Matt Ritchie can tell tales that could make you weep, let alone fill a best-selling biography.
He became the final straw in Paulo Di Canio’s ill-fated Swindon career, when he was sold behind the manager’s back by the board. The politically-challenged Italian had been turning down seven-figure sums for his prized asset, when Bournemouth captured his signature for £400,000. Ritchie naturally then became a headline name in Dean Court’s Hollywood tale; he achieved promotion in two consecutive seasons, the latter of which he chipped in with 11 goals and 13 assists. The Premier League beckoned and he was one of the names to watch, from any of the promoted sides.
Ritchie’s first season in the Premier League (and only as it turned out to be, thus far) didn’t come as easily, but that’s okay, because all good biographies need tales of hardship before they pick up again. The club lost star striker Callum Wilson, captain Tommy Elphick, and the mercurial Max Gradel to long-term injuries; full-back Simon Francis, who Ritchie had such a fantastic connection with down the right-hand side, was forced to slot in at centre back. Josh King, a £1m acquisition from Blackburn, started life up front. Eddie Howe refused to buckle in his quest to play eye-catching football. In a harder league, with less support on the other wing, less to aim for up front and less help from his full-back, things really couldn’t have been any more difficult for the Scot.
The thing about tricky periods in football is that you often come out of the other side stronger, especially with a top manager behind you. Bournemouth started their top-flight campaign shambolically but had pulled themselves together by February. The goals were flowing from Benik Afobe, Josh King and a returning Gradel. Simon Francis is now considered a centre back by Howe. And Matt Ritchie still levelled the most assists in the side.
Where he really transformed last season was in his work rate though. The Premier League is famously end-to-end, but the winger acted almost as a box-to-box midfielder deployed out wide; he got back to help out Adam Smith, was a missing link between the defence and the attack, and would work tirelessly for the team. He got the assists partly from his set piece prowess, too. He wasn’t so much a focal point of the eleven but an avenue with which to stretch full backs out wide, or pull them in centrally for right-back Adam Smith to overlap. Without the ball, he became more compact. In a world in which Atletico Madrid field four central midfielders to limit play through the middle of the pitch, Ritchie wasn’t just talented anymore, he was a potential talisman for an ambitious club.
So obviously, there was interest for him in the summer. Bournemouth offered him a historically huge contract. He turned it down and dropped a division to go to Newcastle.
It smacked of money motivation for some. Bournemouth had allegedly originally turned down a request from Newcastle in January, with Howe promising to talk about it with his player in a few months’ time if he still felt the same. It’s common knowledge that Newcastle pay better dollar than any other club of that stature; Jonjo Shelvey left a sinking ship at Swansea for one that was sinking even quicker. But Ritchie had excuses, should anyone question his motivations to move: Rafa Benitez, for one. And if anyone questions why he’d join a relegated club, Newcastle seemed like a dead cert to shoot back up. But it could yet backfire.
Newcastle lost their opening two games. The Magpies are finding out now what arguably better squads have found out before them: the Championship isn’t a walk in the park, and any side can win the league. Just ask Ritchie himself, formerly employed by a club just promoted to the league, who then went and won it a few months later. If there are no predictable games in the Premier League, the Championship is anyone’s to guess; Benitez or no Benitez, a 46-week season is a long slog, where the sixth best team are likely to pip the third best when they inevitably lose heart over ending up in the play-offs.
The signing of Matt Ritchie to Newcastle could be an absolute masterstroke, though. Newcastle have lacked commitment for years: that’s easy to see, but with Ritchie they signed a man who not only helps out his team when they don’t have the ball, he has the quality with it. He knows the league, he thrives in that league, and with quality players around him – which Newcastle have compared to some of the sides in that division – Ritchie can blossom. He’s returning to the second tier of English football a better player than he started off as in the Premier League – a rare thing – and he could be key for Newcastle this season.
His absence against Huddersfield Town was notable. More than most players in the Newcastle side, the ex-Bournemouth man has guaranteed consistency no matter where he’s gone, and god do Newcastle need reliable players. There was a question mark over Ritchie being motivated by money when he left Bournemouth, but as Eddie Howe was promising to break his wage cap for the winger, perhaps it really was a new challenge that tempted him, whether it was a particularly ambitious one or not. While it is possible that the big money move will turn Ritchie into a lazier player, history suggests the opposite; he was a timebomb at Swindon waiting to move on, and only thrived after his move. Again last January, offers were made but Ritchie stayed put – for one reason or another – and turned in a gut-busting second half of the season, that without which, could’ve seen the club relegated.
Just like Aston Villa’s choice to sign fellow ex-Cherry, Tommy Elphick, Benitez’s move for Ritchie is one made on personality and experience as much as quality. But while Elphick is pure passion and clearly recruited by Villa to give some kind of shape, organisation, even just to get the defence to play like they give a shit – it’s no surprise he picked up the captain’s armband immediately – Ritchie isn’t just a ball of energy who will inspire teammates. He’s proven at this level, considered too good for it by many; he bailed Bournemouth out at times last season, and he’ll do it again this. For all the organisation in the world, you need a touch of magic too. Newcastle finallyhave a hard-worker who can deliver that, and if he does, Ritchie could prove to be the best signing of the division this season.