It’s probably one of football’s least likely journeys, but when goalkeeper Evan Alexandrow-Ridley kitted up for Lithuania for an under-21 international match against Latvia in Jelgava it completed a remarkable story. And, even though he ended up on the wrong side of the ledger, Latvia won 2-0 in a fiercely typical Baltic derby, Alexandrow-Ridley still felt immense pride in an unusual achievement.
“As a young player from Canberra, I went through the ACT Academy of Sport program while also later spending time with the AIS,” Alexandrow-Ridley said. “Prior to coming to Lithuania to play, I'd spent about a year playing in England with Fulham at under-18 and briefly with the U21s. With things not working out there for various reasons, I returned back home to Canberra, where I played for Woden Valley FC in the PS4 NPL for a short while before moving to Melbourne to play with Hume City FC in the NPL Victoria.”
All fairly normal so far you may be thinking. But just how did a Canberran lad, he moved to the national capital when he was fourteen, end up pulling on the national shirt for the former Soviet-bloc nation? Alexandrow-Ridley reveals how it happened.
“While contemplating my next move, it made a lot of sense to try and come to Lithuania to play and try and get some first team football. Lithuania is the birth country of my grandmother, enabling me to have dual citizenship,” Alexandrow-Ridley explained. “With foreigner rules often making it tough for young goalkeepers to get a foot in the door at playing first team football, I decided to try and get a move to Lithuania as I'm considered a local player. While playing for Hume City FC at the start of the 2014 season, I eventually received an offer to move to one of Lithuania's biggest and most successful clubs FK Ekranas.”
Signing for the seven times national champions was a major step-up for the young stopper but it wasn’t just on the pitch that he had to acclimatise to a differing environment.
“There are so many differences between playing here and Australia,” Alexandrow-Ridley commented. “Living away from home on the other side of the world, playing with players from literally all over the world, languages barriers, completely different customs, very different training styles and training loads and even the way clubs operate are all so different. To me though, the biggest difference and challenge is the mental side.
“When things aren't going right you don't have anyone to pick you up, you don't have anyone to just say bad luck mate, and you’ll do better next time. It's far more cut throat, and weather you think its right or wrong, one bad game can mean you're out of the squad. Every day is a challenge and you've got to perform every single day. Being mentally strong also means only concentrating on the things you can control, which isn't always easy when it’s minus 15 degrees, snowing and you're playing a preseason game in Latvia on what seems like an old synthetic stadium straight out of the Soviet Union. Moments like this make you realise just how far from home you really are, and it can be unbelievably overwhelming if you let it.”
After FK Ekranas folded in 2014, Alexandrow-Ridley moved to neighbouring A Lyga [Lithuanian Premier League] club FC Stumbras, a club only founded in 2013 but who had raced up the Lithuanian football pyramid to the top tier. And it was while at the club that Alexandrow-Ridley was handed his international chance.
“The call up to the U21 National Team was quite a surprise really,” he said. “I knew I was eligible to play for Lithuania, however it's not something I'd thought about too much as Lithuania has a very good stock of goalkeepers playing for some massive clubs in Europe.
The goalkeeper coach who signed me at my current club then moved to work with the National team set up when our new owners took over the club, and thankfully I did well enough while working with him for him to recommend me to be selected in the squad and play.
It's an incredibly special moment to be standing there singing the national anthem, representing a whole country. It's something I'd not experienced before so it gave me a lot of pride and I feel incredibly privileged to of been able to do so. Unfortunately it was quite a bitter sweet day for me personally, when a collision with the opposition striker left me with a broken finger. It also wasn't a favourable day for the team either, losing 2-0 to Latvia, meaning we didn't win the Baltic Cup.”
So what next in the career path of Alexandrow-Ridley? Woden Valley, Hume City, Fulham, FK Ekranas, FC Stumbras and the Lithuanian national team is an eclectic mix of teams to have played for. And there’s the busted finger to overcome as well, of course!
“My main goal right now is to get back fully fit and get playing again after the injury,” Alexandrow-Ridley confirmed. “We have some more big European Championship Qualifiers coming up later in the year, and I know to be involved in that I need to be playing regularly. Now the transfer window is open and I've only got six months left on my contract, I definitely won't rule a move elsewhere out.
“Whether that's to another Lithuanian A Lyga club or elsewhere in Europe, only time will tell. There has been contact from some A-League club's back home, and that is something I'd consider also. Within the next few years, I strongly want to play in a higher league in Europe and that is the clear end goal that I'm working towards. In regards to international football, I’ve no doubt not shut the door to playing for Australia, if they were to come calling. I'm not locked into either nation still, and after getting a taste of international football, it’s something I want a lot more of. But right now, my full attention is to get back into full training, get back to working hard and let the rest of it sort it's self out.”
It may be an unusual career path but it’s one that shows no sign of slowing down and the story for the Australian-Lithuanian custodian from Canberra is really only just beginning.