October 23, 2021

The England star playing non-League

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Ten years on from England’s game against Ghana at Wembley, six of the players to feature for Fabio Capello that evening are still playing in the Premier League. Two are in the Championship, two are abroad and four have retired. The other is Matt Jarvis.

He is the only England international currently playing in the National League, a regular for Woking in the fifth tier of English football after missing two whole years of his career.

At 34, he is aware that others would have long since quit. But a decade on from that pinnacle of his career, the thrill of beating his full-back keeps him coming back for more.

“I think you go one way or the other,” Jarvis tells Sky Sports. “There are those who would have had enough and decided to call it a day. Or you go the other way.

“I was so determined to go out on my own terms. I wanted to prove that I am still fit and I have still got it. I wanted to prove to myself that I have still got it.

“I just love playing football.”

It was as a Wolves player that he earned that one England cap, going on to win their player of the year award and persuading West Ham to pay £10m for him. But a run of seven seasons in the Premier League came to an end as he endured what he calls “terrible injuries” at Norwich.

After defying expectations to overcome those problems, there was a brief stint in League One with Walsall but later moves did not work out. “I had a period where I was supposed to sign for a couple of clubs and they let me down,” he says. “That was tough because I had given everything to get back playing. I was not going to let it end there.”

Matt Jarvis celebrates with the Championship title in 2009
Image: Jarvis celebrates with the Championship title at Wolves in 2009

Going part-time with Woking – they train on a Thursday night – has allowed him to pursue his media work and spend time with his young family. There is a son to take to nursery and a daughter who has just turned one. “Her whole life has been secluded. It is crazy really.”

He laughs at the idea that anyone might think he is playing on for financial reasons. “That is the whole thing. I want to play for the love of playing not because of the money.”

And when he starts talking, you believe him.

“There is just nothing better than walking out on the pitch,” he says, eyes wide, smile beaming. “Running at the full-back, putting a cross in. Cutting inside, having a shot. There is not a better feeling. You can run on a treadmill, go to the gym all you like, but nothing eclipses that feeling of being on the pitch and taking someone on.

“Even just the work rate involved, running around, getting back into shape, helping your team-mate out. That buzz is what you miss. Winning games. Celebrating together.”

He has been pleasantly surprised by the standard.

“You would think they were full-time. You come to training and everybody is so ready to train even if they have been working all day. They have come from here, there and everywhere but from the start of training to the end of training everyone is on it.”

Matt Jarvis of Woking FC awaits for the assistant referee makes changes to the board to enter the field as a substitute during the Vanarama National League match between Woking and Dagenham and Redbridge at Kingfield Stadium on October 13, 2020 in Woking, England.
Image: Jarvis has enjoyed the challenge of playing for Woking this season

His introduction was dramatic, coming on for his debut against Maidenhead last March and scoring the opening goal of the game with his second touch. He soon assisted the second.

“I thought, ‘Here we go!’ My second game, I came straight from the hospital after my daughter was born, played half an hour and got another assist. I thought, ‘This is it!'”

But lockdown swiftly followed and it was back to training alone. Fortunately for Jarvis, this is practically his speciality and it is fair to say that he was better prepared than most.

“I am used to it,” he laughs. “I am fortunate that I have got the gym stuff at home so even when it was snowing I was able to work out and do as much as I need to do.

“You can do as much gym and weights as you want but as soon as you are in training and someone does a one-two and is round you, it takes a bit of time to get up to speed because you are not so used to those changes of direction. That is the difficult part of training alone.

“But I have always had that motivation from within. I am quite headstrong. If it has been a crazy day with the kids I will go up there even if it is nine o’clock at night and just go for it.”

He soon agreed to stay on for a second season, adding to those two cameo appearances, but there have been a few challenges this time around. There are no fans cheering on from the touchline but full-backs eager to put in a tackle on a former Premier League star remain.

“I would expect that. It is great. You always want to be playing against someone who is desperate to do well against you. You just have to adapt to the situations.

“Sometimes the style of play is a bit different in the National League and you have to do that ugly side of the game just to get the opportunity to do what you would like to do.”

Matt Jarvis celebrates scoring for Wolves against QPR
Image: Jarvis’ form for Wolves earned him an England cap and a move to West Ham

A trickier opponent has been the astroturf pitches that were commonplace during the winter months. “That has killed me really,” he explains. “I cannot play on it with my past injuries, my body is just not able to do that. They are rock hard and with all the operations and the joints, it jars everything. It takes longer to recover and I cannot do it.”

Just how long he will continue to put his body through it? He is unsure. But the opportunity for his young son to see him play in the flesh remains a target, if only to put a stop to the awkward questions on Champions League nights. “He is into his football now so every game that comes on television he is asking me if I am playing in this one. ‘No, not quite, mate.’

“It would be nice for him to come down and see a game.”

Matt Jarvis training with the England team before the game against Ghana in 2011
Image: Jarvis training with the England team before the game against Ghana in 2011

Until then, there is the memorabilia from that game against Ghana. The boot with some of the Wembley grass still on it. The shirt signed by the England players. The embroidered cap.

“It is the pinnacle isn’t it. Every kid wants to play for their country and I was the same. It was a dream come true. A massive achievement when you think of the wide players at that time.

“I was at Wolves and we were keeping ourselves in the league but there was Ashley Young, Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, Stewart Downing, James Milner. There were a lot of English wide players and I was able to muscle my way in and get an England cap. It was incredible.

“It is a huge honour that Fabio Capello was able to pick me out. We had played Aston Villa away in an early kick-off and I scored. We won 1-0. He told me afterwards that it was the goal that got me over the line so it was a very important goal. I am absolutely delighted that I got that cap. Of course, I was desperate for more but it is something I can keep forever.”

Matt Jarvis speaks to the media before his England debut against Ghana in 2011
Image: Jarvis speaks to the media before his England debut against Ghana in 2011

Those days are behind him but the adventure continues.

“In football, you are always chasing something. You are never really happy. You always want the next thing. You could score three on a Saturday but by Tuesday you are thinking about what is next. You cannot think about what you have done, you have to have that drive to continue and to improve on some aspect of your game and get that next thing.

“The only thing I have ever wanted to do is play football and I still feel like that youngster coming through at 17. Now I am 34.

“It has gone quickly.”