’s more grassroots than the main academies at the MLS clubs, but it’s still a top-end programme. We’ve got some fantastic players and we are trying to give them an opportunity to go into the college football system which is on the pathway towards the MLS.”

During one of Ritchie’s trips back to Scotland last year he was inducted into the Hearts Hall of Fame along with the rest of the 1998 Scottish Cup winning side. Regardless of the circumstances of his departure from Gorgie two years after that dramatic 2-1 win over Rangers at Celtic Park, he has no doubts about what club represent his first and enduring love in football.

“Hearts are still the team I follow and the ones I’ll always go to watch whenever I’m back in Scotland,” he says. “When you look back at that team and group of players over the two or three-year spell we had together, if things had been done differently at a higher level at the club then I believe we could have done so much more in terms of winning trophies over a period of time.

“Unfortunately it didn’t work out but to be inducted into the Hall of Fame along with the rest of the cup-winning team was brilliant. The friendships from that time have lasted and that’s one of the main reasons you play football.

“Any time that I find myself getting a bit down about how my career ended up, I think back to those times and tell myself not many kids get to play for the team they support and win the Scottish Cup with them.

“Looking at the clubs I played for and the games I played, it helps put it into perspective for me when I’m coaching the kids.

“A lot of them, no matter how much they want it, might never get close to playing in a professional environment.

“So I was very fortunate to play the game at that level for the number of years I did. I would have liked to have played for my country more often but no-one can ever take away the fact that I was a Scotland international.”