v. Northern Ireland (25/03/15)
You know as well as I do that international squad selections exist as much for the angsty frothing-at-the-mouth reaction they provoke from supporters as they do for winning football matches, and Scotland this week have not disappointed. While perhaps not drawing the same incredulity as a prominent omission in another Scottish squad, the selection of largely unheralded Matthew, 25, from Gosport, is the type of inclusion that normally gets folk rustled.
I was as surprised as anyone to discover Matt Ritchie wasn’t an elaborate character with a plausible back-story (family in Edinburgh, apparently), played by a struggling soap actor and created as a placeholder for Jack Harper’s last-gasp helicopter descent into the centre-circle at 7.44pm, ahead of Scotland’s Hampden Park return on Wednesday night. Alas, it turns out Matt Ritchie is actually a footballer, who plays for a team called Bournemouth.
I’ll admit, prior to his call-up, you could probably have contained my entire knowledge of his strengths, weaknesses, career history, favourite films and so forth within a tweet, and still had plenty room left over for an emoji. Without wishing to make it all about me, he was probably aware on some level that to much of the Scotland-supporting audience he’s something of an unknown quantity.
As such, there was only one likely candidate for my attention in the friendly against Northern Ireland unlikely to yield significant new information in any other department. He was perched on the right-hand side of the three behind Steven Fletcher, in what is now a familiar shape under Gordon Strachan. It’s a role that Ritchie is apparently more than au fait with.
Forty-five minutes later, and I still didn’t know much about Matt Ritchie. Except I’d perhaps now recognise him if he passed me in the street. Not that he went past anyone in that first half.
He spent much of the opening period fulfilling the overly-eager, neglected debutant role perfectly. Scurrying this way and that in expectation of a pass which never arrived, exchanging possession with full-back Steven Whittaker behind him (whose distribution was notably sloppy), enthusiastically trapping the ball four yards in front of him and even finding time to whip a free-kick onto the forehead of the first defender. Given that there was no discernible difference in impact between Ritchie and Josh Magennis on the opposite right flank, it wasn’t irrational to feel somewhat underwhelmed.
That’s maybe a touch harsh of me. Most of Scotland’s play naturally funneled down the left towards Ikechi Anya, the man normally charged with injecting energy and invention into their performances. Ritchie was feeding off scraps by comparison, loitering on the edges of attacks and hoping one of Anya’s deliveries would evade Steven Fletcher and a cluster of Northern Ireland defenders to reach him at the far post. Nothing arrived.
He rarely had the chance to collect the ball in his stride, a fault you can hardly lay at his door. By my reckoning the first time he received the ball on the run was in the 65th minute, at which point in proceedings I was half-expecting to see a red number eight appear on the fourth-official’s board at any minute. On this occasion he naturally drifted infield from the right, only to find some middle-of-the-park congestion and offload it unspectacularly.
Unspectacular perhaps, but it clearly boosted his confidence to make another dart inside not four minutes later, collecting a lay-off and fizzing an effort at goal. That it faded well wide is by the by, Ritchie was finally doing something. This must be how he scored all those goals Wikipedia told me about.
I’m being facetious, sure, but integrate him into this team some more and that move inside onto his strong left-foot could become a viable source of goals in matches that matter, and have intensity surpassing this meandering affair.
As Ritchie himself acknowledged afterwards, he grew into the game after shaking off initial nerves, and the fact his performance took an upward trajectory certainly provides hope that he’ll continue to improve in a Scotland shirt. After finding time for another effort on goal, he swung in a couple of invitingly whipped corners, one from either side. The second provided Steven Naismith with arguably the best chance of the match so far.
Though the menace and consistency (over a sample size of two) of those corner deliveries suggested they could become a viable weapon for Scotland in the future, few would’ve guessed he’d have his first assist from one just fifteen minutes later. Another inswinger from the right to the edge of the six yard area once again found a Scottish head, and this time Christophe Berra made no mistake.
Though it’d be a little revisionist to write off an hour and a bit of anonymity for the sake of three good set-pieces, I’m almost willing to bump up his debut from ‘forgettable’ to ‘mildly encouraging’ as a result.
Before the match, Strachan was asked what he was looking for from the former Swindon Town stalwart. Imagination, work rate and goal attempts were his answers, presumably listed in ascending order of quantifiability. While there wasn’t much of the first category, that could in part be put down to a stuffy Northern Ireland defence. He certainly got around the park and was even beginning to find his shooting range by the closing stages.
He’ll be back though and, chances are, he’ll have much more to offer.
Of that I am certain.
The Football Critic
• The Football Critic: Craig Curran v Hamilton (14.03.15)
• The Football Critic: Conor Grant v Aberdeen (13.03.15)
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