Matt Ritchie reveals the view from inside Newcastle United’s dressing room
Matt Ritchie’s no longer looking down the Premier League table – he’s instead looking up.
For much of this season, Ritchie and his team-mates have been looking down the division.
However, four successive home victories have given Rafa Benitez’s 13th-placed side a platform to build on in the last 10 games.
Newcastle – who take on West Ham United at the London Stadium tomorrow – are two points better off than at this stage last season, when they finished 10th.
Asked about another top-half finish, Ritchie said: “It’s possible. Every season your aim is to improve on the previous one. No-one really believed me back in August when I said our aim was to finish higher than last season.
“We had a fantastic year – everyone was telling us we over-achieved – but within the group, we didn’t think that. The league table doesn’t lie – and we deserved that.
“I’m not getting carried away. There are some tough, tough games ahead, a lot of work to do to continue to perform as well as we have been doing. Hopefully, with that, will come the wins we need to keep climbing the table.”
Benitez hasn’t had the financial resources of his Premier League managerial counterparts, but he has still built a squad strong enough to compete in the division.
And the January arrival of Miguel Almiron has given the team an extra edge.
“I know that within this squad we have enough quality, the right attitude and now, the competition for places that you need to do well,” said winger Ritchie. “I never doubted this group of lads, because we’ve done it before. The squad is now so strong.
“OK, we probably don’t have what you’d describe as world-beaters, but what we have got is strong characters and a fair bit of quality as well.
“Critics keep writing us off. Ever since I have been at the club, they’ve been saying ‘nah, they’re not strong enough’. But they’re wrong. We’re a good side, and I think we are showing that now.
“Everyone can see the confidence within the group and the way all the lads want to help each other. We continue to believe, continue to keep working and when you have that confidence and belief, they’re big words, but you can see we have that now.
“The last five or six, not just results but performances, have been good. Sometimes, as I say, it’s about small margins. Looking back on our season, those first 10 games – OK, we didn’t do as well as we might have done, but no-one could really accuse us of producing bad performances. “We knew if we kept doing the right things, and kept the high standards demanded of us, results would come.”
Ritchie – who has started 24 league games this season – believes that United can carry on up the table.
“In the position we’re in now, you have to be optimistic,” said the 29-year-old. “You now look at the table, and, yes, you do look up at those teams ahead of us and think ‘it’s on, we can catch them’. But we certainly have our feet on the floor. The lads know full well the job’s not done. We’re on 31 points, and that is not enough. We must reach 40 as soon as we can. After that, we can look to build on that.”
United beat Burnley 2-0 on Tuesday night thanks to goals from Fabian Schar and Sean Longstaff.
“It’s all about small margins,” said Ritchie. “It certainly wasn’t easy for us, because they’d not been beaten in the league this year, so that just shows what a good performance it was from us. Once again everyone performed really well – the system’s working for us. Everyone feels really comfortable with it.
“That win at home to Manchester City was big at the time but, looking back, it’s proved massive. You look at our results since – not just results, but performances too.
“We’ve done what we had to, strung together five or six really good, solid team performances, and that’s what we needed and always thought we had within us.
“But the work doesn’t stop just because we’ve given ourselves a bit of breathing space. The job’s not done. We’ve given ourselves a platform, nothing more than that. We’ve got to reach 40 points as soon as we possibly can and then once we get there, look to kick on.”
Longstaff, again, was outstanding against Burnley.
Asked about the 21-year-old, Ritchie said: “He’s a top player. But first and foremost, what a great lad. Since he has come in the group, he’s exactly the same guy.
“It must be a dream come true for him (to score), but he really deserves it. Sean is going to have one hell of a career if he keeps his feet on the floor and keeps working.”