He dizzied a few defenders, left keepers lying despondent and sent his own fans cock-a-hoop as the Carlisle lad who became a multi-million-pound Premier League hotshot. It is true that Matt Jansen’s playing story is largely told with swathes of ‘what if?’ but to cover too much old ground in that regard would be to detract from the tale of a young manager beginning to cook up quite a storm these days.
From his local Carlisle United to the top-flight destinations of Crystal Palace and Blackburn Rovers, Matt Jansen was a striking talent to savour. The curtained hair and Adidas Predator boots that adorned him were their own subtle but now-powerfully-nostalgic symbols of that time and its culture, and the sure-footed frontman dazzled, making sure that while his career may have been curtailed by emphatic and undeserved misfortune, it was no less memorable.
Now the man who went from youngster of the old Division Three to England squad pick on his late-90s/early-2000s rise is hoping to guide Chorley to heights not scaled at the Lancashire club since 1989/90. Back in May, the Magpies were denied in the Vanarama National League North playoff final, but the fact they even got there was testament to a number of factors.
While he wouldn’t necessarily be the one to go ahead and claim it, their uniquely-experienced young manager’s acumen was a cornerstone. After seeing his team emphatically exceed the expectations most if not all had for them in 2016/17, Matt’s enthusiasm was only enhanced when players and staff met up to start the journey again this summer.
“We were hugely successful,” the one-time Blackburn number 10 said. “I’ve always said that we don’t have the budgets of some, deep pockets and huge funds, and we overachieved last season.”
“It was great and I said to them ‘it was because of you and it’s because of the group we’ve got, so there’s no reason why we can’t do the same.’ Yeah, we were disappointed we didn’t go up, but I expressed that they should be proud of how well they’d done and to attack this season in exactly the same way.”
With the narrowest of playoff final defeats (2-1 after extra-time) to FC Halifax Town on May 13th, Chorley announced a switch in ownership a few days later, with the club’s shareholding transferred to Ken Wright (chairman) and Graham Watkinson (fellow board member). Preston North End owner Trevor Hemmings had been involved for the past couple of decades, rescuing the club from extinction in 1994, so this was a development that signalled plenty in the way of change.
In July, Matt marked two years at the managerial helm and agreed an extended contract along with his coaches Jamie Vermiglio and Jonathan Smith. The youthfulness is still there in the Manchester United and Arsenal transfer target of yesteryear, even if the recently-turned-40-year-old laughs he’s not nearly as quick as he used to be!
His self-deprecating and warm-natured humour goes with a bright and astute grasp of the game in an extremely valuable ‘strike force’ of personal characteristics. A student at the respective ‘schools’ of Terry Venables, Graeme Souness, Steve Coppell and more, he has much to share in this managerial chapter of his own, whether it’s from an in-game perspective or a much wider focus.
He led the Magpies to 20 league wins last year and said the fans had helped haul them through certain games, providing his players with that extra half-yard. That support and community is a big reason why he feels at home at the Victory Park outfit.
“It’s just a really good family club and with the supporters, you mingle after the game and everybody knows each other. It’s a friendly club, it’s well-run.
“It’s where I’m finding my feet but it’s a little bit more personal.”
Andy Teague and Marcus Carver’s goals helped deliver a 2-0 success at home to Leamington last Saturday which leaves Chorley in 8th position after 19 league games. Last season, 5th-placed Darlington were ineligible for the playoffs due to ground grading issues, so Chorley in 6th duly took their chance.
After a 1-0 home loss in the semi-final first leg with Kidderminster Harriers, the Magpies would turn it all around at Aggborough, winning the tie with a euphoric Adam Roscoe goal in the 92nd minute. As they bid to go one better this time around and reach the fifth tier for the first time in 28 years, Chorley of course have a gaffer who has walked the promotion path with success in his career.
Matt played his part in Chorley coming up from the Northern Premier League Division One North via the playoffs as a player in 2010/2011, before helping steer the Magpies to their Northern Premier League title win as former Blackburn teammate Garry Flitcroft’s assistant in 2013/2014. As well as figuring in Carlisle’s ascent to Division Two as a teenager in 1996/97, his goals were paramount in Blackburn returning to the top flight in 2001 under the manager he thinks he perhaps took the most from in terms of what he has been able to apply to his own post-playing endeavours – Graeme Souness.
While Blackburn and Chorley are only half an hour or so apart, they represent very separate junctures in Matt’s life in some respects, but some vital characteristics also undoubtedly link the two in his affections.
“Blackburn was Premier League but again, it was a family club as well. We had a great dressing room, which is something as a manager I’ve prided ourselves on; if you’ve got a good dressing room you’ll all fight for each other.
“We used to go out together and we used to get on together on the field, and I think if you’ve got that then it goes a long way towards having a successful side. Blackburn was that, and it was a fantastic place to be, so I really enjoyed my time there.”
It was the aforementioned former Rovers midfielder and skipper Garry Flitcroft who had brought him to Chorley, initially as a player-coach almost a decade ago, and the ex-Manchester City player was the man he replaced after he stepped aside in summer 2015. Together they were pieces in a memorable Blackburn Rovers puzzle, with their Ewood Park association beginning when Matt signed for the club mid-season as they were embroiled in what would be an unsuccessful relegation fight from the top tier under Brian Kidd.
When he left Crystal Palace for Rovers in January 1999, he spoke to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger but he remembered Blackburn boss Kidd once trying to bring him to Manchester United, where he’d spent time as a youth and famously could have gone a couple of times when Sir Alex Ferguson came calling. He told once how he could have gone to the Gunners and been fantastic or he could have been in the reserves, so he has no regrets, especially having enjoyed such special moments at Blackburn.
There was also Rovers’ readiness to pay the £4.1million fee up front to a financially-desperate Palace stuck in a grim situation in Division One at the time. During Matt’s years at Ewood, the 1995 English champions got back to the top table, remained there, and most memorably, they lifted silverware.
Having struck a mathematically-delightful 24 goals in 48 games for Souness’ side on their way up, he then hit double figures (ten in the league, 16 overall) in 2001/02 as they came 10th and won the Worthington Cup (League Cup). The image of him sliding home a Damien Duff pass for his third in the quarter-final 4-0 demolition of Arsenal at Ewood Park before running off holding up three fingers is as etched in Matt’s memory as it is among the Blackburn faithful.
In the final, he struck a Millennium Stadium opening goal through the grasp of Tottenham Hotspur keeper Neil Sullivan as the underdogs won the day, with Andy Cole notching a second-half winner to start off a party that Matt (just about!) remembers going on into the light. Still just 24 at the time, he recalls a chemistry amongst the notable names in the ranks that was every bit as important as the unquestionable ability they possessed.
“Everybody got on with each other and we used to go paintballing together, we used to have a drink together. It was a mix of all kinds and we used to have some great banter.
“Garry Flitcroft was obviously the captain and an organiser, then you’d have the fun with David Dunn and Keith Gillespie, Craig Hignett, people like that – they were the mickey-takers. It was a great bunch.”
While Matt is always quick to pay tribute to Carlisle and Palace, it is not inaccurate to suggest that Blackburn was where he truly excelled. Almost 12 years since he played his last game for the club, he’ll never tire of being reminded of the moments he felt like he was flying and the ones that brought smiles to the faces of so many fans, back then and to this day.
“Yeah, you get it on Twitter whenever the Worthington Cup final comes up, and things like ‘who would be your 11 best players from Blackburn?’ You get things like that, which is nice, you know?
“It’s nice to not be forgotten, because I loved my time there.”
Having been in Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England squad leading up to the 2002 World Cup squad, missing out on a friendly debut against Paraguay with a stomach bug, he was initially told he would be going to the tournament, only to miss out in favour of extra defensive cover in Martin Keown. That summer has been documented more than enough times by now when Matt is profiled and he did return from his terrible road accident on holiday in Rome to score seven more times before he left Blackburn in January 2006, though he struggled with the after-effects of what he had been through in various ways.
There was a short spell with Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce, one of the legions of admirers Matt had (and still has) in the game, and though there would be time spent trialling or just training with various clubs, he ultimately walked away from the game for a while. Despite some extremely bleak times, which Matt has again spoken about at length before, the love was never 100 percent extinguished, and the game has his heart again as we talk today.
Father to three children, he is someone who appreciates the value of enjoying foundations and interests outside football, becoming involved in property some years ago. While he was performing for tens of thousands at the top level of English football, he also had a little fantasy of entertaining audiences from a different vantage point!
“Yeah, I’ve got properties, and I started playing the piano and ended up giving it up. I got back to playing it after my accident, did a few grades on the piano, but that was all!
“I liked the idea of just going into a bar and being able to play the piano and getting everyone singing along. I wanted that to happen overnight and obviously it was a long process!
“I realised it wasn’t going to be as quick as I’d hoped, so I ended up giving it up.”
Beginning his non-league journey in 2009, he hit the target for Wrexham, Leigh Genesis and Chorley, showing his class at points along the way, with an acrobatic effort for Chorley in a friendly with Bolton a knowing wink to some fond times. Through his career he played with some notable fellow talents, including a once-shining Swedish light in Tomas Brolin, Italian winger Attilio Lombardo, Turkish midfield maestro Tugay and an emerging wing wizard in Damien Duff.
Matt certainly found non-league a change to adapt to, once joking that when you throw a dummy to defenders they just stand there! This season, Nick Haughton scoring a stunner in the FA Cup third qualifying round win over Ashton Athletic has been among the standout moments for his Chorley charges, though Matt explains how he’s come to understand over time the need for force as well as finesse in non-league.
“Well, you haven’t got the quality of the pitches. Some of the pitches are very good; our pitch at the moment isn’t but we’re trying to work on it.
“It’s not geared for playing silky, free-flowing football; it’s very much pace and power really. When I first started, I was thinking ‘let’s get the ball and pass teams to death,’ but it creates its own problems when you’re coming up on really poor pitches.
“I now have learned that at times you have to be direct, you have to mix it, but we can play as well. I like to have a bit of both, where you have got pace and power, but we also have quality.
“You need both really in this league.”
Matt has Dutch heritage owing to his grandfather, but it wasn’t Marco van Basten or Ruud Gullit that most enchanted him growing up, as you’ll see in the Q&A to conclude this feature. It is fair to say he has remained a student of the game, becoming no stranger to the classroom on his way up the coaching licences, though he was particularly familiar with it anyway!
He explains why as he shares what else helps bring some vital balance to his days along with family time.
“The reason that I’ve got A-Levels (Sociology, Psychology and PE) is my mum said I had to go to night school! So when I left school at the age of 16 with my GCSEs, the deal to go to Carlisle on a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) was that it was as long as I did my A-Levels, in case it didn’t work out with football.
“To get away from football now, I like to play golf, which is a bit difficult at the moment because the weather’s not so good, but that’s my favourite pastime.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing and when did you?
It was out of the blue. I’d finished football really and walked away from it, and I get a phone call from Garry Flitcroft asking if I would fancy joining him. He said as a player-coach and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll come and have a look at it.’ It started from there and I think that was 2008, 2009 maybe. From then, I embarked on the coaching courses, which take forever, and so I’m now completing my (UEFA) A Licence. It was just a rolling-on from my time being an assistant to Garry Flitcroft, to three seasons ago, him stepping down to concentrate on his estate agency and property ventures, and I took the reins and I’m enjoying it.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
In training, I always used to enjoy small-sided games the most, and obviously attacking and scoring goals! As a player, that was what I liked and so I try to implement that, even though we don’t get that many sessions, but I try to play as much football as we can.
Will you ever take part in training?
I did when I was assistant, but now I like to have a look and keep it at arm’s length. My legs aren’t as quick as they used to be!
Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit
(Pauses to think) Yeah, St. James’ Park, Newcastle. I used to think that was the best atmosphere, and I used to support them. Coming from Carlisle, that was probably the closest Premier League side and growing up I used to go occasionally to St. James’ and watch them. I used to always like playing there.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
My favourite player was Diego Maradona. I used to love watching him and it was while I was growing up that you had the ’86 World Cup, and ever since that, I always idolised him.
And how would you sell the club to him if you were trying to sign him?!
It’s a great club, you’ll enjoy it, you can play with no fear. I’ll just get everyone to give you the ball and you do your stuff!
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
Well at Blackburn we were one of the first to do these mid-season breaks and it was under (Graeme) Souness. We went to Dubai and people were saying ‘are they going on a jolly-up?’ and the first game back was the local derby with Burnley (April 2001). It was all over the press – ‘what are they doing going on a jolly-up just before they play Burnley?’ We trained well but it was basically a jolly-up! In the evenings we were able to go and enjoy ourselves and it hadn’t really been done before. We’d had a bit of criticism and when we get back we end up beating Burnley 5-0. Every year from then on, we continued doing it and other clubs did as well. It was good for us, so maybe a trip to Dubai would be good for the Chorley boys!
Most challenging part of your job
When you’re leaving a player out, especially in big games, that’s difficult. That’s probably it, or if a player’s been there a while and you have to let them go. Bad news is never easy to give, so that’s probably the toughest.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
(Has a hard think) Saša Ćurčić at Palace was one – he was great fun. I couldn’t single somebody out at Blackburn because there were so many characters and like I say, there was so much banter going around and everybody used to make each other laugh. It was such a great dressing room.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager (or player)
Well yeah as a player, the most embarrassing part is when you’ve got to sing in front of everyone, and as a YTS it was a lot worse than today! You’re stood on the medical bench singing the song and getting abuse – and you have to do it naked as well! That’s probably the worst.
Your routine on a matchday
I get a little bit superstitious; if something’s worked then I try to keep the same routine. In terms of my talks, they’re at a certain time. I don’t like to over-talk in the dressing room before a game because if there’s too much information people just switch off. I like to speak personally to players and give them instructions, rather than as a group.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
The music they listen to is completely different to mine so I don’t think I’d be able to sneak anybody on there! I mean I like the older stuff; I like Dire Straits, The Beatles and things like that, so it’s old hat now.
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
The one thing is to work as hard as you can possibly work. Anybody can work hard, that’s for free, and if you do that then you’ll be forgiven for a lot. That was my first and last thought going out to the pitch and every game I tried to give everything. I will never criticise any of my players as long as they work hard. If you give the ball away or if you’re trying things – obviously not in the wrong areas – I’m not going to have a go at you. The only time I’ll have a go at you is if you’re not working hard, and that’s all I ask from my players, so they’ve got freedom to express themselves and they should play without fear. I’m not a ranter and raver, so all I ask for is hard work.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
Pep Guardiola’s not doing too bad at the moment! He wouldn’t be bad to have a chat with, or Jose Mourinho. I’ve worked under some fantastic managers, though: Terry Venables, Graeme Souness, Sam Allardyce, Stevie Coppell. I’ve been lucky enough to work under a lot of good managers and you try to take on board the good parts of them and use them in the way you manage.
How have you changed since you first started coaching/managing, or what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
You always wonder how it’s going to be; it’s like the first day of school. As time goes by, you’re more relaxed because you know the job better, so it’s just evolving really. The longer you do it, the more comfortable you get with it.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
Well, people may think that I’m too nice to be a manager. I give people as much benefit of the doubt as possible, but when I get crossed, I get angry or upset or disappointed. I am lenient, but once that’s been crossed then I’m not that easy to get on with after that. That’s probably the way I am.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? I know you fell out of love with it for obvious reasons, but when you step on that training pitch today do you still get that same feeling for it as you always used to?
Yeah, management’s different to playing; your highs are higher and your lows are lower. You still get the buzz, you still get the adrenaline, but it’s kind of different. As a manager, you’ve got to give all your instructions and prepare as much as you can through the week. You work on the other team you’re playing and then once it gets to 3 o’clock you’ve got to hope and trust that your players can deliver. You can’t get onto the pitch and make an influence; you’ve just got to trust that the players do it for you. It’s different to playing, but you still get the same buzz as a manager, if not more.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes