Leon Wobschall spoke to former Leeds United midfielder Matthew Jones, a player who had a short but sweet life in the footballing limelight at Elland Road.
LIVING in an idyllic home with his wife and young family in his native South Wales, with a burgeoning property portfolio and productive media career keeping him busy, Matt Jones is entitled to feel happy with his lot.
The former Leeds United midfielder, financially secure for the rest of his life despite being just 31, has a lifestyle many would envy, although anyone assuming it’s all been sunshine and roses for the Welshman couldn’t be further away from the truth.
Jones was forced to retire from professional football at the tender age of 23, in June 2004 after numerous operations failed to remedy serious back and knee problems, with everything he had dreamed for as a young boy cruelly taken away.
On the footballing scrapheap at a time when most players aren’t even approaching their prime, the Llanelli-born star, who had left United for Leicester City in a £3.25m move in December 2000, endured some truly dark moments before a lifeline was thrown to him in the 24-7 world of football’s broadcast media, which has snowballed massively in the past decade.
And while in a perfect world you sense he’d still like to be out there in the middle, time has proved a great healer.
Jones, a well-known face on BBC Wales while also appearing regularly on other outlets such as Sky Sports, said: “When I first retired, like any player, I plunged straight into depression. It took a while for me to deal with that, but what helped was just throwing myself into broadcasting.
“I did a lot of media work and punditry, although it was frustrating thinking ‘I’m only 24, I should be out there playing on the park and maybe doing a better job’.
“At the time I was at Leicester, there were a number of players who were very disrespectful to themselves and the game as well. Even that knocked me for six. I’d think ‘How can these players not give 100 per cent, go out drinking every weekend’ when I did the best I could as a professional?
“But the media has been a weaning process helping me deal with retirement. I still have that profile, and while players wouldn’t admit it, you do like the attention. It’s competitive and you want to be the best, like any profession.”
Reflecting back on the hammer blow of retirement, Jones recalled: “I was bed-bound for the first four months at home downstairs (following operations) and couldn’t really move. It was a very low point in my life.
“I wouldn’t say the surgeons were negative, but they were quite realistic and told me how difficult it would be to get back to playing at any level competitively.
“Before surgery, you are being told anything could happen and that you could come out in a wheelchair. That’s when it hits home.
“I didn’t have children at the time, but you do think ‘In a few years time, I might not be able to pick up my children and play with them in the garden’. It’s little things like that which make up your mind.
“Thankfully, I made sure all my contracts I signed had medical insurance and through the pay-out I became a millionaire overnight (when I retired). I remember thinking ‘Jesus Christ, it’s not all that bad!’. I can laugh at it now but, at the time, money wasn’t an issue.
“I’ve always been sensible and took up a lot of medium-risk investments and bought lots of properties. I just thought ‘I’m going to go for it’. I’ve built up a fantastic portfolio after being advised by the right people. I have now got three adorable children and just want to set up their future. I do pinch myself every day and feel very lucky.”
While Jones’ career was pretty much over before it had really begun, the former Wales international, capped 13 times by his country, achieved plenty in the short time he was in the limelight.
He played in blue-riband competitions and stadiums most lower-league professionals would give their right arm for.
Premier League, Champions League, Uefa Cup, FA Youth Cup final....Not bad for a lad from South Wales who first arrived at Elland Road as a 12-year-old, with the list of contempories he played with as a youngster at United reading like a Who’s Who of English football. Harry Kewell, Jonathan Woodgate, Paul Robinson and Alan Smith to name but a few.
Small wonder his time with the Whites has always remained a cherished part of his life, despite being sold at the age of just 20 to Leicester.
Jones, who made his United first-team debut as a substitute in the 5-1 FA Cup win at Portsmouth in January 1999, said: “In the short career I had, I pretty much ticked every box. Although I didn’t quite manage the World Cup with Wales, mind! But I can’t complain really.
“My time at Leeds will always be special. A lot of the lads had been with the academy since the age of eight, nine or 10 and at first I was a bit behind at 12 when I got there. But it was easy to fit in.
“The best memories I’ve had in my life so far – I’m only 31 – were just growing up as a young boy involved in an academy. Twenty-six of us stayed in the hostel, Harry Kewell from Australia, Alan Maybury from Ireland, even Nicky Byrne from Westlife. I made some fantastic friends and am still close to Stephen McPhail, who is at Cardiff.
“Leeds was pretty much my upbringing and what turned me into a man. I learned about being disciplined from Paul Hart and Eddie Gray and going there was the best thing that could have happened to me.
“People ask about my achievements in football and I always have to mention the FA Youth Cup final (in 1996-97). For me to get the winner in Leeds with a diving header (Leeds won 2-1 and triumphed 1-0 in the second leg) was fantastic.
“We won the Pontins League as well (in 1998-99) and while being ambitious to play football, we were willing to listen and look at all the lads who went on to make it.
“Playing in the first team was unbelievable. I looked up to David Batty for years as a young boy and to actually play with him was a dream come true.
“People still walk down the street and mention the game at Elland Road against Manchester United where I think we drew 1-1 (in April 1999) and I was at right-back marking (Jesper) Blomqvist, so that game sticks out. I always thought I’d be marking my Wales team-mate Ryan Giggs, which would have been a massive thing, so it was a bit of a blow Blomqvist was playing. Although someone has since said that after 20 minutes he’d got passed me a few times and I punched the floor in anger!
“And how can you ever forget going to places like the Bernabeu? Even though I didn’t play when we were there, just being on the pitch at half-time, warming-up and looking around was unbelievable.
“I also remember the Galatasaray game, which was a massive one, but at the same time after what happened before with the two Leeds fans, it put a huge dampener on it.”
While his playing days have long since been over, Jones is currently clocking up the miles just as he did as an industrious midfielder, in a series of fundraising challenges in memory of tragic Whites hero Gary Speed.
Like the rest of the footballing world, Jones was stunned at the news of his compatriot and great friend’s untimely death in November and in a bid to commemorate the life of Speed, he subsequently decided to organise a host of charity tasks to help raise money for the ex-Wales manager’s favoured charities.
Jones, who has set himself a target of tackling four half-marathons and two full marathons in 2012 – not to mention a 13,000ft skydive – said: “The contribution that Gary made to my personal life as well as my career was absolutely fantastic. He was a role model and mentor for me, but more importantly a friend, someone I could ring up and have a chat with. He meant the world to me, having met him as a young lad coming up to Leeds.
“We had a similar type of background and coming from Wales, we just bonded straightaway.
“We had a long friendship and, like everyone else, I was massively surprised (at news of his death). I’d never been used to a lot of grief in my life, but what I do know when I get anger and frustration in me, the way to deal with that is get some good energy in me and channel it. I thought I’d turn all this negativity into a positive and do something good for him.
“Gary did the London Marathon in 2010 and I’ll be doing that this year. It will be competitive; I know it’s a silly thing, but I’ll have to make sure I beat his time!”