Matt Piper

Former Player Remembers: Matt Piper

Earlier this season Matt Piper spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his career in football. He made an impact as a skilful young winger playing for Leicester City in the Premier League in 2002.
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He famously scored the last-ever goal at Filbert Street with his diving match-winning header against Tottenham Hotspur. The following season his career was prematurely wrecked by injury. 

When 17-year-old Leicester-born Matt Piper, a talented winger, saw his name on the first-team squad list for a Premier League game at St. James' Park against Newcastle United, a long and glittering career with Leicester City looked highly likely.

“I’d been at Leicester since I was eight,” Matt recalled. “Growing up in the Abbey Park area I played for Beaumont Town. Nottingham Forest spotted me when I was eight and I didn’t want to go there. I cried all the all through my first two training sessions. Then I had a letter through my door from David Nish inviting me to Leicester City and I knew where I wanted to be. I met with the late Neville Hamilton. He was a wonderful coach. From then on I was with Nev, David Nish, Jon Rudkin and Chris Tucker. In those days you could play for a Sunday team and train for Leicester for two nights a week. Then when I was 12 or 13, I signed for Leicester and I could only play for them.

“When I was 17, I was playing for the Under-19s. Martin O’Neill used to watch the youth team and take an interest in the way I played, but there were many lads at the Club like Stef Oakes who were ahead of me. Then one Friday, when the squad list went up for a game at Newcastle, my name was on it! I was only 17! We flew up to Newcastle. It was unbelievable for me. Martin always picked an 18-man squad. This enabled him to give young lads experience around the first team. I was nervous because I was with the big names like Muzzy Izzet, Robbie Savage, Neil Lennon and Matt Elliott.

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Matt Piper
Matt Piper

The Leicester-born winger was first named on a City teamsheet as a 17-year-old against Newcastle United.

"First team coach Steve Walford let me warm up on the pitch in front of 50,000 even though I wasn’t on the bench. He said: ‘You need to get used to this because you’ll be good enough to play on that pitch’. Those words, together with Martin taking me up there and added to the fact that the whole backroom staff were brilliant to me, made me think ‘I am good enough to be out there'. From then on I started doing the 'David Beckham' thing of staying behind after training for more practice. I wanted more of what I’d had a taste of.”

Soon after O’Neill left Filbert Street in the summer of 2000, Matt injured his knee in a youth game.

“It wasn’t a bad tackle by Gareth Barry, but I needed surgery and lost ground. It was my first knee injury. I had to have surgery. I was out for a while and it was a difficult time. I lost my way under Peter Taylor for a year or so.

“The reserve team coach was Garry Parker and he always said that if ever he became caretaker manager he would put me in the side. I honestly thought he was just saying that but that’s exactly what he did.

“When Peter Taylor was sacked, Garry picked me for a League Cup game against Leeds United. We lost 6-0 but I was Man of the Match. Garry had told us to express ourselves and enjoy the game, so I did. The fans called me ‘Pipinho’ because I was trying tricks and skills. I was just doing what Garry told me to do - enjoying myself! After the game Rio Ferdinand, who had just signed for Leeds for about £20M, asked for my shirt! He said I could have his shirt and that I would be a top player in a few years. Also after the game I signed my first autograph!

I scored a goal, set up a few more and won a few Man of the Match awards. Mansfield wanted to sign me for longer, but there were a few injuries at Leicester and Dave Bassett called me back.

Matt Piper

“Later that week, Dave Bassett took over as manager. He called me into his office and said, ‘I was at the game the other night Matthew. I thought you were terrific!’ On the Saturday we had Chelsea away and I thought I would be playing. However Dave Bassett told me that I was too young for his team and that I was to go on loan. I felt a bit let down. He spoke to Billy Dearden at Mansfield and within two weeks I was playing in their first team. A lot of old pros told me it would be good for me playing at that level (in the fourth tier) and it was. It toughened me up. I’d had it easy at Leicester. Your kit was laid out in the morning and everything was done for you. At Mansfield, you took your own kit home to wash it. The first challenge I had was when I was elbowed in the face with a forearm smash as I came through for a header. I remember lying on the floor a bit concussed. My mouth was bleeding and the player said: ’Welcome to League Two’. I played in 12 games. They were tough. I scored a goal, set up a few more and won a few Man of the Match awards. Mansfield wanted to sign me for longer, but there were a few injuries at Leicester and Dave Bassett called me back.

“I had 20 minutes as a substitute in a cup match against West Brom soon afterwards. Then the following mid week we had Premier League game at Anfield and I was selected to start. I played well. They won a close game 1-0. Emile [Heskey] scored Liverpool’s goal. I used to be his boot boy at Filbert Street. After the game he gave me his shirt which he’d signed for me.

“After that Liverpool game I started to feel part of it all. I started to get the confidence of a professional footballer. I’d played really well against a good Liverpool side and I played in every game until the end of the season.

“My contract was up at the end of the season. I was on £350 a week playing in the Premier League. Leicester were struggling and there had been speculation in the press that if Leicester went down certain Premier League clubs would try to snap me up. Leicester called me in for negotiations. I didn’t have an agent so I went into the office with Dean Sturridge’s brother Simon. Dave Bassett was ruthless. He said that I’d done well but I hadn’t scored enough goals. I said I’d made a few but he still said he was looking for me to score more. He said I’d never get anything like the  wage I was asking for and he  told Simon to get out, saying that he’d rather speak with my dad, which he did. In the end I signed for only a bit more than I was already on. It wasn’t about money for me. I was a Leicester boy and I loved the Club. I wanted to blossom here.”

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Matt Piper
Matt Piper

Piper later joined Sunderland for £2.5M, but was forced to retire at the age of 24.

The last match of the season, a 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur was also the last ever match at Filbert Street. Matt’s diving header in front of the kop was the winning goal. Matt remembers it well.

“My dad had said, ‘make sure you score’, and when I did I pointed towards him, my mum and my brother in the crowd to celebrate. At the time, I didn’t realise how big that goal was.”

Such was the historic significance of Matt’s goal that the boots he wore on the day and the match ball are on display in the Reception Area of King Power Stadium. 

Sadly this was Matt’s last game for Leicester City.

Early the next season Matt transferred to Sunderland. He did not want to leave Leicester City but the Club’s desperate financial state made the transfer inevitable.

“I loved the Club,” Matt continued. “I’m a Leicester through and through. I had brilliant players around me. We were moving to a new Stadium. I kept myself fit over the close season. In the inaugural match at the new stadium, a pre-season friendly against Athletic Bilbao, I crossed the ball for Jordan Stewart to score the equaliser. I was looking forward to the first game of the new season against Watford but the night before I’d had sickness and diarrhoea and had to drop out of the team.

“Just before kick-off, Micky Adams said, ‘Don’t worry about not playing today. There are bigger and better things coming for you next week’. When I came into training on Monday, he said ‘Don’t train. I want you to speak to Peter Reid (Sunderland’s manager). The club has accepted a £3.5M offer for you’. My dad and I went to Sunderland. Peter Reid was a lovely guy and a great manager but I still said no. Micky Adams and the players were surprised when I came back to Leicester."

I now know, 13 operations later, that the problem was due to lax ligaments, which let my knee slide around, causing damage to cartilage, ligaments and tendons.

Matt Piper

Desperate for money, Leicester then accepted a £2.5M offer from Southampton, a million pounds less than Sunderland’s offer.

“This made it clear to me that I would have to leave Leicester. I talked to Gordon Strachan at Southampton, but I preferred Sunderland. They had just signed Torre Andre Flo, Jason McAteer and Phil Babb and I thought they might do well."

Matt made a good start at Sunderland and was called up for the England Under-21s squad. However, his career was prematurely and devastatingly wrecked by his injured knee. “I now know, 13 operations later, that the problem was due to lax ligaments, which let my knee slide around, causing damage to cartilage, ligaments and tendons. My good friend Joleon Lescott had the same operation at the same time with the same surgeon. His op worked. Mine didn’t.”

Forced to retire in 2006 at the age of only 24, after missing the best part of three seasons, Matt found it difficult to adjust to life after football and went through some difficult times.

Together with ex-Leicester City youth player Owen Johnson, Matt now runs an academy developing life skills and creating educational opportunities, work experience and job opportunities for his students. His academy’s links with Highfield Rangers, currently managed by the ex-Leicester City player Jon Stevenson, develop the students’ football skills.

Matt is also very well known to the Leicester public through his work as a matchday commentator on BBC Radio Leicester, which sees him in the pressbox for all of Leicester City’s home and away games.

Leicester City Crest

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