THERE’s an acknowledged psychological five-stage grief model...and then there’s the one understood by Scotland followers grieving over another major tournament passing.
With the country’s football fraternity, first there is the cursing of luck; then there is the anger over deficiencies. That goes global to a despair over an environment that consistently delivers grizzly ends, before a form of acceptance settles which, in turn, dares to allow hope for a better time the next time.
Lucky old Bournemouth winger Matt Ritchie appears to have been able to bypass the first four stages and cling tightly to optimism. Perhaps it helps that the Hampshire-born winger hadn’t set foot in Scotland ahead of being called up for the first time by Gordon Strachan six months ago. As a result, the 26-year-old, whose dad Alex is originally from Edinburgh, does not bear the scars of the eight qualifying campaign failures prior to the crushing disappointment of this Euro 2016 tilt.
Perhaps it helps that in five starts for Scotland, the six-times capped Ritchie has yet to experience defeat. Indeed, whatever else might be said about the ultimately fatal 2-2 draw with Poland on Thursday, his screamer of a strike seconds before the interval was central to Scotland going down with a bang and not, as it seemed to that point, a miserable whimper.
Ritchie’s grief model precludes any Scots-loathing over the 94th-minute Polish equaliser, or the blow-out in Georgia that really caused the wheels to fall off the bogey for Strachan’s side. “You can always look back in football at things, reflect on that disappointment and learn from it, but we really have to move on,” he said. “You have to take the positives and use it in a positive manner.
“I believe I have absolutely so much to look forward to in a Scotland shirt. The last few squads I’ve been in gives me great confidence. I think the team has got a great potential. Every trip I’ve come away and felt that we are getting better every time and we can keep getting better. It’s been a pleasure to be involved in and hopefully the future is bright.
“You’ve got to use your disappointments throughout your career to fire you, to get motivated and that will be there. It’s a bad evening in the history of the country’s team. Football chucks out surprises and gives you feelings you don’t get elsewhere. We have to pick ourselves up and go again.”
Ritchie has had a career of doing that. It did not happen for him at first club Portsmouth, then a Premier League side. Ultimately he had to work his way up from League Two with Swindon Town to earn a second season in the glittering English top flight, where he is currently looking far from out of place with Eddie Howe’s unfancied side. He is not oblivious to what constitutes failure, then, and doesn’t dress up Scotland being condemned to fourth place in Group D even before they complete their campaign against Gibraltar in Faro as anything other than that.
“We have to look at ourselves, why we have not qualified. We have failed to qualify for the Euros so, yes, we have failed. But you can’t always win in football, you can’t look at the team and say: You didn’t give it your all.
“To a man, everyone can look in the mirror. They can say they’ve given 100 per cent and if our best isn’t good enough this time hopefully next time it can be. We’ve got a very strong squad. We weren’t the better team against Germany but we had good chances and with a bit of luck you never know. Then in the second half in particular against Poland we dominated.”
It was inevitable for Ritchie to be asked the question that will be directed at anyone within, or with any interest in, the Scotland set-up as thoughts turn to next year’s World Cup qualifying campaign for the 2018 finals. And, just as with all others asked to comment on the burning question of whether Gordon Strachan should remain in post, Ritchie’s response was equally inevitable.
The Bournemouth winger would patently “absolutely” hope that Strachan can find it in him to stay on when the player owes his unexpected international career to him. Which he readily acknowledged.
“I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about the manager. He’s been fantastic with me, given me my chance. I hope it can continue.” It is the only keep element of the Scotland story that anyone wants to see continue for fear of spending a lifetime in counselling.