The Newcastle United player who embodies Rafa’s Mags and can’t be allowed to leave
The victories over Leicester and Southampton felt like coming of age performances for so many of Rafa’s mags.
As much as Ayoze Perez rightly grabbed the headlines, and Issac Hayden deserved praise for another sterling performance, I was equally impressed with a player who according to paper talk at least, could be leaving St James’ in the summer.
Matt Ritchie produced another excellent display, in a season where he should be competing for our player of the season award, certainly he has been one of the most consistent throughout the campaign.
Like Issac Hayden though, he may be about to ship out of NE1 this coming summer. It would be a blow to the team to lose a man who has often been the definition of the side’s best qualities.
This squad, which at the start of the season, looked like it might really struggle to get to forty points. It could be viewed as a major stain on Ashley’s ownership how Rafa had been given such an underwhelming team to work with, yet he has made them one of the most likable bunches in recent Toon history (admittedly for some the bar may not be very high). They have developed into a smart tactical bunch that give their all in a black and white and get everything from the ability they possess.
Ritchie has come to symbolise the spirit of Rafa’s mags. He has played a number of different roles in vastly different formations and set-ups, and still managed to be one of the most consistent players we have. The work rate, tackling and sheer hardiness of the man is mightily impressive. At 5 ft 8, Ritchie knows he has to battle for every scrap of possession and it shows on the pitch. The old adage about the crowd willing on a player who gives everything, is never truer than with Ritchie. We have certainly had more technically blessed wingers down the years, but I would argue fewer, if any, have given more to the United cause.
Talk of him leaving the club is a serious worry. At a time we should be building on the gems we do have in the squad, and capitalising on emerging leaders in the dressing room, letting Ritchie go could be a fatal error. Who knows, it maybe is one of the issues preventing Rafa from agreeing a new deal, if the board are blocking a new contract for our Scottish winger?
He is not merely having a good few months, he has been one of our most important players for the past three seasons. When Benitez made him one of key signings in the summer of 2016 following relegation, I admit to having doubts. His form had been patchy towards the end of Bournemouth’s inaugural season in the Premier League and the pressure would be on as one our biggest summer signings. It has proved an inspired choice.
On his home debut against Huddersfield, he made an immediate impact. We were dire in the first half, barely pressing the Terriers in possession and deservedly losing. Once Ritchie came in, the tackles flew in and the organisation improved, plus the crowd got involved. He was already looking a key man.
It’s not only his excellent defensive play, he still has the flair and goal scoring ability of a natural winger. His attacking fluidity is best shown when we re-watch his goals from the promotion season of 2016/17. The sheer variety is remarkable. An outside the boot beauty against Ipswich, precise penalties, and my personal favourite – an aggressive flying header against QPR, in which he batters the full back in the Gallowgate air.
His goals in the Premier League are less regular but when they do come are usually hugely important. The winner against Manchester Utd last season, was THE turning point of the campaign. Before that goal we looked relegation favourites. After it, the whole feeling of the season was reversed. Then his winner against Arsenal (another classic Ritchie goal, which came through sheer desire more than anything else) ensured we had cleared the all-important 40 point mark.
This season has taken his game onto another level. He has become one of the most flexible wing-backs in the league, and still managed to come up with hugely important, timely goals. The dramatic equaliser at Bournemouth, case in-point.
In many ways, he is becoming the embodiment of Benitez on the pitch, with his tactical flexibility and incredible workrate levels there for all to see. Jamal Lascelles is not the only dressing room leader, Ritchie has become equally important.
Perhaps the two caring so much about the club, explains the training-ground bust up between them at the start of the season, and it would not be the greatest surprise to learn this happens a lot, also that it might be a positive for team spirit rather than a negative.
Of course the first and most important signing of the summer, should be a new contract for Benitez who has built this effective, hard working side on limited resources.
Not far behind on the list though should be an improved contract for Matt Ritchie, a man who continues to give everything for this football club, and has so far asked for little in return.
His presence next season may point towards a renewed team spirit and backing of Benitez. A departure would see a key piece of the jigsaw ripped out.
Hopefully he is still in a black and white shirt come August and beyond.
You can follow the author on Twitter @JackLaceySport
If you would like to feature on The Mag, submit your article to [email protected]