YOU almost need to peel Mark Ridgers off the ceiling of the Scotland Under-21 team hotel in order to interview him. It’s been that kind of season. He is high as a kite and doesn’t care who knows it.
Tonight in Lovech, Bulgaria, the Hearts goalkeeper aims to help Scotland collect three points and take another step closer to the 2013 European Under-21 Championship. At the end of a campaign in which he reached the League Cup quarter-finals with East Fife, made his Hearts debut, established himself at international level and claimed a Scottish Cup winner’s medal, it would be yet another thrill.
Ridgers is an articulate talker but even he is running out of adjectives for season 2011/12. He started it as Hearts’ fourth-choice keeper and was on the periphery of the Under-21 squad. Now he is Jamie MacDonald’s deputy and kept goal in the previous two Under-21 internationals, recording a clean sheet against the Netherlands in his last outing. Little wonder he is so ecstatic.
“A win tonight would just top everything off for me,” Ridgers told the Evening News. “It’s been an unbelievable season. A year ago I couldn’t have dreamed this. I began the season fourth choice at Hearts and virtually third choice with the Under-21s. I went to East Fife and we had that great League Cup run, including that night in Aberdeen which was huge for myself (he saved three penalties as East Fife won their third-round tie at Pittodrie 4-3 on spot-kicks).
“I got my chance to play for Scotland Under-21s against Holland and hopefully I’ve cemented the No. 1 place. At Hearts, I’ve made my debut having been on the bench a lot and then the icing on the cake was the cup final. Winning tonight would put the cherry on the cake. This is what dreams are made of.
“People say you never know what’s going to happen in football. The next person who tells me that, I’ll be able to say I know exactly what they’re talking about. Seriously, I’m up in the clouds. It’s a fantastic feeling. I’ve got a Scottish Cup winner’s medal at 21. I’d never have imagined that. I met up with the under-21 boys last Monday for a couple of days’ training and everyone was congratulating me. People were posting pictures on the internet and talking about it and that keeps it all in your mind. The whole day was phenomenal.”
Although most of his Hearts team-mates are now on holiday, Ridgers is perfectly content being sent to northern Bulgaria for a vital qualifier on the last day of May. His international aspirations are as strong as anyone’s.
“It’s really pleasing for me to keep being selected for Scotland Under-21s, even though I’m not playing regularly for Hearts,” he continued. “Being at East Fife helped me get a lot of games during the first half of the season. My one-and-a-half games for Hearts against St Johnstone was a massive bonus. I wanted to get my debut out of the way, then my home debut out of the way, and I’ve managed to do that. It’s been huge for my confidence.
“This is what I want to do. I want to play for my country. When you get involved in international football, you have to accept that games come around at different times of the season. I’m happy to play for Scotland even though a lot of my team-mates are on the beach right now. I’m sure a lot of them would swap that for the chance to play for their country.”
Marius Zaliukas wouldn’t – he withdrew from the Lithuania squad by fax last week – but that’s a different story.
Ridgers’ season continues, and he has a fight on his hands this evening. He is by no means certain to start against Bulgaria with Rangers’ Grant Adam and Jordan Archer of Tottenham Hotspur competing for his place. Keeping the Dutch at bay in his last outing is his big advantage with coach Billy Stark.
“I feel I’ve done all right in the last couple of games I’ve played, so hopefully that’s enough to keep my spot,” said the Highlander. “I can only work as hard as possible in training. Whatever Billy chooses, I’m sure it will be the right decision. If it’s me, I’ll be delighted but we’ll need to wait and see. A lot of people are looking at the Under-21s now. The Holland game really put us on the map because not many people thought we could win over there. We beat them 2-1 then we drew 0-0 at home. That has raised our profiles a bit. A good result would be a massive boost for the country considering the poor result for the senior team in America.
“If you do well in the Under-21s you can be called up. We’ve seen Jordan Rhodes and Johnny Russell involved with the senior squad, so I think a lot of the Under-21s realise there is a chance of pushing into the full squad.
“The boys are seeing that, if you’re performing for your club every week and doing well for the 21s, you’re going to get promoted. That’s spurring us on.”
Scotland will usurp the Dutch and move top of qualifying group ten with only two games remaining should they win tonight. The prospect of reaching next summer’s finals in Israel is a huge carrot for the Under-21s. “This is a big game because we have that chance to go top of the group,” said Ridgers.
“Getting four points from Holland is a massive boost for us going into the Bulgaria game. We know that, if we’re positive, we can get a good result and stay close to qualifying.
“We drew 0-0 with Bulgaria at St Mirren Park in September. We’ve done a lot of video analysis on them because they aren’t that big a team compared with a country like Holland. They are a bit of an unknown quantity but they’re only one point behind us in the group. If they beat us they can go top. They’ve kept up the pressure on ourselves and Holland and they have a decent chance of qualifying. If we win, we create a nice cushion between ourselves and Bulgaria.”
Ridgers himself could use a cushion for landing when he comes down from his emotional high. As yet, there’s no sign of that happening.