Matt Ritchie reveals the view from inside the Newcastle United dressing room
It was a gloomy, wet day at St James’s Park. And the afternoon ended in defeat.
But it wasn’t all “doom and gloom” for Matt Ritchie.
Ritchie, mindful of the reaction to his pre-match comments on fans unrest on Tyneside, didn’t want to discuss the boycotting supporters and protests outside the stadium after Newcastle United’s 1-0 loss to Arsenal on Sunday.
Thousands of fans stayed away in protest against owner Mike Ashley, who himself wasn’t at sodden St James’s Park. The rain dampened a pre-match protest outside the club shop.
The official attendance was 47,635, though the real gate will have been lower given that non-attending season-ticket holders were included in that figure. There were several empty-ish blocks of seats, while there were untaken seats dotted around the ground.
Ritchie, however, wanted to talk about what happened inside stadium during the game, which was decided by a second-half goal from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
“I was so pleased to see the stadium full,” said the winger, who had angered some supporters in the build-up to the Arsenal game when he said that he “didn’t understand” the unrest given that the club had committed almost £60million to transfers this summer.
“The support was good. There’s a real positive vibe, especially in the dressing room, at the moment. Throughout the club and the training centre, the vibe is very positive. We need to maintain that. To do that, we need to get results and good performances.
“For sure, it’s a positive dressing room at the moment and optimistic and the stadium felt that way today as well.
“Hopefully, we can start picking up points sooner rather than later and maintain that.”
Ritchie didn’t want to be drawn on his previous comments about the boycott, which had been organised in the wake of manager Rafa Benitez’s summer departure from the club.
“I’m not going to give you a headline on that,” said Ritchie, who had been signed by Benitez from Bournemouth in the summer of 2016.
Instead, Ritchie was keen to focus on what he felt were “positives” from the team’s performance against Unai Emery’s side, who he felt were fortunate to go into the break still on level terms.
Newcastle played well for 45 minutes – Joelinton put a header wide and Jonjo Shelvey struck the post during a bright 45 minutes – but things unravelled after the interval. Jetro Willems, making his competitive debut for the club, initially took up the wrong position after replacing the injured Shelvey. Steve Bruce, United’s head coach, blamed the mix-up with the left-back on a “lack of communication”.
Willems, signed on loan from Eintracht Frankfurt, was then at fault for the goal.
United, without a midfield replacement for Shelvey, lost their shape – and they went on to lose the game.
Ritchie, while frustrated at Arsenal’s goal, felt there were positives, pointing to the performances of Miguel Almiron and new signings Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin. They will “excite” Newcastle fans this season, in Ritchie’s view.
“First-half, I thought we were good,” said the 29-year-old, who is one of the senior players in line for a new deal under Bruce.
“We handled their threats really well, created the better chances, and I thought we were unlucky with one or two. I thought Miguel and Jo were a real handful, really exciting. I’m sure that excites everyone involved at the club.
“Then, second-half, they scored a goal, which was frustrating, because it didn’t come from good play from them, really, so that was frustrating.
“We lost our shape a little bit once they scored. We couldn’t quite get to grips with the game, and I think, in the end, we were maybe trying a little bit too hard to score too quickly and didn’t really control the game in their half as we needed to.
“The game did run away a little bit, but I thought we carried a threat. I thought Jo and especially Maximin when he came on and Miguel were a handful.
“There are certainly positives to take from the game. In spells it was good. There are things we can work on.
“We’re only going to get better, stronger and fitter. It’s not all doom and gloom.”
Ritchie, again fielded as a wing-back, had passed a late fitness test for the game, having been forced off against Hibernian late last month with a hamstring injury.
Bruce had initially feared that Ritchie was facing several weeks on the sidelines after seeing him pull up at Easter Road, where Joelinton, signed in a deal worth up to £40million for Hoffenheim, scored his first goal for the club.
“I thought I was touch and go to be ready, to be honest,” said the Scotland international. “I’m really pleased that I managed to get back. I had a couple of days training. That was pleasing.
“As I’ve said, as a group and individually, we’re only going to get fitter and stronger. That’s pleasing. I thought we looked very good physically.”
Bruce, meanwhile, was pleased with Ritchie’s performance.
“I thought he was terrific,” said United’s head coach. “He’s full of life, full of energy. I was delighted with him.”