Born in Johannesburg in October 1986 to parents originally from the North East of England, before moving to Newcastle as an eleven year old and then returning to South Africa for five years in his mid-twenties, Matty Pattison sounded exactly as I imagined. His Geordie-South African hybrid accent flickering from one region to the other, depending on the subject, throughout our hour-long phone call.
On paper, his was an interesting story and one that I wanted to focus purely on him. Too often with ex-teammates of stellar names, the interviewee almost becomes secondary to their storytelling about the stars and the chance is missed to delve deep into the personal journey of the person right in front of you. I wasn't interested in his memories of Michael Owen or Alan Shearer - I wanted to know more about a career that was almost over before it began and yet reached the highs of Premier League and International football.
Matty started playing football in South Africa at a young age for his local club. With his parents being from Newcastle, he grew up supporting United and his Dad, in particular, was a huge fan.
"There was loads of coverage of the Premier League in South Africa so we watched it religiously. The first time I’d ever been over to Newcastle was the Christmas period in 1997 for a four-week holiday to see family, which was great. We went to a Champions League game while we were over (a 2-0 win over Dinamo Kiev) and it was incredible. The only live game I’d been to before that was an Africa Cup of Nations semi-final back home so it was totally different – the stadium, the crowd, the noise, the atmosphere. There’s passion in South Africa but a different kind of passion so it was an incredible experience."
His parents decided to move back to Newcastle permanently in August 1998 and Matty remembers it being a no-brainer for him, "When we decided we were moving permanently, I couldn’t wait. It was a massive culture shock and the weather was a bit of a change but I got used to it fairly quickly. It was an ideal time as I was about to transition to secondary school so everyone was making that jump to a new part of their lives anyway."
Matty started playing local football immediately and played for Redheugh Boys for two years before moving to Newcastle United's academy as an under-13 player, although the transition didn't go particularly smoothly at first.
"It took me a little while to get up to speed, to be honest, because a lot of the academy players had already been together for years – since they were 8 or 9 years old. I’d only played two years local football so it probably took me around a year to get used to it and catch up with them. Once I found my feet, though, I started to do really well and started to get opportunities with the years above my age group. I went on tour to Australia, China and Hong Kong with the under-19 and under-18 group and I hadn’t even left school yet, so that was massive for me. It was Kenny Wharton and Peter Beardsley who took us over there and they really liked me so pushed me on and that helped me progress. Brian Eastick came in as Academy Director after Kenny and Peter and he was a fantastic coach, who developed me loads as a player."
This fast-tracking through the academy continued for Matty, who was very much identified as a prospect by those at the club during those early years. It didn't take long for him to be given his first team debut in a pre-season game at Celtic in August 2004, as a seventeen-year-old.
"I’d only trained with the first team for one day on the Monday - Sir Bobby was the manager and we’d done this four team round robin in training. I went back home and had a call from Brian to say, "The manager wants you to go with the first team for the game at Celtic!" So that was obviously a massive thing for me, being that young. I was going into my second year as a YT and ended up getting twenty minutes at the end of the game, playing with the likes of Shearer, Bellamy, Kluivert, Dyer, Milner and it was such a great experience for me.
I played pretty well and everything pointed towards them keeping me up there and me becoming a full-time member of the first team squad. It was almost a case of bypassing the normal route really, as I skipped reserve team and had gone from academy to first team. At that time in my life I lived and breathed football as I hadn’t found the social side of life and was very dedicated. My focus was purely on the football side and I worked really hard and did very well at youth level – I was definitely thought of as a bit of a prospect and moved up quickly."
Just as this hard work and focus was paying dividends, with recognition and promotion through the different levels of the club, disaster struck.
"It was literally the following week, after the Celtic game, that I had a freak training ground injury and ruptured my ACL and that was that. I was sent back down to the academy to do my rehabilitation because Derek Wright and Paul Ferris had so much to deal with in terms of injuries with the first team. It felt like going into the darkness, into the shade away from everything to do that rehab back at the academy, after tasting the first team.
At the time, I thought I’d maybe strained a ligament so I got a shock when the surgeon talked me through the scan results and gave me the prognosis and timeline of the rehab. I hadn’t signed a professional contract yet and was still on YT forms so to be told I’d be out for nine months was a huge shock and a worry for me. It certainly caused a lot of uncertainty, losing that full second year of YT, not knowing who the manager might be when I came back from injury, whether they’d want me. Yeah, it was a worrying time."
After a long and lonely nine months of gym work and rehab, which Matty admits tested him mentally as much as physically, he returned to action with a substitute appearance for the academy.
"I came on for about twenty minutes in a game and it felt fine, so I was pleased with that but didn't expect to be starting any time soon. I’d been back training with the squad for around two months, doing non-contact stuff only. We had this playoff game coming up in the academy league away at Coventry and Kenny started me. I was really surprised but was so happy to be back and, with not playing for so long, I was running around like a man possessed, wanting to impose myself on the game. I was flying into tackles, ended up clashing heads and needing patched up, I was all over the place. Then in the second half, I lunged into a challenge and just felt my knee go. I knew this time straight away what I’d done.
When I first saw the surgeon, he wasn’t so sure it was my ACL. He’d had a feel of it and wasn’t convinced but there was a lot of swelling so it was hard to assess properly. Anyway, I woke up from surgery and he confirmed that it had been the ACL again and that I’d be out for another 7-8 months. I’m not an emotional person but I got really upset, driving back with my Mother from the surgeon, thinking about what was ahead of me again.
I still hadn’t signed a professional contract at this point. Sir Bobby had lost his job and Graeme Souness had came in and made Glenn Roeder the Academy Director. When Glenn came, he’d never met me before but pulled me in and said, "Listen, I’ve spoken with a lot of people and they’ve said good things about you. The kind of things I want to hear. So when you come back and you prove that the knee will hold up, there will be a professional contract for you." Hearing that was like the weight of the world being lifted from my shoulders. For him to do that, having never met me, was incredible. It made me want to run through brick walls for him, from that very first conversation. I've had a bond with the man ever since."
I wondered whether, as a young prospect, not yet signed to a professional contract, to complete a season-long rehab from an injury and then do the same injury almost immediately, led to doubts about his career and what (or who) kept him going through such a difficult period at a young age.
"The first rehab, a lot had happened in my life. I lost my Father to cancer around that period and, honestly, it was all a bit of a blur as there was so much going on. Because it was new to me – the injury – I just plugged on and worked on myself in the gym. I worked with Kev Bell – he was different class – and made myself so much stronger. The second rehab, knowing what was ahead, was so much tougher mentally. Trying to get myself back in that frame of mind to work back to fitness from scratch was really tough and knowing how many lonely hours, away from the lads and away from the football pitch were ahead of me.
Yeah, it was really hard but that conversation with Glenn and knowing that a professional contract was waiting for me, I knew I had to work hard and get the knee right and strong. It gave me the drive to get through it, physically and mentally. If it hadn’t been for him saying that, I’d have had doubts about my career. Another person could have easily said we can’t take a gamble on someone who’s had two injuries like this already. So his assurances meant everything to me."
Thankfully, that was the end of Matty's knee problems and as soon as he was back fully fit and had a run of games, he moved up to work with the first team with Graeme Souness and Dean Saunders.
"I loved working with them and in that squad. I was full-time with the first team so got that experience again but I knew I was never likely to get involved with the matchday squads because, at the time, they had such good players ahead of me. Certainly, at least on paper, it was the best Newcastle squad that I was ever part of and there were quality options ahead of me in the midfield, although the squad had a lot of injuries around that period so they never all seemed to be fit at the same time. Knowing I wasn’t going to get a sniff was pretty frustrating but then Graeme lost his job and Glenn was moved up from the academy and I knew straight away with that happening, combined with the injury crisis, that I had an opportunity."
Matty's relationship with Glenn from that first conversation about his contract and then on through his rehabilitation with the academy had shown that he was willing to put a lot of faith in him before and followed this up by giving him his first team opportunity.
“I got opportunities with Glenn that I don't think I'd have got, had Graeme stayed at the club. Straight away, Glenn had me in the squads and started giving me little sniffs here and there. He gave me a couple of minutes off the bench against Everton at St. James’ Park in February 2006 and that was my taster and then within a couple of months I started my first game (a 3-0 home win against West Brom in April 2006).
It was totally unexpected – I had no inkling that I was going to start against West Brom and Glenn pulled me to one side at around 1:45pm and said, “What do you think I’m going to say to you?” I thought I was going to be on the bench but he said I was starting. I think it was great what he did because it didn’t allow me the time to overthink it or get nervous about it, like if I’d slept on it. I did really well in the game (he was awarded man of the match) and I became a real part of the squad. It was such a good time for me because the coaches were all people I’d worked with and who liked me as a person and a player, so I was in a good space. I was a first team player and really felt like it for the first time in my career."
Despite Newcastle's midfield options in the 2006-07 season including the likes of Emre, Dyer, Milner, Parker and Butt, Matty would go on to make twelve appearances that season, including seven in the Premier League, before Glenn Roeder was dismissed in May 2007.
"I could have done better in the games, to be honest. I thought a lot of the time I was just okay and could have imposed myself on games a bit more but it is what it is. Unfortunately we didn’t have a great season and Glenn lost his job and straight away when Sam (Allardyce) came in I got the vibe that I wasn’t going to be in his plans. I was on the bench a couple of times but never looked like getting on so it became a case of me starting to think about moving elsewhere to get regular football."
Glenn Roeder was at Norwich City by this point and Lee Clark was also there as his Assistant Manager. Norwich were bottom of The Championship and Glenn got in touch with Newcastle to try and take Matty on loan.
"It was a no-brainer for me to follow Glenn and Clarky and to play football and I moved down the next day on loan for a couple of months initially but then made the move permanent in the January on a three-and-a-half year deal. It was a new experience moving away to a new city but I needed regular football. I spent two seasons there and played a lot of games – something that was important, given the injuries, and at this stage of my career.
I really enjoyed my time at Norwich. It was a very English dressing room, which was a big contrast to Newcastle where there were a lot of international cliques and not really a team bond, as well as some pretty big egos. There were different social groups and not really team nights out – we probably only had the Christmas nights out as a squad at Newcastle. At Norwich, though, the whole team would be out regularly and it really built this team bond. I absolutely loved it and Glenn and Clarky were a big part of that.
When Glenn lost his job, Bryan Gunn came in and put his own stamp on the club, having his own players and style in mind and my game time became limited again. I’d had a couple of off-field issues at Norwich as well, which were my own fault, and that probably played a part but he made it pretty clear that I wasn’t in his plans."
Matty's next career move looks, on paper at least, a surprising one and it is one that he admits as being an impulsive decision.
"I still had the best part of two years left on my deal at Norwich but decided to move back to South Africa. I had a call-up to the national squad when I was at Newcastle but picked up a little injury just prior to the fixture so didn’t end up going and then I had a call-up when I was at Norwich for a game against Australia in London, at QPR’s ground. I went to that but didn’t play but had that experience of meeting some of the players and being a part of the squad.
Up until that point, I hadn’t really entertained the thought of playing for the national team and didn’t really know much about South African football. This was 2009 and the World Cup was coming up in 2010 and I saw this as an opportunity to get a place in the national team for the tournament. It was a bit of an impulsive decision really. Me and my girlfriend had just bought a house in Norwich and she was pregnant at the time but as a young football player, you make these impulsive, spur of the moment, career moves sometimes.
An agent out in South Africa got in touch with me and asked if I’d be open to speaking with him about a move over there. We discussed details and the financials of the move and I had the World Cup in my mind and just decided to go for it. I could have easily stayed at Norwich and had plenty of time left on my contract. Paul Lambert came in and galvanised the club and ended up taking them up the divisions to the Premier League, so that could have been me back in the Premier League but I'd made up my mind.
When I first got there, it was such a culture shock. I hadn’t been back since we moved when I was a child so I was seeing the country as an adult for the first time. Despite being from there, it was like being in a foreign country – it felt like I was leaving home rather than moving home. I still had my accent but it very much felt like I was an Englishman in South Africa.
As a country, it wasn’t where it is now, or where it was after the World Cup. I experienced that year before the World Cup, before the investment in infrastructure and development and it was a totally different place. I rang my girlfriend and said I wasn’t sure I was going to sign, I just didn’t know if it was right for me but something inside my brain just made me go for it and the rest is history really.
Going from Carrow Road to playing over there was a bit of a shock and the facilities weren’t the same, the stadiums, the training, everything really. The altitude took me a couple of months to adjust to as well but once I did, I really thrived. I was playing under Hristo Stoitchkov when I first moved – a legend – so that was amazing. We bonded well because we were in a similar position, in terms of being in a foreign country that we knew little about."
Matty initially signed for Mamelodi Sundowns and, with his injuries well behind him, went on to play 56 games for the club over three years.
"I had a really good first season in South Africa. It was a big move for my family – we’d just had our first child – my daughter was only six weeks old when we moved. I really enjoyed playing out there, really enjoyed my football and made the national team for a few squads, making a couple of appearances. I made the preliminary squad for the World Cup but not the final squad which was tough and disappointing, as I felt I'd played well enough to make it.
What the World Cup did for that country, you could never imagine unless you’d seen the before and after. The infrastructure, hospitality, shopping centres, everything. It was incredible. There’s a big poverty gap within the country but in the parts where there is money, it’s ridiculous. People are expecting a third world country but it's unbelievable. I ended up staying in South Africa for five years and played for a few different clubs and, honestly, if it wasn’t for my family being from the North East, I’d probably still be there now.
I loved the lifestyle, the culture, the football, everything really but obviously my family comes first and we’d just had a second child and it was becoming too much of a strain on our relationship and on the family so I decided to come back. I spent two weeks with Leeds, played a couple of games, scored, actually played against Newcastle in a behind closed doors game and scored in that too. I expected to get a move from it but nothing materialised.
It proved pretty difficult as, with being in South Africa for so long, it was a bit of a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. I was thinking that, playing a lot of football out there and playing for the national team, that I’d have got a new club pretty easily but that didn’t happen. Another offer came in from South Africa (Bidvest) that was too good to turn down so I went back out there on a three year deal. I really enjoyed that but it was always tough as my wife had never really moved over. She came for a month or couple of months at a time and then went back to the North East. My oldest daughter was at school so would come over when she could but I was often away from my family and that’s what ultimately made me move back to England.
I had a clean-up of my knee and had the cartilage trimmed, as it was starting to cause me some problems, in the final year of my deal so that was my season done. I decided enough was enough – my youngest daughter was nine months old and I’d basically not seen her. She didn’t know who I was. So, regardless of contract offers or getting my head turned by another deal, I decided that was it. I came back in the April, thinking that would give me plenty of time to sort out a new club. I went to numerous clubs – Clarky was at Birmingham but nothing happened there, I tried MK Dons but nothing there. I tried a couple of different agents but nothing was happening.
I had a couple of mates who I’d come through with at Newcastle, who were at Gateshead and had been there for years. I asked if they could have a word with the gaffer to see if I could come in and train with them and keep myself ticking over. Within a week, I’d signed with them. That was the power of Gary Mills – it was such a good atmosphere and a good vibe there. It was the season after they’d missed out on promotion to League Two in the playoffs and I spent two years there and loved it."
Having played at the highest level, both in the Premier League and international football, I wondered what it was like for a player to then drop down the tiers and play in the lower levels of the game.
"Honestly, I’ve had tougher games in non-league than I had in the Premier League. Anyone who underestimates non-league football will get found out straight away. My first game was Forest Green away and I was miles off it. Gary Mills loved me and couldn’t wait to get me in the team but that first game, I couldn’t get near anyone, I was breathing out my arse and he subbed me at half-time. I was lean, I was fit but I didn’t have any match sharpness as I hadn’t played for 8-9 months and couldn’t deal with the intensity of it. My next game was at home against Barnet and he took me off before half-time!
You’re talking about someone who’s played in The Championship, The Premier League, internationals and now I’m being taken off before half-time in The Conference! I think the Gateshead fans were booing me! So it was certainly a reality check but I knew I just needed those games to get myself where I needed to be. The next game against Aldershot was the first time I made it through the ninety minutes. I wouldn’t say I was great but I started to get that sharpness and from then on I was a regular. I really enjoyed my time there."
After two seasons with Gateshead, Matty went on to play for Blyth Spartans, South Shields and Whickham - where he became manager in 2019, before returning to Gateshead as an academy coach.
"In the back of my mind I knew that coaching was a possibility and obviously a natural thing to do at the end of your career but I hadn’t really thought about it. My personality wasn’t what I thought a coach was – I loved the craic and the lads and going out but I wasn’t a leader on the pitch or particularly vocal. You’d have players who would try to implement things in games or come in at half-time and have their say but that wasn’t who I was. I had my Level 2 badge but that was it. Ian Watson, who’s Assistant Manager at Gateshead now, called me out the blue and asked if I’d be interested in the academy job. He said I came to mind when he was thinking of someone to bring in and I just thought, why not?
It was tough at first as, like I said, I wasn’t that kind of person. Public speaking, being that figure of authority, trying to be somebody who’s not just having banter and has to lead by example and be the serious one was pretty tough. That first year in the job did so much for me as a person in my own development, it brought me on so much and now it feels so natural. My wife would tell you, when she first met me that I didn’t know how to speak to people and she claims credit for it!
I don’t force a lot of things with the players though. Some coaches are very textbook and take some enjoyment out the game with drills and repetition but I connect with the lads on a personal level and try to pass on things from my experiences. I know football inside out because I’ve played it my whole life, I’ve watched it, I’ve studied it and I know that’ll come naturally in terms of picking things out in games. The balance between that and motivating people though, that’s what I’ve had to work on but I think I’ve done that pretty well."
To play in The Championship, The Premier League and for your country is a football career that anyone can look back on with enormous pride but I couldn't help but wonder whether the young academy prospect who was fast-tracked through his age groups had achieved everything he felt he was capable of.
"I'll never know the difference those two injuries made - I lost eighteen months at a key time in my development, right when I'd been brought up to the first team - but that's not something in my control so isn't worth thinking about too much. I don’t regret much because everywhere I went I loved it and if I didn’t have those times, I wouldn’t have met the people I did or had the experiences I did.
With hindsight, I wish I had of done things more – I wish I had imposed myself more on games and took more risks, rather than playing it safe. That was never my style coming through the ranks of the academy and reserves. I was a flair player, took risks and made those passes or tried different things and expressed myself. When I got to the first team level, I wouldn’t do those things. They were still there in my repertoire but I was scared of the repercussions if I gave the ball away, or the reaction from the crowd.
That’s the difference between being a good player and great player – they aren’t bothered about the repercussions or what’s around them and they just focus on their own belief in their ability. It’s that inner belief that they can do it and I wish I’d had more of that as a player. It came back in South Africa and I started playing that way again and I think it was because the pressure was different. There were some huge crowds – big derbies that had 90,000 fans in the stadium – but the atmosphere is so different. The fanbase and the culture is different. In England, if you had a bad spell in a game, the crowd would be on you but it wasn’t like that there and I think that helped me relax and play my game.
There’s also those moves in your career that you look back and wonder whether they were the right decision. I think could I have stayed at Newcastle a bit longer? Two of my best mates, David Edgar and Andy Carroll, they stayed and went down with the club and built their careers off the back of that by playing that year in The Championship and then becoming Premier League players after promotion. Could I have done that? Leaving Norwich as well, maybe I’d have done well under Paul Lambert as he’s one of those managers who like you to express yourself. So, did I leave there too soon? It's easy to look back and think I could have done things differently but, as I said, I loved everywhere I went so I don't regret it.
Lastly, at Norwich I became someone who went out a lot and enjoyed that side of life and made some mistakes that way. Maybe I could have left that to later life and stayed focused on my football for longer. On the whole though, I’m very happy. I played in the Premier League and I played for my country and nobody can take those things away from me."