AT a time when Stoke City are crying out for a centre forward, a striker who truly knows where the back of the net is, how profoundly we feel the loss of the great John Ritchie who passed away on 23rd February at the age of 65. We reported in Issue 385 last season how Big John was suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and, sadly, it has brought to an end the life of one of the best players ever to pull on the red and white stripes of Stoke City FC.
In all, John Ritchie netted 171 competitive goals for The Potters, the most ever by a Stoke City player. And he achieved that historic feat in only 332 competitive starts – a ratio better than one goal in every two games, and all scored as a top flight player. It is a record we may never see beaten. No wonder the adoring support at the Victoria Ground called him “Leader”.
JOHN RITCHIE’S Stoke City story is a long and complex one, full of twists, turns, intrigues and glory. It is a story worth telling.
He was signed by manager Tony Waddington from non-league Kettering Town in 1963 for £2,500. That may not sound like a princely sum but for a young part-time player at the time it was a tidy price. The same fee had bought Stanley Matthews back to the Victoria Ground just two years earlier! He even took a pay cut to play for Stoke, because we couldn’t match what he earned both playing part time football for Kettering and working in a shoe factory!
The big 21 year-old forward arrived in the Potteries at the end of the successful 1962/63 season, as Stoke won the 2nd Division Championship and reclaimed their place back in the top flight after a ten year absence. With so many backlogged fixtures piling up following the big freeze of that winter, The Potters had many games to cram into a very short space of time and on their way to the title they gave the untried Ritchie three outings, spread out over 10 games. We didn’t win any of the games and he didn’t score. It was an inauspicious start and that may well have been the end of his Stoke career before it even got going.
With Peter Dobing brought into the club, and Jimmy McIlroy and Dennis Viollet on the books, we were not short of forward options. Stoke began life back in the top flight with John Ritchie not needed and kicking his heels in the reserves.
At about that time it is believed that the Oxford United manager, Stoke-born and ex-City player Arthur Turner, was interested in signing John Ritchie. He offered £2,000 but Stoke wanted their full £2,500 back and while the deal stalled fate intervened in a big way, a very big way.
Both Dennis Viollet and Jackie Mudie were suffering from injury problems and were unavailable for the away league game at Bolton Wanderers. John Ritchie, now 22, was drafted into the starting XI and netted twice as Stoke won a thriller 4-3. The proposed Oxford deal was immediately dead in the water and John Ritchie cemented his place not only in the Stoke City team, but in the hearts of the supporters as well by netting 19 goals in his first 15 games in top flight football. “The Leader” had arrived!
Thrilled with his start to the season, the Stoke chairman of the time offered Big John a new suit if he could finish the season with 30 goals and John Ritchie did just that – netting the 30th on the final day of the season in a superb 3-1 victory over Liverpool. What bonus would such a striker earn in today’s game with a scoring record like that in the Premiership?
That first incredible season was no fluke and Big John quickly followed it up with 29 more goals in 1964/65, which left him with an astonishing record of having netted 59 goals in his first 91 games for Stoke City. Even a more recent hero like Mark Stein could not match that scoring rate and, again, it was a record achieved against the very best teams in the country.
Goalscorers are a priceless commodity and you’d think that Stoke City would cherish and cling onto John Ritchie with every last ounce of energy they possessed. You’d think that, but then you’d be wrong. This is Stoke City we’re talking about here and in 1966, with his goalscoring record standing at an astonishing 81 goals from just 130 appearances, Stoke sold John Ritchie to Sheffield Wednesday for just £70,000. Mind you, it’s hardly surprising that The Owls should want him – he netted 9 goals in just 7 games against them! It was just unbelievable that Stoke should agree to such a bad, BAD deal!
Tony Waddington later admitted that it was a terrible mistake and the stupidity of the deal was rammed home in emphatic style as Stoke immediately began to struggle at the foot of the table. Big John promptly returned to the Victoria Ground to score for his new club as The Owls added to Stoke’s troubles with a 2-0 victory in front a Potters support still stunned by a deal that made no sense.It was later claimed that Tony Waddington had been handed medical evidence which suggested that Ritchie may have a heart problem and that they just cashed in while they could on a player who might soon be out of the game.
As it was though, John just carried on banging in the goals at Hillsborough and helped himself to a very healthy 45 in just 106 appearances. He never quite settled in Sheffield though and, just as amazingly as when Stoke let him go, Wednesday agreed to sell him back to The Potters at the start of the 1969/70 season for £25,000 and a Stoke support breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Fate had determined that Big John should arrive back at the Victoria Ground just as Tony Waddington’s patient and far-sighted policies were beginning to bear fruit. A Stoke side for the ages was being assembled and John Ritchie was going to be a big part of it as the club embarked on a run of seasons which will never be forgotten.
The local defence of four Potteries lads had melded into a formidable unit. Banksy was in his prime, Terry Conroy had developed into a precocious talent, Jimmy Greenhoff was showing what he was all about and John Ritchie was there to score the goals.
We reached the FA Cup semi-final in 1970/71 and Big John’s goals were a huge part of that achievement. He scored twice as Stoke fought back from 0-2 down at Boothferry Park to beat Hull City 3-2 and earn a semi-final place against Arsenal on his former stomping ground of Hillsborough. He netted our second goal as we went 2-0 up against The Gunners to come within a whisker of reaching the final at Wembley.It wasn’t to be, as a referee and Arsenal cheated us at the very death. Not many people know about the game but Stoke actually beat Everton 3-2 in the FA Cup 3rd/4th place play-off at Selhurst Park, on the night before the FA Cup Final, and John netted two in that game as well!
The following year John’s goals helped get us to Wembley for the League Cup Final. He netted the crucial last gasp winner in a 5th Round second replay against Man Utd at The Vic and then he scored the goal that saw Stoke win 1-0 at Upton Park in the semi-final, after we had looked dead and buried in the first leg. Everyone remembers Gordon Banks’ wonderful penalty save in that epic at Upton Park, but it was Big John’s chest down, control and volley that earned us the chance to take the game to a replay.
John Ritchie was a goalscorer plain and simple and everyone could see it. He was a guaranteed ‘goal every two games’ striker and the Stoke fans loved him for it, chanting “Leader, Leader…” as he continued to terrorise opposing defences even as he moved into his 30s.
In 1972/73 he bagged 16 goals in 34 games and he followed that up in 1973/74 by getting 15 in 31 starts. And it was towards the end of that 73/74 season that he wrote his name into Stoke City folklore with, quite simply, one of the greatest pieces of showmanship ever witnessed on a football field. With Big John getting on a little bit and injuries eating away at his fitness, Tony Waddington had tried to sign Chelsea striker Peter Osgood at the same time as he’d acquired Alan Hudson. Osgood went to Southampton instead and made some disparaging remarks about Ritchie being something of a carthorse as he did so.
Weeks later The Saints came to the Victoria Ground, with Osgood at centre-forward for them and Ritchie leading the line for Stoke. The match finished in a thumping 4-1 victory to The Potters and John Ritchie netted a superb hat-trick. For the third goal, Ritchie and Greenhoff sprang the Saints offside trap and when Greenhoff’s effort hit the post and stuck in the mud on the goal-line John Ritchie followed up, got down on his hands and knees and nodding the ball over the line to complete a hat-trick. Brilliant, just brilliant!
Time was fast running out for Big John though. At the start of the 1974/75 season he made his customary start and had 4 goals in his first 7 games, before a shocking challenge from Ipswich’s Kevin Beattie saw him suffer a dreadful double fracture. It was a terrible stroke of bad luck, for both the club and for Big John himself. The loss of his goals, and the failure to adequately replace him, probably cost Stoke City the Football League title that season. We fell just a few goals and four points short of achieving it and you have to feel a fit John Ritchie would have made all the difference.
For Big John himself though it proved to be an injury too far. He tried to fight his way back but at 34 and with physiotherapy back in those days not what it is now he lost the battle. He announced his retirement from the game and on 25th October 1975 the Stoke City team lined up, and the Victoria Ground stood, to say farewell to a great player. A man who had netted 171 goals in 332 games for The Potters. The club’s record goalscorer.
Those who saw him play will never forget the awesome player he was. Like all big centre forwards he could look a little clumsy at times but he could finish with the best of them, possessing a powerful shot to go with those thumping headers.
Those who met him spoke of his friendliness and his charm. He was a gentleman. He settled in Stoke-on-Trent and ran a successful business not a stone’s throw from the old Vic. He worked every bit as hard in his life after football as he did during his playing career. Even though he never got the testimonial he so richly deserved he kept a dignified silence and didn’t complain.
Last weeks’ one minute silence against Barnsley was so sad, not just because we had lost a wonderful ex-player but because we know deep down that we shall probably not see his like again in Stoke City colours.
Goodbye John and god bless!
This article appeared in Issue 418 of The Oatcake