MARK RIDGERS chose Hearts over Celtic at the tender age of 16 despite being promised he would train with the first team at Parkhead. Five years on, he doesn’t regret the decision in the slightest. The goalkeeper’s career is poised nicely at the end of the runway awaiting take-off as a result of what he considers “the best decision I’ve ever made”.
Now 21, Ridgers recently made a senior debut for Hearts as substitute for Jamie MacDonald against St Johnstone. He has Scotland Under-21 honours and will continue challenging MacDonald for the No. 1 position at Tynecastle. He couldn’t be happier, an emotion conveyed throughout a discussion on his past and his future prospects.
Selecting Riccarton over Lennoxtown was easy, according to Ridgers. Departing his formative club Ross County in 2007 just months after leaving school – and having played in their first team aged 15 – was a wrench. But with two of Scotland’s biggest clubs in pursuit, the Highlander was destined for the bright lights of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Hearts won the race, and Ridgers vividly recalls the day his life changed forever.
“I got called into the director of football’s office. It was George Adams at the time and he just said ‘you’re going away for a week, down to Edinburgh’. I said: ‘What do you mean?’ He replied: ‘Hearts have come in for you, they’re interested.’ So I came down and trained for a week with Darren Murray and the under-19s and I enjoyed it. All the boys were brilliant.
“I’d been down to train with Celtic and, at that point, they came back in for me. I was happy at Hearts and they’d offered to take me to Bulgaria with the under-19s on an end-of-season trip. I enjoyed Hearts more than I enjoyed Celtic so I went on the trip. Celtic invited me back again and said I’d train with the first team, obviously trying to induce me. But by then I’d decided to go to Bulgaria. After that, they realised I was going to sign for Hearts.
“When I got back we discussed contracts and I signed. My mind was made up. Celtic is a massive club, but Hearts talked right to me. I was linked with a few clubs towards the end of that season and I chose Hearts because this was where I felt most comfortable. Jim Stewart was the goalkeeping coach at the time and Craig Gordon was here as well. For a young Scottish keeper, that was a big thing.
“Jim Stewart wanted me to sign for Hearts and he was the Scotland national team goalie coach. That gave me a lot of belief and working with Craig Gordon and Steve Banks helped develop my career massively. I knew Hearts had a history of producing great goalkeepers. One day, I’d like to be mentioned alongside these guys.”
There was also a potential move to France to consider. “An old Ross County player, Karim Boukraa, was working as an agent and me and another player were meant to go Le Havre to train at their academy,” explained Ridgers. “Then Le Havre changed their manager and it got delayed. That would have been an experience, too, but I chose Hearts and it is the best decision I’ve ever made.”
He is now reaping the dividends of that choice and the subsequent five years of patience. Two loan spells at East Fife and one at Airdrie United accorded him necessary first-team experience. His recent breakthrough was accelerated by Marian Kello’s banishment from the Hearts first team, but Ridgers always expected a waiting game.
“I’ve always had that mindset,” he continued. “My older brother [Ally] was a keeper and he drummed it into me to be patient. He was No. 2 for Inverness in the SPL when Michael Fraser was in goal. He was on the bench the whole time and never got a shot.
“He has been joking with me now that I’ve played 45 minutes more SPL football than he ever did. He is back playing in the Highland League now.
“You sign for a team to play in their first team. Being out on loan was my learning process. I’m lucky enough to be playing for Scotland Under-21s and that helps with confidence. It was just a case of waiting. Jamie was unfortunate getting injured the other week, but, for me, it was a chance to taste the SPL.
“That’s where I want to play. It’s made me more hungry to push on and challenge Jamie. One day I want to be number one. I’m happy to wait. I’m happy to develop. I’m happy to learn. But when that chance comes, I hope to grab it.”
Fuelling his desire is none other than John Robertson, pictured right, a man who knows a thing or two about succeeding with Hearts. He took Ridgers to East Fife earlier this season and assumed the role of mentor to the young goalkeeper.
“I’m not going to lie, Robbo has been a massive help. He instilled a huge amount of confidence in me,” said Ridgers. “I know him personally because he lives in Inverness and I’m from Inverness. His man-management at East Fife was brilliant for me. He instilled belief in me that wasn’t there before. He’s such a high-profile figure in Scottish football and obviously the guy’s a legend at Hearts. He was key to my progress. When I first went to East Fife, their player of the year was their goalkeeper [Michael Brown]. Straight away, Robbo told me I needed competition because competition would push me on. He said we could see how pre-season went and that I could start off as No. 1. He stuck to his word and the season started well. If something went wrong in a game, he sat me down and explained it.
“He was just brilliant. He lifted me and told me the world was my oyster. It’s nice to have that respect from someone.
“I’ll definitely go back to him for advice. He’s been there and done it all. He’s one of these people in football that I can always talk to and he is happy to help. He said I’ve to give him a call if I ever need anything. It’s good to have these people because you never know what’s going to happen in football. You get high points, but there are so many downs. It’s nice to have someone in such high regard as Robbo to fall back on.”