The costly decision which will forever haunt Pompey fans

AFC Bournemouth's Matt Ritchie with the League One player of the year award
AFC Bournemouth's Matt Ritchie with the League One player of the year award

Matt Ritchie bagged a hat-trick against Gosport Borough before walking home.

His family house was in Privett Road, just a few hundred yards away, certainly negotiable following 82 minutes of football.

That night on August 11, 2008, Ritchie had netted a stunning hat-trick in Pompey’s 4-1 triumph over Alex Pike’s men.

Ben Sahar had scored the other in a Blues side also containing the likes of Jamie Ashdown, Lauren, John Utaka, Djimi Traore and Martin Cranie.

Yet it would be a slight 18-year-old who would eclipse his first-team peers, drawing a standing ovation from a 2,575 crowd when he left the field with eight minutes to go.

For many it would be a first glimpse of a player who had climbed through Pompey’s youth set-up since being discovered by Dave Hurst at Monkton playing fields at the age of eight.

A Blues fanatic, Gosport born-and-bred, it was Ritchie’s dream to represent his football club at first-team level.

It was an ambition he achieved, at Premier League level, too, the first of 10 senior appearances, four coming as a substitute.

Then in January 2011 he had gone, Swindon turning a loan move into a permanent deal during the transfer window for an initial £250,000 with sell-ons.

Steve Cotterill was the Pompey manager, his team at that moment sitting in a comfortable mid-table position in the Championship. Swindon were residing in League Two.

Many fans questioned the wisdom of that decision at the time, the doubters continuing to multiply as the months and years have passed, while Ritchie’s career and price tag have soared.

Last Sunday the 23-year-old, now with Bournemouth, was crowned League One player of the year at the Football League Awards.

The previous season he was christened League Two player of the year.

From a Pompey perspective, Ritchie is a ghost which will haunt Cotterill for the rest of his footballing days.

Guy Whittingham was first-team coach when the youngster departed Fratton Park, having previously overseen him while heading the development group.

And he believes Cotterill did Ritchie a favour by allowing him to leave his beloved Pompey.

Whittingham said: ‘First and foremost, Matt was very frustrated that he wasn’t playing.

‘To be fair to Steve he just thought the best thing for Matt was to go and play football.

‘At the time we were in the Championship and, with the type of players we had then, Matt wasn’t a regular starter.

‘Steve liked him, he thought he was a good footballer, but he saw he was frustrated and, to help him out, let him leave. He thought it was the right thing to do for him.

‘If I had been in that situation (as manager) would I have done the same? Probably.

‘Matt wasn’t in the first team and wasn’t even a sub who would be used every single week.

‘I think it was extremely good of Steve to do it.

‘We can all say in hindsight now with him getting League One player of the year that he should have been here – but we are not to know what is going to happen.

‘Would he have got the same amount of games here? Would he have got an injury? Who knows?’

While Cotterill’s reputation among Blues circles has taken a pounding on the back of his Ritchie decision, according to Mark Kelly, others had to be convinced to even give Ritchie a professional contract.

Kelly, who is currently the Blues’ head of recruitment and under-14 coach, was Academy manager back then and had watched Ritchie develop.

At the age of 17, the subject of whether to give the Gosport youngster a two-year deal was up for debate – and, thankfully, Kelly got his own way.

Kelly said: ‘When it came to giving Matt his first contract, I sat down over a cup of tea with Ian Woan and Paul Hart (director of youth operations).

‘I went in there and it was “Do me a favour, it’s a no-brainer”. You just have to keep kids like that. Technically he was fantastic.

‘But there are one or two questions you always have and Harty was concerned over his size. Was he going to be big enough to make it?

‘There was no major disagreement or anything like that. It was just people sitting in a room trying to reach a decision. It happens at a club all the time.

‘Too many people make decisions too quickly when it comes to the kids. When I was at Bournemouth they released Matt Tubbs. Later at Pompey, Marlon Pack should never have gone.

‘As it was, Harty listened to me and said “Alright then, job done”. Matt had his first professional contract.’

Paul Hardyman is currently professional development coach and head of Academy coaching at Fratton Park.

He was also Ritchie’s under-18 coach and believes Cotterill made a massive mistake by cashing in on the midfielder as a 21-year-old.

Hardyman said: ‘Matt’s a Gosport lad whose dream was to play for the club. Unfortunately that didn’t quite work out.

‘Every manager I am sure has made an error letting a player go. At the time Steve probably thought Matt was not going to get into his Championship side.

‘Now it looks a bad decision he was let go like that. Swindon offered a few quid and Pompey took it.

‘Others, Steve didn’t get wrong, such as Tom Kilbey.

‘I remember him getting released later that same season and Exeter wanted him to go for a trial, but he wasn’t interested in going back into pro football.

‘If you are not prepared to go cross country and put yourself out for a trial then you can forget it. He comes from quite a well-to-do family anyway, so finances were not a problem.

‘Some bite you on the bum and others you never hear from again.’

Hurst spent 31 years working in Pompey’s youth system.

He is responsible for bringing through the likes of Darren Anderton, Asmir Begovic, Gary O’Neil and Kit Symons, before made redundant in February 2012 having retired twice in his career.

Hurst said: ‘I was at Stokes Bay watching a summer six-a-side tournament and Tony Harris came over and advised me to watch a little blonde-haired boy playing over the other side.

‘That was how Matt came to Pompey. A real nice kid, too.

‘It always saddens me when you see players like that allowed to leave because you know somebody is making a mistake.

‘When Alan Ball was manager he told me Liam Daish “would never be a player” – and added a fair bit after that as well!

‘When Bobby Campbell was manager he didn’t like Steve Claridge. Steve was a fly-by-night with green hair and one boot in those days.

‘One day Bobby called his parents in and told him the club were not going to keep him.

‘His mum brought out a scrap book and pointed to a News youth report in which Steve was made man of the match. Bobby was furious – and Steve was still let go!

‘All clubs make mistakes, we just make too many mistakes.’

When Ritchie joined Bournemouth in January, Pompey profited with £40,000 from a sell-on clause. A welcome windfall in the current climate.

Yet the decision to let him walk out on Fratton Park could be one of the most costly in modern-day Pompey history.