Rumour has it that when Matt Ritchie left the womb he immediately bollocked his mother for her poor positional sense and booted his father up the backside for sitting around watching. Ritchie was born livid, raging at this inadequate life full of inadequate people and inadequate things, permanently furious, forever running until his feet bleed and his body gives up and then raging at his stupid feet and his pathetic body.
Ritchie came into this world with an irrational hatred of corner flags. If you happen to be a corner flag, then Ritchie will seek you out and hunt you down and chances are, he will administer the kicking of your corner flag existence. And if you dare to substitute Ritchie, well… just ask a corner flag how it feels to be on the wrong end of his wrath. Hell might be hot but this man’s splenetic indignation is purest magma.
Ritchie is back and Newcastle United can finally breathe a sigh of terror. They have done OK in the winger’s absence, certainly in terms of Premier League points and position, but Ritchie remains the tempo-setter of the team, the leader by example, the roarer, the pointer, the irritant. For the last few seasons, this has been a quiet team but Ritchie is the exception. He despises silence even more than he despises corner flags.
Ritchie is radge. Radge is an old northern term, Geordie and Scottish, which basically means Matt Ritchie, even though it was in common usage long before his birth in 1989. To be precise, he is a radge packet, a radgie gadgie — but all the best sides have one of those, whatever they might be called in local dialect, and Ritchie is adored precisely because he gives everything of himself in every match and demands precisely the same from everybody else.
Miracle of miracles, Newcastle have won a fixture in the FA Cup, beating Rochdale, teeing up a fourth-round tie at home to Oxford United. In the 13 barren years of Mike Ashley’s ownership, they have never progressed beyond that point and so, although nothing has been decided yet, and with all due respect and all that kind of thing, even Joelinton scored and BLOODY HELL, WHAT IS THIS!? WHAT IS GOING ON!? YOU MAY AS WELL HAND OVER THE TROPHY NOW!
These developments were so unexpected and peculiar and so welcome that St James’ Park briefly forgot about being annoyed, distressed and tense. Fans in the Gallowgate End implored Steve Bruce to “give us a wave”, which is infrequent enough to merit mention, and then followed it up with a chant of “Brucie, Brucie.” It was a small crowd (including Ashley) and perhaps it was a different crowd, too, but the lack of drama brought a truce. And nobody got injured.
Ritchie was at the heart of it. Ritchie is at the heart of it all because even when he does nothing, it is his pulse that powers Newcastle. But in his first start since August, he played the telling cross for his side’s opening two goals, encouraging Eoghan O’Connell to put the ball into his own net and then allowing Matty Longstaff to score. After both, he grinned, gurned, pumped his fists repeatedly and then looked cross at his hands for such an unnecessary display of emotion.
Is he like this in real life? The noise is part of him and when he is absent, like when he travelled to Dubai for warm-weather training as he worked to recover from a foot complaint, Newcastle felt the stillness. He is usually the first to clock in for training, full of chirpiness and energy, a determined prankster who takes perverse pleasure from winding up Fabian Schar, the Switzerland defender. The pitch is where his anger becomes flesh.
And also the press box. Since Leicester City’s Hamza Choudhury inflicted what Bruce termed a “horror” tackle on Ritchie during Newcastle’s early departure from the Carabao Cup in August, he has spent most of his match-days with the media, berating every decision, slapping the plastic cover which keeps off the rain and celebrating goals with a lack of decorum which would see him expelled from the Football Writers’ Association — and, trust me, they have a high tolerance threshold.
If you want to know what Newcastle supporters think of Ritchie and the things he represents, then consider the responses to an appeal on Twitter to complete the following sentence: I love Matt Ritchie because…
@TaylorandBesty: “… it doesn’t matter if you’ve scored a goal or made a clearance, he WILL punch you and kick you up the arse.”
@delfender: “… he’s a violent little human with a hatred of corner flags.”
@sinicols: “ … he takes no fucking prisoners.”
@Skumbo75: “… he’s the best chance we have of seeing a player beat a teammate to death.”
@MarkCarruthers_: “… he’s a bloody angry little man and I can relate to that in every way possible.”
@paulgibbins: “… he screamed ‘track back you bellend!’ at (Christian) Atsu, right into the pitch side mic on a midday kick off.”
@cleadonmags: “ … my expectations are diminished to such an extent that I’m grateful that someone runs around a lot and puts a bit of effort in.”
@awinston: “… he has anger management issues that rival Mike Tyson.”
@Allman22: “… he’s mad as a bag of rampant badgers!”
@petermonaghan39: “… he believes violence is the answer to praise.”
@ADStoker: “ … he genuinely told my dad to F off at home to Fulham in the Championship.”
There were plenty more like this, with multiple references to corner flags, radgies and ultra aggression committed against colleagues. Sausage roll shinpads? Yes, he really does wear them. Sausage rolls = goals. But let’s be honest here. Who hasn’t wanted to tell @ADStoker’s dad to F off at one stage or another? And who hasn’t looked askance at those plastic poles stuck into the ground at football stadiums, with their upright superiority. Pricks, the lot of them.
The point is that Ritchie is effective and effusive, the kind of qualities that team-mates, staff and fans appreciate, notwithstanding the side-effects, the scars and the bruises, the shattered eardrums. “We have missed him,” Bruce said after the game. “We have been without some big players but Matt is loud and effervescent. He wants to play and is a great pro and a great lad to have around.”
Midway through the second half, Bruce gambled with his own life. The subs board went up and Ritchie came off, replaced by Jonjo Shelvey. Shelvey once said of Ritchie that “he’s an angry little man,” which is pretty much the same as the rest of us think, particularly @MarkCarruthers_, but on this occasion, Ritchie spun on his heels, applauded supporters and even smiled. It was good to be back. You would like to think that once he returned to the privacy of his own home, he punched himself in the face for being soft.
A little while later, outside the players’ tunnel, The Athletic approached Ritchie for a quick word. Trepidation hung in the air.
A few gentle questions out of the way, this is the end of our conversation.
The Athletic: “Are you aware of the Geordie word radge and what it means?
Matt Ritchie: “Radge? Yes. I believe it means a bit of a toe-rag, is that correct?”
TA: “Well, an angry person maybe.”
MR: “An angry wee bastard?”
TA: “So you’re aware of the word?”
MR: “I am, yes.”
TA: “It’s used about you a lot.”
TA: “But it’s used with a lot of affection and love.”
MR: “That’s nice.”
TA: “Do you take pride in having that role in the team? There are great clips of you on Twitter kicking team-mates up the backside after doing something good.”
MR: “It’s just my character. I don’t… it’s my character. I am who I am. I can’t be something I’m not. I’m not a calm person. I’m an all-or-nothing sort of man. Yeah. It’s just me.”
TA: “You’re not angry off the pitch, are you?”
MR: “I can be angry. Definitely, over the years — especially in the last two or three years — I have calmed down a lot, yeah. But I think that’s with having children. It changes you.”
TA: “Have you ever had team-mates say to you, ‘Why the fuck have you just kicked me up the backside?’ or ‘Why are you hitting me?’”
MR: “(Laughs) Yeah, yeah. Matty (Longstaff) said to me tonight actually, ‘Matt, man, why are you hitting my head? It hurts’. But I love it. I love the feeling of winning, of succeeding, that togetherness. When you win it’s so good.”
And Ritchie is good, too. So good, it hurts. It hurts everyone and everything, including inanimate objects.