EARLY on Sunday morning, Mark Ridgers received a surprise mobile call from his Hearts goalkeeping colleague, Jamie MacDonald. “All the best,” said the weak-sounding voice on the other end of the phone. It was Ridgers’ first inclination that his home debut was upon him, and nerves immediately set in.
MacDonald’s illness ruled him out from the match with St Johnstone and left Ridgers to deputise for the day. The 21-year-old went on to record a clean sheet in a 2-0 victory on his maiden appearance at Tynecastle, and looked the epitome of relief afterwards.
His only previous outing for Hearts was against the Perth club at McDiarmid Park in March, when MacDonald retired through injury at half-time. Short on experience he may be, but the hulking Highlander isn’t lacking confidence.
Ridgers openly admits to “a few ropey moments” early in Sunday’s match but welcomes them as an essential part of his learning curve. After loan periods at East Fife (twice) and Airdrie United, he aspires to challenge MacDonald for the goalkeeping position at Hearts next season. He’s already proved he can handle the unexpected.
“I knew Jamie had been struggling and even on Saturday he looked like death, to be fair,” explained Ridgers. “He trained through it but then he called me on Sunday morning and just said, ‘all the best’. I was like, ‘what you talking about?’ He said he’d been sick that morning and couldn’t play.
“Over the previous few days I’d got my head ready that I might have a chance. With Jamie not being 100 per cent, there was always going to be a chance. Coming on up at St Johnstone was my first time playing for Hearts. I said it would be nice if I got a start but, with the situation in the league and us pushing to finish higher, I knew the manager wasn’t going to change it. Now it’s great to get an opportunity, especially at Tynecastle. Sunday was the first time I’d ever played there and the fans were brilliant.
“At the beginning I was nervous, I’m not going to lie. There were a few ropey moments. I went up for a cross ball that I should never have come for and there were one or two kicks. I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t nervous. There was a big crowd out there and it was my first start. As the game went on and the more touches of the ball I got, I became a bit more confident. I’d played in big games before for Scotland, but even with Scotland I get nervous.”
Ridgers overcame the early anxieties and grew stronger as the match progressed. He knows he benefited from a stroke of good fortune in the first half when challenging Cillian Sheridan for a high ball which he failed to touch. “My heart was in my mouth and it’s strange because that’s the confidence I have in myself at cross balls. I feel I can come out and take them. I’m a big lad.
“What happened was the ball never came to where I wanted it but I got away with it. When it doesn’t go right for you, everyone is asking you what you’re doing. That was one that fell for me and it turned out to be a perfect day.
“I think even most experienced players will get nervous. It’s just nature. You’ve got all these eyes on you. Having made a big mistake with Scotland Under-21s this season, you know you do come under a lot of pressure. As a goalkeeper, you make one mistake and you’re generally going to lose a goal. When a goal goes in, the first person you look at is the goalkeeper. That’s something I need to channel. The more experience I get will help to settle it down. Hopefully one day the nerves might disappear.”
It is refreshing to hear Ridgers speak so candidly about that error on international duty. Last November, on his Scotland Under-21 debut against Holland, he palmed a high free-kick from Adam Maher downwards and the ball was adjudged to have crossed the goal line before he caught it again.
Even though Scotland won that European Under-21 Championship qualifier 2-1, it was an error which might have destroyed others. Ridgers doesn’t appear to harbour any hang-ups. He moved on almost instantly, which is a testament of his self-belief.
“Everyone makes a mistake and in that case it was me trying to do the right thing at the wrong time. When the ball came in I should’ve just touched it over the bar. That’s one thing I’ll definitely do next time. But it’s helped me as a character. You realise that, once it’s done, it’s done. Dealing with the next thing is the most important.
“As soon as it happened I thought it wasn’t a goal so I was a bit annoyed at that. I wasn’t really thinking of the mistake. The ref wasn’t going to change his mind so I knew it was a big game for us and I knew I needed to do the best I could to keep Holland out.
“I think it made it easier because we won. If we’d lost, a lot of it (criticism) would’ve come. It would have been a lot harder. Other people might forget it but I’ll never forget it because it was a learning point for me and that’s what I’m here to do is learn. No matter how old I get, I’m just going to continue learning and, hopefully, improving.
“Playing against Holland twice and in the Italy game were big games, but Sunday was completely different. Playing for your country you feel more relaxed. At Hearts, your team-mates are all full international players and they help massively. Webby, Danny Grainger, Zaliukas and even Ryan McGowan helped me massively, just telling me to take my time.”
The pressure on Ridgers paled somewhat compared to the attention surrounding the St Johnstone substitute Derek Riordan. The former Hibs striker entered the fray in the second half and was subjected to a barrage of abuse from the home support. “I felt sorry for him, to be fair,” admitted Ridgers.
“It’s that atmosphere I want to play in. The reason you play football is to play in stadiums like Tynecastle in front of big crowds. When Riordan came on it was a wee bit hostile. I’m sure he wouldn’t feel sorry for any Hearts player though.”
After his clean sheet, Ridgers has already identified his next target – to push MacDonald hard during pre-season training and hope to begin the new campaign as Hearts’ first-choice goalkeeper.
“Every game, a clean sheet is the first thing you look for. Sometimes it won’t happen because you get beaten by deflections or wonder goals or mistakes. I’ve got a game now and I’m looking to push on. When Jamie comes back he’ll play again, so I’ll enjoy myself in the summer then come back to push Jamie next year.
“In Jamie’s first game back in the team he was a wee bit ropey and he admitted that. These things can happen if you don’t play for a while. I was fortunate to be at East Fife during the first half of the season and play in big games like the League Cup quarter-finals. You can see with Jamie, the more games he’s played, the better he’s become. Confidence comes back and that’s key.
“I wouldn’t have signed a new contract if I didn’t think I had a chance to play for Hearts. For me, Jamie is number one at the moment. But come the start of pre-season, anything can happen. We don’t know the future of the manager yet but he’s said to me to push Jamie all the way.”
Before then, what if MacDonald rings on the morning on the 19th with another illness? “I might be feeling a little bit more nervous if that happens,” laughed Ridgers.