TEENAGE Manchester United striking sensation Andy Ritchie had big boots to fill when he replaced Peter Ward in Brighton’s forward line.
After a slow start, 18 months after his arrival on the south coast he was the Albion Player of the Season but he missed out on Brighton’s historic journey to the FA Cup Final in 1983 when he opted to move to Second Division Leeds United in exchange for Terry Connor.
With just 26 goals in 102 top flight appearances for the Albion, it would probably be fair comment to say the best years of his footballing career were still to come and he claimed the move to Elland Road was to ensure he continued playing first team football.
He went on to enjoy great success the other side of the Pennines during Oldham Athletic’s time amongst the big boys.
But let’s wind back a bit to the beginning. Born on 28 November 1960 in Manchester, the son of a postal worker, Ritchie showed no early signs of a becoming a professional footballer and in fact went to Moseley Hall Grammar where only rugby was played.
The young Ritchie did play football as a cub, though, and then progressed to a Sunday league side and it was there that he was spotted by former Man Utd captain Johnny Carey, scouting for his old club.
After some trials Ritchie signed on as an apprentice at Old Trafford and soon earned a regular place in United’s Central League side.
At Christmas 1978 he made his league debut in United’s 6-2 win over Everton. He never managed to hold down a regular place in the first team but in total played 33 games for United, scoring 13 goals. Amongst those, he memorably scored two hat-tricks, against Leeds and Spurs.
It was in October 1980 that Ritchie became part of a triangular swap of strikers, when Garry Birtles moved from Nottingham Forest to Old Trafford, Ward transferred to the City Ground from Brighton, and Ritchie headed south. “Andy was only 19 but I saw great potential in him,” said Brighton manager Alan Mullery in his autobiography.
Ritchie made his debut in an away game at Aston Villa on 22 October 1980 and, after going seven games without scoring, opened his Albion account….against Man Utd. Unfortunately his goal in the Goldstone clash against his former club on 22 November was just a consolation as the Seagulls crashed 4-1.
Doubtless Mullery expected a greater return from the young man than the six goals he had mustered by the end of the 1980-81 season, but thankfully one of those came in the 80th minute of the final game of the season when a 2-0 defeat of Leeds meant Albion retained their top flight status by a whisker.
When Mullery quit over the sale of Mark Lawrenson to Liverpool that summer, the defence-minded Mike Bailey came in and steered Albion to their best ever finish – 13th of 22 – but at the expense of entertainment.
Ritchie top-scored with just 14 goals and was voted Player of the Season and a personal highlight came in March when he was selected to play for England under 21s against Poland. He played alongside Mark Hateley who scored both England’s goals in a 2-2 draw at Upton Park. But it was to be his one and only cap. An Albion commitment prevented him playing in a subsequent game when he was called up to play Scotland.
Although he scored in the opening 1-1 draw of the 1982-83 season against Ipswich, he didn’t find the net again until December – by which time Bailey had been sacked.
The replacement managerial duo of George Aitken and Jimmy Melia opted to play three strikers – Ritchie, Michael Robinson and Peter Ward, who had returned to the club on loan from Forest – but results were not great and Ritchie’s form in front of goal remained poor.
Melia, not exactly a shrinking violet when it came to the media, let it be known he was not impressed and the next thing Ritchie declared he wanted away. While relegation beckoned, Albion continued to make progress in the Cup and Ritchie played in the quarter final win over Norwich. Then, almost out of the blue, Melia organised a straight swap with Ritchie going to Leeds and Connor joining the Seagulls.
The decision was puzzling to say the least because Albion were still in the Cup and, with Connor cup-tied having played in the competition with Leeds, and an extension of Ward’s loan refused by Brian Clough, Brighton had to go into the semi final and the final with only one recognised striker in Robinson.
Of course, as we know, midfielder Gordon Smith was moved up front to partner Robinson – and if you don’t know what happened next you’ve been living on a different planet!
In the pre-match wall-to-wall coverage of the Cup Final, as was commonplace at that time, amongst the multitude of different angles appeared an interview with Ritchie in Match Weekly about the clash between his two former clubs. “I’m glad for both teams that they have made it to Wembley and I just hope that the best team wins on the day,” he said diplomatically.
“Obviously I’ll have a few pangs of jealousy when the lads walk out at Wembley knowing that I might have been involved, but I feel I have made the right decision in attempting to secure my future in first team football.”
Ritchie was sore he had missed out on a Cup Final (v Arsenal) when he was at Man Utd so it was certainly a mighty decision he took. “I knew I was taking a gamble when I joined Leeds just before the semi final but I felt my future outweighed the possibility of Brighton getting to Wembley and I have no regrets,” he said.
Indeed events would prove him right and back in his native north he thrived over the next four years at Elland Road, scoring 44 times in 159 appearances before moving onto Oldham where he stayed for eight years and played a part in one of the club’s most successful periods.
His prolific goalscoring for the Latics meant by the time his playing career came to a close in 1999 he had registered 210 goals in 661 games, a tidy record by anyone’s standards.
Ritchie’s career as a manager never reached the same heights as his playing career – he’s had spells managing Oldham, Barnsley and Huddersfield – and his involvement now is as a pundit for BBC Radio Leeds and MUTV.
- Pictures from my scrapbook and Albion matchday programmes show Ritchie sporting Albion’s British Caledonian sponsored kit, breakfasting at home with his wife, two action images, a portrait in Oldham’s colours, and a montage of newspaper and magazine articles about the striker.