Hearts fans studying St Mirren’s teamsheet recently might find themselves raising an eyebrow or two.
Whilst Tynecastle cult hero Marian Kello warms the substitutes’ bench, Mark Ridgers is enjoying an 11-game run as first-choice goalkeeper.
Ridgers is reaping the rewards of perseverance having once been third understudy to Kello at Hearts. The patience of a Saint is finally paying off.
The 24-year-old was cast aside when Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson took charge of the football department at Riccarton last May. Experienced mainstays like Jamie Hamill, Ryan Stevenson and Jamie MacDonald were also released. Ridgers felt dejected at the time but his recovery has been both gradual and remarkable since moving to Paisley.
He signed a two-year contract last June to stay in the Scottish Premiership and challenge Kello for St Mirren’s No.1 slot. Initially, he was a dugout regular and feared he was in a re-run of his situation in Edinburgh. It took him until November 22 to even make a debut but, since starting that day at Hamilton, the friendly Highlander has kept a vice-like grip of the goalkeeping position.
“I came here to play, that was one of the main aims because I thought I was ready to play regularly,” he told the Evening News. “It was always going to be difficult with Marian being there but I trusted myself. Paul Mathers, the goalie coach, had trust in my ability as well. A lot of people thought I wouldn’t play because of Marian. You have to remember Marian was at Hearts a few years ago now and he had been out of the game for a while [before joining St Mirren in 2013].
“It was an opportunity for me to test myself as well as push him. It was difficult not playing at first. I had plenty experience of the waiting around because I did that for a while at Hearts. I didn’t play many games there. The sharpness and match fitness levels weren’t right and it was hard to get consistency going when I was there. For the first few months at St Mirren, it was a case of working to get to a level I wanted and then push on from there.
“When I got the nod at Hamilton, I just wanted to prove I was ready to play at that level. Now I’ve played 11 games in a row. I’ve not done that since 2012 when I was on loan at East Fife. To play that amount of games one after the other has been really good.”
Saturday was Ridgers’ 11th consecutive appearance as St Mirren won for only the second time in 15 games to move off the bottom of the league. The morale-boosting 2-1 win came at the keeper’s formative club, Ross County, whom he left in 2007 for Hearts aged 16. The manager who signed him, Tommy Craig, has gone, with Gary Teale the interim replacement. Ridgers has remained first-choice, though.
“Saturday was a massive win for us. It’s the first time I’ve played a full game there since I left when I was 16. I’ve only ever sat on the bench before so it was nice,” he explained. “My family were there too. They don’t get down to see me much so it was great to get the result. We found ourselves playing an hour with ten men [after ex-County striker Yoann Arquin was sent off on his St Mirren debut] so to win is excellent. That gives us a wee boost and we want to push on from that result.
“Playing every week brings different pressures and as a goalkeeper you need that. Although I was in a relegation battle with Hearts last year, I wasn’t playing. Now I’m playing, the onus is on myself. There’s more pressure on me and it’s up to me to be able to handle it. Plus, I want to prove to myself that I can play at this level and handle it.
“I want to keep improving and hopefully keep St Mirren in the league.
“The manager, Tommy Craig, was talking about a change because of results. That’s how I got my chance. We were just trying to get a spark and I think the manager thought a change of goalkeeper might help. He’d always said to me that I’d get an opportunity if I kept training hard. I’d done a lot of stuff with Paul Mathers and he had a little bit of an input. I’ve obviously done enough to keep my place since Gary Teale took over.”
Provided St Mirren survive and Hearts see their promotion bid through successfully, Ridgers could find himself up against his former club next season. “Leaving Hearts was difficult,” he admitted. “At the end of the day, it wasn’t our decision for those who went. It was Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson. However, to be wanted by another team lets you see that they have faith in your ability. St Mirren’s interest was a boost to my self belief because it let me know I’d done enough over the course of my time at Hearts.
“The reason I joined Hearts was to improve as a player and I think that happened. I played for Hearts, which was a target of mine when I went there. I’ve managed to get Scotland Under-21 caps because of Hearts. I would’ve obviously liked to have played more games but that was out of my hands at the time. Being at St Mirren has been a massive boost. I’m now playing in a team week after week.
“[Playing against Hearts] would be nice, especially the way things have been. First and foremost it’s difficult to take your eye off what’s happening at St Mirren at the moment. We’re down near the bottom and there’s no hiding from it. It’s up to us to try and get ourselves out of it.”
Whatever happens over the coming weeks, Mark Ridgers will not lose patience. He knows the rich rewards it can bring.